With fantastical narratives, whimsical characters, and well-constructed mechanics, the Tales series of JRPGs is generally held in high regard, with adoring fans all over the globe. The JRPG juggernaut is celebrating its 15th anniversary in the West, and that calls for the release of a very special game. In this case, it's the arrival of Tales of Xillia on North American shelves, the latest entry in the Tales mythos from 2011. Though saddled with a rather by-the-books plot and some dated gameplay, the latest sojourn through the Tales universe is still very much a colorful, animated treat for role-playing enthusiasts looking for their next fix.
Tales drops you into one of two roles: the stereotypical "shounen hero" medical student Jude Mathis or the blunt yet beautiful master of spirits Milla Maxwell. Both protagonists share the same major plot points, though you'll be treated to character-specific cut scenes, dialogue, and quests depending on which strikes your fancy. Regardless of who you choose as your avatar, Tales of Xillia proceeds along a fairly familiar path, thrusting you into a world in which some pretty bad people have devised to unleash an unspeakably powerful weapon.
The narrative itself isn't particularly memorable due to its insistence on relying on by-the-books plot points we've seen several times before. But like with previous Tales games, it's the dialogue and character interactions that bid you to see the game to the end--especially some of the extremely erratic behavior of villains. There's a real sense of growth to be seen in Jude especially, and that's largely due to expansive dialogue, insightful side quests, and sometimes hilarious conversations. The reason for the journey isn't anything new, but the characters are able to drive it home and keep you charging ahead.
Of course, you won't simply be puttering around Xillia's game world striking up conversations and bonding with your teammates. There's an intricate battle system in place that weaves together dazzling special attacks, satisfying player-controller strikes, and computer-controlled party members that offer powerful dual attacks and a myriad of other strategic options.
You can unleash a barrage of physical strikes and art attacks, limited only to the number of moves before you deplete your action gauge. It's a rewarding mixture of Eternal Sonata's free-roaming battle mechanics and the AI companions of Persona fame. You'll find that you may even begin looking forward to the numerous random and staged battles, especially considering a large portion of baddie brawls are optional. Many of these fights aren't particularly challenging, but they provide some good old-fashioned button-mashing fun.
Random encounters are not only entertaining; they're useful if you want to make proper use of the Lilium Web, a node-unlocking system where you spend experience points to unlock new abilities and stat boosts. As you rapidly progress through the game and acquire more powerful augments, you'll hunger for more beasts to fell and more treasure to loot. It's a good feeling, and one of the many reasons you'll want to come back for more after completing the game with one character.
Unfortunately, as the game is an older release, character models and environments appear a bit muddy and underdeveloped. The crisp anime cutscenes are an interesting juxtaposition against characters like Milla, with a gravity-defying wisp of hair or enemies who appear to be seizing at some moments. It can be a bit off-putting, but the excellent soundtrack and occasionally brilliant English voice-acting ensure the experience is a bit more smooth.
Despite being nearly two years old, Tales of Xillia is still very much an engaging and sprawling entry into the wide world of Tales stories. It struggles to find its footing here and there, but it manages to straighten up thanks to the help of genuinely likeable dialogue snippets, addictive battles, and a slick character augmentation system. This might not be the first Tales newcomers should look into, but newbies and vets alike should find plenty to love here.
This game was reviewed on PS3.