Welcome to the Character Column! Each week, I’ll be taking a look at a different character from Nintendo’s long and esteemed history, and I’ll analyze what makes them interesting, nuanced, or just plain memorable. Whether they’re heroes, villains or NPCs, I’ll explain why they deserve respect or love from the fanbase and a place in video game history.
Last week, we covered the legendary Samus Aran, one of gaming’s greatest. And this week, we’ll be talking about another one of my favorites – the wielder of the Monado, Shulk.
JRPGs are known for having expansive, colorful casts of characters, but there are very few I’d say I could talk about every party member extensively for hours. Only three really jump to mind in that respect – Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and my personal favorite, Xenoblade Chronicles. Nearly every plot important character has depth and a well rounded personality, flaws and aspirations, hopes and desires. And Shulk is no exception – as the game’s main character, he’s not only one of the best in the game, but one of the finest protagonists the medium has to offer.
Warning: Massive Xenoblade Chronicles spoilers to follow! Read at your own risk!
Going against the grain
Generally, JRPG protagonists tend to follow two sort of archetypes: the young, plucky village youth who goes off on an adventure, and the more brooding, antisocial type popularized by Cloud Strife (who, ironically, didn’t really fall into the archetype himself).
Shulk follows neither of these cliches, instead being a rather fresh main character – a young, geeky, pleasant, and somewhat awkward engineering student. The very first thing we see him do in game is rifle through an old pile of Mechon parts looking for scraps, expositing on what he finds as he comes across it. While he has several friends and is relatively popular among the citizenry of his hometown, Colony 9, he also holes himself up in his lab a fair amount and has difficulty expressing his feelings for his childhood friend, Fiora. It’s pretty rare to see a nerd as a protagonist, but it helps make him stand out more against the flood of carbon copies. And Shulk’s intelligence doesn’t derive from his combat abilities, either; he’s shown to be quite capable with a weapon from the outset, even before wielding the Monado.
Shulk’s somewhat peaceful life comes to a crashing halt, however, as the robotic Mechon invade Colony 9. Shulk rushes to his hometown’s defense, coordinating strategies with his friends and fighting enemies with a relatively cool head. Even when he suddenly picks up the Monado and gains the ability to see the future, he remains calm in his efforts, working to repel Mechon without panicking. But that all changes when he finds his attacks completely ineffective against a giant enemy known as Metal Face, who – in one of the greatest cutscenes in the game, nay, the medium – kills Fiora.
All of Shulk’s composure is lost in an instant, as he struggles to his feet and lets out a cry of bloodcurdling rage – “I’ll kill you!” Raw emotion permeates the scene (thanks in large part to Shulk’s excellent voice actors in both English and Japanese, Adam Howden and Shintaro Asanuma), and ultimately his assault is futile, as Metal Face leaves before Shulk can have his revenge. Thus, Shulk’s goal is set – to travel to Mechonis and end the Mechon threat once and for all, avenging his lost love in the process. But as we’ll see, not everything goes as expected…
For the first half or so of Shulk’s journey, not much of his quest changes. While his initial fury subsides, and he quickly grows more proactive in protecting his friends and acting on his visions. With the help of Reyn, Dunban and the rest of his companions, Shulk works to actively change the future of those around him, unlocking more powers of the Monado along the way. But even so, he sometimes fails to make great change, which causes a great internal strife within him – everybody he fails to save reminds him of Fiora, and her loss still weighs heavily on his heart.
Shulk’s anger also slowly, but surely grows. He encounters more Faced Mechon, and upon encountering Metal Face again (who taunts him and his loss) he flies into another bout of anger. Both of these conflicts – his desire for his revenge and his failure to protect Fiora – come to a head on Prison Island, where he can’t save the High Entia Emperor and viciously lashes out against a silver-plated Mechon… only to discover the last person he expected inside. Fiora appears to be alive, and flies off, leaving Shulk with… confused emotions, to say the least.
This marks a turning point for Shulk’s character development. Not only has he found that his main purpose for revenge has dissipated, but that the very things he swore vengeance against, Faced Mechon, have humans – er, Homs, inside. Shulk, as previously established, is a very kind person, and the thought of killing living things horrifies him. It’s also a turning point in the depiction of Mechon in general, as they slowly gain more human and lifelike characters and traits. This leads to Shulk beginning to question his quest’s purpose, but he knows one thing: he needs to find Fiora again.
This begins Shulk’s temperament of his desire for revenge. He stops Dunban from killing Mumkhar in Sword Valley, knowing that despite Mumkhar’s evil ways, he’s still a person. Upon encountering the Machina, a race of machine people on the Fallen Arm, he listens to their plight and heavily weighs their request to kill Egil, who’s the mastermind behind the Mechon attack on Bionis. And along the way, he finds Fiora, and is much bolder with his feelings than before, going so far as to kiss her in an attempt to revive her (okay he was doing CPR or giving her water BUT STILL). While Shulk’s struggles continue, he’s clearly developed along the way, and is of much calmer temperament than before. Though he does still yell a lot. (If I had a nickel for every time he shouted Fiora’s name dramatically, I would have, like, a couple of dollars.)
All of this comes to a head once more, this time in the Mechonis capital of Agniratha. Shulk is poised to kill Egil after much conflict and loss, which would thereby end the the war between the titans once and for all, and there’s even a voice screaming in his ear calling for execution, but Shulk refuses.
Egil: “Why didn’t you do it? Killing me would have saved your world.”
Shulk: “I’ve forgotten all about that.”
Egil: “Forgotten about it?”
Shulk: “I realised that we both share the same pain. Egil, I don’t have any reason to kill you.”
Egil: “Even if you do not, I still do!”
Shulk: “I know. But I won’t do it.”
Egil: “If you do not kill me now, my blade will annihilate every last one of your people. Even then?!”
Shulk: “I can’t kill you, but I can stop your blade. And I’ll do it. Over and over again, until… we understand each other. OK?”
He realizes that he and Egil are very similar, both setting out on a quest for revenge after losing loved ones, both being blinded by hate, both wanting to see justice for what they’ve lost. Empathy is the crux of Shulk’s character here, as he’s completed his emotional journey, going from peaceful days to a vengeful quest to at last mutual understanding.
In most games, this would probably be the end. However…
Shulk’s father figure, the coy Dickson, shoots him in the back, sucks out Shulk’s soul, and reveals the truth: Shulk actually died 14 years earlier during an expedition, and only survived because he was chosen by the true wielder of the Monado, the evil god Zanza, as a vessel, but now Zanza has the power he requires (the Monado of Mechonis) and thus leaves Shulk’s body to seize both Monados and basically screw everything on both titans over, leaving Shulk for dead and the party in turmoil.
So yeah, fairly minor plot twist.
This is actually fairly ingenious for several reasons. For one, it was never particularly clear why Shulk in particular could wield the Monado without succumbing to injury like Dunban. His powers had also been changing once he had reached Mechonis, and a voice in his head urged him to kill Egil before he stopped himself at the last moment. It’s a very well foreshadowed reveal, one that makes playing through the game again and spotting all the hints pointing towards it very nice.
So Shulk, being dead and all, wanders through the void of space, wondering just what the purpose of his existence was. Was he just a puppet of Zanza, and unknowing wielder of his power with nothing to speak of for himself? Alvis, the enigma (there’s no other way to describe him succinctly), encourages him to come back, as Shulk does have his own self – his own friends, his own life, his own power. Thus Shulk returns from death for the second time in his life, ready to stick it to Zanza and his disciples once and for all.
Thus Shulk ascends to Prison Island with his friends, taking out baddies and villains with newfound conviction. He confronts and defeats Dickson in an emotionally charged battle, as Shulk eventually witnesses the death of his foster father. Then they go to outer space (all JRPG final areas must either be in space, an evil tower/castle, or a placed filled with crystals, as required by law) to confront Zanza himself. Shulk’s power to see the future is his own, not the Monado’s which baffles and enrages Zanza. Blessed by the spirit of the Monado itself, Shulk at last vanquishes the god.
Then, Shulk is floating in space, being told of the creation of Bionis and Mechonis by Alvis. Shulk, having defeated Zanza, is the new god of the world, and may shape creation in any way he wishes. Of course, Shulk (and his comrades) realize that he can’t and shouldn’t be a god – he’s just a humble engineer who, by the whims of fate, ended up where he was. Shulk fulfills his promise to Meyneth, the god of Mechonis, by creating a world which needs no gods, where Homs, Nopon, High Entia and Machina can all live in peace. And thus he does so.
What the future holds
Without getting too much into religious implications (as it’s a touchy subject), this ending for Shulk and co. reflects the thematic core of the game: that fate is unknowable, and yet conquerable. Shulk has spent his entire journey battling the emotions within himself, the eternal feud between the two titans, and the ever apparent destiny that he is able to foresee. Against all odds, he succeeded when everything seemed to work against him – he changed not only his own fate, but the fate of the world at large.
Some characters try too hard to be either awesome or flawed, and fail in the process. Shulk succeeds both at being a humanistic young man who encounters both internal and external troubles in the world around him while being cool in his own right. On one hand, he has clairvoyance, a giant laser sword, and has come back from the dead twice. On the other, he’s encountered the darkness within himself, struggled to determine his identity and what’s right in the world, and relinquished godlike power for the good of the world. While this piece glossed over or outright skipped some details simply due to how massive Xenoblade as a whole is, there’s no doubting it – Shulk is a great character, one who deserves far more than the memes Smash Bros. bequeathed unto him.
That’s all for this week’s Character Column! We’ll be taking a break next week for PAX West, but be sure to tune in the week afterwards, where we talk about the edgiest prosecutor around. Until then!
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“I don’t know what the future holds. But that means I can imagine the possibilities. We can achieve anything we put our minds to.”
– Shulk, during the game’s epilogue