Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Tales of Xillia


Tales of Xillia
The 15th Anniversary flagship game in the Tales series, brought over to America two years after its Japanese release.

Tales games trade heavily in the familiar. Their stories are about youths learning about friendship or justice or personal responsibility against the backdrop of a world where technology and nature are on an inevitable collision course. Characters are the old guy, the bratty girl, the clueless but good-natured teenage boy. One of them has an attack called Demon Fang. They all chow down on Apple Gels to recover HP.

So goes Tales of Xillia, whose major distinguishing factor is that you can choose whether to play as the male lead, Jude, a hapless medical student, or the female lead, Milla, the god of spirits made flesh. The difference is mostly cosmetic: both characters exist in the story regardless and they are rarely separated, so what you're actually missing out from one or the other is a smattering of cutscenes.

The world of Rieze Maxia looks to be in pretty good shape. Invisible spirits fuel technology through a symbiotic relationship with humans and it all seems pretty equilibrious, but for the clandestine use of spyrix, a power that is in some way detrimental to the environment, although nobody bothers to explain the hows and whys of it for about ten hours.

Xillia is slow. Even for a Tales game, a series that meters out its plot and mechanics at the speed of thick pudding, Xillia takes its time. For a game whose main character is the literal instantiation of a god you would expect some bombast, or vitality, or something, but Milla's powers are stripped away after only an hour of secret research lab infiltrating and overpowered spirit battles. After she is rendered human – or human-ish – Xillia slips back into the Tales norm. Milla and co. embark on the usual, low stakes cross-country journey filled with proper noun defining exposition and battles against uninspiring wolves and waddling cheepits.

But for a game pace so slowly it is so blatantly, obviously rushed. Xillia was released two years ago in Japan, timed for the 15th anniversary of the series, and is noticeably shorter than most other Tales games. It's only about thirty hours long even if you do a respectable amount of side quests, but more telling than the length is its creators absolute void of enthusiasm. Most of the game is spent navigating from town to town through a succession of box canyons that are only differentiated by their time of day or their season. Some exist in perpetual night, some are covered in snow, but all are unenthusiastic squiggles of pathways between impassable walls. The puzzle dungeons Tales is known for are completely absent. Maybe excising them entirely is a good idea – the puzzles in previous games tended to be rudimentary in scope and the eternal in length – but in their place is nothing. Nothing but canyons between you and your destination, each three or four screens long, each of those screens navigable in about thirty seconds, if you do it as the crow flies.

So to stymie your progress every canyon is filled with chests, haphazardly scattered sacks, and resource nodes glimmering out of tree branches and protuberances of rock. There are one or two hidden treasures per area that grant visible attachments, like aviator sunglasses and stuffed animals, or unlock new and powerful combat skills. Everything else, be it sack or shimmering spot, contains either cash or interchangeable trade items: griffin talons, puffballs, magical ore, fish scales, which, whether they be magical or mundane, all exist to be converted into generic resource points to level up the weapon shop or the armor shop or the item shop.

Everything is fungible, which is not how a Tales game should be. Tales games have personality. Though it may not be a personality you particularly enjoy (it is, most likely, a personality that exasperates you), most Tales games have some sort of verve. Perhaps this is the gambit of a main character that is functionally a robot, or at least is voiced as one. Milla shows limited emotion for most of the game, though ham-handed characters like Elise (the twelve year-old girl who acts like she's six), and her irritatingly loud-spoken animatronic doll, pick up some of the melodramatic slack. The rest of the cast is inoffensive, which can also be parsed as "unexciting." It almost makes you yearn for the irksome Graces line-up. Asbel and Cheria might've been two of the most annoying characters in videogames, but they drew more response than the generic slates that populate Xillia. Here is the character that will betray you. Here is the spunky female love interest, who the clueless male lead constantly (but unknowingly) spurns. Here is the old guy with the mild pervy streak.

Be grateful the "old guy" is older than thirty five, for once.

Xillia is shorter than many Tales games by half, and yet bizarrely devoid of content. What happened during long stretches in the middle of this game, where the objective scroll constantly read "waste time until the next big thing happens?" There are, minimum, three moments where the plot spools you up for the final battle, only to yank the rug out and say, 'haha, just kidding!' A device called an aspyrixis is introduced somewhere around hour fifteen. This is not even foreshadowing, it is almost literally the same word as the ‘spyrix’ that everyone's been talking about since the opening cutscene. So why does nobody bother to mention the connection until two hours before the credits roll? What were they doing during that time? It's hard to remember. There was a tournament in a coliseum. They rode some wyverns.

The battle system is the only thing that feels right, and that's only after a slew of growing pains, mechanics added in fits and spurts until finally, finally it works as its creators intended. It operates like Tales of Graces, which replaced mana points with a quickly regenerating combat resource, but it's stapled MP back in. Why both? Restricted by MP (or TP, in Tales terminology), Xillia lacks the free flowing and explosive nature of Graces combat while keeping the sole restriction, that CC (or AC, in this game) can be exhausted, causing a momentary pause where characters can do nothing but sit and spin. This worked for Graces because no TP meant less fiddling in menus, which eliminated all the times when you wanted to kill dragons but instead had to play nursemaid, injecting a steady stream of Orange Gels into the healer's mana pool. The reduction of constant menu visits in Graces balanced well against the brief spats of inactivity.

Here, the combination of AC (to restrict your moment to moment moves) and TP (which requires medium-term planning to maintain a full mana pool) is one limitation too many. Combat is wretched until characters unlock skills that add more AC to their pool. Throwing out three auto-attacks and waiting for your points to recharge is in no way fun. There are ways to get momentary boosts to AC, like evading an enemy's attack at the last moment, but these are fickle. Reactionary skills have always paired awkwardly with the chaotic pace of Tales combat.

After a few levels, and a few points spent in the right skills, Xillia's battle system improves faster and better than you'd expect. Linking is the new addition. Two characters can pair up to offer each other stat boosts, flank enemies, and share their passive skills. When the combination bar is full they go into overlimit and can engage in combo moves until they run out of mana or the bar empties (which can take a very long time, depending on what skills they have set). Skewering a boss with four or six or eight combination attacks in a row is fantastic. It imbues a heady sense of potency in the player. Battlefield control is what Tales combat is about, and Xillia has it on lock. Linking also has the side benefit of enhancing your partner's skills. Some characters will steal when linked, some will break enemy guards, and some will heal. The advantages of linking are huge, almost a requirement, but being linked forces the linked character to AI control, so Xillia is best played with no more than two people. But two players was always the sweet spot for Tales combat, so linking is really just a passive codification of that idea.

The leveling is a mess, like the Crystalium of Final Fantasy XIII but with even less effort than that notably lackluster mechanic. The Lilium Orb, Xillia calls it, is a pathway by which the developer foists the manual labor of building hit points and attack strength and dexterity onto the player, who drives a bead of light along a boring spider web, picking up orbs of +18 PSY and +24 AGI at a rate of three to six orbs per level, eventually unlocking some skill or special move that would've been more fun if the game just meted it out at level 19 instead of giving the commensurate amount of GP to activate the required orbs to unlock the skill at level 19, or around level 19, depending on what path you take through the spider web. It's busy work, and characters level so rapidly that distributing three GP every five battles quickly becomes unrealistic, so the choice is either to let the game auto-level for you, in which case you're basically acquiring stats at random, or waiting until the end of a play session and distributing all gained GP in an excruciatingly dull ten minute burst.

There are interesting skills hidden in the midst of the bland stat-ups, skills that let you cancel your jump, sidestep and attack at the same time, convey elemental resistances to you and your partner both, but all this requires an exhausting devotion to scrolling through poorly laid out blueprints. After two dozen hours, it becomes easier to let the computer pick for you. Compared to the fun and fast-paced methods of Vesperia and Graces's character advancement, leveling here feels like shuffling beads along the world's most labyrinthine abacus.

Other systems follow the same route. It's all make-work. Cooking is no longer a post-battle treat, nor does it maintain the simple pleasure of managing a virtual shopping list of tomatoes and onions and beef. Meals are bought fully formed from a vendor and swallowed from the pause screen without ceremony. This is not cooking so much as eating. Shops level up, as they did in Graces, but, unlike in Graces, Xillia's shop inventory improves worldwide. It does so by the aggressive application of griffin claws and puffballs. There's no anticipation of new inventory when reaching a new town, because the same inventory could have been available in the last town. Sometimes you will buy a new sword, the purchase will level up the shop, and immediately there will be a new, better sword on offer. This event, which may happen three or four times over the course of the game, is a distillation of all the inanity Xillia heaps upon its player. "What you just did is pointless," says the Xillia shopkeep, "Because here is something marginally better."

"Here's something marginally better" is the creed of Tales of Xillia. Oh, you didn't like that climax, where you killed that corrupt ruler? Well, have another climax where you kill another corrupt ruler. Oh, that summer box canyon with the aggressive crabs was no good? Here's a winter box canyon with aggressive ice stags. Is that better? Do you like that more?

Who could argue with a shorter Tales game? The series is so packed with bloat that nearly every installment is ten, or even twenty, hours longer than it needs to be. But Xillia isn't all the plot of a Tales game compressed into thirty hours; Xillia is the first thirty hours of a Tales plot straight up, with the second and third acts compressed into a four hour chaser at the end. Those four hours are where every bit of interesting plot development happens, where Milla's status as a god and creator is finally explored, and where the stakes are finally made clear. Coincidentally, the end is the only time the choice between Jude and Milla as main character even matters, and it matters in such a way that when you come back after two hours apart you find that you have missed two hours of crucial plot. Entire betrayals have happened and been resolved while you were away, and are only mentioned in tertiary skits, bits of random dialogue that usually detail what the characters last ate or what manner of breasts they enjoy.

Xillia is a placebo shaped into the form of a Tales game that we're expected to swallow while we wait for the real one, the one that wasn't rushed out the door to meet an arbitrary anniversary. It is middle of the road. It is without purpose. It is inert. Its characters are mostly inoffensive, its systems are mostly underdeveloped, and its story doesn't bother getting interesting until long after it's depleted every ounce of player goodwill. Alternate costumes are rare to the point of nonexistent (unless you want to pay real dollars for them, then there's swimsuit DLC). It's got pretty cool combat, some of the best combat in the series, probably, you just have to be willing to slog through the crap leveling and the tasteless pabulum of everything else to get at it. Xillia attempts to cut out the tedium and the small annoyances we've come to associate with Tales, but it's left nothing in their place. If we go by extremes, Xillia is one of the least irritating Tales games, but it is least irritating by way of indifference.

Overall : C+
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : C
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : C-

+ One of the best and most diverse combat systems in Tales
Story falls back on same old Tales tropes without characters to back it up, many systems feel pointless

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