[19 August 2013]
Tales of Xillia has an odd history. As the 13th game in the Tales series, it was released in Japan two years ago, and a direct sequel was released a year later in 2012. So, the western world is way late to this party. It’s easy, though, to see why. After all, JRPGs have declined in popularity in the States, and Tales of Xillia is unapologetically a Japanese RPG, filled with anime cut scenes, cartoonish character models, and an array of funny sounding fantasy names like Rieze Maxia, Rashugal, Auj Oule, and Elympios. On the surface, it looks like just another painfully generic anime game (I’m looking at you Arc Rise Fantasia) with its quality resting on a coin flip. But beneath that generic exterior hides a rather special game with top-notch combat, an intriguing and thought-provoking story, and a likable cast of characters.
The characters all conform to standard anime tropes: The small town boy in the big city, the mysterious girl who whisks him away on an adventure, the charming mercenary, the childhood friend, the old man who’s really a badass fighter, the child sidekick, and last and also least, the oddball “comic” relief character. So all the tropes are covered, but thankfully these characters do evolve over the course of the game and never become clichéd. There’s no love triangle between the boy, the mysterious girl, and the childhood friend. The annoying comic relief character is even used as the catalyst for some surprisingly somber and interesting character development.
Milla Maxwell, the mysterious girl, is by far the best character. As the physical manifestation of a goddess (or rather the Goddess, seeing as how she created the world and all), she’s both caring and cold, wanting to help all of her people, human and spirit alike, but also very willing to make painful sacrifices for the greater good. She keeps the story interesting during its slow beginning.
Jude, an everyman med-student, gets caught up in Milla’s quest to destroy a powerful weapon. They travel around the world, meet a bunch of people, but there’s no real sense of danger at this point. There’s some political intrigue, but no one is in much of a rush to do anything and the pacing suffers. There’s an interesting subtext of science vs. magic at the heart of Milla’s quest, but the game doesn’t do anything with that premise. Eventually, (25 hours in for me) the story takes a crazy twist, the world is put at stake, the subtext becomes an explicit part of the central conflict, and the plot rockets forward so fast it doesn’t even allow for fast travel. Which is all to say that Tales of Xillia begins as a light and fluffy generic anime fantasy, but it eventually develops into a deeper, compelling story with its own identity.
Even if the story never evolved, Tales of Xillia would still be a good game thanks to its combat. Like other Tales games, Xillia plays more like an action game than an RPG.
Combat takes place in a 3D arena, but whenever you attack, you’re automatically locked into a 2D plane, much like a fighting game. You can hold the L2 button to break from this plane and run around, which is useful for dodging and flanking. As you level up, you unlock special moves that can be mapped to the control stick: flick up for one move, flick down for another, hold L1 and flick up for another, etc. These special moves use up Technical Points that you then regain with normal attacks. Combat is thus a balancing act between the explosive TP attacks and normal attacks. In addition, you can Link with other characters to get access to unique, character specific combos. A well executed combo can end most normal battles in less than 30 seconds, which is always satisfying and ensures that the random battles (or not so random battles since you can see monsters roaming the environment) never get repetitive.
Overall, Xillia successfully merges the tactics of an RPG with the controls of an action beat-em-up. Combat is fast and technical, timing is just as important as tactics, and it’s the rare RPG in which upping the difficulty to “Hard” makes it more fun instead of more frustrating.
The world of Rieze Maxia is beautiful but never breathtaking. It’s colorful and vibrant, but it looks like any other colorful and vibrant anime fantasy world. On the plus side, it’s easy to explore thanks to a forgiving fast travel system that lets you warp into and out of dungeons. The whole semi-open world is linked together, too, as towns and roads and dungeons exist as separate maps, but they connect to one another in logical ways. If you wanted, you could run from one end of the continent to the other, which makes every part of Rieze Maxia feel like one piece of a cohesive whole.
As you explore, you’ll occasionally get a prompt to view a “skit,” a short conversation between various characters on a variety of topics. Visually, there’s not a lot going on, since the skits are nothing more than voice over and moving character portraits. The writing, however, is wonderful. Every character on your team talks to every other character on your team. It’s always nice to see supporting characters interact with each other since games usually put all their focus on the hero’s interactions, ignoring everyone else. But not here, these folk act like a tight-knit group of friends. The very basic presentation even works in the game’s favor. Since skits so easy to produce there are a ton of them throughout the game. Sometimes they’re about world building or hint at potential side quests or just consist of random chats about dating and cooking. It’s fun to see how these characters interact with each other on a casual basis, what they talk about when their lives aren’t at risk.
Tales of Xillia is a very good game hidden in a rather generic wrapper. The combat will keep you coming back during those opening 25 hours, and thankfully the story gets better the longer you stick with it. Everything after that crazy twist feels like a different game, a better game that only keeps growing in scope and drama. So come for the combat and stay for the story.