After 130 hours, i have finally finished Xenoblade Chronicles 3. I'll talk about the ending below. I guess that's spoilers territory, but to be honest it's probably better knowing what the ending is before you experience it for yourself.
The endgame sets up a nice switch. In early to mid game, quests are primarily about your team earning the trust of newly freed colonies. By the end of the game, quests become about how the colonies, formerly on opposite ends of a war, now need to work with each other for survival and peace. You help them cooperate to grow food, share supplies, and collaborate on new technology in order to build a better world. It's a hopeful turn for the story to take. It really solidified this idea I had that this game is a perfect 2022-era game: a story about oppressive systems, enabled by techno-surveillance (through the Iris, a tool that ultimately reveals your location to the bad guys, and through the Collectopedia cards, questgiving mechanisms which are revealed to be initially invented to spy on enemy supply lines) pushing us to create a better world through mutual understanding and aid.
The ending tears all of that apart. As it turns out, when the two worlds (The worlds of Xenoblade 1 and Xenoblade 2, for some reason) "collided", they didn't permanently fuse together. Somehow, in a flash of understanding that every character suddenly gained while I was left completely in the dark(*), the worlds are going to just pass through each other as soon as I defeat the bad guy and Agnus and Keves are going to split back apart, and all the Keves people will magically phaseshift back into Xenoblade 1 and the Agnus people will phase shift back into Xenoblade 2? This poses a few problems.
First, all that mutual aid and cooperation was pointless. Every speck of matter from Agnus will disappear from Keves as well as vice versa, and memories will be lost. That's frustrating. I liked that part and really looked forward to, I don't know, a flash of magic energy where everyone's 10-year life limit was removed and the colonies continued to work side by side to build a better world together. Instead I got "I'll always remember you! I'll see you again!" (no you won't. when are these worlds going to collide again? what?).
Second, what happens to the people of The City? They're not from Keves *or* Agnus. If this world was created by the fusion of XBC1 and XBC2, where do the people who are explicitly the descendants of both groups mixing together go when the worlds split apart? The City is like one of the most pivotal groups in the plot!
I do think one of the more important themes of the game is "people should be free to follow their passions instead of having their lives dictated by natural ability or ruling structures". I think that's a powerful and even anti-fascist message about the importance of self-determination. Characters in The City are able to pursue artistic careers even though they're locked down in a state of hidden perma-war. Joran's is redeemed not because he was weak and became strong, but because he understood he was asked to be something he wasn't in a system that only valued strength and he had the option to choose another path. I'm not very interested in casting out XBC3 entirely because it had an ending that made no sense to me and didn't resonate with me. I played it for 130 hours and mostly just the last hour sucked. The developers here have a history of making games that reach for philosophical and metatextual heights and, in my opinion, they don't grasp what they aim for. And you know what? Fine. Good for them. I want them to keep reaching. I saw a lot of really interesting themes in the stories in this game. But to the experience of playing it...
What actually bothers me is after 4 games in the series, seeing the exact same mechanics play out on slightly different world maps is starting to wear a bit thin. I think one of the most iconic signatures of the series is "Level 90 monster hanging out in a starting area", to give you a sense that these aren't neatly divided sandboxes but messy and breathing ecologies. That's cool! This game has quests about "we need to respect the land so we can help each other grow as better carers for the land and for our neighbors" to bring that point home. Unfortunately you can immediately follow that up with "kill this rare creature 30 times for its parts, don't worry you can leave the map and come back to make it respawn". Ultimately, there's never going to be a sense of ecology here even as the game is reaching for it. Killing rare monsters for parts is at least a genre trope, but it's superficial to place that trope in the third game in a series known for its attempts at philosophy, have it pontificate about the richness of the earth, and all the animals stand next to each other staring straight ahead like a 2009 GameCube game as it replays the same "here's a level 10 creature and WOW here's a level 90 creature right next to it!!!" for the third map in a row and the fourth game in a row.
There's a little bit of this creature placement that does come from an MMO legacy, just like the battle system comes from an MMO legacy. But what really baffles me is that MMOs at this point have a pretty standard design language. MMOs have DPS meters to help you gauge build effectiveness (now present in almost every mobile RPG, totally absent from this game). MMO fights have red circles on the ground to avoid (barely gestured at in this game for 1-2 story boss battles and never seen again). There are raid mechanics where you need to target specific parts or hit things in a specific order or alternate between using all your DPS and avoiding a big attack. Even changing your party composition to meet a specific challenge. None of those things are present here. As much as the game wants to borrow from MMO design, it doesn't seem interested in engaging with MMOs as they exist today. Every fight, from bosses to the weakest creature, proceeds in exactly the same way. Optimizing builds is mostly a chore of scrolling through identical equipment and guessing at your damage output. Even trying to take on the game while underlevelled - a common request from my casual chats with people - is something that is locked behind new game + for unfathomable reasons.
Overall I think this game is doing interesting things, even if it falls over suddenly at the last minute and the combat is distinctly uninspired. I'd recommend it (and I would anti-recommend playing XBC1 and 2 first, as it's actually more confusing trying to understand why these characters are relevant and showing up and if they're going to do anything related to their games before flying off into the sunset/interdimensional vortex). It's the kind of game that really electrifies me: it has ambition and can't quite realize all of it. I gripe, but I find it really interesting to dig in to what works and what doesn't work.
(*) ACTUALLY, in the post-game, which occurs chronologically before the final fight, Mia explains exactly what is going to happen. Why it occurs in this order, I do not know, but it is very frustrating and annoying.