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January 25, 2018

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

I don’t normally do this, but in this case I have to come out swinging at the outset: Nia is the “best girl” in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  No contest.

No.  Listen.  Shut up.  Listen.  It’s not even a contest.  I don’t care what the other characters are like.  I don’t care that there are Blades with less clothes or bigger chests.  None of that shit matters.  Nia is the best girl.  And I guess it’s up to me to explain why.

And I guess that’ll maybe -- just maybe -- help explain why Xenoblade Chronicles 2 let me down in the biggest way possible.  In a way I never even imagined was possible.


Before I get started (again), let me make something clear right off the bat. No matter what I said last time, and no matter what I say here, I don’t think that overt, plainly-stated or included romantic relationships will put any story on the fast track to top marks.  Those things can enhance a story, for sure, but that’s working under the assumption that the relationship would be well-made.  It’s entirely possible for them to fall apart even faster than if there was no romance at all -- and beyond that, sometimes there’s just no room for love when you’re dealing with stuff like an alien invasion or space-time shenanigans.

But you know the rule.  Characters create opportunities.  Probing their relationships and responses to the various elements of them can offer up HUGE rewards for any writer, artist, or content creator willing to go all in with them.  Think of it this way: you know how in a lot of stuff, the main guy will “get the girl” in the end -- and then (barring a sequel) the story will end soon after so that we never get to see the fruits of the relationship they’d make?  Imagine the potential if the relationship didn’t vanish into the ether once the credits rolled.  Imagine the plot beats and character developments you could wring out of a story with something as simple as a Facebook status update.  Granted it’s not something that would work for every story every time, but that’s why you would update and evolve on a case-by-case basis.

Having put more than 60 hours into the game, I can say that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is one of those cases.  And speaking personally, the sheer number of missed opportunities is making me actively resent the game.

*sigh* So.  Let’s talk about Nia.

Nia is the first full-fledged party member Rex (and by proxy, the player) meets.  They take shots at each other at the outset, partly because they’re initially just coworkers at best on a salvaging job that goes awry.  As time passes and the plot progresses, their mild antagonism changes into something more.  Nia manages to save Rex, and Rex manages to save Nia.  It’s on more than one occasion, too; the story kicks into gear once Rex bails Nia out of her prison cell in a ship from DA EMPYARRRRRRRRRRRR, but Nia’s managed to back up our hero on plenty of occasions with her healing spells.  That, and her dope-ass tiger butler Dromarch.  As expected of a dope-ass tiger butler.

The total party member count here is slightly lower here than in XC1 -- and dramatically lower than the count in XCX -- but Nia consistently does work to make her presence known and felt.  Between her initial reactions and the heavier anime influence this time around, I was worried that Nia would just come off as a stock tsundere.  I was wrong.  She’s a spitfire that’s willing (if not eager) to cause trouble and call out anyone who screws up.  Still, there’s a good-natured side of her that keeps her from being some all-out tyrant.  If anything, she’s a real joker, willing to tease anyone with a set of ears.  So in a way, she’s the straight man and the funny man rolled into one.

Also, she’s kind of a weirdo.  When she uses a Blade art, she does a little cheerleader/cat dance while shouting “Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH!”  Let one of her idle animations play out, and she’ll try to clap a mosquito out of the air, Saitama-style.  Let another one play out, and she’ll start shadow boxing for no reason.  Jump in water to swim, and she’ll do a doggy paddle.  (Or kitty paddle, I guess; I don’t know, I’ve never had a cat.)  It’s all stuff that helps characterize her, even if it makes you wonder if she’d be the type to start sloshing cherries in her mouth if given the chance.

I could actually see that happening in-game.

What’s really strange about Nia -- in a sense -- is that her boisterous nature is arguably a facade.  I sussed it out long beforehand, but there’s a reason why she looks so visually inconsistent with the Gormotti people she claims to be one of.  By extension, there’s a reason she wears a full-body jumpsuit.  The big reveal is that Nia is actually a Flesh Eater, a human/Blade hybrid born to give the former the powers and perks of the latter.  More importantly, the circumstances of her life are…less than ideal.

It’s not as if she chose to be a Flesh Eater.  Her obsessive (and ostensibly abusive) father did everything he could to save Nia’s sickly sister, but to no avail.  In his desperation, he had Nia become a Flesh Eater with incredible regenerative abilities, even if it meant turning her into a stigmatized societal outcast.  After that, our fair cat-lady went on the run with Dromarch (the Blade she awakened/created from her father’s unused Core Crystal), unable to settle down in one place for long unless she wanted to face a slew of tormentors.  Luckily for her, Jin was there to take her under his wing.  It would’ve been fine if her savior wasn’t effectively a centuries-old warrior with a grudge against humanity and opts to spend his days as a planet-unraveling terrorist, but hey.  At least she can count on him to spring her out of jail.

Jin isn’t exactly one for emotions (which is its own can of worms vis a vis the storytelling, but I’ll get to that another day), so in terms of support, Nia can’t exactly look to the Torna ace for a shoulder to cry on.  That’s where Rex comes in.  He reacts to her, and she reacts to him.  He’s emotive, and she’s emotive.  With the exception of Nia’s Flesh Eater status, they’re both completely open with one another -- and that’s the most justified exception ever, considering that people call them Flesh Eaters.  It’s true that Nia is initially ready to ditch Rex after he mounts that rescue operation, but it’s only in attempt to protect him (and herself).  Our hero wins her over to the cause, though, and I get the feeling that they would both regret it if they went their separate ways.  

The scales tip Nia’s way on that front, for obvious reasons.  She’s got much more at stake and much more to reveal, which involves a level of trust and intimacy she’s never had to dish out before.  But through their travels together, Nia learns that she can believe in Rex, and eventually she does open her heart enough to reveal the truth, as well as be unafraid to show what she really is.  In terms of gameplay, you can freely switch Nia between her Blade form and her Driver form, so that Rex can wield her mystic scimitar in the former state.  In terms of the story?  The two fight as partners more directly than they ever have before.  Their emotions are in tune, as Pyra would say.

Then Nia says “I love you, Rex.”  Flat out.  She goes all in.  Rex’s response?  “I love you too, Nia.”

And then seconds later he says “I love you and all you guys!”

It’s been a while since a JRPG has left me this…angry?  Yeah, angry is one word you could use.  But exasperated is another.  Just thinking about it made me bury my face in my hand and sigh.  I’m mad, but I’m also exasperated.  Like…I can’t believe that this is the direction they decided to go.  It’s such a pivotal moment, and yet…it’s basically a fart in the wind.

For the sake of context: Pyra/Mythra is out of the party at that point.  The good guys need to rescue her from the Torna Asshole Brigade, but they’re helpless unless they can find the super-secret “third sword” left behind by ancient savior Addam.  The crew ventures into a secret sanctuary to try and grab it, but the problem is that going through the subterranean depths weakens Blades significantly -- and Nia, being a Flesh Eater, is technically one of them.  Despite her struggle to do something as simple as breathe, she ventures on (albeit with an assist from Rex and some salvage tools).  In the midst of their travels -- having realized how much she’s come to trust Rex -- Nia opens up and reveals her past to him and the rest of the party.

So basically, Nia poured her heart out to him, made herself vulnerable in a way she never had to before, ventured with him into the depths of a place that could potentially kill her just by walking inside, and then she confessed her love to Rex.  And Rex has no response to it.  Nothing.  Nia laughs off what he does say -- however unsatisfying -- and says “that’s just what I’d expect from you.”  And yeah, that is what we’d expect from him, but for all the wrong reasons.


Like I said, I’m more than 60 hours into the game.  I might be even farther than that by the time you read this.  So far, there has been no acknowledgement of Nia’s feelings.  There’s been no further discussion.  They haven’t sat down and talked it out.  They haven’t had a conversation about what it means to have Nia (potentially) fight as Rex’s Blade, given that Pyra/Mythra is basically his first -- with all of the connotations that that carries.  There’s been nothing.  I feel like there will be something later, like a “last night before the final battle”, full party chat session that’s no stranger to the genre.  Maybe then, something will happen.  But my hopes are dwindling fast.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that’s dishonest about its subject matter.  More than its predecessors, it focuses on the relationships included -- through its Drivers and Blades, through a synthesis of gameplay and story.  It’s about the bonds between partners, and what it means to stand beside someone else.  And to be clear, it’s an intensely noble goal.  By all means, it’s a theme worth exploring.  But it shouldn’t have been explored like this.  The theory and design are right; the execution is wrong.  All wrong.  And there’s no greater proof of that than with Pyra and Mythra.

I’m past the 60-hour mark, and I feel like I can’t say a single damn thing about who Pyra is or what she does (outside of her appearance and status as an Aegis).  I’m inclined to say that she’s nothing, but I feel like that would be going too far -- so instead, I’ll say that she’s nothing compared to Nia.  She doesn’t have the emotive range.  She doesn’t have the independence she needs as a character.  She doesn’t act out.  She doesn’t surprise.  She doesn’t challenge, whether it’s the player or the characters.  She’s just there, doing her best to play her role and be as inoffensive as possible.  Nia has her beat in every way imaginable -- and probably some ways that are unimaginable.  

But because Pyra is the main, main character, the entire plot pivots around her.  That was a miscalculation on the devs’ part; she may share (if not steal) center stage from Rex, but she doesn’t do much to earn the spotlight.  If anything, her presence -- or lack thereof -- steals credibility from the rest of the story.  Pyra is placed on a high pedestal, well beyond a blue-collar plebeian like Rex.  You’d expect as much when you’re dealing with a centuries-old legendary weapon, which is fine.  The problem is that this is a game about relationships, but expects Rex to do ALL the heavy lifting in said relationship so he can prove he’s worthy of being around Pyra.  He has to struggle.  He has to suffer.  He has to strive.  Meanwhile, Pyra does nothing except look sad.  And everybody dumps on Rex for not living up to some impossible standards.

Have these people forgotten that Rex hasn’t been a Driver for a month, and he only became one because he got fucking shanked thanks to Pyra?

It’s incredibly unfair to Rex and the player.  The partnership is incredibly uneven both because Pyra is so unwilling to be more than the forlorn waifu, and because there are a ton of unnecessary expectations heaped onto Rex without a shred of sympathy.  Multiple characters harp on about how being the Driver of the Aegis is a heavy burden, which is true.  Yet rather than try to understand how much Rex is hurting from this forced adventure, everyone -- including Rex himself -- is keen on portraying Pyra as this godlike, albeit morose, maiden who can do no wrong.  It’s up to Rex to prove his worth, and do everything he can to appease her.  

In a way, it’s something that distorts the plot and characterizations.  Early on, Rex is aware of the state of the world: Alrest’s myriad people live on the backs of Titans, but they all know it’s only a matter of time before the Titans all die and take whole civilizations with them into the depths of the Cloud Sea.  Rex’s intent is to scale the tree at the center of the world to reach Elysium, which presumably (or hopefully) has the planet’s saving grace tucked in its folds.  But there’s a subtle yet important change along the way where, arguably, Rex’s motivation changes.  When reunited with Pyra/Mythra, Rex still says he wants to go to Elysium with them, just like he promised.  But he doesn’t say “I want to go to Elysium to save the world”.  It’s more like “I want to go to Elysium because you want to go.”

Pyra hasn’t earned that level of trust and dedication.  Yes, she was the one who resurrected Rex at the start of the game.  But less than five minutes after meeting him, she asked him to take her to Elysium.  One wonders why she didn’t just head there herself, given that she had 500 years to make a trip, but that’s not important; the important thing is that she makes a virtually-impossible demand, and then proceeds to tell him nothing about the circumstances of their journey until seconds after it’s relevant.  For fuck’s sake, she doesn’t even warn him that there might be a giant snake robot playing gatekeeper in front of the world tree.  That’s probably something worth mentioning before you even get on the boat, sweetheart.

As one of the major players in Alrest’s history, Pyra knows pretty much everything but doesn’t clue in the people she’s tasked with taking her to Elysium (which, as a reminder, might not even be a place mere mortals can reach).  She doesn’t tell them about Malos, AKA another Aegis.  She doesn’t tell them about Addam, the Architect, or Torna.  She doesn’t tell them that she’s potentially packing enough power to destroy the world -- or that she may or may not have done that once before.  She doesn’t even tell Rex the reason why she wants to go to Elysium…at least, not until the 58th hour, when she declares that she wants to see her father, the Architect.  Or, to be more direct?  She wants to go to Elysium so that she can die.

*massages forehead*

*sigh* This character, man.

I feel like I could write another post just on that.  I’m tempted to, really.  But this one’s already long enough, so -- unfortunately -- it looks like I’ll have to branch off into Part 3.  Great.  Now I get to write about the other botched love confession.

Eh.  Just as well, though.  If I’m going to come to a conclusion on this subject (and boy I hope it doesn’t go to a Part 4), then I’ll need to make absolutely sure I’m comprehensive.  That’s how I’ve always been, I guess.  Staying true to my aesthetic, as you’d expect.

So I’ll see you next time.  And…boy, I hope by the end of this, I can still say I like the game.

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