The past year has been something of a lesson for me: a lesson in how little time I have to play videogames these days.
It all started in 2015 when I picked up Tales of Xillia 2 on a sale and started playing it almost on a whim. Tales of Xillia 1 was an experience I remembered enjoying a couple years prior, but its characters and story were largely lost on me. I expected the same of Xillia 2—this was a game I was playing to finish a sub-series I started, not because I was particularly anxious to return to a world I missed.
Little did I know it would not only take me a year to finally reach the credits, but that it would end up being one of the most memorable JRPG experiences I've ever had.
Of course, to clarify, Tales of Xillia 2 isn't the only game I've played in the past year. All told I only clocked 40 hours in my final save file, a length of time I've put into multiple other games in between, but despite my tendency to pick it up and put it down and pick it up again I was never once bored with the game. Instead it was something of a constant to fall back on in between newer releases, and without even realizing it, this kind of treatment was slowly making me more at home with and attached to Xillia 2's world and cast than I ever was with Xillia 1.
A Master of Opposites
Because you see, Xillia 2 captures a certain characteristic about Japanese storytelling very well: the ability to be both fantastically over-the-top and surprisingly down to earth at the same time. Conversations about tomatoes are just as commonplace as urgent missions to stop the end of the world by destroying parallel universes, and while the latter may be more exciting, it's the former that makes the cast endearing enough for you to truly care about what happens to them. Not a single member of the party went unused—a first for me and JRPGs—and even though I had my 'favorite four' of Ludger, Milla, Gaius, and Jude, everyone else had an equally lovingly-crafted selection of equipment and skills, ready to be swapped in for battle at a moment's notice.
And of course this is a JRPG, so battles are a critical part of the experience. Tales of Xillia 2 doesn't do much to evolve beyond its predecessor, but what it does do is give you one of the most versatile fighters I've ever seen in a game. Simply put, Ludger Kresnik (the game's mostly-silent protagonist) is a beast. He can wield dual blades, dual pistols, and a war hammer, and he has the ability to temporarily stop time and transform into a mutant of sorts with a spear and a whole new set of abilities of its own. If that sounds a little OP to you, you'd be right. But then the sheer complexity of Xillia's combat and the challenge of its boss fights provide exactly the right balance, forcing you to learn the ins and outs of all of Ludger's abilities, and the satisfaction that comes from doing so is second to none.
In that respect, I suppose you could say Xillia 2 is also an expert at training the player. New areas unlock slowly at first but at just the right pace to keep things fresh, and towards the end of the game there's a sequence in which Julius, Ludger's older brother, tests Ludger's combat abilities in what is handily the most difficult boss fight of the entire game. You're forced to learn new tricks and optimize your skills and abilities, not because the game spells out for you exactly how, but rather gives you the tools and then challenges you to use them most effectively. The end result is a sense of being genuinely trained by characters like Julius so that when the grand finale finally comes you can't help but think of everyone who gave of themselves—and more often than not, the sacrifices they made—to get you there.
Because there is no perfect ending to Tales of Xillia 2. In fact, there are three endings, and even the best of them (the 'normal' ending, oddly enough, not the 'true' one) requires that things don't entirely work out for everyone. But that's just how it should be. If it wasn't, many of the game's themes would be robbed of their meaning and impact. It's a far more personal story than Tales of Xillia 1, and as a result, far more memorable as well.
Unfortunately, one thing that didn't change much from Xillia 1 is the game's presentation. Voice direction for the English localization is vastly improved (thank goodness), but the simplistic visuals and lackluster cutscenes leave much of the PS3's power feeling unused. It can be genuinely epic when it wants to be, but it's clear these brief moments were budgeted, leaving the rest of the game feeling outdated for the time it released. Virtually all areas of the game are reused from Xillia, but considering the story takes place in the same world in a very important way it doesn't feel like a cheap move on Bandai Namco's part; it just seems like they possibly could've given it more of an overhaul considering how much work was already done. It's unfortunate, not because it dramatically affects enjoyability, but because it leaves a poor first impression. And this is definitely a game that deserves a second look.
On the bright side, Ufotable makes a return with even more of their signature animation and character designs, bringing some truly wonderful anime touches to make up for the blisteringly average 3D artwork. I'm not typically one to call favorites, but Tales of Xillia 2's intro might just be the best I've ever seen or heard in a videogame. I mean, just listen to it:
A Reason to Hold On
At this point Tales of Xillia 2 is an 'old' game, and on an obsolete console to boot, but if anything it just goes to show that it's worth hanging on to last-gen consoles for a while yet. Being localized in the west the year after the Xbox One and PS4 released, many gamers had already moved on before Xillia 2 even had a chance to reach them, and that's a shame. It is in many respects a swan song of JRPGs on Sony's last console and well worth experiencing—even if, like me, it takes you a year to finally clear it.
This may not exactly be a review, but because I feel Tales of Xillia 2 deserves one, here's a rating for you to consider. In short, if you still have a PS3, buy it. This is just one of those hidden gems that shouldn't be missed.