Tales of Xillia – If It Ain’t Broke… (PS3)

Few JRPG series are as long-standing or beloved as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest… but among that number stands the Tales series. Tales of Xillia, the latest in that venerated series, hopes to continue upon the legacy of the previous games. While the Tales series is a childhood favourite of many people, Xillia is only the second game in the series I’ve had the chance to play – with Tales of Graces f being the first, which I have already reviewed.

Xillia tells the story of a beautiful world where an almost symbiotic relationship between spirits and humanity allows for magic to be part of every day life. The story starts with a chance meeting between an enigmatic young woman and a physician in training… and, naturally, life will never be the same for either of them.

The Skies of Fennmont

Tales of Xillia, while clearly designed a few years back, is a very pretty game. This is thanks to the unbelievable art design. The more I think about and play the game, the more impressed I am with the design. You might think ‘well there are a lot of bland environments too’ but it feels very calculated. You go through enough of the ordinary that it makes the amazing skyscapes and background design of places like Fennmont that much more impressive. If every environment was designed to be a masterpiece of beauty, it’d get tiresome. It’s impressive that they managed to balance the mundane with the fantastic… and the best environments were so gorgeous that I could literally sit there and stare at them.

The character models, sadly, show the game’s age. Outside of the amazing – but far too sparse – anime-inspired cinematics, the character models are nowhere near up to the par set by this generation. There’s just no denying that. Fortunately, the more cartoony style they’ve used does age fairly well. And, distracting you from the poor monster and character models are the exciting and shiny ability animations. Who doesn’t love shiny?

It’s disappointing that the music doesn’t strike the same balance. Most of the music is, while somewhat pretty, hardly memorable or impressive. The song playing during the opening theme is an obvious exception, which was an amazing track and worthy of every bit of praise I can give it.

A Tale of Two Protagonists

The Queen and the Doctor

The game gives you an interesting choice right at the beginning… which character do you want to be your main character. You can choose to play as Milla Maxwell, Lord of Spirits, or Jude Mathis, a young doctor. Unlike most games that let you pick your main character… this game isn’t afraid to not tell you the whole story. And I don’t just mean the opening sequences, although Xillia does slightly differentiate those… there are several – in a few cases quite lengthy – sequences that you only get to see if you picked that character as your main at the start. There was one point that I completed an hour-long sequence where the party was separated only to be reunited with them to find out that several conflict arcs had been resolved without me.

Familiarity

Each of the characters in this game are clearly intended to be variants of the standard anime/JRPG character archetypes. We’ve seen these dynamics dozens of times before – from the childhood friend with the seemingly unattainable crush on the main character to the magical prodigy with no clue how she does it – but despite that, none of these characters feel like they’ve been done before.

Rather than feeling tired and overdone… they just feel familiar. They feel like you’re meeting an old friend that you didn’t realize you’d missed… and then learning something new about him that you’ve never known before. Not only that, but you really get to know these characters through their trials. And, more importantly, they come to know themselves. These characters build over time. It feels natural, and it feels believable. You throw 6 people who, for the most part, don’t know each other together… and unlike so many games where they act like they’ve known each other their whole lives you actually get to experience these characters coming together and getting to know each other. The skits and optional cut-scenes show Jude overcoming his hesitance, Milla beginning to learn what it is to be human, and Elize getting a chance to actually be a little girl. It’s fantastic…

And the voicework really sells it. I was blown away by Milla’s voice actress… this is a character who isn’t human, who doesn’t have the same things influencing her that a normal person does, who is very objective focused and isn’t emotional. This had to be a very difficult character to voice, but her voice actress sells it, and even manages to make her character development show through the way she forms her sentences, the way she interacts with others. There wasn’t a single voice that I felt was out-of-place, and while Teepo was incredibly annoying, he was meant to be.

On Stage

The key to the Tales series story development is that they give you control of the story. Not in the sense of controlling its outcome, but rather controlling how much of the story you get. You get enough to understand the story and appreciate the characters from the core story events… but there are literally hundreds of optional story events that offer character development, side stories, and even just increased explanation of the core story that you can find if you’re looking. I do think some of these skits should have been mandatory events, since the information provided by some of them are of almost paramount importance…

One of the crucial failures of the story is that it does a terrible job of giving you the basics – those pieces of information that you absolutely and utterly need in order to truly understand the world this takes place in come much later on. The silver lining? The early parts of the game focus on the characters which gives you enough of a foundation for the rest of the game to build on. Picking Milla as your main character will leave you feeling very confused in the early portions as Jude’s story does provide a bit more information about the world itself.

Everything’s Better Together

Xillia offers a combat system that tries to straddle the line between a brawler and a traditional RPG. A daunting task, but one the tales series is known for succeeding at. Their unique take on RPG battling systems creates a high paced distraction from the slower pace the story takes, and it strikes a fine balance. The combat system offers unique mechanics to each character, and you can choose to control any character you want in combat, with your other three party members acting according to an almost overly simplistic AI setup. You can customize their behaviors a bit, but not nearly enough for my liking.

The game revolves around a mechanic called ‘Linking’ where you pair up your character with another character and the two work together in battle. Each character has a special ability they only use when linked, and there are combo attacks available that chain off of your primary abilities that can only be performed when linked with specific people. It’s a good system, but it has two big flaws. First, they didn’t implement nearly enough combo attacks for any combination except the two main characters. Pair yourself with anyone other than them and you’ll be scrounging to find even a few, whereas there are literally more than you can possibly use for the Jude and Milla. The second problem… the game forces you to engage in solo combat numerous times. In a game like this, being forced to go it alone is exceedingly frustrating. You lock yourself out of so many key mechanics when you’re stuck alone, the combat just becomes exceedingly boring.

Sadly the game’s progression system offers little meaningful advancement once you get into it. The Lilium Orb and Skill Systems, while they do offer some interesting bonuses and effects, the lack of customization or meaningful choice render it nearly meaningless. You see, the Lilium Orb is pretty and appears to offer you a deep level of customization… but in the end, you basically just fill in all the blanks and move on to the game.

Final Thoughts

I haven’t played enough Tales games to know if this is standard, but the story of this game was remarkably reminiscent of the previous Tales game I played, Tales of Graces f. Obviously the characters are different and the story isn’t identical… but there are some truly remarkable similarities.

Additionally, the game features a fascinating merchant system where you can donate resources to the various shops to open up new items. This does a few things, some good and some not so good. First, it gives you motivation to look everywhere and collect everything: you never know when the item you get from a random bag is going to be really good for leveling the shop… but you’ll also never get the feeling of being ‘caught up’ on gear. As soon as you can afford to buy the next tier of gear, another will become available to you. Once you’re ready to buy that one, you’ll open up another, possibly another two. It removes the sense of accomplishment of having the best available gear, but at the same time adds motivation to always be looking for more. Hard to say if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s certainly interesting.

Finally, this game features one of the most unique New Game Plus carryovers I’ve ever seen. For every in-game accomplishment you successfully complete – which range from making use of the various character’s unique mechanics to discovering items and upgrading the shops – you earn points. When you start a New Game Plus, you get to purchase special effects with these points that include carrying over items or levels, increased experience or money growth and other more interesting effects. It allows you to create a unique experience for yourself when you try to go through a second time to experience the other half of the story, and it’s a really brilliant way to spice things up.

Overall

Tales of Xillia is probably the best console JRPG I’ve played this year. Admittedly, there haven’t been a lot of them, but still – Xillia is a fantastic game that overcomes its myriad flaws to present a true testament to why JRPGs are a genre that withstands the test of time. This game has reminded me what it is I love about this genre. It brings a few new elements to the table, but in the end… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.