So Super Smash Bros. is threatening to make me hate Shulk.
Some bad experiences made me realize that he’s one of my least favorite characters to go up against. I’m not about to claim that he’s god-tier, but he’s got enormous range and respectable power even without his buffs. And his counter is a real problem; when you’ve got online players tossing out YOLO Falcon Punches, it means Shulk gets a high-powered attack that sweeps a huge chunk of the field and wrecks everyone nearby.
For me, Shulk ruins everything. Consistently. Well, maybe not as much as Lucina, but enough to make me groan whenever a Shulk pops up in a match. It’s pretty unfortunate, because his game of origin is utterly amazing -- as you probably know by now, making this post at large redundant. But with a sequel and a 3DS edition on the way -- and in an effort to talk about something positive instead of just going WAAAH WAAAH VIDEOGAMES MAKE ME SAAAAAAAAD -- here’s a chance to get in deep with one of the Wii’s finest.
Now. Let me say this to start: SPOILERS INCOMING. And now that that’s out of the way, listen to this song.
I’d argue that “You Will Know Our Names” is one of the key songs of Xenoblade Chronicles; that is, it carries within a four-minute loop the spirit and thrust of the story. This is something that I mulled over for a while, trying to find just the right word to sum up the experience (besides the obvious, “good”). I wanted to get all the characters and ideas and world under one umbrella.
And I went through a few potential choices. Discovery was one of them, and probably the strongest contender. Revenge might have worked as well. But I think there’s one word that not only encapsulates the game, but elevates it into something truly memorable -- and it’s as clear as the song of a thousand party wipeouts.
The spirit of Xenoblade Chronicles is triumph. In what capacity? Well, I’ll get to that. But for now, let’s move on to the star of the show.
Compared to plenty of other leads, Shulk is different. For starters, he’s actually a scientist, or at the very least an engineering student; that’s something you don’t see very often in games in general, let alone a JRPG. He’s made it his mission to figure out the secrets of the Monado, a massive red blade that’s one of the only weapons that actually works on the Mechon -- the robotic invaders that harass and threaten the human race.
He’s -- usually -- a calm, thoughtful person that asks the questions nobody else will, all in an effort to better humanity’s lot in life. He tends to get absorbed in his work, but he’s not without his humanity -- or the awkwardness that ensues whenever he’s brought out of his shell. He’s the type of person that’s fascinated by the world of Xenoblade -- as he should be, considering that the game takes place on a pair of colonized Gundams.
The hidden benefit to having Shulk be a man of science -- at least as much of a “man of science” one can be while atom-smashing robots with a laser sword -- is that science itself becomes a pervasive theme. And indeed, there are a lot of different aspects to science even outside of the context of the game. But for the sake of argument, let’s pare it down to some basic ideas:
1) Science is an understanding of facts about our world.
2) Science is an effort to understand the mechanics of our world.
3) Science is an application of processes and facts to alter our world.
Science -- the search for and application of knowledge -- is what helps one grow and even survive…and of course, helps them compete with or even surpass others. Remember, the Space Race was a thing that happened once upon a time, bringing with it not only rivalry and a frenzied rush to see the stars, but no shortage of other benefits -- some abstract, some tangible. The key word here, for better or worse, is progress.
The entirety of Xenoblade’s plot hinges on an arms race between Shulk and his party (and by extension the other biological races living on the Bionis, AKA Nature Gundam) and the robots that want to kill and harvest the humans (making a home on Robot Gundam, redundant as that sounds). Pretty much every event in this game is a goal post that just gets higher and higher the more you play.
At the start, Shulk and friends are struggling against one nasty Mechon; find a way to beat him -- albeit through cheap tactics -- and suddenly it’s revealed that he was just part of a mass-produced line, and you’re very nearly swarmed by a dozen more. Of course, before game’s end you’re able to take on the same model of enemy without too much difficulty, but that’s only because the real challengers just keep ramping up their power and their stakes. Each elite is such a massive leap in power and ability that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d switched to the wrong file in the middle of a play session.
The lynchpin of the heroes’ efforts and hopes is, of course, the Monado. Shulk may be a smart guy, but if he’s out to win the arms race, he needs time, facilities, and resources that the gang just doesn’t have. (And even if he did, he’d be dragging the story to a sloth’s pace). It’s explained that the Monado, for all its mysteries, works on a simple principle: it’s the manifestation of willpower that allows its wielder to change his future as he sees fit -- assuming he’s up to the task, of course.
Over the course of the game Shulk learns new skills with the Monado that help him overcome new challenges, allowing the heroes to keep on competing in the arms race. The basic ability is the Monado Buster, which turns the sword into a giant glowing robot-swatter; that’s eventually followed up by a party buff that lets them fight robots, a shield ability that protects them from certain attacks, a speed boost that…boosts speed, a debuffing Genmu Zero, and a big whompin’ area of effect attack. (And as I learned right before fighting the last boss, you can unlock even more Monado abilities. That’s what I get for playing without a guide, I guess.)
What I find extremely interesting about this whole Monado business is that for the longest time, it’s the one getting the credit for the team’s victories, not Shulk. The dialogue reflects this repeatedly; when there’s a job well done, it’s not Shulk that’ll get the credit, but the Monado. “Thanks to the Monado, we managed to pull that one off,” someone might say. Or maybe “As long as we got the Monado, there’s no way we’ll lose!”
The sad thing is that they’re absolutely right -- they ARE only winning and surviving because they’ve got the Monado. Everyone -- even Shulk -- is putting all their faith into a weapon far beyond their understanding, but they know there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ve become dependent on the weapon -- on the tool, a piece of technology and nothing more, in order to eke out even a basic existence.
And what’s even MORE interesting is that it’s not just Team Shulk who’s putting all their faith in their technology. Team Robot is doing the exact same thing. As it turns out, the Mechon that you’ve been going up against for the entire game are just the foot soldiers of Egil, part of the Machina race -- which is to the Mechonis what humans are to the Bionis. In a nutshell, his plan is to have all life on Bionis erased as a means to steal away the life energy the Bionis is using to sustain itself and reawaken (among other things, but I’ll get to that).
So basically, all the technology employed by the bad guys is an effort on Team Robot’s part to win the arms race and the war at large. And because of it, you can start to see the price one might pay for devoting themselves too passionately to a cause, especially to technology, and double-especially to tools of warfare. Team Robot is the literal embodiment of discarded humanity, showing what could happen if war and destruction (and in Egil’s case, revenge for past slights) become all that matter to a person. And it’s no accident; Shulk himself very nearly loses his humanity for the sake of his mission and his revenge, entrusting his very being to a weapon nobody knows a damn thing about besides “it’s red” and “it breaks robots”.
(Now that's a YOLO attack.)
Virtually every playable character (except the little fuzzball Riki, maybe) and dozens of NPCs have every reason to want revenge against the Mechon. Shulk wants revenge because a Mechon attack leaves Fiona KIA -- and with Fiona being Dunban’s sister, the war veteran is looking to bust some mechs to compensate. Reyn is a friend of Fiora and Shulk, and he’s eager to get some payback after Mechon ransack the trio’s beloved Colony 9.
Sharla wants revenge because of what the Mechon did to Colony 6, along with her lover Gadolt meeting a grisly fate by their hands. Melia wants revenge because…well, Melia has any number of reasons to hate the world and everyone in it, but let’s just say it’s because her dad bites it in a Mechon attack and leave it at that. Maybe the reason these people can become so comfortable with one another is because they all seriously fuckin’ hate robots.
But once again, as the lead character Shulk steps in to change the nature of the story -- and he doesn’t even need to swing the Monado to do so. In fact, if he DID swing the Monado, he’d just be making things worse. A big reveal of this game is that the Mechon -- at least those that
are important enough to the plot have faces -- are forcibly piloted by abducted humans, with Shulk’s main squeeze Fiora being one of the prime candidates.
As soon as Shulk finds out the truth, suddenly revenge doesn’t become as captivating an idea; he starts to realize the implications of any rash actions (something that he, in fact, has to teach Dunban before he can make a big mistake). It’s easy to assume that Shulk is forced to a halt because of the reveal that Fiora is alive, if turned into a cyborg against her will. On the other hand, I think the idea goes a few steps further. And to explain what I mean, I’ll have to invoke the specter of a very obscure franchise.
In all fairness, the only campaign I’ve played is the one in Black Ops 2 -- and even then not to completion, as I wisely decided to leave the suffering to my brother -- but apparently, one of the main complaints about the games is that you’re just expected to shoot the enemy without any thought or consideration of who they are. They’re just Russians, or terrorists, or “brown people”. It’s dehumanization -- and really, you can’t blame the devs for it.
It’s a lot easier to hate or kill someone when you don’t know who they are or what they’re all about. It’s better to imagine them as faceless. But by giving enemies in Xenoblade a face -- and standing in contradiction to everything the cast knows -- it’s a way to make them stop dead in their tracks. It’s information that changes the way the fight plays out, especially for Shulk and his Monado-brandishing antics.
Stuff like this makes me wonder: could it be that Xenoblade isn’t as much a fantastic romp across worlds as it is an allegory about the threat of our obsession and dependence on technology? Or if not that, then an allegory about the nature of war and the corruptive effect of competition rather than cooperation? I mean, sure, the party of six (and eventually seven once Cyber-Fiora joins the fight) is working by themselves for the most part, but that’s only because they’re a sort of “advance guard”.
It isn’t long before they’ve got every sentient species on the Bionis banding together for the sake of waging war against the Mechon. Hell, the game STARTS with a battle the year before the game’s main events are set in motion. Who’s to say that Xenoblade isn’t just one big war story taking place atop a pair of Gundams?
There’s no way that the undercurrents of thought in this game were an accident. The devs had something to say here, even if they didn’t say it quite as loudly as the theme of revenge or the wonders of the adventure proper. No, what’s on display in this game has to be a calculated effort -- loud enough to get a point across, but soft enough to keep everything moving at a brisk and almost-cheery pace. Well, usually. Some parts are more padded than others.
In any case, what’s in the game gets conveyed by all the characters; they’ll stop to consider things and lament over the occasional sour turn of events, but there’s never the wall-to-wall angst that most people expect out of JRPGs. Nor is there stupid-ass conflict between characters over trivial matters. These people are acting as friends and comrades, but they’re also acting like adults and thinkers; even Reyn, the guy who’s supposed to be the lunkhead of the group, is just as mentally and emotionally developed as the rest. He knows what’s going on, even if he’s too eager to spew meme-tastic lines.
But like I said, the real draw of this game -- the spirit that defines it and transforms so many of its elements -- is triumph. And indeed, triumph is bursting out of every orifice.
The game is constantly trying to top itself in terms of what it can throw at the cast, up to and including pitting your team against an enemy that’s likely the size of an actual Gundam. Not to mention that the Monado isn’t the be-all and end-all weapon; time and time again, the Mechon find ways to suppress, outmaneuver, or outright shut down the Monado and leave Team Shulk scrabbling for a reprieve.
You know they’re going to succeed eventually, but the game -- again, as it should -- puts up a convincing illusion of struggle and hopelessness. Time and time again I found myself thinking, “Oh man, how am I going to beat THAT?” Especially because, this being a video game, I couldn’t finish it without beating THAT. But eventually, it reaches a point where it just gets downright ludicrous.
Going to the REAL villain of the game from the fight that preceded it -- the guy with his own personal Gundam that can pilot the Robot Gundam to destroy Nature Gundam, mind -- is like a kid who just got his first tricycle being forced to race in the Indy 500. Let me see if I can explain this succinctly, and have it make sense even for those who’d need about seventy hours’ worth of play time to even begin to understand the context.
It turns out that Shulk has been dead for more than a decade but because he came in contact with the Monado he ended up becoming the retainer of of Zanza, the ascended being and effectively god who, along with Meyneth -- who resides in Cyber-Fiora for a large portion of the game -- created the world of Xenoblade and is virtually the embodiment of the Bionis, and plans to absorb all life on the Bionis to start the world over, all while simultaneously enacting his plan of destroying the Mechonis and everything on it -- something he’s more than capable of doing by virtue of not only having virtually all of the powers of the Monado, but after a clash with Meyneth/Fiora, ends up wielding TWO SOUPED-UP MONADOS at his leisure -- and ultimately Shulk is left for dead, the gang is stripped of its only viable weapon, they’re betrayed by the people they trust the most, an entire race is transformed into Zanza’s killing squad of antibodies, the Mechonis gets wrecked, Meyneth is lost, and within minutes Zanza’s forces are knocking on your door.
You know, usually in fiction, it’s not very often where you’re left thinking “There’s no way they can beat that!” If there really was no way, then the story would be over and it’d jump straight to the Bad End. Of course they’re going to get out of it. Of course they’ll win. That’s what it means to be a hero in a story -- overcoming the odds with skill and strength of heart.
But this game does things differently. I don’t think there’s ever been a game that not only managed to strip the characters of their hope, but also strip ME of my hope. After watching the string of cutscenes that revealed the truth, I felt something I hadn’t before from a game: it made me sick. Physically ill. I honestly didn’t believe that there was a way for Team Shulk to win, especially since Shulk himself had been shot in the back and left a lifeless husk. There was just no way to make a comeback. And without that feeling of hope, that ability to bring about the happy ending I’d expected of the game -- a privilege I’d taken for granted in any given game -- I felt like giving up.
I didn’t, of course. I still had a game to finish.
(I love this screenshot. What is that pose even supposed to be?)
If there’s one major problem I have with Xenoblade’s story, it’s that it falls on the old “Hey, guys! Let’s go kill God!” shtick. (Or if not God, then the religious figure du jour.) I mean, haven’t gamers done that enough? Haven’t games in general done that enough? It seems like such a cop out to make God or the pope a main villain, especially when so much of Xenoblade was about a struggle between opposing yet largely-equal forces. It’d be like having the Cold War come to an end because a new group came to earth riding on Voltron. So in a lot of ways, it’s something that threatens to break the war motif in two.
On the other hand, having the gang decide to take on God and win supports the idea of changing fate that’s so obvious I feel silly even mentioning it. The game is a blend of mundane concepts and fantastic elements, after all, and as such it’s hard to heap too much hate on matters of deicide. I’d argue that the game could have stopped after the final fight with Egil -- making sure to weave some of those plot twists toward him, of course -- but for what it’s worth, I suppose Zanza’ inclusion isn’t exactly a deal breaker. There’s been worse.
Besides, the endgame reveal shows that Zanza isn’t exactly the god he’s made out to be; like Team Shulk and Team Robot, he’s a victim of the obsession with technology, only taken to an even further extreme. Turns out Zanza was actually a scientist named Klaus who, once an experiment goes wrong, destroys his world and has to create a new one alongside Meyneth. (Side note: having beaten Xenosaga but not Xenogears, I’d like to think that XB is an extension of XS, wherein Klaus’ efforts pick up on Shion’s efforts in her game to try and find a solution to the end of the universe.)
So basically, Klaus becomes so enraptured by what he’s wrought that he ends up forgetting who he is and what he stands for. And more importantly, he’s the sort of person who believes that as long as he’s got the tech -- the power, be it from godhood or ownership of the Monados -- he can do whatever he wants. He’s right, and everyone else is wrong.
Except he isn’t. The thing that Shulk’s trying to prove -- that the game’s trying to prove -- isn’t just a matter of technological might making right. It’s the intent behind it. The willpower. That willpower is what creates the drive to make those machines in the first place. It’s the drive to create the means to change one’s fate. Instruments that facilitate change, and make it easier, sure -- but in the end, they’re just tools. Corny as it may sound, the real power comes not from within --and with it, even the lowliest of men can bring about true triumph.
So. At the end of the day, what else is there to say about Xenoblade?
I know it’s good. Others know it’s good. Hopefully by reading this post, you know it’s good. It’s common opinion -- if not fact -- that this is one of the Wii’s greatest games. It’s got more than enough content, creativity, depth, and even deviousness to satisfy any given player. If for some reason you haven’t played this game -- or even watched a playthrough on YouTube -- you owe it to yourself to do so. This game is something special.
It took me well over a year of on-again, off-again sessions to clear it. And I enjoyed virtually every second of it. It felt complete. Thoughtful. Bursting with energy, but restrained by wisdom and focus. In an industry full of misguided efforts, shenanigans, and all-out disappointments, to get a game this complete and well-crafted is a triumph.
So, what else is there to say? Well, I can think of one thing, at least.