Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tales of Xillia Review

Alas, the life of a Western fan of the "Tales of" series is a rather trying one. Some of the flagships of the Tales series (most notably Symphonia, Vesperia, and Abyss) have been ranked as some of the greatest RPGs ever made, and continue to gain popularity years after their initial release.  Unfortunately, the series has not had the best track record for localization outside of Japan. The legendary RPG series has spawned fourteen mothership titles, and only half of those have been released internationally. However, the fifteenth anniversary has finally brought with it a new localization! Two years after its release in Japan, Tales of Xillia made its long-awaited North American debut earlier this month. Does this new title live up to the standards set by its critically acclaimed predecessors, or does it fall to the crippling cliches and development flaws present in many JRPGs today?

Tales of Xillia takes place in the mystical realm of Rieze Maxia, which contains a society built on the symbiotic relationship between mankind and spirits. In essence, humans rely on the power of spirits to use magic and "technology," while spirits rely on the wishes and belief of mankind in order to sustain themselves. This symbiosis is one of the key elements of the plot, and is apparent from the very start of the game. Before the game begins, the player chooses one of two protagonists to follow through the story: a young medical student named Jude Mathis, and Milla Maxwell, a young woman who proclaims herself to be the lord of all spirits. Although both characters follow the same overall plot and are playable in both story lines, it is interesting to view the same story events from two unique perspectives. It is interesting to see how the same events affect the two protagonists in vastly different ways, which helps define the game's overarching theme of unwavering convictions.

The game begins with the protagonists discovering a device known as the Lance of Kresnik, which is revealed to be a devastating war machine, the very existence of which is destroying the fabric of the natural world. As the nations of Rieze Maxia prepare for war, Jude, Milla, and the rest of the party embark on a quest to destroy the enigmatic weapon of mass destruction and thwart the plans of the power-hungry baddies!

The core party of six characters is certainly an interesting and diverse one. Throughout gameplay, you have the opportunity to view all sorts of fully voice-acted side conversations that help to develop their personalities and provide each character's perspectives on various plot events. Unfortunately, the cast does fall into some vary obvious tropes, such as the young and socially isolated magic prodigy, the overenthusiastic childhood friend, and the shady wisecracking mercenary who has obvious treacherous intentions towards the party. The general lack of subtlety in character motivations and overall uniqueness was rather jarring, but despite this I found myself fully invested in each character's development throughout the story. Despite the prevalence of stereotypes and tropes, the cast is certainly a well-written, entertaining, and rather heartwarming bunch.

Standard JRPG Protagonist Squad: ASSEMBLE
One area where Tales of Xillia clearly excels is in its presentation. The game is run entirely in-engine, which allows for the smooth and quick loading of absolutely gorgeous environments. Graphically, the game does not set any new landmarks, but the landscapes and cities of Rieze Maxia are presented beautifully. The artistry of the world, combined with a wonderful score from famed composer Motoi Sakuraba, really helps bring the story to life.

Unfortunately, many of the trails between cities and dungeons are incredibly similar, and simply appear to be re-colored versions of the same map with different enemies and random item drops. This did not detract from the experience at first, but after 20 or so hours of gameplay, it became frustrating to have to walk a different version of the same trail over and over again. 

Furthermore, many of the dungeons were rather linear, and did not provide much of a challenge or allow for a great deal of exploration. While the linearity did not approach the level of games such as Final Fantasy XIII, it was a stark contrast to previous Tales titles, which relied heavily on sprawling dungeons with engaging puzzle elements. Dungeons in the game were visually appealing, but lacked the challenge that is typically associated with the Tales series.

The beautifully rendered world of Rieze Maxia
The combat system, however, kept me addicted to Tales of Xillia from start to finish. From the very first battle, you're thrown into fast-paced and action packed combat, with the player controlling one character and the AI controlling three other party members. The strategy settings for the AI can be customized to the slightest detail, and the player can change characters and swap out party members at will. Each character also boasts an assortment unique special attacks, known as Artes, which can be chained into any variation of normal attacks to create devastating combos. 

Furthermore, characters can also "link" together to guard each other in battle, double-team enemies, and unleash powerful special attacks known as "Linked Artes." This linking system is new to the Tales series, and added an incredibly fun tactical layer to the standard combat system. I frequently controlled Milla in combat, and it was immensely satisfying to link with Jude and transition from one of Milla's lightning spell attacks into a deadly combo attack in which Milla would launch lightning into the air, where Jude would catch it and throw it at the enemy. There are countless variations of linked artes, depending on which party member you're linked with and which attack you use. 

Although the combat system is innovative and addicting, it does seem to break the balance of the game, somewhat. I frequently found myself bored by many of the opponents I faced, and found myself increasing the game's difficulty simply so I would feel challenged by some of the boss battles. 

Milla and Jude unleashing a powerful "Final Gale" Linked Arte
Tales of Xillia also allows for a great deal of customization with its level-up and equipment systems. Reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII, the game utilizes a grid-based level system (known as the Lilium Orb), in which you use acquired points to acquire various skills, Artes, or stat-increases. This allows you to carefully tailor characters to fulfill certain roles in combat, but players who dislike the Lilium Orb may simply opt for their characters to auto-level.

Less appealing is the customization of equipment and shops throughout the game. Unlike most RPGs, in which each town's various stores sell unique items, there simply exists a universal set of stores that sell the same wares at every single locale. The stock of items available depends solely on your investment into them, either by donating raw materials or acquired funds. Objectively, I can see why this system would be appealing to many players. If you wish to grind for raw materials and get the best equipment possible, you can do so at your leisure! However, with some incredibly rare exceptions, these stores are the only means to obtain new equipment, especially weapons and armor. If you choose not to invest in those stores, then you'll have a great deal of difficulty facing enemies as you progress through the game. Furthermore, I rarely had the motivation to explore the rare stray paths in dungeons and find any extra loot, knowing that I'd only find random raw materials and occasionally some funds. 

Lastly, perhaps the greatest weakness that Tales of Xillia faces is the uneven plot development and somewhat random pacing. Although the combat was addicting and kept me playing, I went through large stretches of the game in which very little actually happened to advance the plot. The entire first chapter seemed to be a pointless chain of events in which characters moved from town to town, while looking for the Lance of Kresnik. There were definitely high points later in the game that had me on the edge of my seat, spellbound by the events taking place and the emotional turmoil. However, these high points were often overshadowed by stretches of predictable tedium and an incredibly rushed final act that left me rather disoriented and disappointed at the conclusion.

Furthermore, the game is rather short (about 30-35 hours to complete the main story), and there's little else to occupy the players attention. While there are a multitude of sub-quests, the vast majority of them involve backtracking to a random location to defeat a random enemy or obtain a random item, and in return you receive a generic amount of funds. Very few of them involve any actual character development, and they mostly felt like tedious chores. Unfortunately, side quests are the primary means of obtaining vital funds in the game, so if you want to purchase high-end equipment, you're forced to take many of them on. 

Overall, Tales of Xillia is a fun and engaging JRPG. While its innovative combat system, beautiful presentation, and diverse cast of characters can carry the show, the uneven and somewhat simplistic plot, linear and recycled environments, and lack of extra content do disappoint. When compared to previous entries in the Tales universe, Xillia simply falls short. I would recommend it as a great entry title for the series, but long-time Tales fans would have a better experience playing through Symphonia or Vesperia once more.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...