(PlayStation 3 Review) Tales of Xillia

Developer: Namco Bandai Games
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

In the lands of Rieze Maxia, mankind has developed the ability to harness the power of spirits through the use of their mana lobes. The spirits have been used to advance a way of life that mixes mysticism and science, and their powers have the kept peace for several decades between the realm’s two great powers: Auj Oule and Rashugal. The two countries have united the once-fractious clans of their territories to form mighty kingdoms, each vying to unite under their banner the entirety of Rieze Maxia. The stalemate of recent years is suddenly shattered when medical student Jude Mathis stumbles upon the latest weapon in Rashugal’s arsenal, the Lance of Kresnick, as it drains the life out of a professor. The weapon is powered by Spyrix, a source of power drawn from the lives of spirits, but also the energy generated from mana lobes. Before he falls to the cannon’s siphoning, he meets Milla Maxwell, the latest incarnation of the Lord of Spirits, a being whose sole mission is the protection of all life, human and spirit. From here, the two go on an adventure that involves the revelations of long-held secrets, betrayal, war, and a heavy dose of science fiction.

How that first encounter plays out depends on which character is chosen by the player. Unlike most story-driven role-playing games, Tales of Xillia offers players the choice to choose which character they wish to feature: Jude or Milla. Each offers their own style of play, with Milla utilizing swords and offensive elemental attacks while Jude dons gauntlets and focuses on close combat and healing. They share a similar rhythm, however, which makes transitioning from one to the other for a second playthrough easier than expected while differing enough to offer a fresh experience. This sort of split between similarity and differentiation is found in the story as well, with each coming across the same cast of characters, going through the same overarching plot, and battling the same enemies, but also diverging at points to fight different battles, have different conversations, and interact with party members on a different level. I chose Milla during my first outing, but those wanting the full story will find a helpful New Game Plus option available upon completion of the story, which will allow items to be carried over to a new game that makes it easier to progress and see what was missed during the initial outing.

Getting that New Game Plus option will require going through a 30-plus-hour quest that will take players all over Rieze Maxis—and beyond.  Along the way, a set of characters will join Jude and Milla, the typical crew that tends to form around adventuring heroes: the roguish mercenary (Alvin), the doting and clumsy childhood friend (Leia), the aged but powerful mentor (Rowen), and the young hanger-on (Elize). They have those atypical qualities so common in secondary characters, with Rowan being a famous and revered tactician, Elize being particularly skilled at utilizing Spyrix (and who happens to have a strange-looking sentient doll, Teepo), and Alvin being an incredibly friendly habitual liar. There is also the bizarre but always entertaining Ivar, Milla’s handmaid who is tasked with safeguarding the town that maintains her temple. He’s the overly jealous, wacky character, but he’s written and played at such a ridiculous level that he becomes endearing in his own right. Save for Ivar, the crew will travel around together, bonding through optional scripted dialogue events, leveling in battle, and amassing piles of loot as they dig through sacks, treasure chests, and surrounding flora. As standard as it sounds, the game manages to stand out with some great combat and hilarious writing.

In many ways, Tales of Xillia is a throwback to the style of role-playing game that was so common on the PlayStation 2, which emphasized characters and combat over everything else. Throughout the years, environments have taken on increased importance, as have things such as item creation and customization, branching dialog paths, fluctuating relationship levels, and a cinematic grandeur. It’s not that Tales of Xillia is devoid of such things: there are some nice-looking anime cutscenes, and players have the ability to expand the many town shops to carry better and more varied items with ingredients found throughout the world. It is, however, much more traditional in a general sense, as players progress from one hub to another, typically a small town with an adjacent port, over lands filled with roaming monsters, occupying their time between plot points by fulfilling side quests from townsfolk. These missions are largely the standard sort, comprised of battling dangerous beasts, gathering items, and delivering goods. A few side events extend over several chapters and hours of play, though these are more story driven, centered on tracking someone down and following up leads rather than engaging in combat. The lands that make up most of the world aren’t terribly exciting, with basic textures for the ground, trees, and rocks filling out the fields, caverns, jungles, and wastes that are traversed. Being able to climb up ledges and vines and crawl into holes does add an incentive to explore, given how often there is treasure on the other end, but that kind of environmental variety is minimal. Surprisingly, I encountered performance issues in both the world (pop-in) and battle (slowdown) when playing from the hard drive. But while the world might fail to immerse, it excels in facilitating camaraderie amongst the party members.

As the crew travels throughout the lands, a notice will occasionally appear to alert players to new dialogue events. If engaged, the screen turns dark and portraits of those characters involved in the discussion appear, and their faces animate as they converse. The amount of expression achieved in these is surprising, with bulging eyes, smirks, turned noses, and the occasional full-body image popping up to signal tonal shifts and, more frequently, punctuate jokes. I highly advise players to listen to these because they are far and away more engaging than the traditional character interaction that happens during the cutscenes. A persistent issue throughout in-engine or cutscene conversations is that the character models and lips don’t always synch to what’s being said, which makes for stilted interactions. There will be moments of awkward silence as the English line is finished while the Japanese line is clearly being spoken and accounted for, and then the characters abruptly shift to their next stance. Adapting situations for another language is undoubtedly difficult to manage, given the limited degree to which the dialog can vary from the original, but even then, these interactions are very general and frequently lack the personality found in the dialogue events. Running jokes, area-specific references, additional background information, and even tie-ins with the characters’ victory poses, which vary from group poses to specific actions between characters, make these well worth the player’s time. Between Milla’s obliviousness and aloofness to humans, Rowan’s subtly crude remarks, Alvin’s flippancy, and Leia’s jealousy, I haven’t laughed out loud so much at a game in quite a while.

Characters also interact on a mechanical level during combat. Up to four combatants can take the field, with the camera switching to a small open area after the character comes into contact with a monster on the map. As with other titles, approaching monsters from the rear will offer a bonus (damage dealt or damage dealt and stun), while those that get the jump on the player will start the round off surrounding them on the battlefield. It’s incredibly difficult to sneak up behind enemies as they always turned around if I went faster than the slowest pace, so most fights started off square after we plowed into one another. Of the four characters, two can be tethered to a partner. This allows characters to not only use their artes (special abilities) but also combined artes that are engaged whenever an attack meter has been built up with Technical Points and an arte engaged that the tethered character can assist with. After unleashing the arte, players have a limited amount of time to call in their ally for a powerful follow-up that will see the duo attack the enemy with an extended combo or powerful spells. Building the meter requires that players attack the enemy, but doing so uses up the Assault Counter, which is the number of attacks a character can string together; it refills once it reaches zero, but its presence requires that players plan out when they wish to use a combo in order to not run out of attacks beforehand. Attacks are tied to various elements—fire, ice, etc.—and different tethers allow for a wide variety of element-specific moves, which can be especially damaging to enemies susceptible to that particular element. Moves are tied to hotkeys, with a regular attack supplemented by abilities keyed to a series of spots assigned to the left and right analog sticks. Timing is tricky, however, in that it’s easy to accidently input a move before its time, with the expected queuing effect instead resulting in a different move altogether. I also frequently—and somewhat embarrassingly— found myself jumping whenever I attempted to use one of the moves linked to the up position on the left or right analog sticks.

Not being able to pull off every intended move every time was slightly frustrating, but this was less frustrating than the occasions when the AI ignored my instructions. Actually, this only led to serious frustrations during two encounters, but one of which, the final boss fight, was downright infuriating. Each character can be set to behave in certain ways in response to chosen settings, such as what enemies to target, who to heal, how many Technical Points to use, and so on. The AI was adept most of the time, holding their own and assisting when possible. It was when battles stretched on for several minutes that it became clear they were acting more in the spirit of the directives rather than to the letter. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it came time to tackling some of the bosses, I required precision, not initiative. Combat is so chaotic, with explosions and spells obscuring characters (even with an adjustable camera option), that it can be tough to follow the flow of battle, but that was just one of many problems with the last fight. After a string of lesser bosses, the final boss appears—note: there are no save points here, so heed any warnings of proceeding further with an immediate manual quick save—and immediately shows themselves immune to the rules of combat. After being juggled around for the umpteenth time, it was hard not to grip the controller in a wide-eyed clutch of fury after seeing my team fall after the AI yet again became lax in following orders. Granted, had this battle been better designed I might not have cared as much about the AI’s independent streak, but the final battle really soured the last act. In a one-hour stretch, I died more than the previous 30-odd hours combined, several times over. When I did win, it felt more like luck than anything else, which is a strange feeling in what is an otherwise easy title. Players opting to go on a harder difficulty will definitely need to keep a close eye on their allies, and steel themselves especially for the final battle.

This isn’t the first role-playing game to have a poor final boss, of course, and while it’s unfortunate, that shouldn’t dissuade players from tromping around Rieze Maxia. The last battle might be a long slog, but the rest of the game is anything but.

Tales of Xillia is that rare combination of a role-playing game that’s both action packed and genuinely funny. Some of its best bits are tucked away behind optional dialogue events, but little effort is required to enjoy some of the strangest, funniest dialog in the series. While the environments might look dated and the interactions a little stiff, and the final boss making for a painful ender, the rest is a top-notch traditional offering that fans of the genre should definitely check out.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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