*Warning! There will be spoilers for Xenoblade Chronicles 3 in this post! If you wish to avoid these spoilers, play and finish the game before proceeding. If you have already played the game or do not care for spoilers, then read ahead! I am not responsible for you getting spoiled after I warned you!!*
There was something that I noticed in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 that made it stand out more than its predecessors. The side quests in the game were actually worth a damn to care about. In the previous titles (not counting Xenoblade Chronicles X since I haven’t played that one yet), side quests were there to award you with small rewards and experience for helping out the denizens of the world. They were your typical JRPG side quests where you went to Point A to Point B to either gather something or beat up some monsters. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 isn’t any different really, but the way the side quests are presented made it more engaging and rewarding.
Side quests have their own story within the game. Every time you recruit a new hero or liberate a Colony, the side quests offer new insights on the Colony’s residents after they have to adjust to a new lifestyle, or you learn about a particular character from each region and their new found struggles. Unlike most optional quests, you are compelled to do them not just for the reward, but to continue to see how people and their relationships change from time to time. The game also rewards you just with new heroes, but doing them will also raise their class level once you are done with all of their quests. And you want to do that if you want to reap the benefits for your main characters.
While I like this new emphasis on making the side quests a part of the story, that also leads to some issues. In my playthrough, I had to make the choice of not completing every side quest that I came across since it was inflating my playthrough twofold. There would be play sessions where all I was doing were side quests just so I could learn and unlock new things that filled in gaps to the backstory. That should have been the red flag right there. Instead of playing through the main story to get all of the story content I needed, there was some great lore that was hidden behind these completely optional tasks that you can choose to do or ignore. The downside of not completing them is either missing out on a bigger reward at the end, or completely missing a resolution to a character’s arc or dilemma; and this does not exist only for the side characters.
Each of the six main characters have side quests that dive into their backstories and increase their class rank. Out of the six, Noah and Mio’s side stories are entwined with the main narrative, leaving Lanz, Sena, Eunie, and Taion’s side stories completely missable if you do not go back to key places to trigger them. Some of them like Lanz and Sena help improve their characters through the side story, but nothing that feels like a major story element to enhance the overall narrative. The one exception that I feel was a terrible mistake was Eunie’s side story.
In Chapter 3, Eunie finds a particular dead body on an old, abandoned battlefield; her body. She confirms this by examining the dog tag on the body, and then starts to get headaches and flashbacks to her previous death. She hides this from the rest of the party even though Taion knows something is wrong with her (and seeing that he can see her thoughts when they interlink). The conflict she has affects her in the rest of the chapter when she encounters Mobius D, the one who killed her previously. She does find the resolve to face him in battle during a later confrontation, but outside that, she never reveals to the rest of the party why she was so afraid of him in the first place. Not even when D is defeated for good do we see Eunie get the satisfaction of defeating her murderer (a different scene steals that spotlight). Enter Eunie’s side story.
To even initiate this quest, you have to go out of your way and find info fragments around the City. Only then will Eunie have the courage to tell everyone about the dog tag after learning about a Gold rank colony that has disappeared. Two chapters later and being completely optional, we start to work on Eunie’s resolve as a character. At the end she doesn’t even fight against the person who has been tormenting her for the last two chapters. You would think the main story would use Eunie’s dog tag to reveal to the other characters about this cycle that they are in. It’s brought up in the main story, but leads to no conclusion unless you go off the beaten path to find it. I was waiting for the dog tag to play a major part of the story since it was heavily implied that it would cause moral problems for the cast, but it never happens if you are only playing through the main story.
This is where I believe one of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 faults lie. Sure the side quests are better than they were in the previous games, but some great story elements are never revealed in the main story, but locked behind side quests that can be missed all together. There is a point towards the end of the game where you can upgrade everyone’s blade. In order to do so, you have to complete a side quest where you have to find seven noppon that only appear in other side quests. So if you missed one of these side quests, you will be spending more hours of your playtime just to unlock this feature. In my playthrough, I had to go back several side quests just to complete the one chain that I needed in order to get access to a locked area that I knew one of the noppon was hiding. Again, completely optional and has no bearing on the story whatsoever, but dangling this reward in front of your face and finally putting the shiny objects that you find all over the world to use at the very end of the game feels weightless. There is almost no point in unlocking the mechanic if you never took the time to do the optional quest up to that point.
Another game series that comes close to this problem that I’ve played is The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel saga. There is a similar approach to how side quests are handled in that game. In Cold Steel, side quests help explore and flesh out the side characters that are important to the world and main cast, but have no responsibility to the main story. They exist solely to give the player more understanding about each side character and help expand the world. Of course you have your normal monster extermination quests, but every quests feels like their own short and complete side story that doesn’t take away from what’s going on in the main story. Another side quest doesn’t pop up just because you finished the one before it. Once you finish that side quest, that short story ends and you can move on (outside a few that I’m probably not remembering). The side quests don’t take anything away from the story, but help put more background lore that you don’t really need unless you want it (and serves to build up a big reward at the end if you finish them all).
Compared to Xeno 3 that follows a similar structure, side quests feel more like an investment where the payoff varies. Instead of just concluding and moving on to a different character, the quests just continue to build up and try to make you invested in the relationship of the characters, but that only works when the reward justifies the means. There is a series of side quests where you help these two assholes when they decide to go on an adventure by themselves. Every interaction with them is the exact same; they have a falling out with each other over something stupid, you help them, they become friends again. Rinse and repeat. I thought there would be some big payoff from helping these two characters whom I never learned their names with their stupid problem, but it never paid off at the end. It just wasted my time dealing with two characters that I (and the main casts) hated helping all the time. I thought for sure this was going to lead to me getting something similar to their vehicle for faster ground traversal, but silly me for believing something like that. At the end of the day, that is the best way for me to summarize Xeno 3’s side quests; an investment that never pays off unless it involves the main cast or a hero.
If there was a way to improve the side quests, I would tie the colony side quests to its respective hero (since each colony leader is added to your party). Having a lead character interact and work with the people they are most familiar with would help me care about the relationship building since it is the main characters assisting the colony leader in helping out the people that they are in charge of protecting. It helps build a better connection with the people who you will never remember their names and help with the character development of that hero. I would have a better time doing these side quests if the payout was seeing these characters actually evolve after completing each, and maybe even change the class rank to increase upon completing each side quest. And of course the obvious, do not lock important main character development behind optional tasks. Side quests feel better when you have the complete option to go out of your way to do them. Completing quests out of obligation leads to a false sense of accomplishment with no payout at the end.
That’s just my viewpoint on side quests. I don’t mean to take my aggression out on Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but it did get my brain a-thinking while I was playing it. Do you feel similar or think I’m viewing this in the wrong way? If you have examples of good and bad side quests in games, please share them as I’m now interested in observing how side quests are handled in different games.
Thanks for reading.