"Xillia's likeable cast, frenetic combat, and enjoyable storyline make this one of the best entries in the franchise."
The Tales series is experiencing a much-welcomed renaissance period in the West. Once a staple in any domestic RPG owner's library, the series became notably absent after the 2008 release of Tales of Vesperia, which was met with relatively poor retail reception. It took four years for the next main title in the series, Tales of Graces, to release in North America, but Namco Bandai has since renewed its interest in the brand due to an outpouring of support from dedicated fans. The latest title to reach our shores, Tales of Xillia, takes design elements from previous games in the series as well as popular mainstream titles like Final Fantasy X and XIII, weaving them together with a fresh setting and cast of characters. While it suffers from overly linear progression and features little in the way of optional content, there is still much to appreciate in Tales of Xillia. The game was popular enough in Japan to warrant the development of a sequel, and despite its tardy arrival to English-speaking audiences, it is still very much an adventure worth taking.
Fans of the series have come to expect a particular kind of narrative from Tales games, and while Xillia still features a "save-the-world" plot, it presents the story in an engaging way. The game features two selectable protagonists, a series first, and while their stories greatly overlap, there are sequences where the characters part ways and see events unfold from a unique perspective. This makes each player's first experience with the game a little different and adds replay value, since the whole story can only be understood through a second playthrough using the other character. Whether the player elects to control Milla, the lord of spirits on a mission to protect the world from spirit-annihilating spyrix technology, or Jude, a medical student trying to find his purpose in life after bearing witness to Milla's conviction, the story excites from start to finish with numerous twists and turns. Typical of the Tales series, Xillia's greatest narrative strength is in the interactions between characters, who build believable rapport and argue as much as they work together. Even though a sequel exists to flesh out the story, Xillia functions perfectly well as a standalone title, with most plot elements wrapped up nicely by its conclusion.
While the combat in Xillia is not quite as fast as in its predecessor, Tales of Graces, it is still delightfully fluid and satisfying. It's action-packed and more akin to a fighting game to an RPG; characters can string together basic attacks and elaborate special moves in rapid succession, as well as perform tactical actions unique to each person. Jude can teleport around his enemies much like Edge in Star Ocean 4, while Alvin can charge his sword to unleash more powerful versions of his attacks. Characters become stronger through expansion of their Lilium Orbs, a spiderweb-esque grid of ability nodes much like the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. The system promises freedom in character development, though in reality, it is easy to unlock every ability throughout the course of the game, so it falls a bit short in its imitation of the concept.
Tales games are iterative, meaning that they tend to carry elements from each game's battle system to the next, and the key addition to Xillia's combat is the Link system. Characters can pair up to support each other with defensive abilities and execute devastating Linked Artes, cinematic attacks that turn the tide of battle by crushing enemies or quickly soothing the entire party. It is a joy to experiment with different characters and discover new Linked Artes throughout the game, making the acquisition of each new ability an excuse to toy around with a new character for a while. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed rotating my characters in Xenoblade, crafting a unique approach to each area based on the person I was controlling, and I highly recommend this kind of experimentation to other players.
Tales of Xillia does not push the Playstation 3 hardware to its limits, but it's a good-looking game nonetheless. The character designs in particular are eye-popping and gorgeous, with 3D models that represent the original illustrations well. Animations outside of battle are on the stiff side, however. The field areas are hit-or-miss; some, like Fennmont with its perpetually starry sky, are beautiful, while others are bland forests and caves bereft of nuance in their geography. The game's soundtrack is quite underwhelming
, composed largely of tracks that sound indistinguishable from one another, save for a few jazzy tunes that appear very late in the game. The voice acting, on the other hand, is universally great aside from the oddity that is Milla. As a spirit with no concept of human interaction, her voice is intentionally robotic and unemotional, though I personally felt like the voice actress was not in control of her inflection most of the time.
One note I have to make is that while nothing about Xillia is outright bad, I had a persistent feeling that the game was rushed to completion during development. Many connecting field areas are identical palette swaps, while series staples such as cooking, alchemy, and battling with cameo characters in a Coliseum were removed entirely. Aside from strengthening the party through their Lilium Orbs, the only other advancement system is a "shop expansion" feature, where the player donates items and money to increase the quality of stock in the game's shops. Every shop is identical and relies completely on the investment of materials, making the strength of items feel decidedly unbalanced. Depending on the player's commitment to this system, it is possible to acquire extremely powerful weapons early in the game, negating any challenge. I would have preferred a standard shop system or an alchemy system to this lazy compromise.
Don't let the game's lengthy localization period deter you from experiencing the latest chapter in the Tales universe. Xillia's likeable cast, frenetic combat, and enjoyable storyline make this one of the best entries in the franchise, though its emaciated side content leaves something to be desired. The promise of an imminent sequel with expansions to both the story and gameplay sweeten the pot considerably, however, and I can forgive its imperfections. Don't be afraid to get spirited away by this action-packed adventure.