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.
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.
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.
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.