The role-playing game (RPG) genre is in a state of turmoil right now. The rapid growth of western, more action-orientated experiences has left the slower pace of traditional Japanese RPGs with a diminishing audience. The argument circulating the industry suggests that genre leader Final Fantasy has simply refused to modernise, repeating the formula that brought it success in the 8-bit era and again on the PlayStation with Final Fantasy VII. The same could not be said of Namco Bandai Games’ Tales of franchise however, as while it has a much smaller audience than Square Enix Ltd.’s behemoth it has challenged preconceptions with every new instalment.
The introduction to Tales of Xillia, however, does impress upon the player that this may not be the case. A mandatory install followed by a menu asking the player to set up their screen preferences and other settings – with no example of what the differences in their potential selection could be – does not feel like a modern PlayStation 3 exclusive. It’s true that the gap between debut and western localisation has been significant, but Tales of Xillia’s first ten minutes feels like a trip back to 2007. Of course, things improve dramatically when past this opening faux pas and entering the videogame itself.
Tales of Xillia tells the story of two characters: the clumsy and liberally passionate Jude, and the knowledgeable yet forthright Milla. After a very brief introduction to the pair the player is asked which they would like to play as. The experience is largely the same whomever you choose, but the small difference in both plot and play style will warrant a second playthrough from the most ardent Tales of fans. The storyline is of course a lengthy and complex journey through a world of mystery and intrigue, and while this may sound nothing more than what is expected of the genre it’s delivery is undoubtedly of a very high calibre for much of the adventure.
The battle system evolves the critically acclaimed formula founded in Tales of Symphonia. Players can see opponents on-screen before entering into battles, though the action still takes place as a cut-away sequence. Here, all characters are limited in the area they may move, but within this space they may move freely and in real-time. The player can move back-and-forth to position themselves for attacks and dodge incoming blows, reposition for combat against another enemy or even attempt to get the jump by creeping around behind. The system begins relatively simply, but once players have invested a few hours into the videogame and developed a team of their own with a unique collection of skills and abilities Tales of Xillia really comes into its own. There’s boundless depth to the combat system that can only be furrowed by the most dedicated of players, who will be thankful for the opportunity to do so.
Unlike combat, the levelling system is fairly standard. As the characters work through fights they’ll gain experience and subsequently increase in levels. Small statistic increases will occur automatically, but higher levels allow for better armour and weapons in a traditional fashion, as well as new Artes – Tales of Xillia’s take on magic – and summons. It’s a shame the player doesn’t have more control over the specialisation of their characters, though the Lilium Orb trees go someway to countering this shortcoming.
Again fairly formulaic, the Lilium Orb system sees the player spending GP earned in battles to purchase more significant statistic increases. This is done by selecting nodes on a board, and activating all of the nodes surrounding a central skill node will earn the character that skill. It’s still far from remodelling a healer to a general spell caster or a long range fighter to a tank, but it does allow for the player to patch over an individual’s weak points or accentuate their strengths as they see fit.
The visual quality of Tales of Xillia is commendable, undoubtedly one of the finest looking RPGs to grace the PlayStation 3. The character design is perfectly balanced with their standing in the world while the environments are varied and densely detailed; it’s a genuine thrill to discover who and what lies ahead throughout it’s many, many instances. The localisation does occasionally delve into realms of overt complexity, presumably in an effort to keep in line with the facial animation of the characters, and the 3D scene animation does frequently falter. The 2D anime sequences however, draw close to even that of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch in their quality; a remarkable feat given that motion-picture production house Studio Ghibli played a part in that critically acclaimed release.
Tales of Xillia combines existing RPG staples with fresh ideas in a manner that has become synonymous with the franchise. It’s elegant in its delivery and deep in both its combat and its lore, resulting in a hugely compelling adventure. Tales of Xillia isn’t about to convince fans of Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls series that a more leisurely pace is warranted, but for the millions of gamers who still warm to the appeal of investing tens of hours in a Japanese fantasy experience there are very few titles that look set to better Tales of Xillia on the horizon.