Developers – Namco Tales Studio
Publisher – Namco Bandai Games
Platforms – PS3
It wasn’t so long ago that I wrote about how excited I was to finally be reviewing a Tales game on The Geek Clinic and now I’m already back for a second round. Tales of Xillia is the third Tales game I’ve played, though it’s the first with a direct sequel, so I was interested to see how it measured up to its predecessors. The verdict is…not so good, to be honest. While Xillia excels in some areas such as combat, when it comes down to it the game reflects a great deal of lazy design decisions and poor story writing. Though I suppose I was having fun by the end of it all, it took much longer to get to that point than previous installments.
Jude Mathis lives in Fennmont, Capital of Rashugal, one of the two major powers of Rieze Maxia. In a world where humans can manipulate elemental beings known as spirits to perform everyday tasks, Jude himself is in training to become a doctor like his father before him. His peaceful life is interrupted, however, when he becomes involved with the great Maxwell, Lord of Spirits (A.K.A. Milla), in her quest to destroy Rashugal’s most recent military development. Rather than working alongside spirits, the dreaded Lance of Kresnik harvests the spirits themselves to wield deadly power. When international tensions are already running high, this new development could mean war, with Milla and Jude caught between two great nations…or it may have consequences no one could have ever imagined…
For those of you who have not played a Tales game before, they’re heavily story-focused JRPGs with real-time combat systems. One of their major assets is the use of “skits” which are like mini visual-novel-styled cutscenes that serve to deepen character relationships and give insight into the inner workings of the characters themselves. To start off with the best Xillia has to offer, I have to say that its combat is the most fun I’ve had so far out of the Tales games I’ve played. It’s fast-paced with a wide variety of battle skills and practically no down-time. As usual, you can play as any of the six main characters and each has their own distinctive playstyle, meaning that you immediately have a huge amount of combat content at your fingertips.
This time around the game introduces the concept of “linking” with partners to gain firstly their special partner skill (such as breaking guards or stealing items) and secondly the ability to perform link attacks, which combine character skills to create much stronger attacks. It’s a very entertaining system with an impressive number of skill combinations to try out, though it unfortunately has a major flaw. You see, when there’s one particular combination skill that has the potential to wipe out an entire battlefield (regardless of elemental resistances)…why would you use anything else? Be it grunts or bosses, I found myself simply waiting to be able to use that one skill in every fight. Still, I’m not too fussed about that because it’s not like the game forced me to do that and I could have very easily varied my attacks more.
In any case, the moral of the story here is that the combat is a lot of fun and, despite some issues, improves on the systems that have come before it. Perhaps the best thing about Tales games in general, however, is their ability to cater to a number of different skill levels, with progress being able to be made with varying levels of mastery of the system, and Xillia is no different in that regard.
Now, the story is probably one of this installment’s weakest points. I found the first half of the game to be relatively dull, partially due to a lack of interesting developments and partially due to the fact that I just didn’t bond with the characters to the same degree as past titles (more on that later). It wasn’t until the mid-point of the game, where the scale of the story shifts dramatically, that I started to become interested. The twist, as it were, has a lot of potential for good, entertaining conflict which it delivers on for a short time before resolving almost as quickly as it began. Unfortunately, with a sequel game on the way Tales of Xillia played the role of setting up for its successor rather than concluding its own story satisfactorily. The ending is rushed, anticlimactic and, to be honest, simply doesn’t make much sense. The emotion it could have held didn’t get through to me because I was too busy wondering why the hell there was a problem in the first place, and final bosses just aren’t that threatening when you’ve already bested them multiple times in the past (which is a recurring issue in Xillia).
Character-wise, Xillia was something of an enigma. For the most part I genuinely liked the individuals the story portrayed but at the same time I didn’t feel the same chemistry exhibited by casts in previous games. Thankfully, as the plot progressed and I was introduced to more of the backstory behind the personalities involved the characters came into their own and interacting with them was much more enjoyable; by the end of it all I cared about the characters, and I’d be lying if I said they hadn’t been set up well for Xillia 2. Having said that, some reasonably large portions of backstory are simply glossed over and the gap they leave behind is obvious. One of the smaller details that I believe may have contributed to the lack of chemistry I mentioned earlier has to do with the main heroine, Milla. To be frank, she was too emotionless, shallow and bland to be entertaining. While yes, she does improve over time, her interactions with the rest of the group are always limited; she’s the weakest link, if you will, and I’d say that had a detrimental effect on the party overall. As a side note, the end-of-battle interactions that have been so entertaining in past games were incredibly stunted this time around, which didn’t help either.
I’ve complained previously that Tales games hide their skits too much. You shouldn’t be expected to backtrack to every single town each chapter in the hopes of seeing some extra character development, right? Xillia has an answer for that issue, though I’m not sure it’s the right one. Instead of skits being available in completely random, borderline incomprehensible locations, they’re thrown at you in bunches of two or three whenever you enter a new area, meaning that you have to stop and sit through them all before you can progress (assuming you plan to watch them at all, I suppose). Perhaps I’m just being too picky, but I’d like to see a more dynamic system that still wasn’t only available to the most fastidious players (or those with walkthroughs *cough*). Before I move onto technical aspects, I should probably mention that you can choose to view the story from either of the main characters’ perspectives. I only played through once, and it’s an interesting idea in theory, but from what i’ve heard the story is far more complete from Jude’s point of view than from Milla’s.
So that I can end on a good note, this next section’s going to be fairly negative. Xillia has, by far, the laziest level design I have seen in a Tales game. Barring some actually very pretty zones at its beginning, each location utilizes the exact same building blocks with slightly different skins and it gets old, fast. I’d even go so far as to say it makes the sequences in between story segments a real drag. The voice acting in this instance is another major step back, being rife with inflection errors made by just about every character. Milla, especially, is not served well by her voice actor. For whatever reason, she has been given a very noticeable lisp that interferes significantly with her image. When Maxwell, All-Powerful Lord of the Spirits can’t be taken seriously because of voice acting decisions, you have a distinct problem (made worse, perhaps, by the fact that it wasn’t even consistent). It’s actually bad enough that I would say it contributed to my apathy towards her character in general. So what’s the good news? Xillia has more animated cutscenes than any Tales game before it and they’re beautiful. In fact, the usual visual style has been improved on so that even non-combat movements are fluid and great to watch. The one caveat here is that the facial expressions could do with some more work, but I’m sure the team is on it.
Summary – Tales of Xillia has issues, but most of them only show up when you compare it to previous Tales games. Despite what I’ve whined about in this review it’s another solid JRPG delivered by the Tales team and I managed to enjoy it overall. The great battle system balances out some of the problems I had with level design and the characters come together in the end to be a lot of fun to interact with. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to make up for the deficits of the story itself, being lacking in pacing and overall sensibility. For a first Tales game I’d probably recommend returning to Graces or Vesperia, but there’s absolutely no reason for fans of the series to miss Xillia out.
Score: 7.5/10 – Enjoyable