Review:Tales of Xillia

Tales of Xillia is JRPG released in 2011 in Japan and later internationally in 2013, as part of the 15th anniversary project for the long-running Tales series. In an ever changing gaming landscape where RPGs are pushing new boundaries in narrative and gameplay, the Tales series of game remains relatively unchanged and epitomizes the classic JRPG formula. Being the 13th main installment in the franchise Xillia looks to continue their tradition of classic storytelling and fast-paced combat, but with some new enhancements. 

Tales of Xillia begins with a selection between the two main protagonists and whose perspective the story will follow. Since much of the story will be identical with only portions where the pair are separated, the choice is ultimately not a huge one. It does offer some replay value, but having to play the game twice to watch all the scenes is abit of a bummer. 

The main story takes place in the world of Rieze Maxia, a place where spirits exist alongside humans who can harness their powers for everyday use. The plot starts with a background of a looming war between two superpowers, and the Lord of Spirits Milla Maxwell, sensing a disturbance among the spirits decides to investigate to uncover the cause. Jude Mathis, a medical student on an errand runs into a suspicious Milla and is dragged into a conspiracy for which the pair is hunted across the world and decide to help her unravel the plot, and have many companions join them on their journey.

The characters are a strong part of the appeal of the Tales, with casts of likable, well-written characters, and Xillia is no different. The game's ensemble of colorful characters from disparate backgrounds are all likable and pleasant personalities which are well-fleshed out by the story's end. Watching interactions between party members is always a joy and numerous playful vignettes serve to further flesh out the world and characters, as well as provide significant comedy to an otherwise serious story.

Tales of Xillia's story start off as a stereotypical JRPG adventure as our unwitting protagonists and their merry band of companions journey together, uncover a supposingly evil plot and fight to save the day. And for the length of a typical JRPG or so they do just that, and where you reach a typical narrative endpoint the game just... continues, and with a twist that was unexpected to players as much to the characters themselves, and the story really kicks into gear, revealing what really is at stake. And from there the game continues for another fascinating 10-15 hours of gameplay. Oh and at no point did I ever say this happens just once.

Much of the merit I will give to Xillia's story would be credited to its storytelling post-twist. The initial half of the game serves much to set up the world, its status quo, and the characters as well as their motivations. While definitely plenty serviceable and at times delightful at its own right, one can't help but feel like these bits were all played out before. Much of what you think up to that point is brought into question however, when the the heroes defeat the antagonist as they set out to do, and the problem lies in what to do after the fact, as war isn't quite over and the truth behind a more fundamental conflict comes to light.

Sure the game does have a number of maleficent, self-serving individuals, but otherwise almost everyone else on all sides are fighting for what they genuinely think is for the best (or really as best as can be) for their people, terrible as may be the things they must do. Xillia is full of normal people doing extraordinary things for very normal reasons, and often those motivations (or lack thereof) is brought to a head, loyalties tested, relationships strained. This is most clear among the party members themselves, given their reasons for feeling torn, inadequate, betrayed and dragged into something they never signed up for. Conflicts between the cast are uncomfortable, as they should be, but never overly dramatic. People change and relationships will never be quite the same, but everyone eventually came out the better for it.

Xillia never really questions what is the right thing to do, but when decisions must be made on the lives of an entire people, opinions will be split on what is ideal and what is realistically achievable, never mind the fact that obviously neither side wants to be on the world-ending end of that decision. As JRPG stories more often than not tackle moral conflicts in varying forms of black and white, it is refreshing to see how Xillia depicts its own in relateable shade of grey, and the narrative benefits greatly from it, ending with a strong, memorable ending stretch. Xillia itself already tells a complete tale, but also effectively sets the stage for its optional but very delightful sequel Tales of Xillia 2.

The much praised combat system of the Tales games is once again back and strong as ever, this time as the Dual Raid Linear Motion Battle System (jeez that's a mouthful). Combat is initiated when the player character contacts a wandering monster in the overworld, where they are then transitioned into an arena for real time combat. Four party members are fielded at any time with the option to switch them out anytime. As combat is in real time, reflexes and snap-decision making play as much a role as strategic decisions. The player is always in control of a single party member at any time but may jump to other characters to micromanage their action if the need arises. When not micromanaging them, the AI can be customized to determine character behavior in combat, and they are admirably competent in fulfilling their roles once properly set-up, where I can focus on controlling the micro-intensive Jude while only switching when absolutely needed. New to the system is the linking system where party members can be paired and unpaired at will, depending on the initial setup, pairing certain characters together will give them a further sets to strategic instructions, where the paired unit will attempt to flank, provide cover or attempt combos with their partner, offering a simple, intuitive way to provide these orders without finicky micromanagement, and is a welcome addition to the franchise.

Outside of combat, character leveling is done using an expanding web system called Lilium Orbs akin to a more advanced Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, where characters spend points from leveling to increase stats and obtain perks, skills and passives. Once unlocked, the various passives and actives may be toggled on/off to specialize the character and influence AI behavior. Excelling in Xillia's excellent combat system is thus a combination of character building and in-combat strategy as well as some mechanical skill. Its an engrossing, fun, fast-paced system which has yet to feel repetitive by the end of a 60-80 hour or so playthrough. The battles themselves are quick affairs, with normal encounters taking anywhere from 10 seconds to around a minute, while stronger mobs and bosses provide a stiffer challenge. The game's difficulty is always fair and mostly appropriate for your level, making the previously mandatory grinding sessions a thing of the past.

Graphically, Xillia may not be anything impressive for a PS3 era game, and dungeon environments are often rather bland and their design uninspired. Luckily, in combat the game looks and feels great with solid models, slick animations and flashy special effects. Also to the game's credit is its good art design, featuring excellent character designs, colorful palette and plenty of beautiful vistas. The score by Sakuraba Matoi is also worth mentioning, with an excellent soundtrack that suits the story  and plenty of memorable scores. Extra credit also goes to Ufotable for the utterly gorgeous animated opening and cutscenes in game.

All-in-all, Tales of Xillia is a title I had great joy in playing with its memorable story, strong characters and engaging battle system. Firmly rooted in its JRPG roots, it instead focuses on polishing its fundamentals and spicing things up with refreshing additions and enhancements for one of the finest JRPGs in recent memory. 

Unrelated bonus Tales of Xillia 2 art, just had to XD


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