Tidus meets Tales
Tales of Xillia is a Japanese role-playing game that starts in the sewers.
…No, wait! Come back! Sure, the dreaded, soul-sucking “sewer area” has long been the bane of JRPG players everywhere (I still recall my brother’s Xenogears save file remaining hopelessly stuck at that game’s notorious “Sewer Horror” section for months on end), but thankfully, Xillia’s time in sewage lasts a mere matter of minutes. Still, it’s an inauspicious beginning for what’s been one of the last bastions of traditional Japanese RPG design this generation, particularly when it comes to that one element that practically defines the genre: the expansive overworld map.
Tales of Xillia changes all that.
Twelve years after Final Fantasy abandoned several cherished series conventions (elements that some say the franchise has never quite recaptured) in Final Fantasy X, which followed Tidus, Yuna, and friends through the linear world of Spira, Tales of Xillia does the same with its adventure across the land of Rieze Maxia and its two rival nations. It wouldn’t be completely correct to call Tales of Xillia “linear,” though. While the game lacks a navigable overworld map, Xillia does give you the ability to warp anywhere you’ve been previously—and it does so just a few short hours into the game. Regardless, this change is sure to be the most jarring and controversial for longtime series fans, and like other games that use this interface, it’s a bit difficult to get a sense of scope of the world at large at times.
The overworld isn’t the only area to see changes. In a first for the series, Tales of Xillia allows players to choose between two protagonists at the start of the game. There’s Jude, a thoughtful young medical student, and Milla, an enigmatic warrior woman with a few secrets up her sleeve. While I chose to play through as Milla, both characters hold their own from a personality perspective. Jude may look like a typical dopey, naive Tales protagonist—series producer Hideo Baba described him to me as much at a Namco Bandai event a few months ago—but I’d say that’s an inaccurate description. Unlike most wet-behind-the-ears main characters in this series, Jude’s educated and observant, and he actually tries to make intelligent decisions and hypotheses about the mysterious events going on around him.
In fact, Jude wasn’t the only surprise for me when it came to the characters. It seems like the writers may have taken the criticism of previous casts—which have typically been filled to the brim with dunderheaded nobility and whiny tagalong kids—to heart. Everyone here seems to be relatively normal and—gasp—competent. (Well, one character does feel a bit out of place in this regard, but believe it or not, it’s not the girl who travels around with a talking pink-and-purple puppet.) You can imagine these characters having lives and dreams of their own, and the game goes to great lengths to explain that they’re talented individuals outside the context of this particular adventure. And get this: The token “old man” is an actual elderly man and not a dude in his mid-30s this time!
I also have to mention the excellent translation and (generally) spot-on voice casting. The Tales series has a tendency to be very “Japanese” when it comes to mindset, presentation, and dialogue, which has made for some pretty rough translations in the past—even up to Vesperia. Since Tales of Graces f and especially with Tales of Xillia, however, those instances have been almost entirely eradicated, and I can only think of one or two lines in the entire game that felt a little awkward. And rather than attempting to match the Japanese voices pitch for pitch, Tales of Xillia instead opts for aural sensibilities that make sense for an English-speaking audience. While a couple of casting choices are little curious, the actors definitely bring plenty of charisma and generally jell together quite well—a requisite in the Tales series, given its copious amount of optional “skits” that flesh out the cast. Hey, it takes talent to not sound completely ridiculous when belting out dialogue such as, “It’s the Lance of Kresnik!”
While the story itself is certainly on the higher echelon of Japanese RPG tales, the problem is that Milla and Jude aren’t equal protagonists from a storytelling standpoint. The inscrutable Milla talks in riddles and vague generalities, which is fine when you’re playing from Jude’s perspective. But when I’m playing as Milla and really have no idea what’s going on, it’s a problem. I understand that her character is supposed to be mysterious, but that characterization shouldn’t come at the expense of the plot presentation. After completing Milla’s quest, I started a playthrough as Jude and immediately felt like his narrative was introduced in a far better manner, with a lot more context and exposition given to the player. I think Milla’s the cooler character, but Jude’s path succeeds in telling the more coherent story. Ultimately, it’s your choice, but new players—especially those new to the series—may benefit from picking Jude.
Tales narratives have always been hit-or-miss, but the combat system has always been a major series strength—the fast-paced, real-time battles are probably the most consistently enjoyable in mainstream Japanese RPGs—and the major change here revolves around “linking” with a partner in combat. Each potential battlefield buddy has a special ability that really opens up the combat and encourages more thoughtful strategy than simple button-mashing. For example, if I needed to break an armored foe’s defenses, I’d link up with the sword-wielding brute, while I’d stay tethered to a healer when I whaled on a gargantuan baddie capable of unleashing punishing mystic artes. It’s not a huge change, but it is a significant one, and I’d definitely like to see it used in future series installments.
Another change sure to be far more controversial is the shop-upgrade system. Whenever you go out exploring, you’ll scour the field for various insect husks, beast dung, and fish bones, which you’ll then sell back to shops (who knew beast dung could be so lucrative?) and expand the selection of wares. Theoretically, you can “break” this section of the game by upgrading past your level, but I think it would take a good deal of effort, and it never happened to me. Some players may not like the thought of not finding new weapons when entering a new area, but I mostly thought the shop upgrades worked as a nice reward for going out and exploring. There’s nothing more frustrating than arriving in a new town in an RPG and seeing the same ol’ selection of blades and shields you saw in the last one. Here, I could bring the new weapons and armor directly to me.
I did have one issue with this new system, though. Because the fields and dungeons are now packed with the aforementioned beast dung and other semi-useless piles of…stuff, you rarely find anything of actual value while exploring. It got so bad, in fact, that when I would stumble upon a valuable item, I’d react in shock. “What?! A sword in a treasure chest?! Hark! What manner of wizardry is this?!”
Besides rationing its treasures, Tales of Xillia also seems to ration its designs. Some areas, such as the perpetually dark town of Fennmont or Xian Du, a city carved into the side of a mountain, are as spectacular as any locations ever seen in the series, but the majority of highroads and caves—where you’ll be doing most of your traveling—are unbelievably bland. (At one point, I thought, “This isn’t a canyon—it’s a monster corridor!”) What’s more, all of the seaports—of which there are several—look exactly the same. It’s not often that I can tell exactly where a game’s budget got cut, but the disparity in design is obvious in Xillia.
Unfortunately, exploration is also hampered by various story events that arbitrarily take control away from the player. In general, you have free rein to go on sidequests during downtime, but the game doesn’t really do a good job of making it clear when you’re in the middle of a story event that blocks off travel. Other times, I’d have the free time and availability to do a sidequest but didn’t have the right character in my party to trigger it—because, of course, it’s a Tales game, and characters leave, join, rejoin, leave, and then rejoin your party for no good reason again and again.
It would be one thing if the game warned you beforehand that you were entering a story segment that would totally block off travel, but these sections usually aren’t predicated by anything more than the typical “Ready to go?” RPG text. One late-game segment is particularly frustrating as you pass a “semi-point of no return” and get stuck on a ship—followed by an even worse fate that has to be one of the most tedious, frustrating, boring RPG segments I’ve played in the last 15 years—for hours on end.
That’s not to say that the overall experience is painful, and Tales of Xillia is definitely on the stronger end of games in the series. Overall, though, I just can’t help but feel that something is missing from the experience. Baba has admitted that some content (including several series staples) was cut from the game due to time constraints, and nowhere is this more illustrative than my playtime—around 45 hours, which is a far cry from the 70-plus in which I usually finish Tales. That said, Tales games have a way of overstaying their welcome, but I never felt that way with Xillia.
It’s not the truncated length that sabotages Xillia, however, but rather the mechanics of design and presentation. Tales of Xillia is certainly highly enjoyable and absolutely recommendable, but at times, it feels like the game’s design actively worked against me having fun. I had a blast making my way through dungeons and trying out different links between characters, and I enjoyed uncovering the various side stories that would unfold when I’d take on a quest—when the game would actually let me.
From most import reports, Tales of Xillia 2—now confirmed for Western release next year—works out many of the kinks found here and is a more enjoyable experience overall, but that news won’t fix Xillia‘s issues. I enjoy the Tales series so much in part because it usually gives me a world and lets me go explore it on the back of a dragon. Here, I felt strangely shackled to how the developers wanted me to play. And regardless of whether there’s an overworld or not, that’s never been a hallmark of Tales, and I hope it’s not a harbinger of where the series is going from here.
|Developer: Namco Tales Studio • Publisher: Namco Bandai • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 08.06.2013|
Tales of Xillia feels like the Final Fantasy X of Namco Bandai’s venerable Tales RPG series. It’s an enjoyable experience, but it also discards several tried-and-true franchise conventions—such as a traversable overworld map—in favor of a smaller, more focused adventure. The ability to link characters in battle adds a huge new element to combat, though, and the cast of characters might well be the strongest the series has ever seen. While Tales devotees may fret over some changes here, they’ll definitely enjoy the overall package.
|The Good||Probably the most mature, respectable, relatable Tales cast in history; new Link system adds to combat complexities in a good way.|
|The Bad||Arbitrarily locks off travel options for chunks of the game; pacing falls apart in the latter half.|
|The Ugly||A talking puppet yapping about…”bazongas.” Yikes.|
|Tales of Xillia is a PlayStation 3 exclusive.|