For Christmas, I got Xenoblade Chronicles 2. XC2 is the latest in a three-game series (more if you count Xenosaga, Xenogears etc.) of JRPGs so massive, they make Russia look like a nice village in the Cotswolds. While spin-off Xenoblade Chronicles X for Wii U was a bit confused, trading the original’s focus for scale and online elements nobody asked for, Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii was a true JRPG great.
Having finished it, I can confirm that XC2 is great likewise. It does what I, as a big fan of XC1, wanted. That is: more of the same, cleaning up a few gameplay issues the original had, and introducing a new and anime-ish art style. This allowed for more vibrant colours and more expressive characters.
It also allows for some... interesting character designs. Specifically, interesting female character designs.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first. I’m male. In fact, I’m young(ish) straight and male, which presumably makes me the audience for the fanservice in the game. I may think of myself as ‘totes woke’, but all else being equal, you should read and absorb female writers’ opinions on this over mine.
Secondly, spoilers. This article mentions:
- plot details up to Chapter 2 (10 hours in);
- a couple of characters revealed soon after, but who are displayed prominently in early trailers and the main game art;
- a couple of plot-irrelevant cut-scene details from before the 30-hour mark (if you think that’s far in, go back to paragraph two);
- three Rare Blades. Blades are the game’s sentient weapons, and you get many of them at random, through an infuriatingly slow gacha-type mechanic. You may unlock these three early on. You may not see them at all in your playthrough.
Basically, I don't think there's anything truly spoilerific in here.
With that done, here are ten female characters from Xenoblade Chronicles 2, put into a list and talked about, regarding the extent to which they’re... interesting.
You meet Mòrag Ladair in chapter 2. You meet her again a few times after that. She’s basically Anime Scottish Samus Aran.
That's partly because Mòrag actually wears some armour. Imagine that! A fighter, wearing armour! In the world of the JRPG, that’s tantamount to madness. There’s also the military background, the shooting of flames, the grappling with blue whips, and the general stoicism. And at least one shoulder-pad.
With the stoicism comes, perhaps, a certain lack of character. Kirsty Mitchell’s VA work is a bit quiet and dead, although it has its moments. And she does seem to exist for her brother a bit too much.
But come on – she’s a female damage sponge. How common are they? Not very, is the answer. That, combined with everything else, puts her as a credit to her game, and her genre in general.
Nia is a brilliant character.
She’s cynical and snarky. She pokes fun at hero Rex every chance she gets. She rides on the back of her tiger butler (who, incidentally, wears the best hat in gaming of last year. That’s the year in which Mario’s grew eyes and possessed frogs). And she has depth to her, too, that I shan’t reveal.
How much of her brilliance is due to the voicework of Catrin-Mai Huw, I don’t know. Her Welsh accent lends a wonderful sing-song quality to her voice. Her taunting of Rex sounds like playground chants. And if you disagree, she will bash you up proper. Her words, not mine.
There is a scene of her in a hot spring, but she wears actual sensible adventuring clothes the rest of the time, so I can let that pass. Her yellow jumpsuit doesn’t look sexy: it looks appropriate for adventuring. (Jester's shoes, not so much, but this game has much worse footwear in store...)
Nia isn’t just my favourite female character in XC2. She’s one of my favourite characters in gaming. She’s at 9, rather than 10, because the game tries its best to muck that up.
Adenine is a wind-type Rare Blade. She likes books. She really likes books. She wears book bracelets, even. It’s almost annoying at times, how much she likes books. Her sesquipedalian vocabulary only serves to exacerbate this bibliophilic chagrin.
Yet she’s here in the list, because all the ‘top’ seven are Blades too. When we’re midway through the ‘top’ five, you might wonder whether there are any halfway-decently designed female Blades. There are. There’s a female intellectual, for crying out loud. With a void in her stomach. She might only have that one character trait, but for a sentient weapon who’s an optional extra, that’s not too much of a problem.
There were a lot of Blade character designers. It feels, to a certain extent, like they had free reign to draw whatever they wanted. Kōji Ogata wanted to draw a book-lover, in a long dress, paper tights, and a sparkly hole in her stomach. For that, he should be rewarded. (For Bicycle Life With Kawaii Girls, which appears when you Google his name, perhaps less so.)
Here’s where we start to get a bit ‘really?’ Pandoria is an electric Blade. She’s got a slight lightbulb-steampunk thing going on, some big ol’ thick meganekko glasses, and also reminds me of the Bnahabra armour from the Monster Hunter games.
And then there’s the rest of her design.
Perhaps it’s her driver’s decision? He wears a top open down the middle too, and I can see that he might be the sort of chap to dress his blade in tiny tiny shorts with no tights. That brings up the somewhat disturbing topic of how much agency these Blades have. Must they bow to the will of their Driver, in combat and out of? It’s really unnerving if you think even a shade down the rabbit hole.
Fortunately, Pandoria and other Blades do seem to show enough agency to ward this off for the most part, making fools of their masters on enough occasions. However, their use as weapons to hide behind in combat, and obligation to follow their Drivers, remains creepy. Like Pokémon, only women.
Anyway. Buy the Blade some tights, mate, for goodness’ sake. She looks cold.
Nim is another Rare Blade. She has the level of sexualised clothing of most of the female Rare Blades I’ve seen, which is to say, perhaps slightly less than a football's worth of material. But I’ve singled her out for spot 6 for a few reasons.
One, she was shown off pre-release. Hopefully she’s slightly less of a spoiler than some of the other Rare Blades.
Two, her design lacks even more sense than most. It feels overloaded, even though it’s underdressed. Let’s give her two fox-dragon things, and a tail with feathers, and massive knuckle-duster gloves, and tattoos, and a blue light on her forehead, and that red thing that’s on her crotch. Ooh, and let’s top it off with sci-fi boots, that don’t match her aesthetic or that of anything else! I think the boots are more offensive than the lack of clothing elsewhere, to be honest.
Three, when you first awaken her, she gets down on all fours and acts like an animal (video). I get it, she’s meant to be a kitsune, but in Japanese myth kitsunes are sly tricksters. This behaviour is fetishised domestic dog stuff, and it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
But most of all, she’s on this list for crimes against humour, more disgusting than any of the rest of her design, worse even than the boots. See those fox-dragons on her shoulders?
They’re called Kit and Sunny.
Even for me, that's bad.
Poppi, or Poppi α, is an artificial Blade designed by the Nopon Tora.
First things first: all Nopons seem to have a French maid fetish. When Tora fires up Poppi for the first time, she has ‘French maid mode activated’. Trying to pass it off as a remnant from his father’s programming, he is then shown the French maid outfits in his wardrobe by a disbelieving Pyra.
At this stage, if the French maidness were forgotten for the rest of the game, this would be a joke on Tora, not another dubious blade design. There’d still be the extra level of creepy of designing your own female battle slave robot (that’s creepy in the real world, when male humans do it. Tora is a three-foot ball of fur); but if she’d refused to be his maid, then he'd have been the creepy one, not the artists/designers. It could even be a satire on that slightly weird aspect of Japanese culture. Most, if not all, would be forgiven.
Guess what? The French maidness is not forgotten.
There’s the constant offers to give Tora a comb-down. There’s the upgrades she receives. Most of all, there’s the excruciating scene where French maid mode is re-activated, to teach Pyra about the power of ‘Blushy-Crushy’. And Pyra, who’d taken Tora to task earlier, goes along with it.
Poppi’s design on its own isn’t so bad. Poppi the character, though not without her moments, gets the number 5 slot.
Brighid is Mòrag’s Blade.
Yup. This is how the Blade of the sensibly dressed iron-clad general who serves an emperor chooses to display herself.
You do get evening gowns something like this, I believe. I just don’t see why somebody who goes around doing diplomatic and military business would choose to wear this one most of the time. It doesn’t seem to fit her personality either: like her Driver, she’s softly spoken and all business. She does enjoy cosmetics, but there’s a gulf between that and this.
And what in the seven hells is going on with her crotch area!? Does the transparent dress-front suddenly go opaque below her overloaded belt? You do not get evening gowns like that. Do you?
You can make excuses, I suppose. She’s a fire Blade, it’s not like she has to keep herself warm. She’s got flames crawling up her limbs, and you’re concerned about the front of her dress. Maybe Mòrag (the humourless patriotic soldier with no time for fun) likes that sort of thing.
Or maybe she got dressed with her eyes shut. That is, in fact, the only valid one.
Dahlia is the number one source of XC2 female design ire on the Internet, and you can see why. However, the more I think about her, the less fussed I am by it.
It’s still bad, don’t get me wrong. I started off pretty damn fussed. A hyper-sexualised ice animal thing, with huge tracts of land, skimpy ice ‘clothing’, and naturally growing high heels. I wouldn’t want to be paying for her hospital bills, either for her poor overworked back, or for when she slips and twists her ankle.
Dahlia’s thing is beauty. Her exclusive skill is ‘creat[ing] intricately beautiful art’. In an event, a 'loveable' urchin squawks, ‘I want to talk to the pretty lady!’ Let her lead a mercenary squad, and it’s called ‘Perennial Beauties’.
I can see someone asking the (female) artist to draw a Blade based around beauty, and the artist going all out. View her as a parody of modern beauty conventions, and she becomes more bearable. That’s not hard to do, either, as her design reaches and surpasses parody levels. She’s got stiletto talons, for crying out loud.
That said, in the fanservice-fuelled world of JRPGs, and given the other Blade designs (see number 6, or these perhaps spoilery other examples), that probably gives her too much credit. Poe’s Law is a thing, and Dahlia probably falls on the wrong side of it. Most likely, they genuinely thought this was good, acceptable character design.
From what little I saw of her personality, too, she fits this design better than everyone on the list from 7 up. She’s flirtatious and likes the limelight. While not exactly a convincing excuse for... (waves vaguely at picture) all that, I can believe she’d 'dress' like she does out of choice. (Although more on the odd night out than when saving the world.)
But Dahlia’s main saving grace is that she’s utterly optional. You can do as I did, and leave her unused forever/as a Merc Mission specialist. That’s the main reason she’s only at number 3 in this list.
(Also, the drawings of her and Yoshi are funny.)
And so to number 2, who isn’t utterly optional. Mythra is an aspect of a legendary sword. She is immensely powerful, immensely plot-relevant, and immensely stupidly dressed. Chest window, miniskirt, uncovered back.
In most of the obvious aspects, Mythra is actually more ridiculous than my number 1. Not just in her outfit, either: it’s her cut-scenes. She appears in the hot spring cut-scene I mentioned with Nia earlier, but that’s not the worst.
The worst is when she sleepwalks into the boys’ room at an inn... and ends up sleeping right in front of Rex’s open mouth.
For God’s sake.
There are a couple of reasons why Mythra isn’t at number 1, though. For one, I can see her as possibly having slightly more of an ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ attitude. Not to Dahlia’s extent, perhaps, but it would seem to tie into her more direct personality - more so than the list-topper anyway.
But the main reason for her number 2 status is that Mythra’s fanservice moments are lampshaded When she goes into the hot spring, Nia deadpans, ‘Nice bod you’ve got there.’ (Again: Nia is best character.) And when she retreats from the dormitory, a different character says, ‘She’s certainly exposing an awful lot of skin.’ This leads to one of the best exchanges in the game. (Also: that hat.)
But it’s still ridiculous, her outfit is ridiculous, and she needs to have a word with herself. Although that said...
Ah, Pyra. The Aegis. Our heroine. Rex’s Blade, and love interest. You would too if you were a teenage boy and a woman like that appeared. Which... is part of the problem.
Pyra is not a good character. She’s not entirely a damsel in distress, but she ticks off enough the big yamato nadeshiko box by giving Rex ‘half her life force’. (Is that the same thing Metroids suck out of you? Anyway.) She’s immensely powerful, but only in her Driver’s hands. She does have a goal of her own, to get to Elysium; but that seems to dissolve, and become secondary to flirting with Rex. The goal becomes his, and she clings to his arm.
This becomes even creepier when you consider the age gap. She might look young enough (secondary sexual characteristics aside), but she’s centuries old. Rex is explicitly stated as not being old enough to drink. He looks 14 at most. Pyra isn’t a cradle-snatcher, she’s nuked the cradle from orbit.
Skye Bennett gives her a subtle, interesting voice, worlds away from the horrible squeaking of the Japanese voice actress in the reveal trailer. She is Pyra’s redeeming character feature, and pretty much the only one.
Her outfit is not a redeeming feature.
Unlike Mythra and Brighid, Pyra does at least cover the source of some horrendous future back problems. The trouble is, the camera wants you to see that covering. It wants you to see it close up, and often. There’s an early scene from Rex’s impact, where he’s in her lap, so the camera is positioned just under Pyra’s ample chest. I physically cringed.
Then there’s the rest of her costume, such as it is. They’ve given the legendary sword hotpants and schoolgirl socks. That, my friends, is nonsense.
The biggest problem I have with design is that, unlike Mythra (possibly), Pyra’s personality definitely does not fit the costume. While not exactly a shrinking violet, she’s still on the demure side of the spectrum. Her costume is anything but.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has some great female characters front and centre. Nia, as I’ve said, is among the best; Mòrag is Samus Aran in a soldier’s uniform. The main female lead undermines their good work.
Look. I’m aware that this is not a problem unique to XC2. Many many Japanese games feature richly endowed scantily clad ladies front and centre, and many do so without a hint of self-awareness. The JRPG genre is particularly guilty of this.
Do I think one article, seen by hardly anybody, is going to change this? No. But I wanted to write it, all the same.
I wanted to write it because I really like XC2. I want to recommend it, to fans of the genre anyway (it’s likely too obtuse and cut-scene-heavy for anyone else). But I can’t do so, especially to female friends, without this significant caveat.
I don’t mind sexy characters. I do mind the sheer extent of sexy characters in this game, who are almost exclusively female. Not only, I should say, but the male fanservice never gets as bad. You don’t have copious close-ups of Rex’s exposed thighs, or Pandoria’s Driver’s abdominals. I personally would find it creepy if they were. What must female gamers, then, think about all the shots of Pyra’s chest?
XC2 is a great game. I do recommend it. At the same time, I recommend MonolithSoft change the character design parameters they send out for Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Much of their female design is not only creepy, but never mentioned in-game, like it’s perfectly normal (it’s not), and often not fitting for the characters it’s attached to.
At least the world of Alrest’s back surgeons will be kept in work, I suppose.