The Tales series evolves slowly. If you’ve played one, even one of the earlier 2D titles like Tales of Eternia, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from the latest in the series.
While many will see this as a negative, for fans of the series, it’s often quite the opposite; they already know they love the franchise, so they can be confident they’ll enjoy the next one. These games are JRPG comfort food, continuing to give fans a healthy dose of what they crave even when the genre began to shrink in size and importance. Over the last few years, Namco-Bandai have obviously seen a gap in the market to exploit, too: as the fortunes of the Final Fantasy series have dwindled somewhat, the Tales series seems to have stepped into the breach to take advantage of the situation. It seems the publisher has renewed confidence in the series’ chances of success outside of Japan. Yes, now is a good time to be a Tales fan.
Leading up to this year’s release of the latest in the series, Tales of Xillia 2, I decided to dive back into 2013’s Tales of Xillia for a second playthrough. Playing it for the first time last August, I absolutely loved the game, greedily devouring every side-quest and sub-event on my way to the final showdown in the Temporal Crossroads. Having almost exhausted the game’s content then, my plan for a replay was to quickly run through the main storyline before Xillia 2 released, but I was surprised to find myself drawn in all over again, gravitating towards much of that optional content against my best laid plans.
Tales of Xillia begins in a world called Rieze Maxia, a place where humans and spirits live in harmony. The humans of Rieze Maxia possess an organ called a ‘mana lobe’ that allows them to wield magic by offering a spirit some of the energy produced by this organ. In turn, the spirit is nourished by this intake of mana, and so the world keeps turning. Despite this, Maxwell, the Lord of Spirits, has been sensing the death of many spirits. Fearing that humans have re-discovered spyrix technology, something that had apparently led to disaster in the past, Maxwell takes the form of a young woman named Milla and makes her way to the city of Fennmont. There, she meets Jude Mathis, a young medical student looking for his missing teacher at a secretive research facility. Discovering a conspiracy that could lead to the world’s end, Milla and Jude team up to tackle this threat, recruiting friends and allies along the way.
Xillia is notable for having two central protagonists, each with their own ‘campaign’. You can play through the game as either hand-to-hand brawler Jude or the magic-wielding Milla, and though the game plays out much the same across both, there are points where the characters split up. It’s best to play through as Jude first, as you will miss out on some fairly important plot points that simply go unexplained in Milla’s story, but if you have the time for two playthroughs, it’s definitely worth seeing Milla’s side of the tale through. There is one very big point where the party splits, and it’s interesting to see what happens to Milla during her absence.
On the surface, the characters are a grab-bag of anime clichés. There’s the stoic protector, the uncertain but principled teen, the hyperactive sidekick who’s secretly in love with the protagonist, the distinguished older gent with a hidden past, the magical girl, and the untrustworthy rogue. They’re all well-drawn, though, and fleshed out through fairly extensive character-specific sidequests that shed some light on their pasts and their current motivations, while the game is also rammed full of the series’ trademark skits that further give the party identity. These skits are often a great source of humour, and it’s nice to play a game about a group of people staring down the end of the world that is handled with such an upbeat tone. Shoe-gazing is kept to a minimum, and the interplay between the characters is often played for laughs. It makes the party feel more human.
Tales of Xillia can be seen as both an evolution and a step back from Tales of Vesperia; its battle system is a neat evolution of that game’s Linear Motion Battle system which ups the tempo a fair bit, taking the best elements and streamlining them somewhat (it’s easier to determine an enemy’s resistances and weaknesses, for one) while also adding the excellent Link Arte mechanic. Link Artes allow two party members to group together to perform a stronger special attack by triggering specific artes at certain points and hitting the L2 button when a prompt appears. They also play into the series’ now-familiar Overlimit system: this time, the Overlimit gauge is segmented, and in order to fill it up, you’ll need to perform Link Artes at each threshold. Failure to do so means the gauge’s growth will stall, limiting your battle tactics. If you want to pull out those super-powerful Mystic Artes later in the game, you’re going to have to get used to arte linking.
I mentioned that Xillia can sometimes be perceived as a step back from Vesperia, and it’s generally felt in the environments. Gone is Vesperia’s lavish world map, to be replaced with small zones populated with enemies to defeat and materials to scavenge. And whilst these areas do make the world itself feel smaller and more confined than Vesperia’s (seriously, why is every field in Rieze Maxia hemmed in by canyons, anyway?), it is actually a step forward from its needlessly reductive direct predecessor, Tales of Graces. That game’s ‘fields’ were essentially long corridors with nothing to do but fight enemies on the way to the next cutscene (and everyone hated Final Fantasy XIII for that, right?), and its dungeons were even worse, often consisting of even narrower corridors with 90 degree turns that conspire to make the game-world feel as if it’s made from copy and pasted square tiles. Xillia has a handful of dungeons that feel like this (hello, Helioborg Fortress), but thankfully most of the game’s environments feel much more expansive and hand-crafted than those in Graces.
Tales of Xillia doesn’t quite reach the heights of Vesperia’s beautiful visuals, either. That’s not to say it’s not a pretty game though; all titles in the Tales of series are very anime-styled but Vesperia, with its almost-cel shaded aesthetic, often looked like an anime itself, rather than an anime-inspired video game – it’s just a bit more stylised. Xillia is also a more muted game in terms of its use of colour, giving the world a more subdued feel, with areas like Fennmont, which is supposed to be under a blanket of perpetual night, bathed in deep ochres and dark greens. It still does a decent approximation of video game anime styling, but it’s just not as bold as we’ve been previously treated to. It’s also a bit of a mixed bag in it’s environments, with some areas being drenched in fine detail while others, most notably the field areas, can often look rather bland and drab.
Items and gear have also been streamlined somewhat. Typically in the genre, better items and equipment will become available when you reach a new shop in a new region, but in Xillia, shop inventory is mirrored across the entire world. The caveat here is that you have to level up the shops – through donating either money or the materials you harvest on your travels – and higher levels yield both new equipment and discounts on older gear, providing a system that is much more elegant than Graces’ painful eleth mixer. It’s a great way to keep you tied into the world through both exploration (by searching out materials) and its development, and your reward for doing so is more powerful weapons, armour, accessories and food items.
Ah yes, food. Long a component of the Tales of series, the cooking system has also seen a degree of simplification. In fact, it’s been simplified to the point that you don’t even have to cook anymore; you buy ready-made food at one of the aforementioned shops, and then use them to confer buffs upon your party for a set number of battles. So if you’re unprepared for a fight, you can gobble down some potato salad to increase your attack and defense stats, or if you’re really prepared you can eat a spicy chicken roll to earn double the experience from that battle. Again, it’s an elegant simplification that’s far easier to grasp than in previous entries and empowers the player to actually get to grips with the full range of tools at their disposal.
Players will often look down their noses as developers simplify or streamline systems in their games. Often, it’s taken to mean that a product has been ‘dumbed down’ to gain a wider audience. I don’t feel that that’s the case here; JRPGs are well-known for having dozens of arcane systems in place – often to do relatively simple things – and these can sometimes be so bewildering that even genre veterans ignore them. The changes that have been made in Xillia mean that everything the game offers is accessible to the player, enabling them to use all the systems to their advantage while also getting on with the fun stuff – the battling, following the twists and turns of the story, and of course becoming engrossed in the lives of a likeable bunch of characters. I think Tales of Xillia might just be the first JRPG I’ve played where I’ve fully understood how everything works, and I’ve been playing them since Final Fantasy VII and Panzer Dragoon Saga.
As much as I love Tales of Xillia (and I do utterly adore it), it’s not my favourite in the series. I feel like Vesperia was Bandai-Namco giving the series a damn good push before settling into a more focused (read: scaled back) design approach. Graces was a huge step back in many ways, and while Xillia clawed back some of the openness, it still feels like it’s on a smaller scale to 2009’s sprawling, 80-hour epic. But with the series seeing greater fortunes outside of its homeland, it looks like Hideo Baba’s team is willing to push at the boundaries again with the upcoming Tales of Zestiria, and this time they’re really pushing hard. Zestiria will launch next year, and it seems like the developer is looking to the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles for inspiration, with the game taking place in a huge, truly open world. It promises to be something a bit special, and likely the biggest shake-up the series has seen since it moved to 3D with Tales of Symphonia.
But going back to Xillia for a moment, and if there’s one criticism I can level at the game, it’s that an area called Elympios that opens up towards the end of the adventure is incredibly underused. It’s a massive plot point, but we see so little of this new environment that it’s difficult to get a sense of what it’s like and to begin to truly care about the place and its fate. Tales of Xillia 2 promises to fully address this criticism, showing us more of Elympios and its way of life, while also allowing us to spend more time with a great group of characters. Now that it’s here, I can’t wait to get started.