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Review: Tales of Xillia

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Two years after its original release, Tales of Xillia has finally made its way out of Japan and the world is better for it. I’ve been absolutely captivated by this game since first firing it up, easily playing through the night and only realising what time it was because the sun had emerged.

I was impressed right away when I was first tasked with customising the full options menu when creating a new save file. Changing a huge range of options like the music volume and whether you prefer a rotating or stationary mini-map before beginning the game is a thoughtful touch. The next step is choosing one of the two main characters. The male character, Jude, is a boring sounding medical student who’s trying to find his place in the world. The female character, Milla, is a badass spirit god in human form on the other hand. Not a hard decision, although Jude does eventually become an interesting character.

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Like every fantasy world built from scratch, names of people and places can be a little confusing at first, but clear explanations helped to keep me immersed in the world. Every time I thought the story couldn’t get better or more interesting, Tales of Xillia knocked it up a notch. I kept catching myself gasping or yelling, “no way!” as the many plot twists unfolded,  only to feel ridiculous since I was the only one in the room. The story sucked me in completely. By developing the characters so well, I began to take the betrayal and loss in the story to heart. Even more than I thought was possible. The story is truly the most impressive thing about this game.

Narrative is a driving force in JRPGs and Tales of Xillia offers up multiple ways to tell its story. Standard cutscenes field a large portion of the storytelling duties while “skits” – a staple of the Tales series — do much of the remainder. Skits are short optional scenes that help with the story, but more importantly, focus on character development. They fall into three categories: “Main” for story, “Sub” for side quests and “Etc” for random conversations. Most skits fall into the “Main” category and are unlocked based on your progress through the story. They will generally provide more details on the most recent cut scene. This helps to clarify what’s happening by giving a better sense of how the characters feel about the events they’re caught up in. The skits themselves immediately reminded me of chatting with the Colonel in Metal Gear Solid due to the animated squares – which represent each character involved in the conversation — interact with each other. An icon will display on screen when a new skit is available or you can sift through old ones at your leisure.

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Tales of Xillia always kept me guessing. Twice I thought the story was coming to an end only for a huge twist to be revealed which kept the game kept marching on. Some may find the prospect of feeling tantalisingly close to an ending only for it to be taken away frustrating, but I loved that the story could fool me and then improve. I was often reminded of some of my favourite TV series while playing Tales of Xillia and remembering how I felt when they ended, wishing there was just a little more. That’s exactly what Tales of Xillia did. When the gameplay was beginning to get a little stale and repetitive I was thrown a few curveballs. After becoming so reliant on the rest of your party members for fighting having my party reduced to a one woman battalion totally changed the battle dynamic. I was forced to rely on defence and combos rather than my overwhelming offence. I was also surprised to see a few puzzle dynamics introduced into dungeons late in the game. They help to alleviate the repetitive nature of a game requiring 30-40 hours to complete.

Each characters’ skills and attributes are dictated their Lilium Orb. The Lillium Orb is an ever growing hexagonal web with slots used for upgrading the characters using GP earned from levelling. The six main branches of the web spread outwardly from the centre and add stats directly to the characters by spending GP on available nodes. The main branches are connected by smaller ones which form the web. In the empty spaces outside the web there are skills and Artes, Tales of Xillia’s version of magic. Trapping each skill or Arte by completely surrounding it — with newly connected nodes — will allow access to new powers. It’s a little like the sphere grid system in Final Fantasy X only less complicated. Once you’ve acquired a certain number of skills on the outer rim of the Lilium Orb it will grow and new skills can be accessed.

Battles are in real time and it’s clear that Namco Tales Studio have spent time refining it through each of the previous games in the Tales series. Even 30 hours in I would come across the occasional tutorial or new info for a battle or stat mechanic. Although the tutorials were a bit overbearing in the beginning, the complicated nature of the battle system makes this a necessity. Though, it wasn’t long before they were a rare occurrence.

Characters can form links with others which allow them to surround a foe and use special abilities like guard breaking or healing depending on their skills. Changing whom the link is with is easy and can be done on the fly, making strategy in boss fights simple to conduct. Shortcuts for each magic Artes are customisable and I found a healthy mix of magic and weapon attacks will dispatch most foes. The tricker ones will require more defence and teamwork to take down.

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It’s something I take for granted these days, but – impressively — every scene in the game is fully voice acted, save for a few optional sub missions. It’s a great addition that helps bring the characters to life and grow my empathy towards them. The quality is generally superb and I recognised a few voice actors immediately; Alvin is voiced by Matthew Mercer, who does the voice for Chrom in Fire Emblem: Awakening. At first, I thought it was a little strange that the voice acting for the main character Milla was so wooden and alien, but it helps add to her character as a spirit from another realm.

The only problem I had with this game was the repetitiveness of NPCs voice acting. Hearing the phrase, “Mutton, fresh mutton” every three seconds every time you enter a town isn’t a major problem, but it became bothersome to say the least. Music is yet another strength in Tales of Xillia. Ranging from the hauntingly creepy to the colossal scale imposed in pre boss fight monologuing. I was constantly aware of the effort inherent in the soundtrack.

In terms of how this game looks, it won’t be making any headlines. Once I started to notice the differing architecture throughout the game’s many varied regions though, I let this two year old game off the hook. The colours are vibrant (when they need to be) when it comes to the anime style characters there is really nothing more you could ask for graphically. My favourite scenes were the HD animations. These are absolutely beautiful, but unfortunately few and far between in the beginning. Towards the end they start to become a more frequent occurrence, making them feel like a reward for making it so far. Visually Tales of Xillia is more charming than impressive but I found the narrative to be so engaging that good graphics were enough for me to enjoy them.

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Replay value has a big presence in Tales of Xillia. Thanks to New Game+ and the fact that you choose one of two main characters in the beginning, there’s a big incentive to play again. During the main quest Milla and Jude split up occasionally and to get the full story more than one playthrough is required. Starting again was something I did immediately – and happily —  after finishing the game for the first time. In-game achievements — known as titles — add grades to your party. You can use these grades to make your second play through easier by multiplying experience/currency or simply by carrying stats over. The second time through is a lot quicker too as you’re able to skip any scenes you don’t want to rewatch.

In a way it takes the best parts from games in its genre and combines them in one incredibly playable classic. The story is a complicated one, with more layers than an onion in the fifth layer of Inception, yet it’s clear and easily accessible unlike an onion in the fifth layer of Inception. I was constantly comparing this game to the first time I played Final Fantasy VII –my first JRPG experience  — while playing. I’m not saying it’s the untouchable FFVII, but for me to even consider it in the same league is a big deal. For Tales of Xillia to recapture my feelings when first playing a JRPG is incredible and it has won my respect like few others could. Scoring Tales of Xillia just shy of a 10 was a weighty decision and one that took me days to decide upon.

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This is not just another JRPG. It doesn’t do anything ground breaking or new but Tales of Xillia does everything it sets out to do and does it well. The term epic is thrown around a lot these days but when the knee-high boot fits…

If you’re into JRPGs you owe it to yourself to get this game and sacrifice your social life for a few weeks. It’s not every day you find a game that you can happily play all night and well into the next morning without realising so much time has passed.