Wikipedia defines “comfort food” as a “traditionally eaten food (which often provides a nostalgic or sentimental feeling to the person eating it)” Everyone has their own comfort food: for some immigrants, it’s food that reminds them of their homeland, and for some people, it’s simply a dish that their parents used to make for them when they were a kid. Personally, my comfort food are gorditas from Taco Bell: the fluffy tortilla, the day old vegetables, the grade F mystery meat… I know eating it is probably terrible for me, but there’s just something about it that always manages to satisfy, no matter how many times I have it. Whether it actually tastes good doesn’t matter — there’s just something about Taco Bell food that reminds me of my teenage years, where me and my friends would grab some to go after school, then head back to somebody’s house to spend the afternoon playing the original Halo or Super Smash Bros. Melee. It’s not the best food, but it is the food that makes me the happiest.
I think the idea of comfort food can also be applied to games as well: there’s just certain games that will never get old for some people, no matter how many times they play them. I’m not the type of person who will generally watch a movie more than twice or read the same book over again, but I routinely find myself revisiting favoritess on a regular basis: I still spend a few hours playing Phantasy Star Online every few months, and I usually spend a good chunk of my summer vacations replaying one of the old Legend of Zelda‘s. Just like comfort food, there’s just something undeniable satisfying and comforting about revisiting these games’ worlds and getting to experience them again. Unlike passive media like movies or books, video games are experiences that the audience takes an active role in, so as long as the core experience remains entertaining or enthralling, why wouldn’t you want to go back and do it again? Athletes have fun playing the same sport over and over again: the experience may be slightly different each time, but the core game remains the same. I feel the same way about certain video game franchises: some people my criticize them for sticking to their established formulas too closely, but I’ll play every Zelda, Ratchet and Clank, Mega Man, or Halo sequel they make as they can keep the quality consistent.
Namco’s Tales Of series of RPGs is also one of those franchises. Objectively speaking, the dozen or so “main” games in the series aren’t all that different from each other — they all feature variations of the same battle system, they frequently recycle the same character archetypes and plot twists, and some of them even look the same thanks to the series’ consistent art direction — yet despite the fact that each episode in the series usually only represents a minor improvement over the previous game, I find myself buying each new release on day one and still manage to enjoy the hell out of it. Tales of Xillia is the epitome of this sentiment: it doesn’t do much that hasn’t been done before in older RPG’s, but it does most things so well and it’s just so much fun to play that you probably won’t care about how derivative it is.
Tales of Xillia features two central protagonists: the determined Milla, who is the buxom, physical manifestation of the game world’s equivalent of Jesus (yes, you read that right, and yes, it is an accurate description of her,) and Jude, an idealistic young med student who is also surprisingly good at hand-to-hand combat. As with past Tales games, the characters in Xillia definitely fit into standard character archetypes — Jude goes through the usual J-RPG hero story arc of learning to believe in himself, while Milla’s naivete about the human world is often played up for some predictable laughs — but despite reusing some tired tropes, the cast still manages to be lovable, mostly thanks to the series’ trademark “skits” (optional conversations that randomly pop-up during gameplay,) that help to flesh out the characters and often feature some genuinely laugh out loud dialogue.
Tales of Xillia’s narrative is generally light in tone, and is thankfully free of the juvenile angst and pretentious nihilism that most people have unfortunately come to associate with post-FF7 J-RPG’s. The game has its fair share of dramatic moments, sure, but it always quickly bounces back with a well timed joke or prat fall. It’s a good thing that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, because the game’s humor and light tone helps draw attention from how cliched the main story is. Milla and Jude’s adventure starts off quietly enough, but it eventually escalates into a conflict that will determine the fate of the entire world — basically, the set-up is similar to almost every other RPG ever, and if you’ve ever played a Japanese RPG or watched a shonen anime before, you’ll likely see every plot twist coming hours before it actually happens. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the central conflict that makes up most of the second half of the game closely mirrors the plot line of one of the previous Tales games, and some of the characters’ personal story arcs are almost identical to older characters from previous Tales games as well. The predictable nature of the main story would be a deal breaker for most other RPG’s, but the lovable characters and fun, carefree tone of the dialogue do a lot to save what would have otherwise been another cliched J-RPG narrative.
Visually, Tales of Xillia is sort of a mixed bag — the impact of the game’s beautiful art direction is lessened somewhat by some low-poly environments and some pixelated or blurry textures. The whole look of the game is rather inconsistent: one area will feature breath-taking vistas and an intricate amount of detail, while the next area will look like it was pulled out of a Dreamcast launch title. The Tales series has never pushed graphical limits, but even compared to other games in the series, Xillia often fails to impress: Tales of Xillia is the first Tales game to be created specifically for the PS3, but it honestly doesn’t look that much better than last year’s Tales of Graces f (which was a port of a Wii game,) or the Xbox 360’s Tales of Vesperia, a game which is almost five years old at this point. The game’s colorful art helps cover up a lot of its technical shortcomings, but the game’s presentation is definitely uneven; it’s not an ugly game by any means, but it’s certainly not pushing the PS3 hardware in anyway.
PROTIP: If you’re playing the game and the battles don’t look like this, you’re doing it wrong and you kind of suck. Not just at the game, but at life in general.
Of course, as with previous Tales games, the real highlight of Xillia is its battle system. You are once again given direct control over the character of your choice (the rest of your party is controlled by the game’s surprisingly capable AI,) and instead of picking actions from a menu or simply mashing out the same three hit combo over and over again like you would in most other RPG’s, Xillia’s excellent combat system most closely resembles a fighting game — each character has their own signature moves which are executed via specific button presses, and you can chain those moves together into combos. Monsters are visible on the overworld map and in dungeons, so you can run and avoid battles if you’d like, but the fights in Xillia were so much fun that I was actively seeking out more battles to participate in. As your characters level up, you unlock new moves and gain the ability to extend your combos even further, so despite the high volume of battles that the game was tossing at me, I never got tired of fighting and the combat system never felt like it was getting old or repetitive. There’s just something deeply satisfying about side-stepping an enemy’s attack at the last second, and then using the opening to unleash a perfectly executed 20 hit (or if you’re really good, a 100 hit) combo on him to end the battle.
New to Xillia is the ability to “link” your character with one of the AI controlled party members. Linking is optional, but there’s no reason to ever not be linked in battle: characters linked with each other gain stat bonuses from each other, and also gain access to some special abilities and attacks that they wouldn’t be able to use solo: for instance, linking up with Milla let’s her bind enemies in place so you can more easily unleash long combos on them, while linking up with the old butler Rowen allows you to sap an enemy’s magical strength. You also gain access to powerful super attacks that combine the special “artes” of each character. The link system subtly but meaningfully changed how I played Xillia from previous Tales games: in every Tales game since Symphonia, I’ve usually settled into a standard party made up of the characters that I was the most comfortable with; in contrast, in Xillia I was constantly swapping party members in and out in order to take advantage of their linked skills and abilities. The additional layer of strategy added by the link system means that no character in the game is ever redundant or useless: everybody has their purpose in battle and I found myself constantly changing my active party’s roster.
Also new to Xillia is the Lillium Orb system, which allows you to customize your characters to a far greater extent than previous Tales games. It sort of works like the Sphere Grid system from Final Fantasy X: as you level up, you earn points that you can use to activate nodes on the Lillium Orb’s spiderweb like network of upgrades, each of which contains a small stat boost or a new skill or ability. As with most RPG’s, the characters have pre-defined roles that they’re best suited to: Alvin the mercenary will always work best as a front-line tank, but the Lillium Orb allows you to customize him to maximize his natural brute strength, or minimize his weaknesses to turn him into a sort of jack-of-all-trades character. There’s a limit to how much you customize your characters, obviously: no matter how many points you put into Elize’s physical attack stat, she’s always going to be a mage and thus better suited for long-range combat and support, but despite that, the Lillium Orb system succeeds in making you feel like you’re actually guiding your characters’ growth instead of simply grinding and watching their experience levels go up.
GAMES ARE SERIOUS BUSINESS
Make no mistake though, the new systems added to Tales of Xillia simply refine the existing Tales formula and stop short of revolutionizing it; the core experience still hasn’t changed much since 2003’s Tales of Symphonia. If you didn’t like any of the previous Tales games, chances are you still won’t like this one: like I said, the game’s story is still content to recycle anime and J-RPG tropes ad-nauseum, and if you somehow don’t enjoy the series’ trademark, action based battle system (which, speaking as a fan of these games, is honestly more of a failing on your part than the game’s,) you really won’t enjoy Xillia, as the game is once again carried by its excellent and addictive combat mechanics.
With that said, if you like the Tales series (and you honestly should,) you will definitely love Xillia: some thematic unevenness aside, this is easily the most polished and well designed game in the series so far. Namco has managed to take the formula that was established in earlier games in the series and has streamlined and refined it to near perfection. I enjoyed Vesperia and Graces f well enough, but I had my doubts about Namco’s ability to deliver another Tales game that could top Tales of the Abyss (which many fans — myself included — previously regarded as the pinnacle of the series) — those doubts have been quashed completely, as I can honestly say that Xillia is now my favorite game in the series.
If you’re new to the Tales series, then this is the perfect time to get started, as Xillia does a good job of easing you into its complex battle system and is better paced and balanced than the older games; there’s less random difficulty spikes and the in-dungeon puzzles are far less obtuse.
Like a proper Zelda, Halo, or Ratchet and Clank sequel, Tales of Xillia doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t fix what wasn’t broken. It simply provides more of an unmistakably satisfying experience, free of pretense. It’s the type of light, simple game that will be overlooked on most critics’ Game of the Year lists in favor of headier, bigger budget titles which supposedly prove that games are Art with a capital “A.” It’s not original, it’s not innovative, and its cute but ditzy story certainly won’t challenge you on a philosophical level, but it doesn’t need to — Tales of Xillia is simply a fun, light hearted adventure that you’ll be glad you experienced. It’s the epitome of gaming comfort food: familiar, but intensely satisfying.
Final Score: 9.0/10