Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

The Xeno series as a whole has always been renowned for tackling challenging themes in ambitious ways… and occasionally not quite being able to match the ambition with the execution.

The Xenoblade Chronicles subseries has been somewhat experimental with its storytelling over its three installments to date. The original Xenoblade Chronicles featured a strong, linear narrative with a number of independent side threads that unfolded as you reached the various locales that were important to the story; Xenoblade Chronicles X de-emphasised its main scenario in favour of strong worldbuilding and a sense that you were just one part of something much bigger; and Xenoblade Chronicles 2, unsurprisingly, takes an approach somewhere between the two.

Does it work? Absolutely, and the sheer scale of the whole thing means that there’s a whole lot to talk about.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s main narrative concerns the young Salvager Rex, who becomes embroiled in a series of strange events when he accepts a job from a group named Torna. Rex leads the group through a shipwreck in the Cloud Sea in search of a magnificent treasure, but ultimately finds himself betrayed by those who hired him, stabbed in the back and left for dead.

But he’s given a second chance by the presence that apparently inhabited the treasure in the ship: a Blade named Pyra, who shares part of her Core Crystal with him, implanting it into his chest as a means of sharing her life force with him and bonding the pair together more intimately than any kind of interpersonal relationship you might care to consider. From there, a grand adventure begins as Rex attempts to determine why Pyra is so important, why so many people want to get their hands on her, why she seemingly has another rather more grumpy woman named Mythra inside her, and what his role in all this might be.

The main narrative takes in a wide variety of themes, chief among them being the relationship between humans (a term which is seemingly used to encompass all humanoid species in the game world of Alrest, including the cat-like Gormotti and the elfin Indoline) and Blades.

At the outset of the game, Blades are often presented as rather servile to their Drivers; the humans are the ones in charge, and the Blades do their bidding.  Even in the case of Nia and her loyal Blade Dromarch, a pairing with which we’re placed alongside almost from the outset, the latter speaks to her with the formality of a butler, despite the former’s coarseness being about as far as you can get from being stereotypically “ladylike”.

It’s not long at all before we start to see that viewpoint challenged, though; besides Pyra’s independence from the usual life cycle of a Blade due to her special status as “The Aegis”, we also come across the pairing of Mòrag and Brighid, who appear to have a much more equal relationship, and indeed early in the game Brighid is shown to act independently of Mòrag on numerous occasions, even squaring off against the party by herself.

As Rex and the party travel around the world, we come across a wide variety of people and a wide variety of Blades alike, and each such pairing has a rather different dynamic. The strongest Driver-Blade combinations are always presented as those who treat one another as comrades rather than “master and servant”, however, with another early example coming in the form of the formidable pairing of Vandham and Roc. It doesn’t take Rex long to realise that despite the Blades’ reliance on Drivers to give them life over and over again, each Blade is a unique person in their own right, and far more than just a living weapon.

This matter is brought further into focus with the introduction of Poppi, who is an artificial Blade constructed by the Nopon Tora as a means of making up for the fact he has, to date, found himself completely unable to resonate with a real Blade’s Core Crystal. As an interesting aside to this arc, Tora also reveals that the Nopon as a species seemingly have a much hardier constitution than humans, since he claims his failed attempts to resonate with a Core Crystal did little more than give him a bad nosebleed — something of a contrast with the scenes we witness early on of humans failing resonation and being seriously injured or even dying. The game actually reflects this natural hardiness mechanically through the fact Tora’s default role in the party is that of a tank — not the first role you’d necessarily expect of the diminutive, fluffy and cute Nopon race, but he certainly plays his part with aplomb, supported ably by Poppi.

But I digress; while Poppi is not necessarily of direct importance to the main narrative thread, she is an interesting example of one of the game’s most important themes: the fact that those dependent on us aren’t any less deserving of respect or acknowledgement of their “humanity”, for want of a better word. Indeed, Poppi herself is actually shown to be one of the more emotional, “human” members of the cast at several important moments, admonishing Rex when he gets demoralised, expressing the fear that her power might run away from her and hurt those that she cares about, and in a particularly memorable scene towards the conclusion of the main story, feeling a genuine, excruciating, heartbreaking sense of conflict between doing “the right thing” and the thing that would seemingly make the most people happy in the short term.

As Rex and the party resonate with more Blades over the course of the game, we have the opportunity to explore the Driver-Blade relationship further, particularly through the fact that all of the Rare Blades that aren’t essential to the story each have their own unique narrative arcs to explore, helping to reflect their individuality and even their relationships with one another in some cases. Again, this isn’t just for show; each Blade’s individuality is also reflected mechanically through a unique loadout of abilities in their Affinity Chart, reflecting both their skills in battle and exploration as well as their interests and hobbies.

It’s entirely optional as to how much you want to engage with the different Blades, but doing so has tangible benefits: the more nodes on a Blade’s Affinity Chart you unlock, the more powerful they are in combat and the more likely they are to be able to help you in Field Skill checks around the game world. As such, it’s in your interests to try and draw a wide range of Blades and take the time to “get to know” as many of them as possible.

There are a variety of different interesting ways to explore the party’s relationships with their Blades, too. Boss-busting axe wielder Zenobia, for example, is obsessed with testing her strength and growing to be the most powerful warrior she possibly can be, so almost her entire Affinity Chart consists of tracking down the unique Named Monsters around the world and defeating them with Zenobia in tow. Her final quest is a lengthy affair that consists of unsealing a legendary beast and then felling it in gruelling combat… only for her to reveal that what’s she’s actually holding out for is an opportunity to test her strength against Mythra, who, by this point, has been revealed to essentially be the manifestation of the Aegis’ ultimate power.

At the other end of the spectrum, healer Blade Kora and a number of other Blades (including Mythra) are revealed to be in possession of a mysterious Field Skill called “Girls’ Talk”. This skill is almost entirely useless throughout much of the game, except for in Kora’s final quest, where Kora and Mythra get into an argument about who has the most “Girl Power”. There then follows a series of increasingly ridiculous challenges as the pair attempt to “out-girl” one another, much to the chagrin of their companions, most of whom are kept awake for a very long night as a result of the ongoing competition.

The aspect of Blade lore which sees a Blade lose their memories of their past “life” when their Driver passes on is also explored in numerous ways throughout the game as a whole. In particular, it’s explored through the Blade Vess, who the party comes into possession of after helping an old man enjoy his final moments of life before passing on, and through the duo of Praxis and Theory.

Vess’ story reflects the fact that even when someone passes on (or, in a Blade’s case, effectively “starts over”) their legacy remains. In her case, the two children of her late Driver remember how she used to be and how important she was, both to her Driver and to them, and Vess comes to regard this as something precious, even though she has no memory of it.

Praxis and Theory’s case is a little more complex. Beginning as a rumour the party hears about “Core Crystal hunters” ambushing travelers on the road, the party initially only comes into possession of Praxis’ Core Crystal after driving the pair off. Praxis, reborn after a while, comes to learn that she did bad things in her previous “life” and, recognising the fact that Rex and his compatriots are inherently good people, attempts to make up for that. This is explored further once Theory (still in her original “evil” incarnation) starts to lead Praxis on a merry chase to try and track her down — but, again, the party prevails and returns Theory to her Core Crystal. When she is awakened once again, the pair discover there are a lot of people around the world who suffered because of them, and realise it will take grand gestures to convince people that they have really changed.

Praxis and Theory’s story in particular touches on something that becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the main narrative: the fact that while a Blade has an inherent “personality” that remains constant from each awakening to the next, the type of person they eventually end up becoming is largely determined by the person they resonated with and the relationship they share.

This becomes especially apparent through the contrast between the Pyra/Mythra combination and the primary antagonist of the game, Malos. Both Pyra/Mythra and Malos are each an “Aegis”, an entity created to collect information from the Blades of the world and then relay evolutionary information to help the Blades adapt.

Malos became corrupted through the influence of being awakened by someone who had suffered so much he had come to despise the world, so Malos grew to hate the world and desire its destruction also. Mythra, meanwhile, was originally awakened by the legendary hero Addam, defeated Malos five hundred years prior to the events of the game with a terrible power that felled three Titans and wrought considerable destruction despite it eventually being successful and subsequently created Pyra as an alternate personality in an attempt to “seal” herself away.

In essence, Mythra and Malos should have been “equals”, neutral in human affairs and with their own important roles to play. But the people with whom they resonated played an important part in defining who they would come to be; indeed, Rex thinks he recognises elements of Malos’ personality in the person who is ultimately revealed to be his Driver from all those years ago, while Mythra reveals herself to Rex once it becomes clear that he can both be trusted, and that the “Aegis War” of five hundred years ago is at risk of happening all over again.

As with any conflict, others get swept along with it all and come to have their own feelings on what unfolds. Probably the most tragic figure in all this is Jin, who, before we completely understand the hierarchy of power at play, we’re led to believe is the main villain of the piece.

Jin is revealed to be one of a number of Blades throughout the story known as “Flesh Eaters”, which means they are a Blade that was fused with human cells in an attempt to give them unique capabilities as well as remain manifested after their Driver’s death. In Jin’s case, he became a Flesh Eater out of a desire to not be separated from his Driver Lora, whom he had come to love over his many long years with her. Lora told Jin that, for humans, the idea of being forgotten is worse than that of death, and so he took any steps necessary in order not to forget her.

Unfortunately, what he didn’t count on was the fact that in doing this, he would not only be unable to forget her, he would be cursed with an almost eternal life without the person he loved. He became disillusioned with the whole world in a rather similar manner to Malos’ driver — which naturally made him a prime target for the dark Aegis when he awoke once again five centuries later. Jin devoted himself to Malos’ cause, in some ways becoming the de facto leader of the Torna group, and remained a constant thorn in Rex and his companions’ sides as they attempted to bring Pyra and Mythra to the mysterious (and possibly non-existent) “Elysium” in an attempt to understand the truth behind their reason for being.

Much of Jin’s anger and bitterness comes from his disillusionment with the very nature of Blades and how they are, as he puts it, “used as tools by humans”. He knows very well that had he not taken drastic steps to preserve his important memories of Lora, he would have lost them and been reborn anew, potentially to be the “tool” of someone who did not respect and love him like his former Driver. He considers himself “foolish” to have ever had faith in The Architect, the one who supposedly created the world to work in this way, and thus supports Malos’ attempts to destroy the world and The Architect alike.

But Rex has an impact on Jin over the course of their several meetings. Rex’s optimism, earnest faith in people and irrepressible desire to do the right thing for Pyra and Mythra gives Jin pause; while he doesn’t just abandon his principles, he does find himself curious to see whether the world will ultimately “choose” Malos or Rex in the end — in other words, whether it will “choose” to live or die. Thus he refuses to accompany Malos on the final steps of his journey, instead standing in Rex’s way as a final obstacle and ultimately using the last of his strength to ensure Rex and his friends are able to proceed to their final battle for the fate of the world.

We’ve previously discussed how the Xeno series as a whole has been inspired by the philosophical writings of authors such as Jung, Freud and Nietzsche, particularly the themes of our place in the world, our purpose here and what our future might hold. And these core themes very much remain an important part of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, as is probably already very apparent.

Each member of the core cast finds themselves searching for a reason to exist — a reason why they are the person they are. And they each approach this question in different ways.

Rex takes control of his destiny to certain degree — or at least accepts it willingly. Having promised to take Pyra to Elysium in the early hours of the story, he sticks to this for pretty much the whole game — with only a minor wobble in his resolve partway through that is subsequently slapped out of him by the formidable combination of a furious Brighid and a distraught Poppi. He decides that his reason for being is to make sure Pyra and Mythra make it to Elysium safely, and everything else that happens along the way is just something he has to deal with.

Nia is an interesting contrast. Initially a member of the same Torna group that boasts Jin and Malos among its members, she subsequently “switches sides” to support Rex after he is betrayed — albeit somewhat unwillingly at first. Many of her motivations are clouded in mystery for a significant proportion of the game — including why she was part of Torna in the first place — until we discover that she is yet another example of a “xeno”, an outsider, thanks to the fact that she, like Jin, is a Flesh Eater Blade rather than a human. And also like Jin, she became a Flesh Eater in response to losing someone important to her — though she chose to conceal this fact rather than embrace it. She is noticeably more at ease with herself once she has confessed who she truly is to the group.

Mòrag outright admits at the game’s conclusion that she is envious of how resolutely Rex has managed to remain true to his purpose, though he quite rightly responds that she has herself followed her own path for much of their adventure. As the Special Inquisitor of the land of Mor Ardain, she didn’t have to accompany Rex and the rest of the group on their grand adventure, but she chose to on the grounds that it was the right thing to do — not just for Mor Ardain’s interests, but for the good of everyone. She is also, as we’ve already discussed, an ideal companion for Brighid, since she respects her Blade’s individuality and desire to recall her previous existences rather than attempting to mould her according to her own desires.

Tora and the rest of his family have always been outsiders. We never see Tora with any friends prior to his joining the party, for example, leading us to believe that he was probably something of a loner growing up and continued this into his adult existence. He admits that both his father and grandfather were the same way, preferring to throw themselves into their work rather than anything else — indeed, at one point where Tora’s father is kidnapped and forced to work on mass-producing artificial Blades, Tora subsequently admits that he probably actually wouldn’t have minded all that much, since he was still getting to do the things he enjoyed. Tora ultimately comes to define his purpose as standing alongside his friends to support them in what they do — and in supporting Poppi, who it’s clear he loves very dearly, despite her sharp tongue.

Finally, Zeke is an example of someone defying the role prescribed for him by tradition. Initially presented as a minor (and somewhat incompetent) antagonist, he’s subsequently revealed to be the prince of the land of Tantal, albeit with his rather “common” manner of speaking clearly being something of a disappointment to his rather formal (and initially estranged) father. Over time, though, Zeke grows to trust his new companions and grows in maturity as a result. He’s still ultimately rather more immature than a man of his age probably should be (although I’m not really one to talk) but finding a purpose for his life beyond wandering around causing trouble proves to be a real benefit for him — and the Zeke we see at the end of the game is very different from the one we first encounter in the land of Uraya.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is ultimately about finding meaning in your own existence — be that through finding someone who is important to you and standing by them, learning things for yourself or simply accomplishing a longstanding ambition — and it provides plenty of food for thought over the course of its whole narrative. Both individuals and whole nations undergo significant changes and development as the story progresses, and, in many ways, it feels like probably the most well-realised example of Tetsuya Takahashi’s desire to explore the philosophies of Nietzsche, Jung and Freud to date.

However deeply you choose to read into it, there’s little denying that it’s a spectacular adventure with lots to explore — and these 3,000 words have just scratched the surface of the many interesting tales the world of Alrest has to tell.


More about Xenoblade Chronicles 2

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