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January 18, 2018

Xenoblade Chronicles 2: A Very Special Post (Part 1)

Hey, Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  I have a question for you.  You know that old taunt “Well, if you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?”  Why aren’t you adapting and using that in your game?

Actually…why don’t any games really adapt and use it in their games?  

I don’t know.  That’s probably a question worth pondering from here on out, but it’d expand the scale of this little argument to something the size of a dissertation, so let’s focus on this game for now.  Otherwise, we'll be here for a million billion years -- and since I'm technically still on hiatus, I shouldn't even be bothering with this.  Yet here I am regardless.

Why?  I dunno.  Everyone needs an outlet for their rage.  I guess this is mine.

(And my spoilers.)
(And these spoilers.)

By the time you read this, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll be around 60 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  I’ll hold off on saying anything too substantial about the full quality of the game for now, but in terms of how I feel right now?  In my opinion?  It’s good, but it’s easily the weakest of the three XC games.  The gameplay is its strong suit, which isn’t to say that the story’s complete trash…but BOY does it have some issues.  And yeah, part of that comes from the fact that it skews more toward anime than its predecessors.  Too much.

But I guess I should wait until I finish the game before something happens to change my mind, for better or worse.  If we’re being honest?  This post was going to have a different take to it if not for me reaching a certain instance in the game.  So consider that a saving grace.  Well, possibly.  I’m basically writing by the seat of my pants here, so maybe by the end I’ll be so salty I’ll snap the cartridge in half.  Or, alternatively, I’ll lick it lovingly and sensually.  Time will tell.

As a (second) warning: THIS POST IS GOING TO HAVE SPOILERS.  Back out now if you don’t want stuff through Chapters 1-7 revealed.  Okay?  Okay.  

It’s worth noting at the outset that XC2 is built around Blades -- combat-ready spirits that normally reside in cubes.  When a person with the potential gets their hands on one of those cubes, they become a Driver and can use the Blade as a partner in a fight; moreover, the Driver gets to use whatever weapon the Blade conjures (or, alternatively, the Driver can toss the weapon back to the Blade for an assist attack) and the Driver gets a defensive hexagonal barrier to block enemy offenses.

If that all sounds really complicated, just think of it this way: this is a JRPG that gives you Stands.  Or Personas, ostensibly -- and in the latter case, I guess that means every Driver in XC2 is the wild card.  But the key difference between those two franchises and this game is that Drivers and Blades -- and whoever they meet along the way -- can interact with one another.  Jotaro and Yu can’t exactly have a nice conversation with Star Platinum and Izanagi (respectively), but leading man Rex can chat to his heart’s content with leading lady Pyra.  It’s a shame that that’s kind of where the problems start.

Say what you will about Rex’s default costume (and yeah, it’s…not great), but as a character he’s not bad.  As a salvager who dives into the depths of the Cloud Sea for a living, he has a roguish, blue-collar quality about him -- rough around the edges, but a good guy with his share of confidence.  His adventure only starts because A) he gets dollar signs in his eyes at the mention of a new job, and B) he pretty much goes “nah, it’ll be fine” instead of understanding anything about the incredibly-suspicious clients that are keen to hire him for an incredibly-suspicious mission. He’s no genius, but his work down in the depths have made him quick-witted and clever.  So overall, I’d say he’s a charming character.  Still kind of a basic JRPG hero, but I’m still high from Tales of Berseria.  Not much will compare.

The issue here is that Rex isn’t up there on the proverbial stage alone.  He has a main/supporting cast to team up with, which is expected.  But when you’re dealing with a game so heavily built on partnerships -- in gameplay and in story contexts -- you have to weigh partners individually and as a unit.  On that note?  I think that Pyra is the weak link of the two, of the cast, and possibly of the entire game.

To be clear: she’s okay.  She’s fine.  But to me, she’s not much more than that.  That’s a problem.

If I had to sum up Pyra in one word, it would be inoffensive.  She doesn’t do much to swing my opinion of her one way or the other -- and there’s a part of me that thinks she’d be more interesting if she did.  For lack of a better term, she’s soft-spoken; she’s not the type to rock the boat in any social setting, preferring instead to act kind and supportive whenever she can.  She’s demure, she’s humble, and she’s helpful -- someone with a talent for cooking and patching up wounds.  But mostly cooking.

It’s like…I know the joke has been made, but holy shit.  The waifu levels are off the charts.

There’s more going on to Pyra than just trying to be Rex’s waifu (or, more accurately, trying to be waifu bait for the players).  There pretty much has to be more, because of the plot.  Pyra is at least 500 years old, and was a major player in the events that shaped the world of Alrest into what it is at the story’s outset.  As the “Aegis”, she wields phenomenal cosmic power -- but she’s not the only Aegis, which would explain why there was an “Aegis War” where things went belly-up for everyone in the crossfire.  Pyra is reluctant to tell Rex about anything that goes too deep into her past and nature; Rex, being Rex, says “it’s fine” and they move on from there.  And by “they” I mean the party.  Not me.  But I’ll explain why later.  For now let’s talk about clothes.  It’s important to wear them.  Usually.

Much has been made about Pyra’s looks in XC2, so I guess I wouldn’t be a veteran whiner on the internet if I didn’t join in.  I think her looks are…okay, at best.  We’re not at a grievous level of sin here, because you know it can get so much worse.  She’s certainly curvier than a fair number of heroines out there, but at a base level it does help her look more distinct.  On the other hand?  Her outfit doesn’t fully sync up with her personality, which is the real issue.  Her upper torso and most of her legs are covered, which is good, but wouldn’t you expect the rest of her to be clothed?  Why the hot pants?  Why expose her sides at all?  Plus the outfit in general is a bit too flashy and busy.  I appreciate that she’s self-aware about it (she complains that the glowy-bits on her outfit glow at night and make her self-conscious), but much like the rest of her, I’m lukewarm on her looks.  Not offended, but a far cry from enamored.

If anything, it feels like she should swap outfits (with a few edits) with her other persona, Mythra.  The blonde Blade exposes a lot more of her legs, but outside of a decisive boob window, she’s wearing more clothes and in a style more befitting of Pyra’s personality.  Mythra’s got a much sharper edge to her and puts other characters to task more readily; I’d say that she has a more regal, haughty air about her, but my initial reaction upon her reveal (and shortly after) was “Mythra’s such a shit, and that’s awesome.”  I thought she’d be kind of a bitch, and I was totally ready for it -- even itching to say “Mythra > Pyra”.  That’s still technically what I’m saying, but it’s not long before you realize that XC2 swaps out one waifu archetype for another.

It turns out Mythra’s just a tsundere.  That killed my enthusiasm for her in a picosecond.

*sigh*  Damn it, XC2.  You’re better than that.  You should be better than that.     

I guess the major issue here is that there’s an impassable wall that, preferably, shouldn’t exist.  There’s a shitload of waifus in this game, whether it’s in the main cast or in the rare Blades you can get from lootboxes Core Crystals, if you’re lucky enough.  But at this stage, I can’t help but wonder who or what they’re there for besides the enjoyment of the players.  Appealing, pandering, whatever you want to call it; even if the partnerships are there, there’s a certain hollowness to it because of that missing je ne sais quoi.  It ties back to a question I’ve been asking myself since I hit the 12-hour mark of the game: what happens when a Driver and a Blade fall in love?

There hasn’t been a distinct answer yet.  And to be clear, that’s heady territory.  For starters, there’s no telling if Blades even have the requisite equipment for any bedroom bliss.  What about societal norms?  Is it frowned upon for a Blade and a Driver to hook up?  There’s an underlying subplot (and subtext) about how people who were experimented on to become human/Blade hybrids -- Flesh Eaters -- are exceedingly denounced, so would that be the end result of any pregnancy?  Also, it’s explained early on that the Blade you awaken from their cube changes their appearance based on who you are and your preferences.  What would Alrest’s social mores say, knowing that anyone with the potential could give birth to their waifus and husbandos of choice?

It’d take some real effort, but it’s not impossible to have a game that actually focuses on and develops relationships between main characters instead of dancing around it.  That’s true even if (or especially if) there are barriers in the way of their love.  Conversely, that’s true if there are no barriers whatsoever.  Have the guy openly pine for the girl.  Let the girl try to get close to the guy.  Make the relationship more than just canon; make it official WAY before the credits roll so that we can actually see how their altered definitions impact their characters.  Let them love each other.  Openly.  Without qualifiers.

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I legitimately think XC2 (and plenty of other games, if we’re being fair) would be stronger if it stopped being coy and let characters admit to and/or accept love from one another.  I mean, think about it: as is, Rex getting flustered over Pyra and Mythra clashes with the confident, idealistic character we’re shown at the outset.  Granted you could say he becomes a blushing mess because he doesn’t have much experience with girls, but to me it just seems like he breaks down because…hey, that’s just what an anime protagonist is supposed to do, right?  Be embarrassed around girls.  Or be a pervert.  Seems like there’s not much of a middle ground.

Imagine what it would be like if Rex became openly smitten with Pyra and tried to win her over from the outset.  We know from the beginning that he rushes into things, thinks everything will work out, and eyes the positive results instead of the consequences.  How easy would it be for him to go “I’m gonna win this sword girl’s heart by being a cool guy”?  Better yet, think of what it would be like if he fell in love with Pyra after having her take care of him, and fighting alongside him, and everything else.  

Instead of him being a blockhead who lets her acts of kindness -- and let’s face it, acts of courtship -- bounce off him like a Frisbee against a barnyard door, have him realize what he could have.  Have him realize what he wants.  And in turn, have Pyra realize the same, even if that reason starts with (but isn’t limited to) “he’s the first person to interact with me in like 500 years.  Guess I might as well.”

What do we get instead?  Credit where credit’s due: XC2 does put a lot of focus on the bond between Rex and Pyra.  There’s time put into exploring what it means to be the partner of an ancient, almighty super-weapon, especially since that weapon possesses sentience.  Even so, there’s a barrier between the two that makes a number of the proceedings hollow.  Part of that has to do with Pyra (and Mythra, by extension) being about as spicy as a loaf of white bread.  Part of that has to do with Rex lapsing into Generic Mode and not even daring to bridge the gap, lest the JRPG gods strike him down where he stands.  

But really, what I’m looking for -- what I desperately wish was in the game more overtly, which I doubt having played through roughly 60 hours of it -- is a well-defined relationship.  No pussyfooting.  No beating around the bush.  No hinting.  Just a straight-up relationship.  You either need that, or no relationship whatsoever.  XC2 toes the line between them, and it’s an approach that strips it of some potential flavor.

There are other types of bread out there.  Use them.  (I recommend cinnamon raisin.)

Not only does it feel like there’s something missing -- or a missed opportunity, at the very least -- but what’s actually in the game feels less than genuine.  It’s not just because Rex and/or Pyra don’t toss out an “I love you” here or there.  It’s because for the past 60 hours, Pyra’s managed to be emotionally distant from Rex.  She’s nice to him, but little else.  Cordial, but almost in a professional sense.  More to the point?  She’s keeping secrets from him; she hasn’t told him the full extent of what she is, what she did, what happened in the past, or what any of that entails for the present.  

The idea is that she’s doing it to protect him (or maybe protect herself), but she’s actively called out on it by other characters.  I’ve actually gotten tired of Pyra playing gatekeeper to the truth; I have a theory on what one of her secrets entails, but even if I’m wrong?  It’s a safe bet that what she keeps hidden will form the crux of an upcoming plot twist -- and I’m gonna be upset if it turns out we could have avoided a complete disaster if she had just spilled the beans.

Because Rex is Rex (and thus swings like a pendulum between clever and stupid), he doesn’t really press Pyra on the details.  Fair enough; it’s uncouth to ask a lady to divulge every last detail just because you’re a little curious.  On the other hand, we’re dealing with more than social etiquette here.  Pyra’s very existence forms the backbone of the plot, so by holding back crucial information, she might end up crippling Team Good Guys to keep the good feelings going.  

But more importantly, Rex’s ability to fight is directly tied to how well he and Pyra work together.  Rex’s overly trusting nature bridges the gap, but are they really of one mind and spirit when Pyra’s basically treating our hero with kid gloves?  I mean the guy gets his shit pushed in multiple times by major baddie Jin (from getting his sword shattered in one encounter to dying in their first encounter), so maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe it’s a good idea to give him every advantage he can get.  One of Pyra’s battle quotes is “Our emotions are in tune”, but how much are they when there’s a gap between them?  Why not sync up with him for real?

What’s that, game?  You’re just gonna lob all of the blame onto Rex?  Okay, that’s fine, too.   

I guess what I’m getting at here is that, even if I’m enjoying the game (in spite of its issues, because holy shit are there some issues), it’s held back for a number of reasons -- and some of them, I’d say, are because of my reaction to Pyra/Mythra.  Later in the game, she ends up getting taken prisoner by Jin, Malos, and the rest of the Torna assholes crew; granted she only ended up taken because she forced them into a bargain -- spare my friends and I’ll go with you, or else I’ll kill myself via a laser blast from orbit -- but the end result is still…

Wait, if she had all the bargaining chips in that engagement, why didn’t she just tell Torna to back off instead of also agreeing to be kidnapped?  Couldn’t she just…

*shrug* Eh, whatever.

And that’s the problem.  Pyra getting captured got nothing more than an “Eh, whatever” out of me -- which isn’t how I should be feeling about a central character.  I think I was more distressed by the fact that I’d have to find another Blade to fill in the slot she left empty, and getting over that only took a couple of button presses.  To be clear, I’m not saying that Pyra (and Rex in tandem) would be a better character if she tied the knot -- literally or proverbially -- with our hero.  It’d help, maybe.  But the real issue I’m having is that if she did do it, she’d be more likely to show more of herself.  Reveal herself.  Expose who she really is.

Through unfiltered love -- relationships, marriage, and everything in between -- both of them would have the chance to show real emotion.  Pyra would have to get out of her comfort zone and trust Rex with more than just an oversized sword.  Rex would have to come to terms with the person he’s bound to, and reach a level of emotional maturity that isn’t strictly bound to the people that get killed on his watch.  It’s not as if the story’s lacking in progress, but for a game half-built on a relationship, the hollowness of the relationship is grinding my gears.

Well, maybe “hollowness” is a little harsh.  It depends on what kind of mood I’m in at the moment.  Then again, right now I’m inclined to say that my mood is miffed -- and at best, I can only say that XC2 is in a “glass half-empty” situation.  The lack of intimacy between Rex and Pyra is a huge missed opportunity, if not an element that should have a stronger presence in the game.  Then again, that would mean that every Driver/Blade team would need greater intimacy, especially if they’re teasing a relationship.  But it never goes past that level.  It’s never making a statement.  It’s only teasing.  Only hinting.  Only implying.  Only more tsundere antics, and boys being blockheads, and girls getting flustered over -- gasp! -- an actual relationship, and boys being embarrassed, and girls needing to “be true to their feelings”…but not really, because no one wants to see that, I guess.  

But even with all that said, I have to give XC2 credit.  There actually is a character that flat-out, point-blank tells Rex she loves her.  And the response Rex gave nearly made me yell “GOD DAMN IT!” and fling my Switch into the nearest mesa like a Destructo Disc.

Why?  Well, I’ll gladly explain why…next time.  Because my fate is to never again write about Kamen Rider Ex-Aid.

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