The Tales series is a lesson in judging a book by its cover – or a game by the tiny screenshots on the back of the box. Anyone familiar with JRPGs will instantly recognise the tell-tale signs – combat that dedicates a large percentage of the screen to numbers and charts, female characters wearing little more than ribbons and everyone sporting those big anime eyes. This year has already seen a string of JRPGs that pander to otaku at the detriment of story (or playability) but, in the case of Tales of Xillia, any fears of paper-thin plots can be safely dismissed. Originally released in Japan in 2011, Tales of Xillia has been fully localised for Western markets while retaining the essence of a JRPG. Picking up the thirteenth Tales release may seem a daunting prospect for newcomers, but a standalone story and scalable levels of complexity edge Namco Tales Studio’s latest ahead of the competition. What looks like another dry, rote JRPG soon blossoms into a compelling story supported by some solid gameplay mechanics.
The heart of any JRPG is choice (although a case can be made that it’s actually grinding with JRPGs) and Tales of Xillia does not disappoint, immediately offering the player a choice between two lead characters. There’s Jude, a medical student who soon becomes embroiled in a dark conspiracy, or Milla, a powerful spirit arte caster with more than a few secrets behind her pretty façade. As their stories intertwine, choosing between the two is not the most profound decision - more a matter of aesthetic choice and differing battle music – but both offer intriguing backstories and worthy character development. Choosing Jude, as wide-eyed and innocent to the world as ourselves, the story begins. A medical student, gifted with high martial arts and healing abilities, Jude was soon thrown into conflict with his own city government. Escaping the city guard, Jude is soon travelling across the (rather basic) map in search of justice and all the other usual stuff to win the day.
While the story doesn’t rewrite the usual ‘save the world’ gumpf, it’s presented in a charming and easy to follow style. When naming convention sees the protagonist searching for the ‘Lance of Kresnik’ and dealing with Lillium Orbs, it’s surprising that the story remains comprehensible. Not only that, but the backstory can also be gleaned from conversations and the occasional book, without trawling through text exposition that has as much use as an off switch. With nearly every conversation having fully recorded dialogue, the production values are expectedly high although some of the recording work does feel dated in its delivery. Most characters have able voice work, adhering to anime stereotypes nonetheless. If you aren’t a fan of dashing yet unreadable rogues, timid girls and wizened old men then the characters may well annoy you. One character – a floating purple sack called Teepo – is perhaps the most irritating, with a voice like sandpaper and a tendency to spout inane overreactions. It says a lot to the likeability of the other team members that the game was bearable, despite Teepo’s best attempts to make deafness look a more pleasant option.
While the game is exceptionally linear for a JRPG - funnelling you from one locale to the next with little need to revisit previous settlements save for grinding and sidequests – Tales of Xillia feels positively breezy compared to other JRPGs. The usual fetch quests are there, as is the perennial grinding, but following the main story can be a pleasant onward progression to new locales. It’s a shame that most follow a set template – anything with the word ‘Seahaven’ tends to be the same basic environment albeit retextured – but the seemingly basic graphics develop a charm of themselves, often resembling the backdrops of an anime. This is a far cry from the palette swapping of Time and Eternity and some locations almost match the visual splendour of Ni No Kuni, one of the year’s top JRPG titles. Considering this is ostensibly a 2011 release, the graphics are more than acceptable.
The real meat of the gameplay sees Jude and Milla travel across the land, fulfilling objectives, levelling their skills and balancing equipment. Battles forgo the usual turn-based JRPG style, instead choosing a free-from, real-time combat based on skills and the ability to link two characters together. There’ll be a good deal of running in circles to escape enemy attacks – made somewhat awkward by assigning the free-run button to the left trigger – but tactics come into their own with the introduction of linking. With up to four members of your team used during combat at any one time, pressing the corresponding character on the D-pad links them to the player controlled character. This results in a strategic partnership – the linked AI will heal you, free you from enemy grip and combine to form super-attacks that are invaluable during boss battles. Each character possesses different skills when linked with certain characters and there’s fun to be had in selecting the right pair for the job. A tactics menu can be accessed to direct the AI towards one particular strategy and, while this is wholly optional, difficulty spikes will push you to using this ability. It sounds complicated but the game feeds you these mechanics in a piecemeal fashion, avoiding information overload. A few hours in and you’ll be using these options as if second nature, or aware of their presence at the very least should you choose to automate any or all of them. With only four character slots available – and plenty of additional characters joining your party – even selecting the initial battle set is a tactical decision not to be made lightly.
Levelling takes on a different form as well, even if it is only a visual change. Replacing the spreadsheet charts and progress bars is a spider web overlaid over a blossoming flower with skill increasers placed where each strand of web intersects with another. Choosing the gems on a web section unlocks an additional ability, often a new spirit arte or move. Masking the levelling system as ‘Lillium Orbs’ – literally picked up by characters in game and wondered over - blunts some of the abstract nature of levelling, tempting newcomers to use the auto-level feature – again, a nod to accessibility that really benefits Tales.
While the strategy of battle is a layered, deep and interlocking mechanism, Tales of Xillia has a surprisingly sparse amount of sidequests. Exclamation marks indicate NPCs in need of help – usually ‘kill this’ or ‘fetch that’. Dotted as they are around the already empty locations, they feel unnecessarily throwaway or pointless at best. If you do take the time to warp across the map, speak to someone, warp back and claim your prize there is a hefty amount of gald (yes, that’s the currency) in each menial task. The main quest is substantial, complemented by skits – optional dialogue scenes that endear you to your team while strengthening relationships in game. The optional nature means that some people may miss out on these smile-inducing asides, although it might be for the best when Teepo is involved.
It may not have a revolutionary story, characters that move beyond stereotype or memorable writing but Tales of Xillia’s lack of exploitative tone already raises it above most of this year’s JRPG entries. Like the opening flower that appears on the Lillium Orb screen, Tales of Xillia initially seems plain, with no personality to differentiate it from other entries in the franchise, let alone other games. Further play reveals layers of depth, turning a mediocre experience into one that can captivate as much as it can alienate. Compensation for newcomers broadens the audience, introducing new concepts in a casual fashion although there are many difficulty spikes that might serve as bumps on the road to completion. What starts with no personality soon develops one, as well as a certain amount of charm. It doesn’t hit the pinnacles of Level-5’s fantastic wizarding journey but Tales of Xillia is a solid JRPG and a perfect entry point to the series. Fans of JRPGs will find enough to satiate their Tales craving and others would be wise to take a look into the world as well.