More of a vestigial organ than a full-fledged Tale
Japanese role-playing games are known for their creative ways of keeping the player on the developers’ intended path. You know that guard is only standing on the bridge, arms folded, because the meticulously crafted plot and pacing demand it. You know that pirate won’t be handing over his ship until you’ve reached a high enough level to handle those sea harpies that lurk above the ocean waves.
Tales of Xillia 2 has no time for such pretense, however. At the start of the game, protagonist Ludger Kresnik finds himself owing a staggering debt to a powerful institution and must spend the bulk of his time paying this organization back, bit by bit. This debt is so stifling, in fact, that Ludger sets aside a good portion of his money for the payback, which actively prevents him from pursuing many of the things he’d actually like to experience in life.
That’s right: Tales of Xillia 2 is the first game that accurately simulates the American student-loan process!
On a more serious note, it’s clear that, for some bizarre reason, Bandai Namco felt compelled to emulate the free-to-play model in the latest entry of their venerable action-RPG franchise—despite the fact that it’s a full-fledged retail product. If you want to advance, you’ve got no choice but to pony up the cash to your creditors, and after you’ve paid back a set amount, a new main storyline quest opens up—and you’ll rinse and repeat this process (which will certainly hit a little too close to home for some players) throughout the game.
Thankfully, the money doled out by Xillia 2’s enemies does seem to take this design decision into account, but the whole thing feels very artificial, and getting constant, harassing calls from the all-too-perky-and-chirpy debt collector—even when you’ve just paid down 15,000 on what you owe—just drives home the point that you’re dealing with an absurd, arbitrary lending system (again, very much like student loans!).
That’s a shame, because there’s certainly an enjoyable experience to be found in Tales of Xillia 2—the problem is that it’s often hidden beneath so many “paywalls” and other frustrating measures that actively sabotage the adventure at times. Why structure the game in a way that clearly weakens the overall package? The core tenets of Tales are still here, and since the fast-paced, action-packed battle system remains strong, it never feels like that much of a chore to cobble together the necessary cash to unlock the next story mission—but it also just feels so unnecessary.
The interaction between the various party members also feels like a step up from the first Xillia, and you can unlock special character-specific chapters that shed more light on a given companion—and completing these segments increases your in-game relationship with them, along with their effectiveness in battle. It’s been a year since the events of the original game, and if you played the first Xillia, you’ll see plenty of familiar faces who’ve done such interesting things in the interim as “grow a beard” or “put on a hat.”
I’d normally say that newcomers can jump right into any Tales game, but Xillia 2 gives almost no exposition on who the returning cast members actually are or anything about the world they inhabit, so if you didn’t play the first game, you might be wondering just what the heck is up with a certain magic-wielding schoolgirl and her talking pink-and-purple doll. It’s won’t be completely unplayable for those who didn’t play the original, but you’ll get substantially more out of the experience if you fancy yourself a Xillia expert.
The two major newcomers to the proceedings are Ludger, the brother of a special agent, and Elle, an enigmatic young girl. The former is trying to pay back his debt, of course, while the latter has a goal more befitting a Japanese RPG: She’s looking for a mysterious legendary land. They’re joined by Ludger’s portly feline companion, Rollo—who, against all animal-rights logic and common human decency, the Xillia 2 crew consistently drags to known terrorist targets and other danger spots. As part of the game’s sidequest system, you can also send Rollo and a menagerie of collectible cats off on missions to scrounge up items.
As the narrative unfolds, you’ll make several dialogue choices for the weirdly semi-silent Ludger during most story cutscenes. Some of them are frivolous, like commenting on which character actually owns Rollo (hint: Since he’s a cat, the answer is quite clearly “no one”), while others can ultimately affect how certain scenes play out. The interactivity isn’t quite on the level of what you’ll find in a BioWare title, but it’s still nice to have some agency and be able to react to some of your party members’ critiques in a Tales game. That only makes it more bizarre, however, that Ludger doesn’t actually talk except for a few grunts and “yeah”s, making these interactions feel a lot more “gamey” than they need to.
At least Ludger fares much better on the battlefield, where he wields a collection of diverse weaponry that hasn’t been seen at one time from a single protagonist in Tales before. He’s got swords, guns, and a sledgehammer at his disposal—and he can switch between them on the fly—which opens up the combat in several ways. Rather than simply charging at a big brute, you can take aim from afar while your comrades take most of the foe’s damage.
There’s a lot to like in Xillia 2, but there’s also a lot that’ll make you scratch your head and furrow your brow—and I can’t help but feel that it ends up a lesser game for all of its half-baked, experimental design decisions. If you come to Tales for the always-excellent combat and the wacky hijinks between a silly slate of anime-styled characters, you’ll get what you want here. But if you were hoping for something that expands upon the formula in a meaningful way, this isn’t it—we may have to wait for next year’s Tales of Zestiria for that.
Tales of Xillia 2 isn’t an outright cash grab—after all, you’re not paying actual money to advance in the game—but it comes dangerously close to emulating some of the more sinister elements we’ve seen crop up in game development recently. After a pretty consistent track record the past eight years, especially during a timeframe when so many other Japanese RPGs have either become shells of their former glory or ceased production altogether, that’s a disappointing turn from one of the most reliable mainstream JRPG developers remaining.
|Developer: Bandai Namco • Publisher: Bandai Namco • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 08.19.14|
Unlike the last Tales sequel, 2008’s Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, Xillia 2 is a worthy entry in the pantheon of Bandai Namco’s flagship RPG series. Unfortunately, the game’s ill-advised debt-payback system to unlock new areas and story chapters sabotages the overall enjoyment at times, and some other curious design decisions make Xillia 2 a less compelling adventure than it should’ve been.
|The Good||Combat and character interaction—two Tales hallmarks—remain strong here.|
|The Bad||The game’s “pay-to-advance” structure feels a little too similar to the sinister “pay-to-win” systems in many free-to-play titles.|
|The Ugly||Rollo’s horrifying, screeching meowing clearly points to some appaling animal abuse behind the scenes!|
|Tales of Xillia 2 is a PS3 exclusive. Review code was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this review.|