There’s never a guarantee that an entry in the long-running Tales series by Namco Bandai is going to make it to English-speaking areas of the world, so when one does show up on western shores people generally pay attention. While in the states the series has always played second fiddle to the quintessential JRPG franchise, Final Fantasy, Tales’ more traditional approach to the genre coupled with a unique fast-paced combat system continues to win over old and new fans alike, especially as gamers question the direction being taken by Final Fantasy developer, Square Enix.
In the PS3-exclusive Tales of Xillia (that’s pronounced “ek-ZI-LEE-uh”), players are given the choice between playing primarily as either Jude Mathis, a promising medical student with a background in martial arts, or Milla Maxwell, a fairy-like being (referred to simply as ‘spirits’) tasked with destroying a weapon that kills humans and spirits en masse. While for most of the game these two protagonists experience the same things, at critical moments they are often separated and so your choice of who to play also dictates what story details you’ll be let in on. Starters should probably go with Jude, but since the game makes no attempt to fill you in on what happens to Milla when she’s on her own it’s worth playing a second time to see what you missed.
As to what happens from there, well, I can’t give any spoilers. In case you were wondering, the story of Tales of Xillia is what caused the “just keeps gettin’ better” in the title of this post (and it’s a catch phrase used by one of the game’s characters when he levels up). In true Tales fashion, the relatively fast-paced storyline just keeps twisting and turning in ways both slightly cheesy and extremely unpredictable, but also lots of fun. While things may start out heading straight for a horde of exhausted cliches, the end result is anything but unoriginal and emotionless. Never does the story fail to maintain a sense of humor though, chiefly expressed through optional mid-game skits where anime profiles of the characters overlay the screen and briefly talk about things with each other. But trust me, the skits are way more interesting than that description makes them sound.
A brisk playthrough will take roughly 35 hours, but one could easily spend twice that on the game’s various sidequests and paralogues. In other words, it’s basically as long as you’d expect from a JRPG, but the story gets about twice as much accomplished in the same amount of time.
Tales of Xillia is Namco Bandai’s first time building a Tales game for the Playstation 3 from the ground up, and it shows. In general, models lack detail, textures are flat, and lighting is simplistic. Notice I didn’t mention lip-syncing in that list. That’s because it’s barely even there. Yes, I get that the developer was going for an anime look (and the anime cutscenes are fantastically animated, by the way), but what we have here is not the result of style. Tales of Xillia does not look like a cartoon, it just looks like last-gen CGI.
All that being said, there’s nothing especially wrong about a PS3 game looking like a high-def PS2 game, and despite the graphical shortcomings there are still some genuinely beautiful locales to be explored. Things such as motion captured animations and flashy battles are also brilliantly done and a pleasure to watch. Just be aware going in that the game’s appearance will take some time to get used to, especially if you don’t have a lot of fond memories of PS2 JRPGs.
Another potential sore point for gamers is the English voice acting in Tales of Xillia. In many cases it’s obvious how a line is intended to be spoken, but the actual performance misses it entirely. However that’s not to say the voices are bad all across the board. Though perhaps a bit over-the-top by western standards, most of the performances fit the tone of the game perfectly. The glaring exception to this is the voice work for Milla, which is kind of a problem considering she’s a main protagonist. You do tune into it eventually, but it was several hours before I could accept the voice coming from the character. Still, considering Tales of Xillia might not have gotten an English release at all, it’s hard to complain too much.
The Tales series is somewhat used to being a mixed bag, musically, but Tales of Xillia is actually a fairly stand-out entry to the series. The intro song is extremely catchy and hummable, and while the in-game music might not be so straightforward it almost always sets the mood well. Even the stranger stylistic choices seem to fit the mood by way of being strange for the setting (that statement will make sense if you play to the last areas of the game). Rarely will you want to pause somewhere and just listen to the music, but you also won’t want to hurry and go somewhere else to get away from it. Most often it’s just there and is neither obnoxious nor impressive.
Here we again touch on a high point for Tales of Xillia. Actually, lots of them. Try pausing the game for a long time and come back to hear one of the characters talk about how nice it is to just space out for a while, for example. It’s the plethora of little details like this that make the game feel really polished and enjoyable. Want to give your characters some shades, sideburns, a bit of disagreeable hair, or something really wacky like bunny ears? All these and far, far more can be acquired along your journey and applied to characters with X, Y, and Z axis precision, not to mention RGB adjustable colors. But of course all that is just content on the side. For something that actually matters, take store expansion for instance. For your patronage in donating resources picked up along your way you can level up different types of stores, which will expand their stock to carry more powerful weapons, better armor, and so forth, as well as get discounts on less powerful equipment. It’s a great mechanic that overcomes the usual restrictions in JRPGs to keep certain items away from the player until he/she is a high enough level.
All that and we haven’t even touched on what you’ll be spending most of your time doing. Fortunately for me, not much explaining needs to be done there. Tales of Xillia does little to break the tried and true mold of the open world town/overworld/dungeon paradigm. It’s a refreshing return to classic role-playing exploration, and even better the level design is great all across the board—a nice balance of openness and keeping the player well anchored in where they are and where they ought to go.
And of course no review of this game would be complete without mentioning its awkwardly named but very fun Dual-Raid Linear Motion Battle System. Despite the name, not a whole lot has changed from past Tales games. Enemy encounters transition to a separate field of real-time, fast-paced combat. Attacks of both physical and magical (‘arte’) variety are based on simple button-plus-direction combos but nonetheless possess a learning curve to be effectively used in the heat of battle. Characters can be paired up to fight together and defend each other, but the real benefit of linking in this way is joining forces to execute more powerful ‘overcharge’ moves. It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s deep, and it’s plenty fun enough to stay fresh throughout the entire game.
Your party levels up from battle-earned XP on a sort of spiderweb of options enhancing various qualities that intelligently work together to raise your basic stats and unlock new skills. Character progression is entirely up to you, so even though each character has only one predetermined ‘job’ it is quite possible to turn anyone into a healer or fighter or magician or defender as you see fit—though their inherent strengths and weaknesses will inevitably come into play.
Despite some bumps in the road, Tales of Xillia tells a massive, winding story that is well worth experiencing. Deep systems and expansive open world gameplay give the game a lot of longevity, yet it remains easy enough for those who just want to experience the story to move through without being forced to plumb the depths of what Xillia has to offer. Any fan of classic JRPGs should check this one out, especially considering that Tales of Xillia 2 is getting the English treatment as well and will release sometime in 2014. Make sure you’re all caught up.