***Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoiler for Xenoblade Chronicles III.***
Per crucem ad lucem: through the Cross, to the light.
This Latin proverb—that the path to hope and resurrection must first pass through suffering and sacrifice—resonates with a particularly haunting beauty in the sprawling, recently-released JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles 3.
Set in Aionios, a world where the soldiers of Keves and Agnus live for ten-year spans to fight each other in a ceaseless cycle of war, the game follows the journey of off-seers Noah and Mio, two soldiers from opposing colonies whose job it is to send off their war dead. It is not until Noah and Mio, along with their companions, encounter the mysterious Guernica Vandham that they begin to understand the cruel nature of their limited, war-torn world—or gain the power to transform it.
But such transformation cannot occur without sacrifice.
Of course, heroic sacrifice has long been a common trope in JRPGs, and the theme has particular resonance in the Xenoblade Chronicles series. In Xenoblade Chronicles I, Fiora loses her life in a futile fight against the mechon Metal Face, which sets the game’s primary plot in motion. In Xenoblade Chronicles II, Jin ultimately sacrifices what remains of his life to defeat Indol’s Praetor Amalthus, and the entire Torna: The Golden Country DLC serves to give context to his action and his aims.
XBC3, however, ups the ante by inviting both protagonists and players into an emotional crucible and then refusing both the cathartic climax that would offer typical genre closure. Instead, the game asks those who engage with it to practice sacrifice as a path to redemption—to, as Richard Rohr memorably tweeted, to “live [their] way into a new kind of thinking” rather than think themselves into a new way of living.
From the outset, the world of Aionios in XB3 is defined by “the endless now,” a deliberate stasis sustained by the antagonistic consuls and their master, Z. The war that the Consuls foster is perpetual but serves no purpose for those who fight. Soldiers are aged up in cradles, emerge to fight for ten years, and then die, only to relive the cycle again. The tide of battle shifts from Agnus to Keves and back again, but there is no clear understanding among the soldiers of why the war is being fought, how it started, or what victory might mean.
To escape this cycle and to reach the fabled City referenced by Vandham, Noah and Mio—along with their companions Eunie, Taion, Lanz, and Sena—must continually take risks and make sacrifices for the sake of a future they literally cannot envision. Raised as soldiers themselves and with no understanding of concepts like old age, marriage, parenthood, or family, they recognize that “the endless now” does not serve them—but they cannot always articulate to themselves or to others why such sacrifices might be necessary.
This theme of sacrifice plays out in ways both large and small. At the very beginning of the game, Noah and Mio—from Keves and Agnus, respectively—must sacrifice all they know of friend and foe to trust each other and fight against the mysterious Moebius D even though they cannot comprehend Vandham’s words and have never seen the City he mentions to them. And as they journey through the world and free colonies from the tyranny of war, they must teach their allies how to sacrifice old ways of living and thinking for newer ones.
One particularly amusing subplot traces this struggle through Commander Zeon and his beleaguered Colony 9, who in the absence of eternal war turn to subsistence farming for survival. The colony’s frustration with the ups and downs of growing potatoes erupts at several points into outright conflict and nasty anger. In the face of a pressing material need like hunger, colonists question the point of sacrificing and suffering for a better future they can’t envision.
But XBC3’s most devastating depiction of sacrifice—of walking through death to light—occurs at the Li Garte prison in a series of scenes so devastating that fans refer to them on social media with the simple shorthand “Chapter 5.”
At the end of that chapter, Noah and Mio’s journey stumbles to a halt when they are defeated and captured by the mysterious Consul N. Imprisoned by the Consul, Noah—the game’s most compassionate and introspective character—is forced, along with his friends, to watch helplessly from a cell with his friends as Mio’s remaining lifespan drains away. Agonized, he bruises his hands trying to reach her through the prison walls, but ultimately fails.
Grieving her loss, Noah soon discovers that he has lived through this agony before. Consul N is Noah: a previous iteration from an earlier lifespan, driven to despair over constantly losing Mio in his mission to end the perpetual cycle of war. Choosing against the possibility of a better world to preserve Mio’s life, Consul N effectively sacrifices the promise of a better future for the security of the “endless now.”
In light of this knowledge, Noah must make his own miserable choice: to keep striving for the possibility of a better world even if it means losing the woman he has come to love, or, like his predecessor, to preserve the grim “endless now” in which Mio never dies.
But the game does not exact a cost only from its protagonist. The player, too, must practice sacrifice.
At the end of XBC3, a game that clocks in at well over ninety hours of playtime, the player has encountered the full richness of Aionios’s vast world, has freed colonies from their enslavement to the Consuls, and has supported friends and allies as they build lives and dreams beyond war and death. The soul of the game lives in these moments, in the countless subquests and stories that drive the player to care deeply for the world of Aionios and its denizens. Yet the accomplishment of the game’s main goal—the ultimate overthrow of Z, the consuls, and “the endless now”—demands that the player relinquish all of it.
This marks a distinct turn for the series. XBC1 and XBC2 both struck a hopeful tone at their conclusion, with the protagonists reuniting after loss and struggle to turn their faces to a brighter future. But XBC3 strikes a harsher chord. The game closes not on reunion, but its opposite. After their trials and all they have learned, Noah, Mio, and their friends must part. Everything they’ve helped to renew and come to love will disappear as a part of the greater transformation that will set the world to right.
The visual of the parting is stark. Having said their goodbyes and turned their faces to the future, Noah and Mio, Taion and Eunie, and Sena and Lanz break at the last possible moment. Running toward each other as the transition to a new world commences, they reach out but cannot touch—and the world they once knew transforms on their shouted promise to meet again one day.
Whether this promise will come to fruition remains uncertain, and the game’s close only offers a few ambiguous clues in this regard. But the fervent fandom hope that the game’s promised story DLC will resolve this ambiguity and provide a truer ‘happy end’ underscores the resonance of the game’s key theme: it is so very hard to let go of what is for what might be.
But it is also necessary.
As Noah indicates at game’s end, to want an eternal and unchanging present—to preserve “the endless now” over hope for the future—would only serve to commence the miserable cycle of life on Aionios over again. Unthinkable, of course. But XBC3 wants players to feel the weight of that choice, and the cost of it. In its ending, the game demands that players experience in an uncomfortable, even dissatisfying way, what it means to sacrifice current satisfaction for a more nebulous future good.
In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren writes that everyday practices and mundane moments shape believers “into people who spend their days and therefore their lives marked by the love of God.” She notes that the work of repentance and faith is as a craft marked by application and the practice of small, seemingly insignificant acts: checking email, sitting in traffic, calling a friend.
Playing a video game, of course, is not by itself a spiritual practice or a means of spiritual formation. But in telling a story about surrender and suffering in the service of hope, XBC3 invites its players into the practice of sacrifice. For believers, the act of surrendering everything precious they built in Aionios is a haunting reminder of what faith requires them in daily life: the discomfort of waiting, the sacrifice of immediate certainty, the challenge of what Henri Nouwen describes as trusting to God’s truth and acknowledging that “our feelings will catch up.”
The game itself underscores the difficulty of this choice, tempting players with colorful characters, side stories, and so many sidequests that it is possible to postpone the final reckoning with Z for quite some time in favor of enjoying Aionios as it is. Still, the serious player eventually understands the importance of moving forward, regardless of the cost. And so does the believer, after all: per crucem ad lucem. Christianity has always acknowledged that there is no resurrection without death. But through the fictional nations of Agnus and Keves, XBC3 drives this reminder home in a unique and startling way, asking players to sacrifice “the endless now”—for nothing less than a future of infinite possibility.