Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platforms: PS3 (Exclusive)
The awkwardly-nicknamed “Tales of” series, frequently shortened to simply “Tales”, has a longstanding tradition of being one of the best JRPGs around. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t introduced to the series until later in the franchise, so my Tales credentials only go back so far as Tales of Symphonia. Since then, I’ve tackled the Symphonia sequel, Dawn of the New World, Tales of Vesperia, and the previous entry in the series, Tales of Graces f. Still, perhaps my lack of commitment to the series puts me at an advantage for the purposes of this review: I can offer an opinion from the perspective of a Tales novice/passive fan for those who want to jump into the series starting with the recently-released Tales of Xillia.
With that in mind, it’s important to note that, much like the Final Fantasy series, most Tales games take place independently of one another. Meaning that, with the few exceptions of direct sequels, the games stand on their own and are not part of any over-arching storyline. Tales of Xillia, for instance, is one of those exceptions; as we recently learned Tales of Xillia 2 will be getting the localization treatment and headed to the states sometime in the near future. Either way, it is the fine place to start for those who’ve never tried their hand before.
For veterans of the series, Xillia makes a couple changes to the formula that all end up being for the better. Right away, folks will notice they get to choose the central protagonist of the game: Offering the ability to witness events unfolding from the perspective of either young medical student Jude Mathis, or youthful-yet-surprisingly-capable Milla Maxwell. I say surprisingly not because she’s a woman (don’t take that sexist tone with me!), but rather because for a twenty-year-old girl, she kicks a whole lot of butt. Turns out it’s because she’s actually the lord of spirits, tasked with harmonizing the balance between humans, who call upon the aid of spirits using their mana to cast Arts – the game’s equivalent of magic – and spirits, who recharge their life force by absorbing human mana. It’s a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, until some ne’er-do-wells start upsetting the nature of life. Thus, Milla takes human form to intervene and set things right. Unfortunately for Jude, a promising honors student with a bright future ahead of him, he gets swept up in Milla’s dust storm, setting the stage for an intriguing narrative that may just be the most mature Tales story ever told.
Not mature in the “adult” sense, mind you, I mean in the sense that Xillia takes a much more intelligent approach to narrative than in previous games. I was genuinely surprised by how events played out. It’s not so much the plot twists that you don’t see coming, but rather the circumstances that surround the heroes and the specific journey they go on. The Tales series is no stranger to heavy-handed political and religious undertones, but Xillia genuinely constructs a political thriller that had me on the edge of my seat wondering whether or not the world was actually going to hell. For a game that not-so-subtly sneaks cat costumes and pervy jokes into the mix, it’s a welcome change of pace to find an engaging story that satisfies from start to finish. From a narrative standpoint alone, Xillia manages to make the entire 40+ hour – when including sub-events and side-quests – journey worthwhile.
Combat also receives a fresh coat of paint and a few new upgrades. Seasoned Tales gamers, or Star Ocean vets if you’re like me, will recognize what Namco dubs the “Linear Motion Battle System”; which is basically a fancy way of saying real-time battles taking place within a closed “battle arena.” Enemies appear on-screen during jaunts through exploration areas and combat is initiated upon contact. Engaging enemies head-on will trigger a business-as-usual face-off, but players can either gain or lose the initiative by surprising enemies from behind and vice versa. In Xillia, gaining the initiative in battle means the enemies start in a stunned state with half their health diminished, whereas enemies who gain the initiative begin battles having completely surrounded the party, putting players at a distinct tactical disadvantage. It’s a fair balance that encourages gamers to play it safe while exploring; walking by holding the “circle” button allows players to easily sneak up on opponents, yet the standard running speed will allow enemies to hear you coming from a few feet away.
The enhancement to the traditional battle system comes in the form of “Partner Linking”. This transforms the battle system into what Namco now calls the “Double Raid Linear Motion Battle System, or DRLMBS I guess? This allows the in-battle party of four to link up into separate teams of two, which each link partner providing a specific bonus to the other. Every link partner’s standard ability is to automatically defend the player character if an enemy is trying to attack them from behind, but each has their own unique ability as well. If playing as Jude, linking with Milla will cause her to paralyze enemies inside a barrier, taking away their ability to block/counter and thus giving Jude the opportunity to pull off a monstrous combo for maximum damage. Additionally, linked characters can pull off specific combos when partnered, which slowly fills a gauge to the left-center of the screen. Once either full or blinking, this gauge meter can be burned to pull off a combo attack with Artes that does solid damage and often places negative status effects on the enemy. Later in the game, these combo attacks can be further chained into additional Artes to create a visually splendorous flash of lights and sounds that will leave singular enemies and bosses brutalized. It’s a very satisfying system that’s structured so players naturally improve based on their own ability without feeling like the game is holding anyone’s hand.
With all the emphasis on linking, there are a number of customization options Xillia provides so that players can maximize their advantage in every battle. Aside from traditional tactics that can be set for each member of the party that directly effects their battle behaviors, there is also an Auto-Item system. This let’s players control which items they want party members to use in battle, the circumstances in which the item should be used, and how many can be used before stopping. Say for instance, you’d prefer the party only use a lesser healing item during field combat to preserve the better items for boss encounters. With Auto-Item, just select the preferred item, when to use it (such as “When a character falls below 40% health”,) and allow the item to be consumed until there is only X amount left. Viola, total control over how your inventory is used during battle at your fingertips.
The final addition to complete this tactical dream team of options is the ability to switch characters out on the fly in battle. Players can take up to four members into battle, but as is often the case, Tales games allow for at least six companions to adventure alongside the protagonists during the journey. With that in mind, if a particularly tough enemy is winning straight melee battles against the player character, a quick cycling through a paused menu will allow Jude/Milla to be swapped out for a more ranged-minded character instantly. This character swap can be done as often as desired without penalty, again emphasizing this idea of total tactical control over every battle.
As far as issues with the game, there isn’t a whole lot to dislike. Purists may scowl at the notion of a Tales game without an overworld, but the series has been experimenting with that since Graces f and it doesn’t really hamper the experience in any way. Fast travel is still possible, allowing access to any town/dungeon/special area, and transitions between exploration areas and towns are smooth, so there’s really no mechanical issue caused by the lack of an overworld. Some of the English voice work falls a little flat, and is occasionally annoying (that guy in every town yelling “Fresh Mutton!” needs to shut up. He‘s worse than the cabbage man from Avatar.); but as I mentioned, the narrative is strong and respectful to gamers as audience members, so there’s not too much handholding or exposition. Rather, the focus consistently falls on intriguing politics and concise character exploration.
The one “snag” during exploration segments is that both the player character and enemies have a tendency to get caught on the scenery when running too close to a wall or obstacle. It can get frustrating when sneaking up on an opponent who suddenly turns around to engage you, and then getting caught on a small twig or rock as you turn tail to retreat and try again; thus resulting in the enemy gaining the initiative in battle. There are also some dialogue issues that crop up due to the game’s ignorance of costume changes. Milla and Jude can wear alternative outfits, like the DLC costumes that come packaged with the various special editions of Xillia. The problem is when post-battle dialogue or conversations during exploration turn to comments about Milla’s short skirt or interesting fashion sense, even though I have her wearing full body armor. It’s not game breaking, and it’s a better alternative than not having alternate outfits that actually change the way characters look, but it’s still a silly nuisance.
For those who want to get lost in the world and don’t mind straying from the main campaign, there are plenty of side quests and sub-events to take part in before Xillia’s story comes to a close. Adding a cherry on top to these extra treats is the fact that the game has much more voiced dialogue than I can recall in previous Tales titles. The sub-events are often triggered by watching those patent-pending “Event” skits that are constantly popping up after every cutscene in Tales games, so pay attention to what characters are saying. After the skit, players can usually fast travel to a companion’s home town and earn additional scenes that further their backstories and highlight each character’s motivation for joining the adventure. On top of that, every town has numerous side-quests that can either be completed immediately, or are split into ongoing segments taking place over the course of the game, as narrative plot threads force the world to evolve. Aside from the typical rewards for completing quests, many side-quests and sub-events net players additional costume accessories to add a little visual flair to their ensemble. These particular interchangeable accessories, of which three can be equipped at a time, don’t have any stat benefits; but a nice pair of shades or a sewn-on plush dragon shoulder accessory never hurt anybody. It’s just one more way to make the player’s Xillia experience their own.
Another way to impact the world is by investing in shops. There are five distinct merchants in the world of Rieze Maxia: Items, Weapons, Armor, Accessories, and Food. Players can upgrade each of these shops, improving the quality of gear offered and earning discounts on goods, by either investing Gald (the Tales variant on currency) or donating items found during combat/exploration. Doing either will raise the level of the shop and earn players the aforementioned bonuses. It’s a fun twist on the classic “shops offer better items as you progress the game” dynamic by giving the player a little more agency and the satisfaction of improving their entire game world instead of just their character.
It didn’t take long for the Tales series to grow on me over this past generation. But even if Xillia had been my introductory to the series, it would’ve made an excellent first impression. With a strong character-driven narrative, fast-paced-yet-satisfying combat, and an emphasis on customization and making the experience your own, Tales of Xillia is a wonderful JRPG that not only proves the genre isn’t tired or dead, but is in fact still in a process of refinement and getting better all the time. I can’t recommend it enough for both long-time fans who can’t wait to revisit the familiar universe, and newcomers who want to get their RPG feet wet trying something satisfying without too much difficulty. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, Xillia is more than happy to meet you somewhere in the middle. Don’t miss the opportunity.
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