Tales of Xillia is a fresh and familiar experience – but you already knew that from reading this review’s subtitle. You may also think, “Wait a second, that’s an oxymoron! If it’s familiar, how can it be fresh?!” First of all, calm down. Second of all, the game isn’t fresh in the typical sense of the word when it relates to gaming. It doesn’t really do anything new, it doesn’t break the mold of JRPGs or past “Tales of” games and to be quite frank, it doesn’t really innovate in any way at all either. Instead, Tales of Xillia embraces what it is and delivers on all fronts. If developers are looking for ways to create games within the tried-and-true JRPG formula, they need not look any further than Tales of Xillia.
As is common with games in the series, it starts with a choice between two very different protagonists: Milla, a magical goddess and Jude, a medical student scholar. While this option doesn’t actually affect the overall plot in any way, it changes the way many events are shown to you and certain parts of the game will have a much different tone to them. It also adds an extra reason to go back and play the game a second time – but let me personally recommend playing as Milla over Jude. She is fairly new to the world herself, so her learning process happens hand-in-hand with the players in many circumstances.
Essentially, the story follows Milla, Jude and several other characters as they embark on a journey to stop some evil bad guys from doing evil bad guy things. It doesn’t really try anything too original, there are a handful of twists in well-placed spots and it leaves just enough to mystery to keep you on your toes throughout the game. I never really found myself playing because I just had to know what happened next, but rather I fell in love with the characters.
Tales of Xillia has lots of small things that contribute to the overall aesthetics of the game world and more games should use these types of features. Between cutscenes when you are just roaming around leveling up or travelling to another area, optional side conversations can be triggered that give more insight and background into the various characters of the game. This makes it not only feel organic and natural to the flow of the game, but it also adds so much more flavor and variety behind each character.
The voice acting is fantastic and I never felt the need to quickly read dialogue and skim through it. The fully-animated anime-style cutscenes are very few and very far between, which is disappointing because they are quite easily some of the best of this kind that I’ve ever seen. Thankfully the in-game graphics engine isn’t really below standards, it just feels a bit dated (the game originally released over two years ago in Japan). Load times are virtually nonexistent and the art style’s consistency is fantastic across the game. I did notice several moments during conversations however, where characters would make incredibly blank and wooden expressions during scenes that called for something else, but it’s just a minor thing that doesn’t detract from the overall experience at all.
If you’ve played a Tales game or anything similar to them like Star Ocean for example, you have a solid foundation for understanding how the combat system works. Enemies are readily visible in the game world, which means no random encounters, and you engage them by making contact. Once this happens, an instanced 3D-arena is created for you to battle in that allows you to freely roam around the small environment (although by default, you lock-on to an enemy). You can combo your physical and magical (arte-based) attacks together in string, along with the different characters in your party. Xillia also features a “linking” system that lets you assign an individual as your combat partner and receive different benefits. Jude, for example, will help Milla up if knocked down with a small heal on top of it, but Alvin can break enemies’ guards if they are blocking my attacks.
Things really open up once you fill the gauge on the left side of the screen as you can combine together with party members to unleash powerful combo-arte attacks that do large amounts of damage and can be used strategically with other abilities. Generally, combat isn’t very difficult at all, but it’s so fast-paced and varied I never got bored and would often go grind for fun. This definitely isn’t the type of game for you if you thrive on overcoming highly-intense scenarios, as it’s a more relaxing and laid-back endeavor.
The progression system uses a web of orbs to increase your stats and learn new abilities. Each orb on the web is tied to one of your stats and by connecting different rectangles of stat points, you unlock the skills and artes inside the shapes. Each character has a certain number of skill points to allocate their passive abilities to and a certain number of hotkeys to assign real-time arte-based abilities to between battles. The ally AI system is fairly confident, although it is difficult to strike the right balance between “go all-out using all of your MP all the time” and “don’t ever use any at all”. Finding that perfect sweet spot was a constant struggle, even with the AI options to choose from.
One of the best things about the game is the score. It’s wonderful to listen to and is one of the main reasons I never got tired with grinding. No matter where I went or what I did, I always had beautiful music to accompany me. Combined with the relatively frequent and varied optional conversations, there was always something interesting to hear in the game. As I write this paragraph, I have battle-theme stuck in my head. While the battles were quick and seldom lasted longer than 30 seconds (besides boss fights) the tune is sharp enough to stick in your mind.
Japanese Role Playing Games have, on the average, received the least amount of attention this generation and seem to hardly ever truly innovate their mechanics. I wish I could complain about that, but I really can’t. When the foundation for the genre is so strong already and fantastically paced and perfected games like Tales of Xillia continue to be released (Ni No Kuni is another example from this year, although it had a fairly unique battle system) I really can’t fault the system in place. Tales of Xillia offers dozens of hours of content and I intend to keep playing it for a very long time.
This review is based on a digitally downloaded copy of the game for the PlayStation 3 provided by Namco Bandai.