The last Xenoblade Chronicles — it was numbered X, but it was really number 2, which makes this number 3, although it’s technically number 2 — built up to and was eventually based on a simple idea: wouldn’t it be cool if you could get into a giant robot and fuck shit up? There’s even a Japanese word for this concept: “mech”.
This Xenoblade Chronicles is also built on a simple idea: sexy dolls are supposedly sexy. And of course there’s a Japanese word for this concept: “waifu”.
I’m still in the early stages of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. At about the fifteen-hour mark. A lot of these hours are barely coherent JRPG silliness, ridiculously chaotic combat, and sifting through inventory detritus. But that’s how Xenoblade Chronicles have always started. It takes a while to congeal into something worth seeing through.
But it seems that a fundamental part of the gameplay is the idea of each character using a set of combat avatars. Sidekicks. Puppets. Dolls. They’re called “blades”, with the character described as the “driver”. It’s an odd paradigm, especially for how it works in combat. The “driver” does the actual fighting and the “blade” hangs back and shoots a support beam at him, like a steadfast medic from Team Fortress. If I was thinking this stuff up, a “blade” would be out front and a “driver” would be the equivalent of its puppeteer, controlling its action.
But in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the idea is that the blade is a weapon. The blade determines which special abilities and attacks are available. The blade determines whether the character is a tank, healer, or dps (by the way, can game designers please invent another combat model already?). Indeed, the blade determines what weapon a character uses. One blade equips you with a battle axe, another with a sword, yet another with grenades.
Even the bad guys have blades. The real-time battles are a shuffling mob of drivers, blades, and the tangled criss-crossing beams that connect them. Lay on top of this all the visual noise and damage numbers and overlapping audio calls, and yep, you’re playing a Xenoblade Chronicles. This one gets a lot more chaotic a lot quicker than the last two games. The early learning curve is a matter of figuring out what you can ignore. Usually, that’s most of it.
What’s disappointing to me is that “blades” seem to be this game’s answer to the last game’s mechs. I think Xenoblade Chronicles 2 wants me to be eager to level up my closets full of action RPG dollies. I’m perfectly capable of doing this, and I can probably even muster the requisite enthusiasm. In fact, this is partly why Agents of Mayhem is one of my favorite games this year. It’s a generously populated closet full of distinct and well-written superhero action figures, each with its own unique gameplay, each with lots of decisions for how to level up and play them. But the action figures in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are a poor substitute for mechs. Furthermore, they lean heavily on a borderline creepy waifu vibe.
If you don’t know the term “waifu”, you probably haven’t played a lot of JRPGs. It is to JRPGs what “manic pixie dream girl” is to indie movies. The idea is that through gameplay, the player will develop a romantic attachment to some anime character, usually stylized to look like a cross between a pinup model and a young girl. It’s an aesthetic. It’s a game design choice. It’s as old as JRPGs and I suspect a lot of it is cultural. And even if I do find it creepy and superficial, I don’t mean to judge. There’s no harm in it. I’m not one to Sarkeesian some sort of societal aberration from a cultural kink.
But when it’s supposed to replace the appeal of giant mechs stomping around the countryside, I’m a little disappointed. I can tolerate waifus just fine. But I’m not really into collecting and cultivating them, and that’s what Xenoblade Chronicles wants me to be excited to do. So far I’ve unlocked very few blades that aren’t absurdly proportioned or absurdly stylized or absurdly proportioned and stylized sexy dolls. Okay, to be fair, one of them is a bad-ass talking white tiger. Its driver is a sexy doll.
It’s all pretty superficial, which is in marked contrast to the first game, where the death of one female character was a powerful plot point and the political machinations of another was a substantial part of the finale. There’s an early joke about a woman being upset for being called heavy. She has the usual waifu body and clothes, which means she’s inordinately buxom and dressed to call attention to it. In fact, the magical power doo-dad that defines her is located right between her breasts. When the main character “bonds” with her, putting his hand on the magical power doo-dad, he pretty much gets to second base.
Later, he’s struggling to pull her up by a rope, which makes no sense given how freely he swings an absurdly giant sword. This is, after all, a JRPG. He grunts that she’s heavier than she looks. She’s aghast. She puts her face in her hands. The wise old character lectures the hero about commenting on a lady’s weight. It’s an awkward bit of writing, but don’t read too much into it, because it’s really just a set-up to show that another one of the sexy doll characters can fly and is furthermore equipped with a mechanical winch. Didn’t the first Xenoblade Chronicles have really good writing? Am I misremembering?
Earlier, a character named Tora is supposedly embarrassed when it’s revealed that he’s set his robot doll to some sort of waifu mode. At least that’s what I think the game is getting at. The robot doll strikes a twee pose, one heel kicked up like a giddy cheerleader, and she announces something along the lines of “what can I do for you, master?” The other characters watching get round white eyes, which is JRPG-speak for being mortified. Big drop icons appear all over Tora’s body, which means he’s sweating. He says something about how he didn’t mean to do that. Given the game I’ve been playing, and the high concentration of waifus doing pretty much exactly what his robot doll just did, I have no idea why he’s embarrassed. Dude, what game do you think you’re in?
Fortunately, I’ve just met a band of Australians who are diluting the waifu ratio with a giant bird and robot of indeterminate gender. And for all I know, maybe there are still mechs on the way. I wouldn’t put it past a Xenoblade Chronicles to introduce some important new gameplay twist at the 20 or 30 hour mark. But for now, I’m managing a waifu harem and getting screens like this:
Oh, dear. A waifu crossed with a furry.