March 19, 2014

That's A Wrap: Tales Of Xillia

warning: may contain spoilers

As my beloved Alvin would say, "that's a wrap!"

Tales games are popular amongst seasoned RPGers, and I consider myself one of them, so Tales of Xillia was a non-negotiable must for my collection. When PSN offered it for a measly 10 dollars, I had run out of excuses for putting off this game any longer (for the record: I will be purchasing a hard copy). And since the 'Tales of' collection is amongst my all-time favorites, Xillia took priority over the millions of other games I've got in queue.

Being a Tales game means, for me, that Xillia is an instant classic, and while many of my first impressions were less than savory, almost none of them stayed with me. Amongst such observations: the game seemed so dark and muted. Even the menus. Not nearly as vibrant or sharp as previous entires. But it turns out this is actually story related, and the menus are just the result of a typical "seasonal" Tales makeover.
The interactivity is very different. There are tons of NPCs scattered about, but you can only talk to a select few, usually indicated by a bubble above the character's head which will depict a face - for conversation (and the mouth will close if the character has nothing new to say); an exclamation mark - for a game event; or a series of lines - indicating a shop.
In the end, I suppose I was just shocked. Xillia had some pretty massive shoes to fill, being the follow-up to my recent playthrough of Tales of Vesperia (I've skipped Graces for now), which quickly became not only my favorite Tales game, but one of my favorite games of all time. I will take this moment to shamelessly promote my often-overlooked Vesperia article. It took me a long time to warm to Xillia, but it eventually captured me, as Tales games always do.
As mentioned before, the look of Xillia changes constantly according to the story, but regardless of this, I found Xillia to be less stunning overall, than I'm now accustomed to. It's simply not as bright or sharp as, say, Vesperia, and I don't particularly care for the little details the developer added to make the game more "current (past) gen"; it seems to be lacking a bit of that "anime" charm that Tales is always so true to. That's not to say Xillia isn't beautiful, I simply don't prefer it over previous Tales titles. Additionally, I'll mention that I actually preferred the "text bubble" delivery of dialogue (Vesperia), and with Xillia's dark pallet, I found subtitles often difficult to read.
I also noticed some elements were slow to load on the PS3, and the game didn't really take advantage of the many opportunities to insert fully animated "movie" scenes. More/longer such scene would have been appreciated.
There are many recycled elements and easter eggs in Rieze Maxia, which is a nice treat for Tales fans.
And then there's Milla's hair… which is ridiculous.

Xillia certainly sounds very familiar, and so it should, as composer Motoi Sakuraba is a regular in Tales development. The soundtrack is, as always, very suitable for the game, ever changing and lovely; although some areas are devoid of any music, and sometimes the soundtrack is also slow to load. Nevertheless, the music is awesome and memorable. In fact, as I write this, I have the game turned on just so I can listen to the theme of Xian Du, one of my favorites.
I rather like the sound effects in Xillia, too. Probably a strange compliment but those little effects are some of the finer details that can make a game more enjoyable, or ruin it, and Xillia did well. My only real criticisms of the sound department are that the music was sometimes a little too intense for the moment, and that the audio does get very cluttered during battle, sadly, to the point of being unable to hear what the characters are saying.
I'm not a big fan of the English cast in Xillia. I found the ladies in particular to be poorly cast, while Jude, Alvin and Rowen all grew on me quite quickly. If I ever get my hands on the guy that made it okay for Leia to pop up every four seconds and complain about me not using her...

There are six playable characters in Xillia, including two leads! This is a little different. When you boot up the game, you choose to play as either Jude, a gentle, young medical student, or Milla, the human incarnation of the spirit deity Maxwell. Either way, both members will join your party, in addition to easily the best character in the game: Alvin - whom I may or may not be madly in love with -
- a tough but unbelievably charming albeit slightly shady mercenary, who has an unexpected tie to Jude; Elize, a young channeler who travels with the most annoying companion ever, a talking stuffed toy called Teepo; Rowen, a legendary army tactician who wishes to avenge the only man willing to overlook his flaws and crimes; and Leia, Jude's childhood friend and training partner, who also studied medicine with Jude's doctor parents.
I chose Jude, and I'm surprised to say that I wasn't nearly as turned off by him as I thought I would be. When reading about the game beforehand, Jude sounded like he was going to be a weak and whiny boy with the worst voice actor ever. I also worried he was going to be the healer in my crew, being a medical student and all (and he does have healing artes), but I'm happy to report that this is not the case. He has moments of "I want to smack him," but for the most part he is a great lead. Milla, on the other hand, is basically the polar opposite. I found Milla to be boring, uninspired and poorly acted. I even disliked fighting as her, and found her to be... not useless, but not my first choice in battle.
In case my feelings about Alvin aren't already clear: best character. I immediately fell in love with Alvin, not just because he's charming and handsome, but because I have a soft spot for the brute strength, and Al is definitely it in Xillia. He fights with a large sword and a gun, has decent artes, and one of the only mystic artes I ever cared to use. Also his actor didn't bother me at all, a great casting decision. I used Elize a lot. She's a great spell caster who saved my ass innumerable times. She useless for melee, and I don't care to link with her either, but having her around is never a bad idea. For some reason, she leveled up faster than the rest of my crew, so she was always a couple steps ahead. Rowen is also a powerful mage, but he tends to stick to offensive magic. He was useful to have in battle, but you have to be careful with him since casting spells takes time, and I found Rowen to be incredibly weak no matter what I did. He died more than anyone else. Leia kind of fell into purgatory for me. I experimented with her a bunch, but in the end, her melee is far less impressive than Alvin so she was used the least in my party. Also she's annoying as hell and never shuts up. Like, ever.
Interesting thought: none if the characters in Xillia really suck. They all have curious, although sometimes predictable stories, and are a well divided group of melee (Jude, Al, Leia) and magic (Elize, Milla, Rowen). Consequently, they all have their uses and it's easy to build a balanced party. I do get tired of them complaining when I don't use them, though.
For anyone interested, my dream team consisted of Jude, Alvin, Elize and either Rowen or Milla.

Our story begins in Fennmont, where talented medical student Jude volunteers to locate his professor before an awards ceremony honoring the latter. After being denied entry to the research center he believes the honoree dwells within, he discovers the mysterious Milla finding her own way about. Eventually, the two unite to stop a strange woman from using a terrible weapon and the plot unfolds. After all of that work, you're finally treated to the opening number, and Jude or Milla begin their adventure. The story of Xillia is very entertaining, and I praise it for having quite a few great twists. These moments weren't particularly astounding, but I found myself on multiple occasions staring at the screen going, "...well then..."
There were also a few occasions in the early game where I found myself unable to identify the final boss, but it sorts itself out eventually, as per Tales tradition, and while I didn't love the ending to Xillia, I'm glad is all came together and made sense.

There are about a million gameplay facets in Tales of Xillia, and I couldn't possibly explain them all to you in this article, but rest assured there is PLENTY to do, including regular Tales stuff like dressing up your characters...
…experimenting with artes (magical attacks), watching the in-game skits, laughing at the victory skits, and looting the world - which took a slightly different approach this time: you can find treasure in random loot bags scattered about the land, or investigate the glittering spots for more materials.
Xillia also has a neat approach to shops. Rather then the weapons, armor, accessory, food and item shops just randomly gaining new items over time, the quality of merchandise depends on your shop level, which you can raise by shopping, donating the random crap you find from aforementioned looting activities, or by giving them money. But seriously, who's going to waste money on this? The game tutors you thoroughly on shop levels, so I won't dive into it here, but it does become a very important aspect of gameplay.
And since I've mentioned it - Xillia went a little overboard on tutorials. It's comical to me, since I've complained about poor tutorials in the past, but in Xillia, they never really go away. You're bombarded by them in the beginning, which is expected, and then the game draws attention to every new thing that pops up along the way as well, like every individual status ailment you incur during battle. Not really a big deal, but it got annoying at some point.
I can't help but feel like the cities in Xillia are larger than in past games, which is a little daunting when you're turning on a Tales game for the first time in a while, but nothing a few dozen hours of exploring can't alleviate. And you have maps! Quite complex ones at that. You can adjust your map by elevation now, and show/hide adjacent areas. When you approach an area on screen, the name pops up before you enter it, as per your map. Green dots indicate people you can talk to, while red signifies a battle. I'd have loved it if the green dots would disappear after you've spoken to them. It's distracting.
I noticed enemies don't spawn quite like they did in previous games. There are a few in every section, and they take a while to respawn after you've done away with them. Your map also has a large legend for every kind of treasure, shop, inn and save points. Also map-related, a very outstanding feature in Xillia: warping! There are no controllable ships or flying modes-of-transportation (save for a brief encounter with a Wyvern) in Xillia, you simply warp to any available place you've been before.
All that said, I feel like Xillia is just an oversimplified version of a Tales title. I'm not necessarily complaining - warping is super comforting - but sometimes I kind of miss the way we used to handle traveling and cooking and synthesizing weapons and so on. Xillia is painfully linear to begin with, and all these simplified gameplay mechanics take away from the experience even more.

And then there are side quests. Xillia has a side quest approach that reminds me of errands and bounties in Ni No Kuni. These are called "Sub Events" and can be instigated by talking to people and watching skits. Most of them require you to complete menial tasks for people or eliminate threatening monsters. One such case is the 'Devil's Beasts' side quest, which is the 'Tales of' staple "multiple giant monsters" quest.
There are also a treasure hunting quests, in which you seek Aifread's treasures, and slowly learn his story.
I can't believe this, but I think I may have accidentally completed 100% of the (possible) sides in Xillia.

The menu in Xillia is massive, but very neat and organized. Here's a peak:
Items > Accesses entire inventory, including food!
Artes > Where you program artes shortcuts, or enable/disable artes for your auto team members. You can also set which control mode you want for each character in this menu (Auto/Semi/Manual) by pressing select.
Equipment > Where you equip weapons and armor, as well as silly accessories.
Lillium Orb > Used to level up characters. The menu lights up when you have GP to spend.
Skills > Where you can manage the skills acquired from your Lillium Orb, and see which skills are affected by linking.
Strategy > Where you edit how characters perform in battle, such as which kind of enemies they should target, how concerned they should be about HP/TP, how often they should try to link with others and whether or not they have access to battle items. This is how you control characters set to auto.
Event List > Helps you keep track of objectives, including side quests. This is pretty odd for an JRPG.
Library > Keeps track of the titles (essentially achievements) you've earned, your bestiary and item book; allows you to re-watch skits you've prompted and view your records. There is also the battle book, which compiles all the tutorials you've suffered through, in case you want to relive them…
System > Quick save, load and options. Quick save is a new option which allows you to store one temporary file, which can only be recalled once. I've never actually used it, but I'm pretty sure you can save anywhere you'd like. You can, of course, also use the save points scattered throughout the world, if you prefer the old fashioned method, like me.
You can also see your party and their basic info, as well as your wallet, your watch, and your stomach! By that I mean, if you've eaten recently, you'll see how many more battles your meal will affect.

And that brings us to the one thing I find deters most people from Tales games: combat.
The combat system in Tales games is incredibly complex and entirely overwhelming for the first-time player. Even as a seasoned Tales gamer, I find it takes me a little while to recall the skills and adjust to the system to the point of comfort. What's more, Xillia has added a few new things to make combat even more cumbersome. That said, if I can master it, anyone can, so I will now attempt to walk you through the combat essentials.

The first thing I'd like to mention is that in spite of my blanket opinion of Xillia's visuals, combat looks amazing. Once you've run into a baddy (or been caught by one) your screen will become an "x" in either yellow (standard), red (you've been caught) or blue (your advantage, "back attack") and you're brought to the battle screen.
As always, your characters appear along the bottom with their changing expressions, HP, TP and AC (manual mode), and if they're linked, you and your partner will be highlighted in blue or green (you'll also see a thin line joining the two on the field). HP is of course your health, TP or technical points, is essentially mana or "MP" for using artes, AC is assault count - this is very annoying. You start out with an AC of 4, which means you can hit a total of 4 times before you need to stop and reset your AC. Basically, with melee, your max combo is your AC total.
On the field you'll see your party and all enemies. A yellow arrow will indicate your current target, and the yellow will deplete in accordance with the enemy's HP.
Up top (see "Rock Trine") is where you'll find all artes being logged. It shows you who's using them (blue for friend, red for foe), what it's called, and which kind of arte it is.
To the left is the Over Limit meter. At each interval, the X at the top will flash to inform you that you can perform a linked arte with your partner. Doing so while the meter is full launches you into Over Limit (increased power) until the meter runs out. Using an arcane arte* while in OL and then pushing X on the controller will instigate a mystic arte.
To the right is the indicator that I'm currently linked with Alvin, and as such have access to his support skill "breaker". Each character has a different support skill.
So now that I've mentioned it about 100 times, let's discuss linking. Linking is a new battle mechanic in Xillia, and while I wasn't sure how I felt about it at first, I eventually warmed to it and linked in every battle. Linking does just as it implies. You can link to any active party member and doing so will grant you a couple of benefits:
Your partner will, for the most part, follow you around the field and copy your actions.
You gain access to your partner's support skill. For instance, Al's "breaker" means that whenever a baddy tries to block my attack by guarding, Al will perform an attack that breaks their guard, making the foe once again vulnerable to my attacks. Each character has a different skill: Milla will bind enemies, Jude will restore a knocked down partner, Elize will constantly restore your TP, Leia will steal items from foes, Rowen protects you from magic and as mentioned, Alvin will break an enemy's guard
You share stat skills and statuses, which can work against you! If you are petrified, so is your partner.
Lastly, you can perform linked artes. Linked artes are a hybrid of each person's individual artes, for example, if Jude uses Rising Falcon, Alvin will step in and launch Jude into the air for Diving Falcon.
Occasionally, a character will pop up in the top left corner with a comment, usually about how they want to fight. Characters will also communicate during battle, but it's difficult to make out beneath the layers of yelling, calling out artes, and general hack and slash sounds.
During battle, you can change your armor, reassign your artes, adjust your strategy, use items - although you can only use one at a time, and then a meter will pop up indicating the amount of time before you can use items again - or choose to flee from your battle menu (triangle).
Other than that, you blast your target with melee (X) or artes (circle), or guard using square. Jude has a handy skill in which, if you back step at the opportune moment, he will pivot around the enemy, granting you the ability to attack from behind!

After you've conquered your foes, you're treated to once of the best things about Tales games: the victory skit. Sometimes, this is as simple as your active party standing around, along with some one-liner, but sometimes you get solid, comedic gold.
These skits will vary based on who's in the party, who got the final hit in, and who the linked pairs are.
Additionally, you'll see how many experience points and gald (money) you've earned, as well as your max combo for the battle and how long it took you to defeat your opponent. Character's HP and TP will restore slightly after battle, and you can boost this further with certain skills or by using food. That is, you eat a meal before the battle, and its effects will implement themselves after every battle for the duration of the portion.

And through all of this, you level up, the good ol' fashioned way! As you gain experience points, you will level up, which not only boosts your stats including HP and TP, but you gain GP (growth points) and SP (skill points) as well. GP are spent in your Lillium Orb, which looks an awful lot like the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X.
You use GP to unlock the nodes in the web which offer you stat boosts, and if you join the strands together by unlocking adjacent nodes, you can learn the skills and artes that the web holds secret.
Once you unlock the key node of your Lillium Orb, it develops further, allowing you to continue boosting your characters, and if you unlock enough nodes, your Lillium Orb will eventually expand into two. You can auto-level your Lillium Orb if you don't care to control the character's development.
SP are used to equip skills, which can be accessed from your menu. Skills are just that: additional capabilities that your characters will learn, and each costs a specific amount of SP to equip. Characters typically learn more skills than they have available SP, so you have to choose wisely.
Inactive party members will auto-level - thank the heavens - but their skills, artes and Lillium Orbs will not sort themselves out. You will have to keep tabs on the entire crew.

There are two sets of controls for Xillia: one for general gameplay, and one for battle.
Both will be very familiar to any Tales fan. It's also pretty much identical to the Xbox 360's controls, which is handy for me, since the last game I played was Vesperia. To a newcomer, it may be pretty complicated until you get used to it:
Left stick navigates you, right stick is camera. X is input. Triangle is menu. Circle will cancel and square will pull up your map. R1 will bring up your current objective. L1 will reset your camera. Back will view the iconic Tales skits when prompted. Start is pause. R3 summons your world map and warp menu.
Simple enough, right? Now to the good stuff. For battles, you have three modes: manual, auto, and semi-auto. Auto allows the AI to do everything for everyone. Semi-auto tries to help you out a bit with controls, but honestly is just annoys me. Manual gives you full control, in which case: your left stick will move you forward and back, unless you hold L2 - instigating free run - in which case you can go wherever your heart desires… within the battle ring, anyway. Pushing the LS up will cause you to jump.
Holding L1 and pressing in any direction on your D-pad will change which character you fight as (as per the setup on the bottom of the battle screen).
R1 and a D-pad direction will allow you to switch your target enemy.
R2 is the special button in Tales games that will execute whichever unique combat technique is linked to the game, in this case it's Linked Artes, which must be done when prompted by a symbol over your character which resembles an "x" within a circle.
Pushing L3 will cause your character to taunt the enemy, thus drawing attention to yourself and pissing off the monster. You can recover a little TP this way, too!
Pushing R3 brings up swap mode. The battle will pause momentarily while you use your D-pad to trade members of your active party with inactive members, so you can design the team that best suits the battle on the fly. This is new and plenty helpful, but also saddening. Half the fun of RPGs is designing a team and strategizing with what you've got.
Holding square will guard, while X is your standard attack, and that brings us to artes. From your menu, you can assign your artes to your LS and RS, and during battle you press circle to prompt them. You can assign a different arte to the left and right, up, down, or straight (do not push the LS in any direction) or the RS up, down, left, right  - in which case you do not need to press circle. Xillia also added a second map, which you can use by holding L1 while prompting your arte (same stick and/or button pattern). If you perform an arcane arte while in Over Limit, you can hold down X immediately after, and this will prompt your mystic arte. There is no real introduction to mystic artes in Xillia, they are just another 'Tales of' treasure.
And of course, start is pause!

One thing they failed to improve in Xillia is what I like to call "manual mode woes". While in manual mode, the game takes away the advantage of having the AI set you up for attacks, so you are entirely on your own - which is what I want, except then you're stuck with the sticky controls, and having your character constantly pointed the wrong way. It takes a few seconds after killing an enemy for your leader to reset, meaning if you continue to attack, you'll be attacking air, even if you're pointing your LS in the direction of the enemy. This is particularly frustrating when dealing with artes that land you on the opposite side of an enemy, or when an enemy moves around you. And everything about flying enemies. Also, since pushing up on your LS causes a jump, the LS+up arte is impossible to master.

As per Tales tradition, you are offered easy, normal and hard mode in Xillia, as well as 'moderate' which falls somewhere between normal and hard. You can unlock 'unknown' mode after you've beat the game. This can be changed at any time in your options, and doing so will affect things like your enemy's stats, including HP. I found myself changing the mode far less often in Xillia, which suggests that it is much more consistent in difficulty than Vesperia. As a seasoned Tales fan, I found the game to be a joke on normal mode, but if you'd like to cruise through for the sake of the story, or you are not familiar with Tales games, normal is a fine place to start.

While not the best Tales game I've played, Xillia was wildly entertaining, addicting, familiar and a lot of fun. At some point, I found myself clocking between 5 and 8 hours every day, and it never felt like I was playing for that long. I clocked 69 hours in the end, and will gladly do it again someday. Even though the game is fairly linear, Xillia possesses everything it takes to hook an RPGer, it's only matter a time before, like me, you won't be able to put this game down.
If you enjoy Xillia, consider previous Tales games, like my beloved Vesperia or Graces or Abyss. At the time of publishing, Symphonia was recently rereleased in HD - also a fantastic title. All of these games are classic fantasy RPGs. I've even started peddling Tales games to gamers who aren't big fans of (J)RPGs, because I find their complaint is often that games aren't complex enough for them, and Tales has the capability of being as complex as you'd like it to be. I love and recommend them all.

LOTIPS
  • If this is your first Tales game, be patient. There is a LOT to learn in any given Tales game, and Xillia is no exception. Take it in strides, and don't be surprised if it takes you the whole game to master a certain technique or understand a game component. I've been playing Tales games for years and I still have to spend a few hours relearning how to play every time I pick up one of these games.
  • First Tales game? Press select whenever you see text in the lower left of the screen. These are skits, a staple in Tales games. They will fill in plot holes, provide a little information, or at least make you laugh.
  • Upgrade your shop levels A.S.A.P.. Especially weapons. I breezed through most of Xillia, largely because my equipment was always a few stages ahead of the game. Go to the shop menu, choose expand, and give away all the otherwise useless crap you collect from loot bags/points.
  • You can also set artes to your right stick, by scrolling down in the artes menu. I like to use these for healing spells (Jude) while the left stick is for attacks. Note that you do not need to press your arte button (circle) to activate the right stick artes. Also, Xillia added a second map for artes - which you earn at some point in your journey - it allows you to access even more artes by holding L1 in addition to your usual command.
  • Eat something. It helps, and your characters will annoy you about it if you don't.
  • If you decide to take on the Devil's Beasts quest, I found that the magic users were most helpful. I'd use Jude, pair off with Alvin for a chain of linked artes, cap it off with a Mystic Arte, then swap out Al for Elize, with Rowen and Milla already hard at work. Put them all to bed in no time.

* For anyone new to 'Tales of', "Arte" is what we call a magic spell. There are four types of artes in Xillia: martial - which is basically a melee arte, capable of hitting an enemy more than once, for example; spirit - which is essentially magic, or elemental; arcane - a more powerful "upgraded" arte; and mystic - a single, all-powerful attack that can only be accessed when the user is at his/her most tense. Each character only has one (although Jude and Milla can perform a joint mystic arte which is separate from their individual ones).


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