The Tales series has been a Namco flagship RPG title ever since the Super Nintendo days. I still remember to this day the opening line of Tales of Phantasia.
“If there is evil in this world, it lurks in the hearts of man.”
Why that line resonated with my younger self so much is a mystery to me but regardless, it’s a game I remember fondly to this day. Since then, I’ve played almost every Tales game that made it to the states. After the release of Xillia in Japan almost two years ago, there was no announcement for a stateside release for so long that the idea that it may never see the light of day in the west became a real possibility.
Luckily, after much controversy and fan outrage (indignation!), it has made it to the states and, on the whole; it was well worth the wait.
The curtain rises for Jude and Milla as the two meet in a fateful moment when Milla breaks into a medical research center in search of a forbidden weapon. Jude being a talented but relatively normal fledgling doctor gets swept along for the ride alongside Milla, self-proclaimed Lord of Spirits with the power to control the great four spirits. After a sequence of unfortunate events, Milla gets “Samus’d” (the act of losing all of one’s powers early in the game) and Jude decides help Milla fulfill her mission to destroy the weapons called spyrix which threaten not just all of human life but of spirits as well.
Saving the world from impending doom may very well sound like the standard RPG fare, but as is the case with most everything, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Along the way, Jude and Milla meet up with friends and foes alike with very distinct personalities, including Rowen, an old butler of a noble family who was once a great tactician and feared as a terrifyingly powerful spirit artes master. Even though he wears the guise of a gentleman, in truth he is a bit of a mischievous charmer. Using his advanced age to try and get a back massage from Milla or tricking Jude by playing at his naiveté, he and all the other characters had depth beyond their initial one dimensional role.
The humor and personality of the characters are fleshed out through the use of the skits system, where optional dialogue events pop up after certain conditions are met as they talk about the situation at hand. Whether that’d be to comment on the food they just ate or the lasting emotional impact over the loss of a loved one, these skits provide the perfect avenue for the party to voice their thoughts or even just to break a silly joke amidst the constant exploring and fighting. I consider the skits system in the Tales series to be its crowning jewel, and it takes center stage once more in Xillia as the aspect of the game which I enjoyed the most.
As for the overarching storyline, each of the characters have a reason to fight for one side or the other, and on the whole the overall plot of Xillia steers clear from the typical transparency of good versus evil. There was no villain with a handlebar mustache that came out bursting, “I AM EVIL I WILL DESTROY EVERYTHING!!” and kicked a puppy wrapped in explosives into a box full of kittens. While Jude and Milla’s party wish to see the world saved in one way, their foes felt with great conviction that it must be done in another. As both sides were at odds trying to ultimately accomplish the same thing, it blurred the line between right and wrong in a fairly interesting way.
The combat in Xillia can be summed up in two words- “fast” and “furious” (Vin Diesel not included). The player controls one character while the other possible three are controlled by the AI using an in-depth strategy system. At any time, the player can swap direct control of any character in battle and have the option to switch in different characters on the fly from a total of six playable combatants, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Outside of normal melee attacks, artes and spirit artes can be slotted into button combinations and as long as the player has the required AC and TP, they could be executed in sequence creating a seamless combo. With skill, it wasn’t uncommon to juggle an enemy into the air and beat it into the ground without ever giving it a chance to attack. There are also many defensive options like back dashing or blocking which, when done at the right time, can create the perfect moments for devastating counter attacks on the enemy’s weak point.
There was also the ability to “link” with another combatant giving significant bonuses both in stats and strategic advantage. It also unlocked certain combo artes that were specific to those two characters and it was quite rewarding just trying out new link artes to see what kind of an effect it would have as I obtained new ones.
With each level, the characters gained grade points which could be used to increase skills and learn new skills/artes. The system felt similar to the one presented in FFX to some degree. It was simple while allowing for room to customize each character to specialize in something specific. For example, as Jude was primarily a physical fighter, I was able to able to ignore most of the nodes that increased his INT and focused on the ones that gave more impact to his punches.
That is just the tip of the iceberg of Xillia’s deep and refined combat engine. Even though many newcomers will find success in simply mashing buttons, it takes true dedication to master the finer points presented here and it’s no wonder that there are literally combo videos dedicated to Xillia as though it were a fighting game.
While the combat is thoroughly enjoyable, there comes a time when one wants to just get to the next destination and luckily in Xillia, that’s very easy to do considering all the enemies are visible on the screen and must be touched to start the encounter.
With a bit of finesse, the vast majority of enemies roaming a given area can simply be avoided entirely and if even that is too much of a hassle, a holy bottle can be used to make the enemies run away from the player for a good long while. The olden days of random encounters in JRPGs are all but dead and I’m sure most would agree by saying, “good riddance.”
Unfortunately, not everything is demon fists and tiger blades as there are some noticeable flaws that must be mentioned.
During the most hectic moments of battle, where there are giant fireballs flying everywhere and monsters are getting punched in the face, there are some serious slowdowns that makes the game’s frame rate come to a crawl. It’s something that happened more frequently the further I progressed within the game as more enemies were on screen at once accompanied by more visually intensive attack animations. It’s not nearly enough to break the combat but it is a blemish on an otherwise spotless surface.
More damning is perhaps the rather limited amount of content presented in the end/post-game. There are a handful of quests that pop up to gain access to some of the more powerful equipment available but most of them were uninspired with even the extra dungeon that unlocked after beating the game being a rehash of previously visited areas. Compared to the laundry list of activities that were present at end game in the other Tales titles, Xillia felt a bit rushed to say the least.
There was at least a new game + option which could be altered using “grade” points which were earned by meeting various conditions during the previous play through. However, even though there is a choice of playing as either Milla or Jude at the start, the difference of content between each play through is negligible.
Still, even with the slight loss of frame rate during combat and lackluster end-game content, Tales of Xillia stands as one of the best RPGs I’ve played this year. Filled with charming and interesting characters and held together by a rock solid combat engine, this is a tale well worth experiencing. Now… when’s Tales of Xillia 2?
Fun Tidbit: The voice actress for Milla took quite a long time to get used to but in the end, I liked her performance.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.