Tales of Xillia is pretty awesome. You should totally play it.
That's exactly the sort of review I would have written back in 1995 had I played the very first game in Namco's long-running role-playing series, Tales of Phantasia, on the Super Famicom. I would have tweaked the wording slightly for each subsequent game, maybe added a bit here and there, but for the most part my evaluation would have been the same. For Tales of Xillia, long-time readers of my critiques would get excited over the addition of the word "totally."
That sort of consistency is the key to the success of the Tales franchise. It's the reason the series' fanbase is so enamoured, and why we don't see articles popping up alongside each new entry in the series, calling for its death or a serious reboot. Rather than try to revolutionise the role-playing genre with every title, the Namco Tales Studio gives us baby steps, tiny tweaks to the formula that keep the series fresh and make the gumdrops taste different.
It's almost uncanny, how homogeneous the core games in the franchise are. Pick up a copy of Tales of Phantasia -- an 18-year-old role-playing game for Japan's version of the Super Nintendo -- and get into a fight. Those 2D, side-scrolling battles feel startlingly similar to the fully 3D battles of the latest game in the series.
You know what to expect from a Tales game. You've got a couple of main characters -- often a male and a female, usually strange bedfellows. In Tales of Xillia it's Jude Mathis, supernaturally helpful medical student, and Millia Maxwell, the almost complexly unlikable (at least for the first 10-15 hours) successor to the Master of Spirits. The spirits of the world are dying, and Millia needs that to stop. Jude starts off a reluctant companion, but finds greater purpose, as young role-playing game heroes often do.
Along the way this unlikely duo is joined by a cast of beloved anime tropes. There's the humble old man who's actually a seasoned warrior, and the childhood friend with a secret crush. The scoundrel who's so untrustworthy that all of his companions point it out on a fairly regular basis, yet they still keep him around -- I'm assuming as a means to counteract the relative blandness of the main characters.
Then there's my favourite member of this merry band, a mysterious young girl named Elize, saddled with an odd talking doll named Teepo. The truth behind her relationship with this odd creature is one of the most mind-blowing revelations of the game, though it would have been much more profound had Teepo's horrendously annoying voice not been involved. Dear Namco Tales Studio, please include an option to mute specific characters in your next game.
Note that much of my opinion of the characters comes from the fact that I chose Millia as my main character instead of Jude for my initial play-through. Millia begins the game as a superhuman creature with no compassion or emotion at all. Even her voice acting is dull, lacking any real passion. I've heard Jude's story is more complete and human.
Splitting the story between two characters also leads to some jarring moments in the narrative. While most of the story remains the same between Jude and Millia, there are unique events for each that are only confusing references in the other. Important characters appear in the plot with little more than a "Hi, I'm an important character." Later in the game the characters split up again, only to rejoin in the middle of what seems to be an important boss fight, with no idea what led up to it.
This is supposed to compel me to play through the game a second time with Jude in the lead. Instead, I was compelled into annoyance. Later, I shall be compelled unto YouTube, to figure out what I missed.
Split story strangeness and character woes aside, once the plot thickens Tales of Xillia gets pretty exciting. Normally in this sort of game I've got the plot figured out within the first dozen hours or so, but Xillia threw some late-in-the-game curves I did not see coming. Rarely am I surprised in the 30th hour of a 40-hour game. Nicely done.
All-in-all, the story passes muster, but story isn't necessarily all that important in a Tales game. It's the crunchy bits between long, drawn-out cutscenes that make the game.
It's those signature Tales story events, where character is built and relationships forged via small vignettes played out on the screen via static character portraits.
It's scouring expansive playfields (there is no overland in this game, just a series of linked adventure and story playfields) for resources, and then using those to level up the game's item, weapon, armour, food and accessory shops, a clever means of bypassing the old role-playing trope of new town, new equipment.
It's performing side-quests to unlock cosmetic equipment for your characters. Even the most unbearable, droning cutscene monologues are fun when your character is wearing emo glasses and bunny ears.
It's spending hours deciding how to allot points in each character's Lilium Orb, a graphical advancement system in which you can fine-tune your party's skills and abilities. Or assigning skills based on each character's role, and setting up your AI companions' basic behaviour patterns via the strategy menu. And if that all sounded confusing, you can just set all of that automatically and spend your time having fun with Tales of Xillia's lovely combat system.
Is combat in Tales of Xillia entertaining? Dude (can I call you dude?), I've found myself backtracking through areas I've already covered just to fight more battles.
The signature Tales 3D active combat system is here, with all of the special Artes and Demon Fangs fans have come to know and love. Using a combination of directions and two buttons, any idiot can flail their way through most battles on the lowest difficulty setting. Flailing is completely optional, of course -- combat can go as deep as you want it to. If you want to focus on kicking arse with Millia and then switch off to Elize to personally pass out healing and support before taking over another character to cast a massive area-of-effect Arte to finish off the enemy, that is indeed a thing you can do.
That's the old. The new is the Linking system, which allows two characters to be bound together in battle, unlocking special abilities and powerful linked Artes. Bind with Jude and he'll help you up and heal you when critters knock you down. Partner with Jude's childhood pal Leia, and there's a chance she'll steal an item from the enemy.
The Linking system is a perfect example of the small tweaks Namco Tales Studio implements to keep the series fresh, adding a thin layer of strategy to combat. The only downside is that since it requires one player-controlled and one AI-controlled character to work, the game's local multiplayer drops the feature if there are more than two players in the game (it supports up to four).
All of these -- the exhilarating combat, joyous exploration, micro-managing or the avoidance thereof, and a surprisingly fresh story -- equal a Tales game. Not just any Tales game, but one that's incrementally better than the last. Namco Tales Studio plays it safe, but that's what the fans want, and its what they've been getting for 18 years. If you're not a fan, now's a good time to become one -- Tales of Xillia 2 is coming to North America next year.
I guess what I am trying to say is this: Tales of Xillia is pretty awesome. You should totally play it, dude.