NOTE: THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS A STAFF WRITER AT THE NOW DEFUNCT SPLITKICK.COM
REVIEWED BY JEFF CONOLLY ON PS3
The Tales series has a long and storied history, though it’s never received quite the same US fanfare as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. This thirteenth title in the franchise, Tales of Xillia, is a great entry point if you’re new to the series and a must buy for any JRPG fan. Even when it employed tropes and mechanisms that often annoy me, Xillia managed to keep me happy, surprised, and engaged.
The unique nature of this game is that its narrative is split between two protagonists. At the beginning, you are forced to choose to be either doe-eyed Jude, a young doctor in training, or Mila, a sort of god made mortal. About 85-90% of the game will be seen regardless of your choice, but whenever the two part ways you see only the perspective of your chosen character. Such a structure is a huge gamble. How much hubris does it take to immediately invite your audience play your game twice? Fortunately, their confidence was well deserved.
The story is not only incredibly engaging, but mature. Even though it has similar environmental themes to a game like Final Fantasy VII, it works hard to create nuance. There are no one-note, cartoon villains. Each side is given a fair argument and the game pushes you to understand that politics are complicated and each issue has two sympathetic, well-motivated sides. This is unprecedented in a genre that typically handles these sorts of issues with the deft hand of something like Captain Planet.
Alvin illustrates this beautifully. He is a mercenary and fulfills the Han Solo role in the group. He’s handsome, cocky, and has flimsy allegiance. In the tradition of great characters like Raistlin Majere of Dragonlance, you will spend the majority of the time wondering whose side he’s on, what his motivations are, and whether or not you can trust him. More importantly, these questions are answered surprisingly and satisfyingly.
The game is filled with dry humor that’s charming and endearing despite its cliché nature. Like other games in the series, there are many optional skits that can be seen of the characters interacting and most left me smiling or chuckling. Many of early jokes are the well-tread Commander Data material of a non human trying to understand human traits like hunger and sneezing. Again, these jokes should be too overused to work but they totally do.
Even normally troublesome or stereotypical gameplay sections, such as when your characters are forced to participate in a series of arena battles, were presented in a way that kept me intrigued and wondering what would happen next. One character carries around a talking stuffed animal that I wanted to immediately tie to a bottle rocket. Its voice was high and terribly annoying. Even so, when the game revealed what it was and why it could talk, it made me care about that stupid thing. That’s how good this game is.
The battle system is initiated by making contact with wandering enemies and like other Tales games, has a more action-inclined feel to it. In this game, you tether with one of the three other characters allowed on the battlefield with you. Linking this way causes the character to become your partner. They heal you when you’re knocked down and perform combination attacks and magic with you when able. As your characters evolve and gain new abilities they gain new ways to interact through links on the battlefield which keeps the combat compelling until the credits roll.
What’s insane about this game is its merchant system. Unlike most JRPGs, where new items are found in the shops when travelling to a new town, the stores in Xillia only get better items when you invest in them. You can invest cash or items (the sort of clutter that would be used for crafting in other games) however you chose. Hate buying armor and wish the weapons store could just get a better sword more quickly? You can just ignore the armor store and pour all your resources into leveling up the weapons. This level of customization was astounding.
The game also features FMV, hand-drawn cutscenes. Though used sparingly, these high story moments elevate the narrative and presentation. They’re absolutely beautiful. Hand-drawn animation seems to fit more organically into this genre than the pre-rendered cutscenes that began to plague so many games in the PS1/PS2 era. By virtue of expense of production alone, the scenes are few and never overstay their welcome.
If you own a PS3 and love RPGs you should be playing this game. The characters are round and varied, the combat fun, the customization overwhelming, and the story ambitious and gratifying. Triggering the final section made me feel premature loss like reading the last chapter of a beloved book. I really didn’t want to set this one down. In a world where more and more games feel like a chore to get to the end, that’s probably the highest compliment I can give it.