In the wide world of role-playing games, two tyrants roam the Earth: Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. However, considering the Nintendo and MMO focus for Dragon Quest and the lack of focus in Final Fantasy, Hideo Baba and his team at NAMCO have a shot to move the Tales Of series from a hefty cult following to a AAA status. With a future localization of its direct sequel slated for next year, Tales of Xillia will be the front runner for NAMCO to shake the JRPG world for the better, and Tales of Xillia is a great reason to be excited, for both the game itself and NAMCO's future.
After being greeted with another great intro, Tales of Xillia, for the first time in franchise history, requires players to choose between two protagonists: Jude Mathis, a medical student fresh out of school, and Milla Maxwell, a deity in human form. The choice initially seems clear, considering that Milla wields four powerful spirits that do what I can only describe as work, because their effectiveness is phenomenal without actually doing much as a player. However, in proper form, the game balances and Jude becomes a very combo-heavy crowd control character. So, regardless of who's chosen, both protagonists make for a great time throughout. Initially, the differences in storyline are minimal, but the reach greatly extends about halfway through between the two characters, making for two unique experiences that span one narrative in a big way.
The overall plot resonates around something called the Lance of Kresnik, which threatens the natural order of the world, but, for the sake of plot integrity, I won't go into that. Let it be known that the context that builds around the Lance, spirits, and humans becomes almost scientific, which gives the already palpable plot a resonating sense of polish and intrinsic insight that most games presently lack. Granted, the plot isn't much that hasn't been seen, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the story is told well; and it gets big, believe me. The real strength of this game is the overall characterization. Through cut scenes, after-combat dialogue, and the franchise-staple skits, each character comes into its own as the story moves forward. Favorites will be chosen, but no character ever goes under the radar.
Compared to the last Tales outing Graces f, the graphical style has improved, which is more due to characters of more heightened ratios; Graces f's characters were shorter than those from Xillia, so everyone looks much more graphically detailed in result. Now, Graces f was smooth and responsive to play, but Xillia takes its game into a higher definition, creating vibrant colors and animations that would only look better if they were more realistic -- but that would ruin the style, so there's no point.
Combat is streamlined with the Dual-Raid Linear Motion Battle System, or DR-LMBS for short. Linked combat runs the show, and it's quite the addition to an already successful combat experience. Linking Milla to Jude, or any other character on the field for that matter, only requires the D-Pad to link players together; players on the field have their stat bars aligned to match the D-Pad, so choosing a link partner is rather simple. Really, not linking with other characters can almost be suicidal, especially later in the game when enemies become powerhouses and very coordinated. Explore these links, and don't get too comfortable with one character: one combination may work well against one grouping of enemies, but it may not work well against others; besides, finding out that a linked combination can equate to firing nukes wouldn't even make Metal Gear Solid's Otacon upset. The refined and polished combat system makes chaining combos that much more entertaining and, though not quite as challenging as it was in Graces f, grinding out levels and farming for materials has never been more engaging.
I lied: farming and grinding do, in fact, become more engaging, and that's due to the further development of shops. Consisting of Food, Armor, Weapon, Items, and Accessory Shops, these five shops actually depend on the player's ability to invest materials and gald -- the in-game currency for non-Tales natives -- into each one, and the reward for doing so is upgraded weapons, items, armor, etc. and reduced costs for said objects. Amongst the relaxed atmosphere of gameplay and the absolutely gorgeous musical score, it's easy to get caught up in clearing a field of baddies for the incentive of getting better equipment.
But wait, there's more: leveling is made even more enticing from a JRPG standpoint with the leveling grid called the Lilium Orb -- FFX fans, get ready for this. Within the literal web of the Lilium Orb lies an interlacing of stat boosts which are unlocked traditionally by leveling, which follows a less convoluted formula to the Sphere Grid from X, except abilities are treated more as rewards for spending points rather than using points directly. A skill lies in each open area, and they're unlocked by activating each stat point on the webbing around it. Once enough of the web is unlocked, new strings will expand from it, revealing new stats and skills aching to be unlocked.
Coupling the combat and the various leveling systems is a perfect combination that anyone with an addictive personality could enjoy, and the narrative is so well constructed that any fan of a good story would have the time to play it. Really, Xillia only has a few blemishes that, if it wasn't for my standard for objectivity in my reviews, I wouldn't bother even mentioning them. Outside of extreme or quirky circumstances, voice acting ends up being rather stoic, though I'd never say that it dejected from what takes place; it's simply what it is, but it cleans up well as the story progresses. In terms of performance, the 2GB install takes care of loading rather well, but some battles, particularly the first encounter after each time loading up the game, take a noticeable amount of time to begin. In addition, some encounters also become so high in on-screen characters and animations that gameplay slows down by half.
Though making JRPG games in this day and age is a risk in and of itself, I couldn't help but be disappointed that NAMCO didn't take any chances to further extend itself from the competition. Arguably, the franchise stands out on its own as is and this game is two years old already, but, in a very competitive and polarized market, Tales might benefit from something that differentiates itself even more than it already is in order to put itself on a well-deserved pedestal above other franchises like Dragon Quest and that other one that's scrambling to appease its fans.
Milla and company bring to the table an incredibly addicting combat and leveling experience that's hard to equal, and the dual storylines will bring gamers back for a second round. Luckily, only a few things keep Xillia from a dead sprint in the final days of the PS3 spotlight, but the growth in Xillia indicates that Tales of Xillia 2 will be a great reason to keep your PS3 right next to your PlayStation 4.
-The Final Word-
Tales of Xillia gives JRPG fans an addictive experience that's hard to ignore. Linked combat alongside clever leveling schemes and a narrative told in a big way will have players aching to play through as both Milla and Jude.