"Tales of Xillia 2 doesn't make many dramatic changes over its predecessor, but its foundation is solid enough that it's on track to be one of the best RPGs released this year."
It's interesting how the Tales series used to be regarded as "safe" RPGs — games that delivered consistently good experiences, but rarely blew their competitors out of the water. In recent years, as the "moe" aesthetic has become a prevailing trend, the Tales games have actually started to stand out simply for not catering to the lowest common denominator. Like most games in the series, Tales of Xillia impressed with its mix of believable melodrama and exciting, fast-paced combat. It was so well-received that the team set to work on a direct sequel, which isn't a first for the series, but it happens rarely enough that it's worth pointing out. Tales of Xillia 2 looks to flesh out the (arguably underdeveloped) story of the original game while adding in new characters, new battle mechanics, and a host of small tweaks to the overall experience.
The full cast of Tales of Xillia returns for the sequel, but the hero this time around is Ludger Kresnik, a twenty-year-old man who suddenly and unexpectedly takes custody of eight-year-old Elle Marta. Elle's father is assassinated in cold blood, and his only legacy is an imperative for Elle to seek the land of "Canaan," a mission that Ludger accepts on her behalf. The two clash with Ludger's brother, Julius, a powerful executive who impedes the two on their journey for reasons unknown. The overall story and setting have a darker, noir-esque tone this time around, and branching dialogue options give the player more control in deciding how the narrative develops. New players can jump right in to Xillia 2 thanks to a story synopsis of Xillia 1 available on the title screen from the get-go.
Jude, Milla, and the rest of the Xillia cast have roles to play in this new tale, but each one also has an ongoing series of "Character Chapters," optional side stories that fill in the details about what everyone has been doing in the year between the two games. Completing these chapters and making favorable dialogue choices raises Ludger's affinity with each character, unlocking useful gifts as well as brand new battle abilities.
The Double Raid Linear Motion Battle System (DR-LMBS) returns from Tales of Xillia as well, but with a few additions. Not only can Ludger use new combination attacks with his teammates, but he can also switch between three weapon types (dual blades, a hammer, and a gun) to fight his enemies effectively at any distance. He can also transform into a demi-humanoid using the power of "Chromatus," dramatically augmenting his strength and ability repertoire for a limited time.
It may not be Animal Crossing, but Tales of Xillia 2 prominently features debt management as a key element that ties into both narrative and gameplay. Ludger and Elle are injured during a train hijacking early in the game, and a mysterious man takes advantage of their plight by paying their medical bills and putting Ludger into astronomical debt. As a result, he imposes travel restrictions on both Ludger and Elle until payments have been made — an odd, but organic method for gradually opening up more of the game's world as the story progresses. Ludger can take on side quests, or "contracts," to earn extra money when the pressure to remit becomes too much to handle.
Tales of Xillia 2 doesn't make many dramatic changes over its predecessor, but its foundation is solid enough that it's on track to be one of the best RPGs released this year. The first choice players have to make — whether to buy the game when it releases on August 19th in North America and August 22nd in European territories — should be the easiest one of all.