It took a while, but Tales of Xillia is finally here to appease long-time JRPG fans in the US. It launched in Japan nearly two years ago but good things come to those who wait. While the latest Tales adventure to find its way stateside isn’t the best series entry we’ve ever seen, it’s still a solid, enjoyable, in-depth role-playing experience that captures many of the elements fans crave. It looks a little dated, the combat mechanic isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have a world map. Still, it has a ton of charm and lots of great content for RPG lovers.
As I said, the game won’t blow you away with photorealistic visuals. The franchise has never been recognized as one that pushes the graphical envelope and of course, it’s a couple years old, too. That being said, so much of this presentation is really quite beautiful; even those who don’t like anime would appreciate the high level of quality. Detail isn’t especially amazing, but there’s a particular cleanliness to every line and angle, and the highlight is the excellent world design. There’s some pop-in, which can be annoying, but the palette is wonderfully pleasing to the eye.
The sound category benefits from a pretty, diverse soundtrack that accentuates the attractive world, and several strong voice performances. It’s unfortunate that so many Japanese games this generation have suffered from subpar acting, but Xillia offers plenty of accomplished performances. I don’t think Milla is very good at all, but so many of the other characters sound great. Plus, you’ve got a bevy of satisfactory special effects that accompany your battles, and there’s a good balance between the appealing music and the background effects. Technically, the game won’t blow you away, but it’s more than competent.
Let’s not forget that one of the reasons JRPG fans love their genre is because the stories can often be memorable. They’re not always the focus, but a strong narrative makes any JRPG all the more worth playing. I can’t say Tales of Xillia features a professionally crafted plot with fantastic writing, because I still say the script writers are simply behind the quality curve of the industry. However, this is an interesting story, with several compelling characters, decent pacing, and even a few twists and turns. I won’t say any more than that (no JRPG fan would forgive me, I’m sure), but I still need to offer a proper summary of main events:
There’s a potential world-ending device out there called the Lance of Kresnik. It’s ridiculously powerful and as you might expect, a number of different factions want to get their hands on it. As such, the land of Rieze Maxia has become seriously disrupted. Countries don’t trust each other and everyone is suspicious and a little afraid; that super weapon could fall into the wrong hands, and then all is lost. It’s too political for my tastes but then again, it also offers a change of pace from the standard “maniac wants to destroy the world” plot. …well, wait a minute. Does it? Sounds like it’s just a modern version of that storyline.
Anyway, when you begin, you can choose a young doctor named Jude Mathis or a mysterious young woman named Milla Maxwell. As you might expect, your choice will change how the story unfolds; it reminds me a little of choosing either Claude or Rena at the start of Star Ocean: The 2nd Story . This means there could be good reason to go through it again with the other main character, but I haven’t tested that theory, so it’s just an assumption. I do know that you’ll see different scenes and have the option of tackling different side quests, depending on who you choose. Also, don’t forget that you will have a core party of up to six characters (four used in battle), so it’s not all about Jude and Milla.
Obviously, they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Balancing those traits is all part of the fun, as each character’s special skills prove invaluable in battle. Those abilities are called Artes and you’ll need to plan your attack carefully: You can swap fighters in and out on the fly, and characters can even be linked together to perform extra damaging moves that crush the competition. You have to embrace the system and formulate a strategy that involves everything from the most basic attack to the most complex Arte. But the depth of the confrontations is only the tip of the iceberg…hope you like micromanagement!
You probably do if you’re a JRPG fan. And you might really love the Lilium Orb system that functions as the character advancement mechanic. This game doesn’t use the standard experience and level-up style; instead, you earn points that you place on a huge grid. It’s not exactly like the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X but the idea is similar and it’s just as big (if not bigger). This lets you determine the exact customization and advancement path of each character. I love this because this means I can create the party I want; I can make a jack-of-all-trades or I can produce a character that is an expert in one discipline.
Then there are the skills you can learn from the Lilium Orb. These aren’t Artes; they’re different but they still grant your party members fresh powers. Thing is, these aren’t used in battle. Mainly, they’re statistical boosts, which are of course quite important. If you think this is the only unconventional part of the game, think again— Equipment isn’t handled as you might expect; i.e., buy and sell. You can only unlock new equipment by donating items you find. You might even have to donate some money. I found this a little irritating at first but after a while, you realize that this gives you a lot of freedom.
There’s no world map, which I always find disconcerting. There’s a quick-travel system that works extremely well, but I don’t particularly like it, just because it feels like a way to avoid “slow” travel. Some of us want to experience the environment, after all. But at least the loading times are fast and quick travel becomes very handy when you start tackling the side quests. There are lots of side quests, too. I have some issues with the balance of the combat mechanic as well, and here’s my biggest problem: The game doesn’t seem to excel in any one area. The story is okay and the gameplay is good but not great.
As such, Tales of Xillia might feel somewhat underwhelming. There’s nothing I can point to and say, “that’s absolutely fantastic.” It’s all pretty good, even great in some ways, but the overall package isn’t especially impressive. But hey, it’s catnip for JRPG fans, mostly because of the amount of content (at least 40-50 worth), the engaging combat, the freedom and depth of customization and micromanagement, and the charming presentation. The good news is that Namco Bandai obviously understands their target audience. The result isn’t going to win any awards, but it will make those fans smile. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
The Good: Pleasing visual palette. Good soundtrack. In-depth character advancement system. Well-designed combat mechanic. Fast-travel is a big plus for completionists. Solid pacing. Plenty of content for the JRPG fan.
The Bad: Slightly dated. Story isn’t as accomplished as one would hope. Equipment system is questionable.
The Ugly: “The writing in JRPGs simply needs to catch up with the rest of the world.”