"Tales of Xillia is a shining example of the path mainstream JRPGs should be going. Instead of integrating elements of western game design poorly into their games, they should be celebrating the unique features they have while progressing and improving their basic gameplay."
Tales games have often been one of the representatives of the JRPG genre, for better or worse; the combination of generic storylines, a quirky cast of characters, and a real time battle system has simultaneously enamored some players and turned off others to the series. This generation has seen original Tales series games on all of the major consoles except Sony's – until now. While only enhanced ports of Tales games have previously made it to Sony's consoles, Namco Bandai released Tales of Xillia on the PlayStation 3 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the franchise, and it's possibly the best JRPG of this generation.
Tales of Xillia is set in the world of Rise Maxia, a world where humans, spirits, and monsters share a symbiotic existence with each other. Within this world are two conflicting nations: Ajule- a country that combines control of monsters and military strength, and La Shugal- a country that derives its strength through the use of spirit powers. Jude Mathis, a medical student at the capital of La Shugal, becomes disconcerted when a large number of patients are admitted to the hospital following an accident, and his mentor, Dr. House (!), goes missing. Meanwhile, Milla Maxwell, the incarnation of Maxwell the Lord of all Spirits, senses a great number of spirits' deaths, and decides to investigate the source of the disturbance. The two protagonists meet while attempting to break into the complex where the incident occurred, and it is there that they discover a horrifying secret.
The characters, as in past Tales games, take center stage, and while they fit comfortably into the general tropes that describe many JRPG characters, they do so in a way that isn't obnoxious or overwrought. As a result, the characters are all likable and their interactions are interesting and engaging instead of being an exercise in a class called "How to be an Anime Sociopath." While the plot has a promising start, the final conclusion leaves something to be desired. Many loose story ends aren't tied up or are handwaved near the conclusion of the story, as the original plot points that set the game's events into motion end up taking a backseat to more traditional story elements.
The general "rushed" feel of the game extends into the game content itself, as the game is lacking in many areas that have been staples of the long running series – there are no extra towns to be found; side quests aren't as engaging as in past games, many merely being fetch quests or similar variants with material rewards that may or may not be worth the time invested; there’s very little in the way of extra content (such as hidden Mystic Artes or cameo battles), most costumes are now DLC, and the game's singular bonus dungeon is just a 30-floor dungeon made up of repurposed elements from the game's other dungeons. Many of these may sound inconsequential, and individually, they are. However, when taken as a whole, it makes me think that Namco Bandai decided to push the game out for release in time for the 15th anniversary instead of taking some more time to make a more fully fleshed out game. Don't be surprised if a Director's Cut of the game surfaces in a few months.
You may have read the previous paragraphs and are now wondering why the game's score is so high. It's that high because, in spite of the flaws and the rushed feel that Xillia has, the game offers the most enjoyable gameplay the series has ever offered. The culmination of a collaboration between the two different Tales teams, the series seems to have finally perfected its battle system. Every positive addition to the battle system from previous Tales games was included in Xillia, with some of its own original features thrown in for good measure.
Tales of Xillia operates on a real time battle system that features a combination of Team Symphonia's traditional TP gauge (where a character can only chain a certain number of attacks and TP drains when special attacks are used) and Team Destiny's CC system (in which a character's combo chain is limited by the amount of CC they have), here called Assault Counter. This allows for a more robust battle system where players are able to chain attacks and combos more easily, with the TP and CC systems being incredibly complementary to each other.
Xillia's new take on Tales' signature linear motion battle system is the link feature: the player can link two characters in battle for greater effectiveness. In addition to the general advantages offered, such as linked combatants flanking the enemy or helping the player when knocked down, each character has special abilities when linked that can be integral to the player. For example, one character can heal the player whenever he or she is down, while another can guard break enemies with ease. Linked characters can also team up and use their special attacks in unison to create link attacks that are much more powerful and often have special properties. This results in encouraging experimentation with the battle system as well as using each character depending on the situation or objective instead of relying on a static team that gets disrupted when story requirements necessitate a shift in party members.
The character progression system has also received an overhaul for Xillia, with each character earning growth points to spend on nodes arranged in a web shaped grid, with each node increasing one of the character’s stats. Once all the nodes of a section of the character’s grid are unlocked, the character earns a passive ability that can be equipped to enhance battle effectiveness, or a special attack that can be used in battle. It's much like the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X or the Crystarium from Final Fantasy XIII, except where those games' systems had often linear progression, Xillia's system places more control over character progression in player's hands.
Graphically, Tales of Xillia doesn’t disappoint. The environments are detailed and a joy to behold with no dearth in variety regarding surroundings. The character models are also incredibly well designed, the quality of which is owed to the character designers who designed characters fitting to their respective styles. All of this would be lost if Xillia had stuck with the static camera angles of past Tales games; instead it features a behind-the-back camera that grants players more freedom with the camera and also makes the game an incredible sight. All of this is in a large world with a large variety of areas to explore.
I was somewhat vocal in my last Tales review of my disinterest in Sakuraba's work, and while I'm not quite ready to retract my statement completely, Sakuraba's work has definitely improved for his tracks in Xillia. While most tracks are still somewhat boring, the battle tunes are quite well done and are reminiscent of the days when Sakuraba's work was still fresh. I would like to reiterate my desire that new blood be brought in for the music in Tales games – Sakuraba really needs a sabbatical. The voice acting hits all the right notes, but the characters are still based off traditional anime archetypes, and each characters voice, while appropriate, is very much tried-and-true anime styled voicing.
Tales of Xillia is a shining example of the path mainstream JRPGs should be going. Instead of integrating elements of western game design poorly into their games, they should be celebrating the unique features they have while progressing and improving their basic gameplay. Instead of boring half-assed new features, Xillia has an excellent battle and character progression system that successfully mixes traditional gameplay with new ideas. Instead of boring, static locales that can't be interacted with, Xillia has fully fleshed out environments that are a joy to explore and adventure in. Perhaps best of all, instead of overdone, overacted anime clichés that border on offensive stereotypes, Xillia has interesting, likable characters that are honestly endearing. I can only hope this game makes it stateside because it honestly deserves it.