I’ve always gravitated to genre stories about heroes that are defined by their power to persist. Peter Parker, famously raising himself out from under a pile of rubble in Amazing Spider-Man #33, was burned into my mind as a kid, and Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Clayton Cowles’ Mister Miracle is one of my all time favorites for a similar reason. So recently, at a low point in my life, it makes sense to have gravitated to another.
The recent release of sci-fantasy JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles 3—the third in developer Monolith Soft’s latest continuation of the “Xeno” franchise that also includes the Xenogears and Xenosaga games—was something I spent much of this year already looking forward to, but even more so after entering a months-long depressive episode that, the week before it came out, led to me finally being diagnosed with clinical depression. As someone who’s struggled with their mental health since childhood, games have always been a respite from my thoughts, especially JRPGs. Who wouldn’t love the chance to team up and use the power of friendship to kill a god, or even esoteric concepts like the embodiment of despair, as a power fantasy in a state like that?
Frankly, that’s what I expected out of Xenoblade as I eagerly booted it up—great characters, more UK accents than you could shake a giant anime sword at, and the chance to run around beating things up until I went and killed god. And while it’s a little too fresh to say if that’s what I got from it without delving into spoilers, narratively speaking what I took from it most was a central thesis that I needed to hear as I began to grapple with my own mental health properly for the first time in years.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3, as a game that can take tens, if not over a hundred, hours to beat, is about a lot of things one expects out of the Japanese role-playing game as a genre is at this point. You’ve got a group of plucky young upstarts: six artificially bred soldiers, evenly split into hailing from the opposing kingdoms of Keves and Agnus. Their world, Aionios, is locked in a perpetual war where each side slays the other to harvest its life essence for settlement-sustaining “flame clocks” that literally tick down the amount of life itself as they’re powered. They realize they’re trapped in a cycle of conflict by greater powers and rebel against it. There’s shadowy, cackling villains operating behind the scenes beyond those kingdoms, working for the True Big Bad. There’s a lot of talk of friendship and overcoming differences together, and occasionally, the power of said friendship does let your heroes fuse together and form a giant robot gestalt called an Ouroboros, to do lots of pretty super attacks laden with giant numbers. So far, so very JRPG.
But what struck me most about Xenoblade as I dug into it, beyond the endearing relationships between its main characters or the exciting, overwhelming spectacle of its combat mechanics, was just how much its story of defiance was also a deeply human one about accepting, processing, and moving on from great grief and trauma. Noah, Mio, Eunie, Lanz, Taion, and Sena all slowly open up over the course of the game as they come to trust each other—former foes turned surprising allies linked by the power of the Ouroboros—and reveal to the player and to their friends the hardships that have defined their short lives in a forever war. Moments of vulnerability become moments of healing, because they are not just acknowledged, but specifically acknowledged as events in the past, and are things that can be moved on from as they all look to their futures.
The fight for a future the heroes of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 struggle for is a deeply personal one—their existence as artificial soldiers in the Kevesi/Agnian conflict is defined by what is called their “terms,” their bodies designed to break down after 10 years if they’re not slaughtered in battle before then. The chance to see a life beyond what was bred into them as the point it would be definitively over is what drives each member of the party, especially Mio, who is the “oldest” and just months from her seeming expiration date. I couldn’t help, trying to get even a little respite from my own struggles, in seeing a parallel. Being diagnosed with depression was both a huge relief and, wrongly or otherwise, a source of embarrassment. On the one hand, thank god, there was something actually wrong with me, and I could start being treated for it. On the other, oh god, there was something actually wrong with me. My joy was intermingled with a frustrated shame—I’d admitted a vulnerability, exposed a flaw, said but not quite accepted that I wasn’t okay.
And so as I pored over the nitty gritty mechanics of Xenoblade—leveling up classes, doing sidequests, exploring its vast world and having its incredible soundtrack seared into my ears—to try and escape reconciling those feelings, the setbacks its heroes endured time and time again as the story progressed stuck with me. Each time Noah and his friends get knocked down, proverbially or otherwise, they rise again, leaning on each other because they now realize they don’t have to rely on just themselves to persist—it’s only together that they can achieve their goal of shaping their fates, both holistically in how they lean on each other as friends and literally in the power of their gestalt forms.
“Sometimes, you might run astray,” Noah muses in a climactic moment. “You’ll stop, maybe cry in frustration. But you know, that’s all right. For the roads they go on without end, so look up, face forward towards your chosen horizon, and just walk on.” It was a message I needed to hear even as I sought a respite from my life in the world of Aionios about where I was at in my own journey with my mental health. My diagnosis wasn’t the end point, but a stop in a long journey where I can stay and process it as long as I need to—but also a place I can look back to as I pick myself up, and keep on walking the road I’ve forged for myself.
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