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February 1, 2018

Xenoblade Chronicles 2: A Very Special Post (Part 3)

Well…at least the gameplay is still good.


Wait, wrong game.   I’m sorry for wasting your time.

As an apology, please allow me to waste even more of your time.

So because Rex regularly ventures into The Valley of Stock Anime/JRPG Protagonists, he doesn’t think to probe the deeper meaning behind Pyra’s words (I.e. her desire to go to Elysim to have “Father”, The Architect, end her life).  He doesn’t address it again.  At all.  He’s never truly, substantially called out Pyra for clamping their partnership in a vise.  Remember, the crux of the Blade/Driver system is that the two of them have to resonate emotionally -- maintain affinity, build trust, whatever.  HOW DO YOU BUILD TRUST WHEN ONE OF THEM REFUSES TO TRUST OTHERS?  

I guess the only possible answer is that Rex, as an idiot, buys into everything Pyra says wholesale.  She wants to go to Elysium, soooooooooooooooooooo…yep, that’s all he needs to hear.  No questions asked.  She saved his life (after inadvertently making him collateral damage, but whatever), so it’s only natural that he returns the favor.  Quid pro quo.

But what riles me up even more is that there’s another (botched) confession -- another potential evolution in the relationship that veers straight off a cliff into purgatory.  Nia was able to say “I love you” without filter, even if her feelings went unappreciated.  Rex…only manages to use “love” offhandedly in a sentence.  And then Pyra/Mythra basically go “I love this world because you’re in it.”  That opens up a whole new can of worms --

Holy shit, I cannot BELIEVE this game --

That opens up a whole new can of worms, but it almost doesn’t matter.  The adventure continues with nothing more than teasing and jokes and subtext and cuteness.  Nothing substantial.  Nothing important.  Nothing.  Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.  Except for a sudden binary choice out of nowhere that asks the player whether they prefer her unlocked third form to be called Pyra or Mythra, which I suspect might have locked me into an altered ending.  But to me, it wasn’t a question of naming the third form Pyra or Mythra.  It was a question of whether I prefer apples or bananas.

I chose bananas.

There’s some pretty simple reasoning behind it (least of all because I prefer bananas to apples IRL).  I thought that Mythra had the better design ever since her reveal in one of the old trailers, and I still think she’s the better looker to this day.  I’m basically under the impression that Mythra is the dominant/original personality, with Pyra being an offshoot, so liking the latter means liking the old “a form you are comfortable with” trick.  Also the question was asked by Mythra herself, so it would be a little untoward if I said “I’ll name your new form after someone else!  NBD, right?”

And yes, between the two, I prefer Mythra to Pyra.  Mythra may be and feel stock as hell, but at least there’s something to her.  At least she shows flashes of a personality -- moments of haughtiness and condescension that make her out to be a spoiled princess.  I wish that that stuff was played up, because it’d make a fantastic replacement to the anime tropes orbiting around her.  Can’t have her be too superior to our hero -- so quick, have her get super-embarrassed at the very idea of physical contact!  Make her call Rex a pervert, even though she’s the idiot who sleepwalked into his room!  Have her threaten to burn someone for suggesting she wants to be with Rex!  More blushing!  MORE blushing!  And don’t forget to have a hot springs scene where the girls get jealous over her bra size, even though one of them is a robot girl that’s not even a month old!

Okay, granted this scene has some plot relevance because it alludes to Nia’s true nature as a Flesh Eater, but…fucking hell!  XC2, you’re SUPPOSED to be BETTER than this!  This is beneath you and your predecessors, so why the hell would you -- no, no, can’t dwell on that now.  We’ve got more to get through.

I’m basically 70 hours into the game at this point, and I’m only just now starting to care about Mythra.  That random “who do you like” prompt probably spurred it; I figured I might as well go full ham with her and use her in my party, in case the game was secretly keeping tabs on which Aegis girl I opted for in combat.  And credit where credit’s due: she’s got some lines mid-battle where she shows more flashes of her personality.  I appreciate that.  The problem is that it’s not enough, partly because I should have cared about Mythra ages ago.  When she was first introduced I was like “Hey, you’re cool, let’s see what you’ve got.”  Then she went into tsundere mode and my hype deflated in 3.8 seconds flat.

But I’ll be damned if I ever let Pyra back into the party of my own volition.  (I even switched back to playing as Rex to deny the CPU from switching Aegis girls.)  It’s just now hitting me that the time I’ve spent with her has, for the most part, been insubstantial.  And at this point, I’m actively starting to resent her presence.  Like with Mythra, there were points at the start of the game where I was down with what Pyra offered -- a sweet girl who would do her best for her friends, but shouldered her share of burdens.  That’s a good starting point.  But that’s the clincher: it’s a starting point.  Characters should grow and evolve from their archetypes, their points of origin.  Nia has.  Rex has.  Has Pyra?

I’m honestly struggling to remember evidence of her change over the course of the game -- 70 hours, and almost 2 months in real-world time from the December 1st release date.  When it’s this hard to pinpoint personality changes, and that personality has a limited shelf life to impress, then…well…what the fuck am I supposed to do?

The saving grace in this case would be “relationships with other characters”.  But if you’ve paid attention for the last 8000-ish words, that’s where XC2 consistently falters.

At this stage I’ve long since realized that Rex and the Aegis girls aren’t the only ones with issues (or lack thereof).  I said before that the main cast is slightly smaller than that of XC1, and that’s true -- IF you don’t count the Blades the party relies on.  If you do, then that means there’s a cast of ten, and technically eleven if you count Mythra as a separate entity.  That’s a non-insignificant number, one that takes some real effort to give the time they need to develop properly.  It’s a good thing that this is a JRPG -- and the third installment in a decidedly-long-running franchise, at that -- so there are plenty of opportunities to explore those relationships and leave me satisfied.


…Just one question, though.

So Dromarch is automatically the coolest ever by virtue of being a dope-ass tiger butler, but has he ever talked to Nia about the fact that he might as well be a wish fulfillment fantasy come to life?  I mean, he came into being as exactly what Nia wanted and needed -- a loyal, unquestioning guardian who would take care of her rather than force her to take care of others -- because she grabbed that glowing cube one day.  Is Dromarch okay with that unspoken servitude?  Is he loyal to her because she’s technically his mother?  Or, given his nature, does he see her as his daughter, especially given that he was born from her father’s Core Crystal?

Actually, now that I think about it, what’s the relationship between Tora and Poppi?  The little fuzzball built Poppi, an artificial Blade that’s not too far-removed from Astro Boy; given that there’s literal parenthood at play here, what does it mean for Tora to take his daughter on a grand adventure that labels her as a fugitive from minute one?  Further, what does it say about Tora when he would have used Poppi as an outlet for his maid fetish if not for Rex and Pyra being in the room (and going bug-eyed)?  

How does Poppi feel about Tora, given that A) she has a budding, if stunted, sense of mortality and identity and B) she’s practically handcuffed to a doofus she has to call “Masterpon”?  Does Tora recognize Poppi’s humanity?  If the worst came to pass, would he give her her freedom?  Would she ever go HAL 9000 or T-800 on his ass if it ever came down to it?

What about Morag and Brighid?  Given their designs, are they supposed to be a nod to Sailor Uranus and Neptune (respectively), with all of the relationship status that that implies?  To put it in a less delicate way: since one is decidedly masculine and the other is obviously feminine, has XC2 laid the groundwork for a lesbian relationship between Driver and Blade?  Does Morag see Brighid as anything more than a tool to help her complete her missions?  Does Brighid resent Morag for being so married to the job, given that her idle animation has her drawing flaming hearts in midair?  Is she sending messages to her Driver that go unheeded?  Is there unrequited love between one or the other?

And how about Zeke and Pandoria?  The latter is clearly and obviously crushing on the former, so what does that mean for their relationship?  Does Zeke answer to her feelings?  Does he even know they’re there?  Given that he’s a waylaid prince and she’s nothing more than a servant, are they both vaguely aware of the class divide between them?  Or does that not matter because they’re warriors estranged from their country?  And beyond that, would any love or attraction they show to each other be hamstrung because of Pandoria’s servitude?  Would it be hamstrung because Pandoria literally gave up a piece of her heart to keep Zeke alive?

…That was more than one question.

I’m only asking these questions because, well, because I’m me and it’s what I do.  But more importantly, I’m asking these questions because what’s in the game is insubstantial.  I want more.  Need more.  Right now, I’m inclined to believe that the only relationship -- and one where love plays a crucial, informing factor in the characters’ nature -- is between primary baddie Jin and his old (dead-ish) flame Lora.  I’m also inclined to say that that one doesn’t even count, because it’s less of a genuine relationship and more of a way to -- through her death -- motivate Jin into becoming a world-ending asshole  Because of course he is.  And of course she is.

There are so many missed opportunities here, it’s actually pretty astounding.  Depressing, too; it’s a story that wants to be personal, but ends up being weirdly impersonal.  Rex and the Aegis girls are an item, but only superficially -- locked in some nebulous middle ground where there’s lots of teasing, but never anything truly certain.  

Zeke and Pandoria are an item, but one of them has yet to directly address the subject, and the other goes into a stammering denial that’s ripped from untold hundreds of anime and manga.  On one hand, maybe it’s better not to get into the love lives of Nia, Morag, and especially Tora; on the other hand, it’s not so taboo that it should never be explored, or at least touched on for, like, five minutes.

To be perfectly clear (once more): it’s not as if being flat-out in love -- and flat-out admitting it -- puts a story on the fast track to success.  Sometimes you don’t even need to hit that point.  Sometimes you can get away with just having platonic partners working together to fulfill a goal, or beat a bad guy, or just shoot the shit (which to be fair is possibly the point behind Morag and Brighid).  With that said?  Again, why is this game acting like adding in more romance will take something away from it?  Exploring the love behind these pairings could only enhance the story, not detract.  Why is it so afraid of straightforwardness, commitment, and intimacy?  

And don’t give me any bullshit about how “it’s what the audience wants”.  First off, there’s probably an armada of shippers going to town as I type this.  Second, even if there are defined canon relationships, why would that stop anyone from getting the most out of the content anyway?  Is there just some assumption that Rex and the Aegis girls tying the red string inherently makes them worse or undesirable or worthless?  NO.  They become worse or undesirable or worthless by being bad characters -- by being nothing, and saying nothing, and doing nothing.   

I guess what I’m getting at here is that somebody needs to make a move.  Kiss, hold hands, hug, rent a room, something.  Anything.  Just be characters, for fuck’s sake!

Not like that

It’s 2018, and we know all the tricks.  We know what stories have offered before.  We want something new.  Something with meaning.  There have been times when we’ve gotten that, even in the simultaneously beloved and accursed JRPG genre.  Final Fantasy 10 had this shit on lockdown almost two decades ago; yes, it was awkward and cringeworthy and painful at times, but at least it was something -- an effort from both parties to try and do something more, and be something more, for one another.  

For a more recent example, look at Tales of Xillia, a game half-built on a fifteen-year-old pining after a magical warrior woman -- so much so that he becomes a fugitive for her sake.  And continues to be one.  It really says a lot about the subject of relationships in gaming (and fiction in general, to a lesser extent) when one of the only major examples was Catherine back in 2011 -- and the only major example to try and tackle that stuff since will be an updated rerelease of Catherine.

IT’S.  NOT.  THAT.  HARD.  STOP MAKING IT HARDER THAN IT NEEDS TO BE.  And yeah, as you can guess, I’m the LAST person allowed to talk about relationships (I know more about how to build a time machine than I do about the opposite sex).  Still, there have been enough stories in my life and yours to show what can be done, and what shouldn’t be done.  What can be done is pretty much anything you can dream up, as long as you have the skill and savvy to pull it off.  What shouldn’t be done, above all else (unless doing otherwise would actively hinder the story), is absolutely nothing.

And yet, here we are.  And right now, I’m seriously itching to go back and play XCX.

But I’ll finish XC2 first.  I pretty much have to at this point -- sunk cost fallacy and all that.  So until then, I’ll be seeing you guys around.  Maybe by then I’ll have something more positive to say about the game.

Till next time, then.  Take care.

…Shit, I should’ve saved this stuff for Valentine’s Day.

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