Nintendo’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has one deep, embarrassing, unforgivable flaw: it’s seemingly made for lonely, horny boys with no knowledge of how women’s bodies actually work.
Most of the game’s woman characters are oversexualized to an absurd degree. Cameras linger over body parts during cut scenes, zooming in on certain areas for no reason. Pyra, one of the game’s two female leads, has a build that’s practically impossible in nature and wears barely anything to cover it up. Kora, a kind of lightning-spewing alien cheerleader, always points her almost naked rear directly at the camera whenever she’s at rest. Brighid, a regal warrior with a calm and wise demeanor, looks like she came right off the set of a Game of Thrones porn parody. Newt, a serious-minded soldier with a pair of massive arms hovering above her own, wears a tiny string bikini. Dahlia, a character I never actually met during my time with the game, is perhaps the single most ridiculous character design for a woman in the history of videogames; she looks like the offspring of Roger and Jessica Rabbit, an illogically voluptuous rabbit-human hybrid with giant sandbag breasts that I have to assume also serve as her primary weapon in combat.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is full of grotesque distortions of women’s bodies. In appearance, if not personality, too many of the women in this game are cartoon variations on sex dolls, a comparison made explicit by one character’s home-made maid robot. This might be what some anime and videogame fans find sexy, but it makes it difficult to play an otherwise fine role-playing game, and impossible to recommend to people who aren’t already familiar with how women are often depicted in anime and games.
There’s a long tradition of this so-called “fan service” in anime, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2, like so many Japanese role-playing games, strives to replicate the anime experience in a game. There are certain things that might be accepted in one medium or for a specific culture that don’t work in other forms and places, though. The leering camera and uncomfortable combination of innocence and sexual suggestion (Pyra, especially, has the face and naiveté of someone not yet at adulthood) might be considered appropriate for anime culture in Japan, but it’s thoroughly off-putting to a general Western audience.
There’s nothing wrong with sexuality in games, or even games about youthful sexual awakenings. Two of the best games of the last few years deal with that very topic—if you haven’t yet, play Cibele and You Must Be 18 or Older to Enter. Catherine, which is being remade for modern systems, shows that even anime-influenced games can have a more nuanced take on sexuality that doesn’t just treat women as objects.
The problem with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is that it isn’t about sexuality, or character, or anything beyond transparent titillation. Pyra and Brighid aren’t sexual beings and don’t have any inner depth or desires. They’re virtual blow-up dolls whose physical characteristics are exaggerated to an embarrassing extent because the designers of this game assume it’ll attract the young male audience they’re targeting. It’s shameless fan service, using sex solely for marketing, and reducing women to mere eye candy. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is about as guilty of this as any other game in recent memory. It shows no respect for most of its woman characters or for its audience.
This pathetic pandering undermines much of what’s legitimately charming about this game. It’s a design choice that is guaranteed to alienate potential players. I hope there aren’t people out there that would buy Xenoblade Chronicles 2 exclusively because of how the women are depicted, with no interest in the action or storytelling, so cutting back on the egregious cheesecake doesn’t seem like a decision that would hurt sales. It would let people who can’t tolerate that kind of childishness experience the first major JRPG for the latest Nintendo console, and also wouldn’t perpetuate stereotypes that both the anime and videogame industries should be consciously trying to put to bed.
Instead Xenoblade zealously embraces the concept of fan service without reservation. The result is a line-up of characters that depict women’s bodies in monstrous and disrespectful ways. Some of the worst character designs the medium has ever seen drags down a videogame that otherwise has a lot to offer, and also keeps alive some of the worst beliefs about games and the people who play them.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.