Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Bringing the “Niche” to the “Mainstream”

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An interesting aspect of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s Western release is the matter of its localisation.

I’m not talking about it from a “censorship” perspective or anything like that, mind you — largely because, in my experience, those sorts of discussions often tend to get bogged down and never really go anywhere.

Rather, Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s localisation is an interesting case because, more than anything, it appears to represent an honest attempt to bridge the gap between a genre of game that has come to be regarded as highly “niche interest” over the last few years, and the broader, mainstream audience Nintendo typically courts with its console platforms.

The question of whether Japanese games should be localised in a manner that is as true as possible to the original script — often erroneously described as “literal translations” — or if they should be adapted to take into account cultural differences and varied audiences is a continually hot topic among enthusiasts.

It’s a complex issue for sure, with no real “right” answer; my personal feelings on the matter, as I’ve described in further detail in the past, are that where an inherent sense of “Japaneseness” is important to the work as a whole, that “Japaneseness” should be left as intact as possible, including things like honorifics, forms of address and depictions of cultural conventions that perhaps don’t have direct equivalents in the West. Something like Persona 5 is a good example — that’s a game steeped in modern, urban Japanese culture and wouldn’t be the same at all were all its references to growing up as a perceived delinquent in Tokyo removed. Same for things like Akiba’s Trip, Steins;Gate and any other titles that make a point of incorporating the concept of “otakudom” into their narrative and setting, and, of course, something like Ne no Kami, based as it is on traditional Shinto myths and legends, simply wouldn’t work in the same way if you attempted to transplant it out of Japan.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, are works where remaining obviously “Japanese” isn’t necessarily of benefit to the work as a whole. Something like Neptunia is a good example here; while its original localisation by NIS America in particular has been subject to widespread criticism from some of the more hardcore fans over the years, its modern incarnation is such that its obvious “Westernisms” in its localised dialogue are very much in keeping with the tone the series is trying to set. Keeping things like memes from Japanese-only forums in there would make it more “authentic”, sure, but it would also mean a lot of people who would otherwise enjoy the series would find jokes and references going over their head.

The Xeno series, while always adopting an “anime” aesthetic, falls into this latter category — and, in fact, given creator Tetsuya Takahashi’s stated aims of exploring the philosophical themes of Jung, Nietzsche and Freud, can be argued to be deliberately trying to get away from a sense of inherent “Japaneseness” in favour of pursuing Western concepts. The games typically explore depictions of Abrahamic religions associated with the West rather than Buddhism and/or Shintoism and, particularly in the Xenoblade subseries, tend to unfold in settings inspired by Western architecture and art throughout the ages.

With this in mind, it’s understandable why the decision was made to localise quite a few aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, most notably many of the names and characters involved in the story. In doing so, the game would be made to feel more accessible to a broader audience — including those who typically didn’t engage with “very Japanese” games — while keeping its meaning intact. And optional free day-one DLC allowed purists to use the Japanese voice track and hear the original names, anyway, allowing for a “best of both worlds” type of situation.

So what changes were made exactly? Well, for the most part, any name changes were done as a means of making said name’s meaning more apparent and obvious to the Western audience. In many cases, this involved replacing names from Japanese mythology with names from various Western mythologies. Prominent examples of this include Brighid (Kagutsuchi in Japanese) and Dromarch (Byakko in the original).

Brighid is a relatively simple substitution; both “Brighid” from Celtic mythology and “Kagutsuchi” from the Shinto creation myth are primarily associated with fire, and it is, of course, no coincidence that Brighid herself in the game is a fire-element Blade — albeit one themed around blue rather than orange flames. In many ways, however, “Brighid” is a more fitting name for her personality; her almost motherly nature makes her a much closer fit to the idea of being the “goddess of hearth and home” from Celtic mythology than a god who burned his mother to death while he was being born. Yes, his; the Shinto Kagutsuchi is typically depicted as male, in rather stark contrast to Brighid’s heavily accented femininity.

Dromarch is a somewhat less straightforward affair. His Japanese name “Byakko” is associated with Chinese depictions of the white tiger, and that’s certainly entirely appropriate for his appearance in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Dromarch, though? The most likely root of this name is “Dormarch” (sometimes spelled “Dormarth”), a creature from Welsh mythology typically represented as a hound rather than a cat, but more broadly as a white creature associated with the legend of the Wild Hunt. While in this case the Japanese name is rather more fitting for Dromarch’s overall character and appearance, the use of Welsh mythology as a basis for his localised nomenclature would be in keeping with his position alongside Nia, who is also depicted as “Welsh” (or the Alrestian equivalent thereof) in the dub track.

Leading characters Pyra and Mythra also had name changes, being known as Homura and Hikari in the original Japanese script. In this case, the name changes are less a matter of changing source mythology, and simply making the “meaning” of their names more obvious. The word “Homura” is used to refer to a blaze or flame in Japanese — appropriate for her mastery of the fire element — so “Pyra” is a good English equivalent, with the “pyr-” prefix in particular being associated with fire, as in pyrotechnics or pyromania.

Likewise, “Hikari” means “light” in Japanese; “Mythra” might be a less obvious substitution in this case — although what would be a good Western equivalent? — but it’s likely a reference to Tolkien’s description of the mythical material mithril. Gandalf describes it in The Fellowship of the Ring as having “beauty like that of common silver, but the beauty of mithril did not tarnish or grow dim.” There’s a vague association with light there, but more obviously with the idea of beauty that doesn’t fade with age. Mythra is more than 500 years old and, to put it in a rather crass manner, one certainly wouldn’t kick her out of bed. So, yep, Mythra works for me.

It’s not just names that got changed, though. Concepts found themselves localised, too — and again, this was largely in service of making the work as a whole accessible to people who were perhaps less familiar with conventions of Japanese popular culture, anime and more niche-interest games.

For one, the religious aspects of the text were made to be more allegorical than literal. “The Architect” of the English script is simply referred to as “kami” (god) in the Japanese original, for example, and Pyra and Mythra are not “the Aegis” in the original, they are the “ten no seihai” (“heavenly Holy Grail”). Likewise, “Elysium” is “Rakuen” (“Eden”, “Paradise”) in the original. This is fairly common practice when Westernising a game of this type; while it’s not removing the religious component of the story altogether, it’s toning it down somewhat in the name of not being an obvious attack on a specific religion and its dogma. The meaning and subtext are still there, it’s just a bit less “in your face” about it.

Elsewhere in the game, more abstract concepts are localised to make them more broadly understandable to those without an exhaustive knowledge of the conventions and tropes of Japanese popular media. A good example of this comes during a scene where Tora attempts to explain the concept of moe to Pyra as a means of allowing her to appeal more obviously to Rex, with whom she is obviously smitten. The original Japanese script features frequent uses of the term “moe-moe,” a quasi-onomatopoeic phrase that suggests someone being deliberately cute and appealing. However, the localisation changes this to “blushy-crushy”, which would be understandable to a much broader audience while still maintaining the original intent of the scene.

“Blushy-crushy” is also the sort of phrase that is firmly in keeping with how the Nopon dialect is presented in English; again, this is handled quite differently between the two different languages, thanks, in this case, to their different structures and approaches to wordplay and puns. In Japanese, the Nopon dialect is presented using a common linguistic trick for characterisation: the adjustment of the final verb of the sentence or adding a sentence suffix where none is necessary. This is used in a variety of Japanese works, primarily for punning purposes; a well-known example comes in the form of the comedy anime Squid Girl’s titular heroine, for example, who adds “de geso” (“squid tentacles”) to the end of all her sentences. This isn’t directly translatable, so her dialogue is typically localised using squid- and fish-related puns.

In the case of the Nopon dialect, their Japanese dialogue typically involves the utterance “desu mo” at the end of each sentence, a bastardisation of the verb “desu” (to be). Overuse of “desu” by itself is typically associated with self-consciously cute characters; the variation “desu mo” emphasises this further. It is, in fact, revealed in an optional sidequest to have once been a deliberate affectation by an individual in an attempt to lull people into a false sense of security; over time, however, it just became adopted as the standard way that Nopon spoke.

Since, like Squid Girl’s “de geso”, there is no direct equivalent to this linguistic construction, Nopon dialogue is localised with a Western take on what “cutesy” speech would sound like. There’s lots of referring to oneself in the third person, lots of referring to other people as “friend” and deliberately poor grammar — it’s essentially childlike speech, and is often used to great comic effect by juxtaposing the humorous, light-hearted style of the dialogue with the subject of the conversation actually being rather more serious in nature.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as a whole is an example of a localisation done well. It’s not perfect — it might perhaps have been nice to have the option to have the subtitles reflect the original Japanese names instead of the localised versions, for those who find the dissonance between the text and the Japanese audio difficult to deal with — but it’s certainly a valiant attempt to make a complex work more accessible to a broader audience outside of its main “core” fanbase without fundamentally compromising the heart of what it’s all about. It doesn’t dilute the meaning, and at the same time it carries fewer “prerequisites” to being able to enjoy it fully than similar games with a smaller target audience.

Considering the Switch’s strong position in the market at the time of writing as well as Nintendo’s positioning of its hardware and games being as friendly as possible to a broad, diverse audience, this approach makes a lot of sense. While less universally appealing than the company’s more well-established family-friendly properties such as Super Mario and Kirby, it was clear from the inclusion of Shulk in Super Smash Bros. for Wii that Nintendo considers this one of their flagship franchises — and as such, it stands to reason the company would want to allow as many people as possible to enjoy it.

And that, on the whole, I’m glad about; Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a magnificent game, and the more people who get to enjoy it, the better. So if that means Welsh Nia being a thing… well, I can deal with that.

More about Xenoblade Chronicles 2

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7 thoughts on “Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Bringing the “Niche” to the “Mainstream””

  1. I know some people are obsessed with hearing the Japanese voice track for localized games, but I find if a game is dubbed, hearing the Japanese track confuses me. I guess that’s the problem of knowing enough Japanese but not quite enough Japanese…

    I certainly think, from what I’ve seen in articles on Xenoblade Chronicles 2 including yours, that the localization was handled quite well. Of course, the biggest variations that fans complain about tend to be in “optional” things like minor character backstories or support conversations. I know that is the big beef with some of the Fire Emblem localizations recently. I haven’t read yet of anything like that happening in Xenoblade 2, but I also haven’t looked that hard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm. Xenoblade 2 has probably the worst localization which I’ve ever seen. I’m not joking. Awful works like this forced me to learn Japanese in the past. I’m still way more comfortable with playing in English after 4 years of Japanese learing (and English is not my primary language too), so if translation is acceptable, I’ll most likely pick the English version (with original voices – in past I needed to mod my consoles to be able to use original voices, thankfully they are adding original voices to all switch games). Persona 5 for example is really awesome. They managed to keep the whole spirit of original script (even if some changes were made and they completely missed Futaba’s speech style). One of the best localization works I’ve ever seen. Same with Gal Gun 2 – then changed many minor things but still managed to keep original spirit, culture and atmosphere.
    Valkyria Chronicles 4 is okay too. Especially for this setting.
    For Xenoblade 2 they failed in literally any aspect of their work. This is just terrible and unacceptable. I sold my western version after 1 or 2 hours of play. I’m 100% sure that I wouldn’t “feel” and enjoy this game if I played it in English. They fucked up everything what they could and what made this game special for me. Changed names and nicknames were the last nail in the coffin.
    Seriously, they rewritten all personalities, changed the dialogue tone, made up many lines (especially Kizuna Talk scenes) added idiotic and unfitting jokes, completely changed the lore. It’s completely different game in the west and I’m not overreacting here. Yeah, main premise is kinda similar, but this game is all about character interactions and dialogue. This game is written extremely really well in Japanese. I can’t even say how well, it was just amazing. Direction was perfect too. I could listen hours of dialogue between characters in my party. All anime tropes were used perfectly. All Christian references were on point and I really enjoyed even small things like Dove when Hikari first used her power. Small details like this were everywhere. It was all completely lost in culturalization (I can’t really call it translation). I’m so glad that I decided to play it in Japanese. It was my first huge jrpg that I played fully in Japanese and I don’t regret any day when I was waiting for package with Japanese collectors edition, any minute spent with my dictionary and generally any hour spent on learing Japanese.
    It was so rewarding that I can’t describe it with simple words.
    And that’s all about script itself. Writing about the dubbing is pointless, because any dub for any media is always fake and completely inferior. Dub for this game doesn’t even deserve to be called “fake” and “inferior”. It’s literal garbage.


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