Review: Tales of Xillia

A cosplayers dream come true.

One look at the cover art and there is no denying this is a JRPG.

Vesperia. Symphonia. Eternia. By themselves these words are meaningless, but are nonetheless as ensconced in the lexicon of Japanese role-playing game fanatics as the words Final and Fantasy. They are examples of the nouns attached to Namco Bandai’s Tales series, and the most recent game in the long running franchise to hit North America is Tales of Xillia. Like every other title in the series, it delivers anime inspired storytelling and art design, a complex action battle system, and plenty of replay value. What it does not do is compromise its uniquely Japanese flavor, creating a barrier of entry that is inviting to some, but impenetrable to most.

The fact that Tales of Xillia is supremely customizable is evident from the protagonist selection screen at the outset of the game. There are two choices, a hero and a heroine, and who is chosen will impact events similarly to Star Ocean: The Second Story. The male hero is Jude, a pensive, astute young man who starts the game in medical school. The female protagonist is Milla, a demigod who wields four elemental spirits. In a completely unsurprising turn, the plot picks up when Milla loses the four spirits, and the characters set off on a journey to retrieve them. Tired plot devices aside, the game differentiates itself from prior releases with its subtlety and nuance. Japanese RPG characters generally do not start their adventures hitting the books for upcoming medical examinations, but that is merely the tip of the iceberg. These characters have a striking amount of depth for a series that is known for wearing its heart on its sleeve. Key emotional scenes play out at a reserved, methodical pace, and for the most part the plot eschews the typical bombast associated with its anime styling. That is until a boss fight commences, where the story generally devolves into a whirlwind of annoying banter. Players may find themselves, for example, seeking out tranquil conversations with NPCs in a forest village rather than rushing to the next contrived story beat. That should be considered a success by any measure.

&#9835 Hey Jude, don't be afraid &#9835

Some of the beautiful scenery found in Rieze Maxia, the world of Tales of Xillia

The eminent production values of Tales of Xillia are easily one of its strongest selling points. Motoi Sakuraba returns for a soundtrack that is very pleasing to the ears, running the gamut from frenetic action tunes to delicate, tenuous pieces when the mood declines. The localization is top notch, with performances that are always believable and occasionally brilliant. Graphically Tales of Xillia is not pushing any boundaries as the game was released two years ago on an aging platform. Instead the game favors a broad color palette, lush scenery, and gorgeous character designs. Lighting and shading effects bring the beautifully animated vistas to life; each area is appropriately bright or muted to fit the story’s mood. Of note to true Tales fans is the fact that both of the veteran character designers, Kosuke Fujishima and Mutsumi Inomata, lent their services to this game. It is the first time the two have collaborated on the same title, and the merging styles function incredibly well. However, Namco Bandai’s steadfast adherence to cell shaded, anime inspired graphics are a double edged sword for the company. While Tales of Xillia does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere, some gamers immediately disengage if there is no attempt at realism. All of the elements on display here are arresting to a keen eye, but they sadly cannot resonate beyond a specific fandom.

This is what we like to call big damage.

Linked artes like this will decimate foes and give your thumbs a needed respite.

The vast majority of Tales players do not pay the price of admission simply for enchanting visuals or audio, though. Action battle systems have been the foundation of the series since its inception, with each title increasing in customization options. Often the games are written off as “button mashers”, but make no mistake, Tales of Xillia is filled to the brim with strategy. Players who simply mash the attack button will be punished severely, as the game rewards combination attacks and defensive maneuvers. Battles are triggered by running into an onscreen enemy and the action quickly transitions to an arena resembling that of a three-dimensional fighting game. Like previous titles, combat consists of normal attacks and technical point-consuming artes, which ostensibly function the same way as magic points in other RPGs. The system also possesses an “assault counter”, which similarly to Tales of Graces f dictates how many consecutive attacks can be linked together. These components begin simply enough but swiftly become more strategic when attempting to link them with the artificially intelligent party members. As if that were not enough offensive options, an “over-limit” system can be implemented to further pile on the damage. None of this is effortless, and at times learning the various systems can seem as daunting as becoming competent in a competitive fighting game.

The character progression system in Tales of Xillia is equally as intricate as the battle system. Each party member gets archetypical equipment slots along with an upgrade system called the “Lilium Orb”, which is reminiscent of the sphere grid used in Final Fantasy X. Upon levelling up, the heroes will gain growth points which can be used to unlock nodes on the orb, with each granting skills or stat boosts. Even the various shops in the game can level up, with the player using materials earned in battle to upgrade the contents and lower prices at the item stores. Whether it is selecting side quests, upgrading or equipping skills and equipment, or consulting a plethora of refresher tutorials, plenty of the play time in Tales of Xillia will be spent micro-managing.

Tales of snack time!

Comic relief plays a big role in Tales of Xillia’s narrative.

The changes that set Tales of Xillia apart from its predecessors are minuscule, but nevertheless welcome additions. Perhaps the most user friendly change is an update to how side quests are handled. More specifically, each side quest is clearly labelled in the menu with the ability to set each one with a navigation marker. These additions coupled with a fast travel feature make completing side quests less time consuming and ultimately more enjoyable than ever before. Rounding out the list of streamlined mechanics is a completely revamped cooking system. In previous Tales games cooking was performed much like item creation, where players would purchase food items, learn recipes, and then set what item to cook after battle in the menu. All of that has been removed in favor of a much more precise method of simply buying prepared dishes and then using them like items. Depending on price the effectiveness will last for a series of battles, and the game is balanced so that cooked items are essential in dungeons.

It seems that Namco Bandai have once again adhered steadfastly to what has been proven to sell copies in Japan. On one hand the development team should be applauded for being so adept at delivering Tales fans an enjoyable experience with every release. By the same token one wonders if playing it safe works to the company’s detriment. Tales of Xillia is a grand and convivial adventure that can only be faulted for not straying very far from the beaten path. The noun may have changed, but for the most part these are not unique people, places, or things.

12 comments on “Review: Tales of Xillia”

  1. It sounds to me that, just like Assassin’s Creed, it’s worth playing if you haven’t played all of the ones before it. I played the PS3 version of Vesperia and it was one of the better JRPGs of this generation. That last one I had played before that was Destiny back on the PS1. As this was the five-millionth anniversary of the Tales series, I had a feeling Xillia would be particularly good. I really want to play this.

    “Supremely customizable”
    This appeals to me . . . supremely.

    “Tales of Xillia is filled to the brim with strategy.”
    Are you SURE about this one? I wrote Vesperia of as button mashy because it was button mashy. All I did through the entire 80 hours was slash-slash-slash-special.

    I’m so stoked that they have so many deep and complicated game systems. I hope to p,ay this soon.

  2. Yeah, that’s exactly what I did through Vesperia as well. With this game there is a lot more variation in how the enemies behave. Some enemies won’t flinch at normal attacks, so you have to guard and counter at the right time or they will interrupt your combo and you’ll take a lot of damage. There is one nasty normal enemy in particular that carries a flame thrower (!), and you have to try to create space so they don’t surround you or the other characters. Jude in particular has a back step ability that when timed precisely snaps him behind the enemy for extra crit damage. This game and Graces f are a departure from the hack and slash roots, and what I’ve noticed in both games is that your strategy will change frequently in random encounters based on what enemies are present. It’s nowhere near as deep as a tactical strategy game, but it will certainly force you to think more than Vesperia does.

  3. Excellent read, I recently passed this particular onto any colleague who had been doing a small research with that. And he truly bought me personally lunch since i found it pertaining to him laugh So allow me to rephrase that.

  4. I thought that Graces f was an anomaly in the Tales of series because it was actually emotionally interesting at times and was introducing incredibly addictive systems. But after this review and receiving the game as a gift yesterday, it seems like Tales is actually interested in growing. But like the review points out, it is still growing within its very specific framework of sensibilities. Still, I’ll take it over another batch of Symphonias. That game has not aged well.

    But nobody said it better than kidney.

  5. I haven’t played it yet but I hear that Graces F has the best iteration of the Tales battle system of the entire series including Xillia. The strategic elements mentioned about Xillia have me really interested. Do you have an opinion on Graces F’s battle system, Tsubaki?

  6. @Julian – It certainly has seemed more lax recently. Maybe spam is getting smarter.

    @Jahan – I’m only about 4 hours into Xillia, but I do have to say that I prefer the battle system in Graces f. Both do require more than button mashing to effectively succeed, but Graces was more satisfying. Maybe Xillia will get that way, but if it doesn’t, I’m still too surprised by the game to care. Strange how much a fully rotatable camera and telling your composer to switch up his style can do. I’m most surprised that it’s Final Fantasy XII that this game reminds me of. I think the inspiration is clear from a design standpoint.

  7. From what I understand Graces f’s battle system is an update of the Tales of Destiny 2 system, which was never released in English. So while it is a departure from western released Tales games, it is not quite as innovative as it appears. Still a great battle system though, and I think what Xillia is attempting to do is a combination of Vesperia’s all out offense and Graces’ dodge and counter mechanics.

    I think the difference with current Tales games is that have are battle systems you really need to sit down and learn to fully enjoy them. That’s why I mentioned fighting games in the review; when I was spending time grinding to try and figure out some of Xillia’s more complex mechanics it reminded me of the hours I spent in training mode with Chun-Li. I mean Jude has legitimate juggling ability, and since he uses his fists he totally reminds me of a Tekken character.

    @Ethan – You are spot on about Sakuraba’s score, he really stepped outside of himself for this one. I was actually listening to that pack in soundtrack cd in my car the other day, which I think is the first time I’ve listened to Tales music outside of the games. One last thing, I recognize its MANY flaws but I will always have a soft spot for Tales of Symphonia. Mainly because that was the first RPG that grabbed me enough to complete all of the side quests. I haven’t touched it in about five years though, so I’m nervous about that HD collection because I highly doubt it holds up.

  8. I do have to wonder whether this is actually Sakuraba stepping outside of himself, or whether his music has simply been arranged by others in a way that is atypical for him. Either way, what little I’ve heard is hugely refreshing by Tales standards.

  9. Refreshing is absolutely the right word. The Tales OSTs were written in such a strict framework up to this point. In terms of musical structure, I think the change is more than just arrangement, but I haven’t properly studied it. Whatever the root, I’m glad for it.

  10. Nice! Curious to hear your thoughts. I’m still lukewarm on the battle system, but the game is so alluring to me otherwise. I think it really might be because I’m reminded of FFXII. Also, load times are great. This is especially noticeable when fast travel becomes available.

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