It's only been a little over a year since Tales of Graces F was released for the PS3, so it's kind of surprising, and impressive that Tales of Xillia was released so soon. Though we're about two years behind since the Japanese release, I'm happy that another game in the long standing franchise is being released on western shores. The Tales series holds a pretty special place for me, and maybe that's why I should stop reviewing them. Because after Xillia, I've grown a bit cynical. Maybe it's me, or maybe I'm starting to see through the veneer of anime tropes and I'm losing interest? Either way, by the end of Xillia I felt like it was one of the weaker releases of the series. Certainly not bad by any means, but maybe I can make some sense if you hear me out.
Tales of Xillia follows two protagonists this time around, each with their own storyline, though heavily intertwined with each other. Jude Mathis is a young medical student, struggling to make it on his own, when by chance he meets Milla Maxwell, the mysterious female lead who is the physical manifestation of Maxwell, the Lord of Spirits. She's been watching humans from afar for the past twenty years, choosing to act in times when humans get to be too big for their britches. Her mission to protect humans and spirits alike brings her to Fenmont, in the Kingdom of Rashugal, where she must put a stop to some nasty technology that threatens the world of Reize Maxia. Jude gets caught up in Milla's business and is named a fugitive of the state along with her. Unfortunately this messy business has also cost Milla the ability to summon the four great spirits, Undine, Efreet, Sylph, and Gnome, who are now trapped and must be freed.
The core of the story focuses a lot on the 'so close yet so far' relationship that Jude and Milla share over the course of the game. I played through my first time as Milla, and a majority of the time it felt like Jude was just a lost puppy who was following me around. The rest of the party fared much better, there was Alvin, who had the whole mysterious mercenary angle working for him (and voiced wonderfully by Troy Baker). Rowen, the elder statesman of the party whose years of wisdom are always respected by the party. Elize, a young girl who can wield powerful spirit artes and has a talking doll named Teepo that seems to be the conduit for Elize's true feelings. And last but not least, the plucky childhood friend, Leia, who knows how to push all of Jude's buttons and obviously has that life-long crush that never goes away. Some characters undergo a little personal growth through this journey, but the biggest swings come from Jude and Milla, Jude, who goes from a timid and naïve boy, to one who understands the weight of his actions, and Milla, who gains some insight on these creatures that she is meant to protect. Though a lot of these instances of growth seemed to just happen spontaneously and out of the blue, which made them a lot less believable in the long run. I like this cast, but it felt like this time around they were rushed in to their respective archetypes.
I say rushed because I finished my first playthrough in just over forty hours, which is kind of short for a Tales game. There was no epic final dungeon, what was present was incredibly short and felt like it was made to reinforce that Jude and Milla have something going on. In retrospect the entire game felt like the story had been cut short at a number of points, with seemingly major events relegated to those infamous skits that the Tales series is known for. The story is still pretty solid from start to finish, and while I don't know where the story for Tales of Xillia 2 takes off from, I'd imagine that a good chunk of the material that wasn't covered in this game, will be present in the sequel. There is a new game plus option that allows players to carry over certain aspects of their previous save using 'Grade' which are points earned throughout the game by completing objectives and earning titles, making it easier to cross over from a playthrough as Milla to a playthrough as Jude.
Visually this game is a step up from Tales of Graces F, and has some great looking characters, set pieces, and effects. The character designs of Kosuke Fujishima translate well in to the game as always, and the cel-shading techniques make the anime-esque mannerisms look all the better. There are occasional hiccups in frame-rate when things get a little hectic during combat, but overall this game is visually pleasing, even if it is over two years old. From a musical standpoint Xillia has a weird variety of tracks and covers a few different genres. There are the standard sweeping strings, and symphonic bits, and then things kind of take a jazzy turn near the end of the game, which was jarring, but not at all unpleasant. The voice-acting work is where things also kind of unraveled for me. The choice of casting for Milla, was curious, because she has a lisp, and near the game it kind of goes away. In the context of the world this is kind of brilliant, because Milla would have not interacted with humans, and could communicate with spirits telepathically. Initially it's a bit off-putting, but it grew on me with time, it's an interesting choice to say the least. The rest of the cast is fairly strong, but some NPC voices seemed completely out of place.
Combat and character growth are some of the strongest aspects of the Tales franchise and Xillia doesn't disappoint in the slightest. Combat is still initiated by running in to enemies on the field, and like games in the past, takes place on a mostly 2-D plane, that players can freely-run around when the need arises, but for the most part you're closing in, or backing off from the enemy. Players are now able to link with other members of the party in order to perform more effectively in combat. This allows them to combine some of their special attacks called artes, or perform skill specific to their character. So if you have Jude paired up with Leia, she'll swipe items from the enemies whenever they are knocked down. Or if you're paired with Alvin, he'll try to break the enemy's guard at every opportunity. There are plenty of combinations, but for the most part I kept Jude paired up with Milla, and he would make sure that I always recovered hit points after taking a big hit.
Leveling up in Xillia is done through the Lillium Orb, which will remind people of the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. After each level you'll gain points that goes toward unlocking orbs that augment stats, and blocking of specific orbs will unlock abilities and skills that will further boost your abilities. This allows you to work on the strengths or weaknesses of each character and build them out to your own preferences. Though some parts of the orb are only unlocked when specific areas are cleared, and the game kind of does a poor job of highlighting which orb is the key to expanding the Lillium Orb.
Outside of the main story there are plenty of side-quests that can be completed, offering up a ton of content for those that want to seek it out. These range from simple requests from having monsters killed that are wreaking havoc, to a hunt for beasts that are the physical manifestation of the weapon your party members carry. There's also a ton of hidden treasure chests that are the lasting legacy of a pirate that explored Rieze Maxia, these chests carry anything from money, to powerful items, to accessories that your party members can wear. The only downside is that the game does a really poor job of letting you know that quests can actually be failed, so imagine my surprise when I can finally fight a specific optional boss late in the game, I had already failed the quest that the monster was keeping me from completing.
I really enjoyed the Dualizing system from Tales of Graces F, which is probably why it was cut for the more streamlined materials system in Xillia. Instead of hoarding materials to turn in to items and food, you turn them in to shops to expand their inventory and lower their prices. Or you can donate the series currency, Gald, to a shop in order to get it to grow. The wrinkle here is to donate materials a store is offering a bonus on, so that the shop can grow faster. This does keep the amount of time spent hunting for materials to a much more reasonable value, as opposed to Graces where you'd have to go to specific places to find a particular material, which is appreciated, but I don't get the same sense of satisfaction that I did when I made weapons by finding specific materials.
I finished what I can assume will only be my first playthrough of Tales of Xillia before sitting down to write this review, mainly because I didn't want to make any assumptions about the story or post-game content. As I rounded the corner on hour forty, I was pretty certain that this game was ready to come to an end, and it did and after that ending, I'm a bit torn. I loved Tales of Graces F when it was released last year, and the prospect of having two protagonists in Tales of Xillia seemed appealing, and I could always count on the combat system to be enjoyable. But what got me down on Tales of Xillia, surprisingly, was the story, or rather that I felt like I was missing a great deal of the adventure. I'm really curious now to see what Tales of Xillia 2 has to offer, hopefully it's not the other half of this adventure I just experienced.