The Tales of series of JRPGs has a long and storied history. When a game has that type of legacy behind it, it’s often difficult to know what to expect from newer entries. Will it try too hard to keep franchise veterans happy? Or will it stray so far that old fans don’t even recognize it? Tales of Xillia fortunately finds a nice balance between new features and franchise tropes, and while it may not be perfect, it’s definitely a fun ride.
As fans of the series have undoubtedly guessed, Xillia takes place in a fantastical world where magic and elemental spirits run rampant. It’s a weird, pseudo-medieval world full of monsters and kings, all of which is presented in exaggerated anime-inspired visuals. The crux of Xillia’s story is the interplay between Jude Mathis, a medical student in his early twenties, and Milla, the reincarnation of the god Maxwell. The two stumble into each other as Milla is attempting to break into a government research facility, and in classic RPG fashion, they soon find themselves in the middle of a conflict much bigger than themselves.
Along the way a rag-tag cast of characters join the duos efforts, as the layers of a mounting conflict peel back bit by bit. In classic Tales fashion, what begins as a simple earthly conflict between warring countries develops into something much more dire. Overall, the plot is thematically similar to previous games in the series, but with a few exceptions. While the first ten or so hours might come across as a brightly colored romp, Xillia isn’t afraid to take the occasional dark turn. Characters may never do anything worthy of an M rating, but the game does delve into death and loss moreso than ever before.
Unfortunately, these moments are too short-lived to be fully realized. As soon as things begin to get too heavy, something always happens to lighten the mood. And this isn’t inherently bad, it’s just that Xillia comes so close to grasping greatness; to creating a genuine sense of loss in the player. But a comforting salve is always just around the corner. That being said, the extensive cast of characters you encounter are mostly well realized. Party members have an extremely varied range of ages and backgrounds, allowing for a smorgasbord of perspectives to each scenario.
And this is what makes Xillia’s story feel so fleshed out. Areas overflow with opportunities to dig deeper into the psyche of each ally, with optional cut-scenes and a slew of fully voiced skits to view. The final result may be a little too light-hearted for some, but Xillia’s story is still amazingly creative; albeit for a number of poorly executed jokes.
The story itself is all held up by what are easily the finest visuals the series has seen to date. From ornately designed outfits for each colorful character you meet to the sprawling painterly landscapes, Xillia can be absolutely breathtaking. While the overall color palate does seem more muted than usual, there’s a much more grounded feel to it all. There’s a higher level do detail to absolutely everything, from each savage monster to each ornate building. And it all culminates in one beautiful chaotic mess during combat.
Battles are still initiated by encountering enemies wandering in zones and dungeons, and should be familiar to those who know the series. Combat takes place in a 3D arena where you’re armed with your usual arsenal of weapons and abilities, or “artes,” as you pull off absurd combos with fighting game-esque inputs. This time around, players can “link” together artes with other party members, which create entirely new more powerful abilities. Xillia is clearly building on the groundwork first started back in the mid-90s, and it’s as smooth and effortless as ever.
By the game’s end, you’ll be using every single button on the PS3’s controller as you block, dodge, and leap across the battle arena, taking on an extremely varied list of enemies. As per usual, you pick one party member to control with the remaining three under AI control. Even on the easiest of settings, simply spamming attacks does not work. You have to learn the pace of a battle and know when to block, when to heal, and when to simply go all out. Xillia has the kind of active battles system you see yourself getting better at. It has a strict set of rules, with numerous elements and status ailments to worry about, but the satisfaction of taking down a boss after ten minutes of excruciatingly intense combat is amazing. I’ve yet to find another RPG which provides the same experience.
Building each party member is a bit different this time around, as each level provides points which are spent in a Final Fantasy X style grid. The “Lilium Orb” doesn’t allow for absolute customization, but it lets players shape each fighter as they wish. You’re essentially shown what upgrades and abilities are available to each party member, and you can then shape which is attained first. If you don’t care about that level of micromanagement, you can simply auto-level each character. But it’s that level of intricacy, that ridiculous number of systems to manage that makes Xillia scratch an ever so satisfying itch.
It’s that sheer number of things one needs to keep track of that makes Xilla endlessly addictive. Even the stores in Xillia have levels, requiring a constant stream of trash drops and cash to make higher level gear available. No matter where you are in the game, there’s always something you can work on, some minor system you can upgrade. And if there isn’t, as said before,walk five feet to trigger a skit which fleshes out the current plot-point. Don’t want to watch the skit? Try managing your party’s skills, only to find out you forgot to level two party members. And it just continues in an almost endless series of carrots on a never ending stick. It’s a JRPG for people with ADD, and the final result is great.
If I can take a minute to stop gushing, it’s worth noting that in an attempt to create a more seamless experience, Xillia no longer makes use of a world map. Gone are the days of flying across a physical world map with enemies, and in its stead is a series of more open zones which connect each major city. Fast travel is eventually available between landmarks, but something is lost in the transition. The sense of exploration one would find in the end-game isn’t nearly as strong, as there’s virtually no exploration to take part in. This makes the overall world simply feel smaller, and the story somehow less grand. I’m not even sure I’d call the change a bad one, but it’s definitely a noticeable one. Other unusual changes, like the addition of a quick save, make these genre defying alterations positive overall.
Tales of Xillia is a great game. The Tales of series might pump out one too many games a year, and they may not all be worth playing. But every now and then the series produces a well executed and unique JRPG. Xillia is one of those titles. It may not change enough to drawn in many new players, but Namco Bandai has proven it’s willing to experiment, without losing what fans love.
Tales of Xillia was developed by Namco Tales Studio, and published by Namco Bandai Games. A copy of the game for PlayStation 3 was provided for the purpose of review.