Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tales of Xillia - Review

In the year 2011 the video game company "Namco Bandai" celebrated the 15th anniversary of their well known series "Tales of." The Tales of series is a group of Japanese Role Playing games that basically took the genre into the "next level." Unlike most games for its time, Tales of featured a real time battle system, a deep character development system, and each game took place in its own unique world as well. Although the series really took off in Japan, it only formed a core fan base in the US, and before we knew it, Tales of soon flat out vanished from the west in general.

After the release of "Tales of Vesperia" in 2008, Namco Bandai entered a major slump. Tales of Vesperia didn't meet their sales expectations, the company slowly began to lose money, and the risk of releasing another Tales of game in the west was just too high; because of that, the series soon became Japanese exclusive. That is, until 2011.

Around the same time Namco Bandai was celebrating the 15th anniversary of Tales of, an event was held on Twitter. This event allowed fans to vote for one game to be brought over to the west, and in the end, the game chosen was none other than "Tales of Graces f." (Which originally came out in 2009 on the Wii, and 2010 on the PS3 in Japan.) Despite Tales of Graces f being an older game, it was the next "big" entry in the Tales of series that most western fans wanted to play, and Namco complied with the request.

In 2012 Tales of Graces f finally made its way to the west, and it was overall well received. Thanks to the release of Graces f (along with the "secret" Tales of the Abyss reprint on the PS2, as well the release of Tales of the Abyss 3D for the Nintendo 3DS), the Tales of series once again picked up in the west, and for the first time in many years, it finally proved to be profitable. So, what do you do with a series that is actually making a profit? Well, you release more games of course!

Not too long after Tales of Graces f (as well as Abyss and Abyss 3D were released/re-released) Namco Bandai announced that they would in fact be bringing their newest title to the western market. Tales of Xillia was a game that was originally created back in 2011 for the anniversary, but due to the event, it was not the Tales of game to get localized back then. Finally, after a two year wait, that has now changed.

In August of 2013, Tales of Xillia hit store shelves in the west. Not only is it the first Tales of game to be completely built from the ground up for the PlayStaiton 3, but it is also the first to feature a split storyline, a fully 3D world, as well as a  new partner based battle system. The game builds off of past experiences making improvements along the way, but does that really mean the game is better than past entries in the series? Well, how about we continue on with the review and find out?

Welcome to Rieze Maxia:

Just like with most games in the Tales of series, Tales of Xillia features a few "story arcs" which separate the game into parts. While the first "arc" typically introduces the characters, world, and includes some sort of story to tie it all together, the second and third arcs of the game normally change it up. These sections of the game are when the "true" plot begins to show, and they are normally accompanied by massive plot twists. To avoid major spoilers about the game's overall plot, keep in mind that I will only be discussing the first arc as well as minor aspects of the second.

As the game opens up, you are given the option to either start the game as Jude, or Milla. Jude is a young medical student who hopes to graduate from school and become a doctor one day, while Milla is a 20 year old woman who claims to be "Maxwell," lord of spirits. Even though the game allows you to pick from one of these two from the start, there are really only a few differences between them.

Throughout most of the game, Jude and Milla will in fact be together. This means they will be going to the same places, they will see a lot of the same cutscenes, and you can play as either one whenever you want, but there are a few differences here and there. While Jude's side of the story focuses a bit more on character development (it also helps clear up any confusion you might have from the overall story), Milla's story is a bit more one sided. While she will go off on her own from time to time and keep some pretty big secrets to herself, in the end she really doesn't find out much that isn't explained to Jude at one point or another. Although it is really your choice on who you choose to start the game with, I personally recommend playing through as Jude, and coming back to Milla's story during the second playthrough. You'll end up understanding things a lot better, and you'll know quite a bit more about the characters when you finally do go to Milla's side. Either way, most of the game is in fact the same, and that includes the intro.

Tales of Xillia begins with an explanation of the game's world and setting. Rieze Maxia is a large land mass floating in the middle of the ocean, and it is the main setting of the game. In the world of Rieze Maxia, people live in harmony with an invisible force known as "spirits." Spirits are creatures that bond with the humans on the planet, and form a sort of symbiotic relationship with them. While humans are born with what is known as a "Mana Lobe," which is a part part of the brain that produces "mana," Spirits require mana in order to survive. By using their mana to feed spirits, humans are able to in return use the spirit's power for their own gain; this "gain" comes in the form of what can be considered "magic" in Tales of Xillia. In this semi-technology advanced world, magic still plays a key role when it comes to human's survival, and because of that they use it for almost everything. From lighting street lamps, to creating elevators; the people of Rieze Maxia are able to use both a mix of technology and magic to carry out their everyday tasks. (With magic serving as a type of power source.)

When the game finally opens up, we find our two main heroes meeting by chance. As the young medial student Jude goes to search for his missing professor, who entered a government lab only to never return, he comes across a strange young woman by the name of Milla. Milla, who had plans of her own to sneak into the very same lab, ends up teaming up with Jude simply due to this chance encounter. As she blows open an entrance to the lower levels of the lab, Jude quickly follows behind, and they both find themselves in trouble. Jude comes across a strange room filled with people in tubes that have had the life sucked out of them (with his professor along the many being held inside), and Milla finds herself coming to his rescue when he gets attacked by a strange young girl. With no other option but to stick together, the two slowly make their way into the lab's depths; where "it" was waiting for them.

It turns out that Milla had come to this lab for one reason, and one reason alone; to destroy an object she calls a "Spyrix." The Spyrix is an object that kills spirits to power weapons of mass destruction, and one of these weapons just so happens to be hidden within the lab; a massive cannon. In order to destroy this massive weapon, Milla (who claims to be "Maxwell, Lord of Spirits") calls upon the power of the "Four Great Spirits;" however, her plans are soon cut short. Despite "The Four" being what you might call "the kings of the spirits," they are no match the weapon, and they are soon sucked into the weapon itself. Due to the loss of the great spirits, Milla soon finds herself to be as weak as a "normal human," and she has no choice but to run; with Jude by her side.

Upon returning to the town, Jude and Milla learn that they have been classified as criminals by the military, and they have no choice but to run. Jude must now leave behind his school, and Milla must now continue her "mission" to destroy the Spyrixes of the world, without the help of the four great spirits. After both are saved by a mysterious mercenary by the name of "Alvin," they are forced to set sail, and begin a new adventure. As time goes on, Jude, Milla, and co slowly learn the truth behind the world, and before they know it, they get caught up in a series of events that lead them down a path they could have never seen coming.

The Characters of Xillia:

One thing that really stands out about Tales of Xillia is its characters, and the skit system. Tales of Xillia features a cast of 7 unique characters that are filled with personality. While Jude is the 15 year old mature medical student who wants to help everyone he comes across, Milla is the strong willed female lead who, despite not knowing much about the world, is always focused on the task at hand. Both character's have polar opposite personalities, but surprisingly they work well together.

On top of the two leads, there's also Alvin who is a traveling mercenary who acts laid back, and will say something perverted the moment he gets it, but he's also a character that you can't completely trust. From the very moment you see him, you can't help but question his motives, and suspicions will continue to rise only as time goes on.

The third main party member you come across is a little girl by the name of Elize, but she isn't alone. Everywhere she goes, Elize carries a strange floating purple talking doll by the name of Teepo. While Elize is a shy girl, Teepo is a loud, thing, who is willing to say anything, to anyone, at anytime. He often mocks Alvin and the others, and is sure to bring you a laugh or two. Teepo and Elize truly make a perfect pair, and they are also one of the few rare "non-annoying" little kid characters you will find in an RPG.

A few hours into the game the fourth main character is introduced; a butler in his 60s named Rowen. Rowen is wise, he always talks to others with respect, he's an amazing tactician, and he serves as the "mature adult" of the group. Although Rowen isn't the only adult in the group (Milla, and Alvin are in their twenties), he serves as a voice of reason, he is skilled with using spirits (which helps the group get past many roadblocks along the way), he isn't quite as reckless as some of the others, and he truly does care about the people around him. Overall he's yet another great character, and he is one that even you yourself may come to respect; at least from a story standpoint.

The final character to join the crew is Jude's childhood friend Leia. Leia is a bright cheerful young woman who likes to have fun. She does act like an idiot from time to time (although the same can be said for all of the characters), but she has a good heart, and helps keep the mood bright and cheery. Despite her being what you might call a "typical teenage anime girl," she really brings a lot of character to the party, and is a great asset to the team as a whole. Even if you find teen anime girls annoying, Leia is one that you just can't help but to like.

With all of these characters put together, Tales of Xillia is able to bring out one of the best casts of characters you will ever see in a JRPG. While it may not the the "best," cast, it is an amazing one, and they make the game worth playing. Sure Jude may be a put off from time to time (mainly if you're playing Milla's side of the story), but that doesn't change the fact that he is an overall great character. On top of all of that, each of the characters in Tales of Xillia undergo a lot of character development, and because of that you can't help but want to see what happens next. They add a lot to the game's story, and make the game enjoyable.

The World Map and Basic Gameplay:

Tales of Xillia is in fact a JRPG, and because of that it features a lot of the very same basic systems. The main part of the game actually takes place in what is called the "over world." The over world is basically a massive open world filled with towns for you to explore, fields to travel across, and dungeons to solve. While towns have people to talk to, inns to rest at, and shops to buy from, fields and dungeons are where you'll come across monsters and enemies to fight. This set up is common in most RPGs, and it is also how the game's plot progresses; however, this time around things are a bit different.

In past Tales of games, towns and dungeons have always been seen from a top view with a fixed camera, and the "field" areas were normally shown by a world map where you simply walked across a generic land mass where you could then enter towns/key areas by running into them. Well, both of these systems have been changed.

Instead of having key areas be seen from fixed camera positions, for the first time in a Tales of game you actually have FULL control over the camera! You can rotate the camera in a full 360 degrees, you can look straight down at the ground, and you can even look up at the sky (which is rarely seen in Tales of in general). This makes the world feel much larger than what was seen in past games, and this feeling continues into the "world map" aspect of the game as well. As I said above, most Tales of games featured a generic world map; however in Tales of Xillia these areas have actually been replaced with full open field maps which connect key areas. Although this system has been seen before in a few of the other newer Tales of games (including Graces f), the fields are actually much larger this time. While walking to towns in Graces f normally required you to walk through some small "field" areas which never really felt that open, Xillia has large open areas filled with secrets to discover. This helps improve the scope of the game in general, and it also gives you a reason to explore. Well that and the fact that you won't be stopped by invisible walls non stop, which was a minor issue in Graces f.

Besides talking to towns folk, and buying items from the shop, you can also pick up items from search points around the maps as well. There are four different types of "search" points you'll come across in your adventure, and all four truly are key. The first type of search point is, well, a standard search point. These are glowing areas on walls, plants, trees, or any other object, and they normally net you items related to the object that they are found on (for example, you may find specific plants from checking a search point on a plant). The second top of search point is the "bag" search point, which are simply what the name sounds like. These bags are bags that show up on maps, and you can open them from time to time to get different rewards. Like the search points they do respawn, so they give you a reason to return to old maps. The third type of "search point," is actually just a standard chest. Chests give you one time rewards which can be anything from new equipment, to special items, to simply more cash. This is a standard found in most JRPGs, so most people should be familiar with them; as for the final type of search point, they aren't common among JRPGs. The last type is a special type of "chest" which appears in specific locations, and is normally hidden very well. These chests are special chests hidden by a legendary pirate, and they contain special accessories for your characters to wear. They aren't key to the game's story, but they are fun to look for, and give you even more of a reason to search every nook and cranny of the game's world.

The Skits and Side Quests:

The final aspect of the game's "over world" and basic gameplay is the Skit system, and the Side Quest system. Although side quests are quite common in RPGs (or even adventure games), the Skit system is something that is completely unique to the Tales of series, and is what really helps give the game its character.
Just like in other RPGs, Tales of Xillia features a side quest system. This is where extra events pop up around the world as you play through the story, and you have the option of doing them. Sometimes these events are mini cutscenes which will play when you enter a specific room during a specific part of the story, but other times they may come in the form of towns folk asking for help. Doing side quests will normally net you rewards, but they may also provide extra detail about the game's plot and world as well. Although past Tales of games have used side quests as well, Tales of Xillia does actually make quite a few improvements to it. For the first time in a Tales of game, all side quests and side events are actually listed in a log accessible from the menu. This allows you to keep track of which side quests you are currently working on, as well as which ones you have finished. This is a very nice touch, and something I personally wish Namco would have included years ago.

As you play through Tales of Xillia, or one of the older Tales of games, you'll also trigger what is known as "skits." Skits are mini scenes where we get to see the party discuss different topics among themselves. While in games like Tales of Graces f these "skits" could only be triggered by standing in a specific spot, in Tales of Xillia that is not the case. When you walk around the over world, at the bottom left of the screen will be a skit notice from time to time, and by pressing the select button you can watch it. Skits only really show the character's faces as they talk with one another, but that's all that is needed in this case. These skits can last anywhere from 20-30 seconds, to a few minutes, and they often provide insight or other interesting pieces of information.

Although some skits are simply triggered by going through the story, others are actually triggered by your actions in battle or your actions in general. If you cook some food a specific character likes they may start commenting on it, or if you find a rare item, they may talk about it as well. This is a really nice change of pace, and it really isn't something you see in many RPGs. Still, what stands out the most about the whole skit system isn't the little details, but rather the comedy.

Most of the time skits are FILLED with humor, and they are almost certain to make you laugh from time to time. For example, one early skit has Alvin commenting on how Milla must be into bondage due to her "bound" skill. The chat soon makes a turn, when Milla actually joins in on the adult rated discussion and adds two just about everything Alvin and Jude brought up. While this sort of topic showing up out of nowhere is shocking on its own, Milla joining in to turn the chat around was even more unexpected, and you might not be able to help but to laugh. Moments such as these make skits worth watching, and you may just find yourself waiting for that next one to pop up in excitement. Also, just like with the side quests, skits are actually listed in the menu this time around as well, so you can always go back and rewatch them at anytime. A very nice touch which past games normally had locked until the end.

Besides the standard skits and side quests, a new type of skit has been introduced in the game as well. Instead of having to actually watch every skit, some skits will now play as you walk around. For example, if you step in a bush one of the characters might comment on how they got poked by a thorn, or if you haven't eaten anything for awhile, a character may complain that they are hungry. These chats aren't as long as a standard skit, but it helps remind you that the other characters are in fact there, and it helps the game feel a bit more lively.

The Battle System:

Despite most of Tales of Xillia taking place in the over world, what really stands out about its gameplay is its story. As enemies walk around the over world map, you can run into them to initiate a battle, or flat out avoid them; the choice is yours. Even so, chances are that Xillia will be a game that'll make you want to fight.

Tales of Xillia uses what is called the "Dual Raid Linear Motion Battle System" which is an improved version of the "Linear Motion Battle System" found in past entries of the series. Just as the name implies, the battle system takes place in a 3D arena, but on a linear 2D plain. In battle you will lock onto a single target, and that in return will form a 2D plain that you can move across (however you can run around in 3D by simply holding the L2 button). During this state, the game actually plays a lot like a 2D fighting game, where you can move left and right, you can jump up into the air, and you can also preform back steps/forward dash steps. Although these movements are simple and easy to understand, the combat itself is a different story.

The actual fighting mechanics in Tales of Xillia also mimic that of a 2D fighter, but with some minor and major differences. Just like in a fighter, when you press the attack button you can actually press different directions on the analog stick to preform different moves and combos. For example, if you're playing as Jude and hit the attack button while standing still he'll use a normal punch, if you press it while pressing down he'll do a knock down attack, if you press it while pressing up he'll do an uppercut, and if you press it while holding forward he'll sort of lunge at the enemy you are targeting. By pressing different directions on the analog stick as you tap the attack button, you can mix and match Jude's attacks to create your own combos, but there is a limit to how far you can go.

Tales of Xillia uses an "AC" system which actually limits how many moves you can chain together in a combo. Each time you use an attack (of any kind) 1 AC is used, and if your AC hits 0, then your combo ends. Now this system is a lot like the CC system used in Tales of Graces f, but there is one major difference between them. In Tales of Graces f when your CC hit 0 you had to actually back off from the enemy and recharge it, but in Xillia that is not the case. The moment your AC hits 0 in Xillia, it recharges to max almost instantly. Although your current combo ends once it hits 0, your overall combo can actually keep going. Since you can start attacking again almost instantly, the AC system really doesn't slow down the battle system, and you never feel chained down by it. All it is is a counter to show you how long your chain combo (or "red" combo) can keep going before you have to stop (something past Tales of games didn't show you).

While pressing the attack button is your main form of attacking, it isn't your own option. Just like in other games in the series, you can use "Artes" in battle as well. Artes are basically special moves, as well as magical attacks to put it simply, and each character can use their own specific artes. For example, while Jude can use "Demon Fist" to send a shock wave across the field, Alvin can charge up his sword and slam it into the ground to cause massive damage. There's really a wide range of artes that can be used, and it is up to you to figure out how to use them as part of your combos. The only down side to using artes is that using one does in fact require "TP" (Xillia's version of MP), so there is a limit to how many you can use at once.

Although the basic arte system hasn't changed much, Xillia does offer one new feature which GREATLY expands on what artes can be used. Just like in past games, artes are used by pressing the circle button, and you can freely customize how to use each arte. You can set an arte to standing still + circle, you can set an arte to pressing up, set one to pressing down, set one to pressing left and right, or you can also set shortcuts to artes on the right analog stick (which can be used to command your party members into using specific artes as well). This is the basic arte system found in most Tales of games, and it allows you to set 8 artes; however, that has now been greatly expanded upon.

Now by pressing and holding the L1 button  you can activate a second set of artes, which once again can be chained to the circle button or the right analog stick. The addition of this simple feature allows you to now equip a grand total of 16 artes, rather than 8. This greatly expands your combo possibilities, and it also allows your characters to use a much wider range of attacks in general.

It Must Be The Power of Linking:

Although a lot of the battle system in Xillia is simply adapted from past entries in the series, there are aspects of it that are completely new. As the name implies, a new "Dual Raid" system has been included as well, and that makes ALL the difference.

While in the older games characters would fight alone in parties of three or four, in Xillia you actually fight in parties of four with the ability to partner up with any of the other characters on the field. By "linking" with another character, you take control of a mini unit rather than a single character. In this state your computer controlled partner will watch your back, pull off combos based off of the combos you yourself are using, and they will also allow you to pull off special moves and artes as well.

As you attack the enemies, or get attacked yourself, a bar on the left side of the screen will build up. This bar is an energy meter which allows you to pull off "Linked Artes" at different milestones. Once the bar fills up enough, it will begin to glow, and you will then be able to pull off different Linked Artes, which are all based around who you are linked with. If Jude is linked with Milla and pulls off an arte that is a series of punches and kicks, you can then press the R2 button to follow up the arte with one of Milla's Linked Artes. This allows you to deal extra damage, and it also allows the bar on the left to fill up even more. If your meter does in fact reach the top, you can then go into an "over limit" and chain Linked Artes with even more Linked Artes to pull off some massive damage.

Even though your partner in battle is computer controlled, you can actually take control of them yourself to pull off your own combos as well. With a simple tap of the D-Pad, you can easily switch between which character you are controlling on the field, and that in return also allows you to take turns unleashing combos on enemies. While you may start a combo as Jude, you can actually quickly switch over to Milla during Jude's attack to then continue the combo on her side, only to then switch back to Jude to either finish it off or keep it going. If you are able to get the pattern down, you will be able to unleash massive combos on your own, and really speed up the battle system while doing so.

Unique Fighting Styles:

What really makes Tales of Xillia's combat and characters stand out over the past games, is the fact that every single character is completely unique, and the fact that they actually have TWO styles. While in past games characters generally stuck to a single role or class (such as being a swordsman), that isn't the case in Xillia. Every single character has two classes built into them, and because of that they can be used in different ways. While Jude is the close range melee fighter, he is also one of the game's medics, Milla is the standard swordsman as well as a magic user, Alvin is a swordsman and long range gunner, Elize has a mix of healing and offensive magic with Teepo acting as a melee weapon, Rowan is the knife using long range and short range magic user, and Leia is the air based spear user who can also act as a medic.

Since every character has their own unique fighting style with their own unique classes, the game really does have a lot of replay value. Although you may get tired of fighting hundreds of enemies with the same character, you can always switch out at anytime, and get a fresh new experience.

Leveling Up and Skills:

As expected, Tales of Xillia has a stat and skill system, just like most RPGs. Every single time you fight an enemy and kill it, you gain experience points, and once you gain enough experience, your characters will then level up. This is a staple for RPGs everywhere, and it is really no surprise that Xillia would do the same; however, that doesn't mean there aren't some differences.

Unlike in past Tales of games where your stats increase as you level, in Xillia all you gain from leveling up are points to spend in what is called the "Lilium Orb." The Lilium Orb is a magical object that allows the character's to increase their skills, and become stronger; which is also how they explain their strength in the game. The Orb itself opens up a menu that brings you to a stat page which is in the shape of a spider web. Where each strand of "web" connects with the others, a ball is formed, and each ball contains a specific stat boost. By spending Growth Points on these nodes, you'll unlock the power they contain, and become stronger. (For example if you buy a +32 STR orb, your character will gain 32 strength.) Although you can only spend points on the nodes that connect the strands of web together, there are nodes in between the spaces in the web as well. In order to unlock these nodes, you must buy all stat increases around it to "complete" the web, and enclose the center. Upon doing so, a new skill or ability will be unlocked, and you will then be able to use it in battle.

Unlike the level up system, the skill system in Xillia is only slightly different. As you unlock new skills, you can then equip then to customize your characters at the expense of SP. While some skills unlock new abilities to use in battle, others simply increase your stats, or simply give you some extra boosts. Either way, they are extremely helpful, and they also allow you to build your character to suit your needs. This time however; characters can actually now share skills.

Some skills (mostly stat increasing skills) are now shared between the character who has it equip, as well as the character they are linked with in battle. Because of this, linked characters are actually stronger than characters that fight alone, and just about become key when playing on harder difficulties. While solo characters may get a 5% attack bonus, they'd gain an extra 5% attack bonus just by pairing up with another character who has the very same skill unlocked. Overall the shared skills are actually much more useful than the non shared skills, and because of this they are the skills you mostly want to focus on using.

The Graphics and Soundtrack:

Tales of Xillia is a very nice looking game, but it may not be up to the standards everyone expects. The game was in fact released in 2011, and it uses a mix between cell shaded and realistic style graphics which create a unique blend. While the character's themselves, as well as many objects, look as if they are ripped right out of an anime, the world itself can seem a little bland at times. Sure there are some really nice looking areas (such the first town the game starts in which is always suspended in night fall), but some of them are a bit dull. If you were expecting bright and fully cell shaded Tales of Vesperia again, you're out of luck, but if you're expecting a duller looking Tales of the Abyss, then you'll be pleasantly surprised. Xillia may not look the best, but its anime art style is spot on, and the world is incredibly detailed overall.

One thing that really does stand out about Tales of Xillia though, is its music. The game features an amazing soundtrack which seems to capture the mood of each area perfectly. As you walk through peaceful city streets, or open fields filled with wildlife, the soundtrack that plays for each area will really pull you in. Everything about the game's soundtrack is spot on, and to top it all off, Namco Bandai even left in the original Japanese opening theme. The moment you turn the game on and here that dramatic up beat theme song, you can't help but get exited.

The Good and the Bad:

Tales of Xillia is a solid JRPG with a great story, an amazing cast of characters, a lot of humor, and an amazing battle system which is advance enough to satisfy the hard core players, but easy enough for anyone to pick up. The game is also quite large, and it is filled with replay value to keep you coming back for more. Overall, Tales of Xillia is an amazing JRPG, and it is one that fans of the genre should not miss out on; however, it isn't perfect.

Despite being a great game overall, there are a few minor flaws that hold Xillia back. The character's movements are still locked to "snap points" which prevent fluid 360 degree movements (as seen in older entries of the series such as Tales of Vesperia), the game can look dull from time to time, and there is an apparent lack of mini games and other extras; the game doesn't even include an extra "fun" area like the others. Although this doesn't harm the game's story, fans looking for something a little extra to do after completing the game will be disappointed.

Even so, Tales of Xillia is a must have for long time fans and new comers alike, and it is a perfect way to help send off the PlayStation 3 before the PS4 finally comes around. Sure, Tales of Xillia won't be the last great PS3 exclusive, but it is a great way to kick off the console's final year or so. In the end, I give Tales of Xillia for the PlayStation 3 a 9/10. Play it.