The latest of a slew of Tales titles due to hit the West in their translated forms, Tales of Xillia was initially released in Asia just a tad over 2 years ago. Xillia has gone on to be one of the most marketable (and marketed) titles in the Tales series for a number of reasons, including its sequel which is due to hit the lands of the West somewhere around the first or second quarter of 2014. Why all the fuss?
The main attraction of Tales of Xillia is its combat system. In comparison to its predecessor - Tales of Graces f - it is not as diverse, but it still maintains a decent level of depth. You can have up to 4 characters at a time on the field during battle but there is a very useful feature which allows the player to swap out a character mid-battle and swap in one of the characters that isn't in your active party into the action. Add to this the option to (very smoothly) change the character you are controlling mid-fight and you've got a very accommodating system that gives you the freedom to change your style or plan regardless of whatever situation you're in as you like. In terms of the actual fighting, once you have at least 4 characters to use and have levelled up a reasonable amount you'll really begin to notice how deep a system you have in your hands. The game has a similar control layout to that of Tales of Vesperia which gave you the menu button, attack and defence buttons and a jump button, and also 8 pre-set moves (called Artes). However in Xillia instead of having 8 pre-set artes you actually have 16 (which are used the same way as the 8 in Vesperia, except the additional 8 are used with the L1 button in addition to the normal system). This can get pretty confusing at times especially if you need to change characters during a fight, but at the same time with the vast array of artes you unlock for each character it's hard to imagine what the game would be without it since you'd constantly be changing your Artes, or if not, you'd be missing out on a lot of the diverse moves you have.
The Linking system is what differentiates this battle system to those of previous Tales games. During battle you can choose to link (which is essentially partnering-up) with one of your fellow party members which will give you a range of benefits and extra options. Each individual character has their own ability which will be used in specific situations when you sync-up with them, so for example Alvin can break through strong enemy guards, while Milla can use her bind skill which freezes enemies on-the-spot for a few seconds allowing you to get in some damage. The main point of the Linking system is that you can perform special artes which can only be performed by two particular characters together and (bar 3 or 4) by no-one else. Once the Link gauge has reached a specific level, if you attack with an arte which is linked to an arte of the person you are in-sync with, you will have the chance to trigger a special two-person arte. Here's where the system can get tricky, but can be wonderfully useful if you work with it and get the hang of it. Once the gauge reaches its full capacity and you trigger an arte with another character you will go into Over Limit, allowing them to link their linked attacks together (confused much?) without any break in between. In simple terms it means that you can launch one team arte, and the second that ends you can land another linked arte immediately after it, and continue to link team artes together until the Over Limit ends (or until you get confused and just start pressing random pre-sets in the hope that one of them is another link). It can become extremely difficult at times to remember everything (and I haven't even mentioned the fact that while in Over Limit and during a linked attack with one character, you change your link to link with someone else and then continue the linked artes on with them) but when you're able to nail it down you can do some serious damage within the space of about 15 seconds and make many a battle so much easier for yourself. You don't have to go to all this trouble of course; you can easily just focus on doing linked artes in your own time and in whatever row you wish, as the other benefit of being in Over Limit is that you can hit as many attacks in a row as you like as you won't run out of SP (the counter which allows you to make attacks in the first place). In all this system is pretty fun. It's not exactly a game-changer which would make me buy this over another game (at least for me it isn't), but it's still fun and it feels like a solid progression from the Vesperia battle system.
Lamentably, here is where I'll (already) have to begin describing the not-so-enjoyable aspects of the game, beginning with the story. You'll notice when you begin playing Xillia that it's not set in a particularly relatable world, unless you live in one surrounded by spirits which take a certain essence which part of your brain produces (called 'mana') from you which they use in order to survive, maintain the world and allow you to utilise magic. That's not an issue of course, nor is the fact that this world brings in many different features which are unique to the world of this game one. However issues arises when events and features of the world are explained through something pulled out of thin air (a 'deus ex machina' for you Latinists or movie buffs out there), and the frequency with which this happens in Xillia. Instead of really using this distant world and its features for the sake of producing a unique and unpredictable story, it seems like most of what we see in Xillia is just there to accommodate bad story-telling. Once the worst instance of this happened I have to admit I lost the majority of my care for the story and it genuinely put a real dampener on my experience with the game from then on, and quite honestly I didn't really bother keeping up with the ins and outs of it all after that. Maybe personally I just took this moment to heart too much and it won't put off other people as it did to me, but thanks to the prevalent story themes which have appeared in previous Tales games appearing here as well, when this happened I didn't feel like I was about to miss out on much further down the line (and I didn't). I won't go into detail about this specific moment (you'll know it when you get there) but its resolution felt like a kick in the teeth considering how the scenes that preceded it left me completely flabbergasted (in a good way, however) as they were something remarkable which I hadn't particularly seen anywhere else - and of all places didn't expect to see it in a JRPG - until the outcome of it all that is.
The cast of characters of Rieze Maxia are a little mixed. In one hand, you find those that you'd encounter in your typical JRPG, and in the other, you find some characters that are a little different to that normal clichéd group. The protagonists, Jude and Milla, both come into contact with each other early on in the game and stay together for the vast majority of it from then on after Jude ends up on the run. Jude at the beginning is pretty naive but is hardly a dunce considering he's a medical student and he's a pretty witty guy, especially when it comes to the more adult-natured talk between himself and Alvin, and occasionally Milla. However as this batch of heroes' journey goes on and his do-gooder nature begins to shines through it's as if he suddenly loses all personality, and he just becomes a massive pain to listen to (at times even more-so than Asbel from Graces f, which is something I NEVER expected myself to say). Milla is a little bit dull at the beginning and it can take a while to take a liking to her (her rather dull voice-actor doesn't exactly help either, however considering the character that she is supposed to be that sort of voice does actually suit her in a way, so potato potáto), but she too can be pretty witty at times. Yet, similar to Jude, as time goes on her repetitive comments about human nature and society become predictable and lose the humour they're intended to provoke. The supporting characters are a decent bunch, even if at times a little predictable. Leia is a childhood friend of Jude's and is used to staying in her home town and helping around the community with her family, but she decides to take a punt and join the gang travelling about the world which is a whole new experience for her. She too, like Jude, can be naive at times but her interactions with Jude are usually pretty funny to watch (especially when her quick temper and snappy comebacks kick in), and her evolving relationship with the orphan child Elize is nice to watch. Elize is a young girl with a strange and secluded past who always carries around what seems to be a talking doll called Teepo which can (and often does) read what Elize is thinking but too shy to say and says it for her. She continually grows into her role in the game and seeing her personality begin to surface and flourish around this group of older people is pleasant. Having children in the main cast in JRPGs isn't anything out of the ordinary, but I'd like to feel that Elize breaks the mould a little bit as she doesn't particularly have her sights on any grand future, all she wants to do is go to school and learn to live like a normal child does. Rowen is probably the most boring character of the lot. He's the older, wiser gentleman who was once a master tactician on the battlefield but lost his way and drifted away from it and went into a different and more simple profession. It's probably being harsh, and he's not exactly a bad character, but the all-knowing, wise and noble older man tends to not really have a huge amount of growing to do in a series like this and Rowen isn't exactly a particularly attractive character, although he does have his humorous moments. The last of the supporting characters is Alvin, who is my favourite character of the game for differing reasons. As a mercenary he tends to drift from person to person just doing whatever missions he comes across (and which pay him well of course). This in various ways leads him in onto and out of the paths of Jude and Milla throughout Tales of Xillia. He's the kind of guy which you can never really trust but has this way with words which will always keep you wondering. He reminded me quite a lot in the early stages of the game of Raven from Tales of Vesperia, but Alvin's prominence in the game and developing story changes that and allows him to make this his own role and not a carbon copy. He continually seems to change from one side to the other thanks to the jobs he receives and it's almost impossible attempting to predict what his next move is or what he's actually attempting to do (if anything, considering sometimes it's simply just work). Towards the end of the game he seems to become a lot more predictable and 'normal' (and therefore the kind of drab character you might expect to find here) than he has been for the majority of it, but I think it's fair to let it slide considering how enigmatic he is for the vast majority of the game, and since he's very possibly the only one that really keeps the game interesting when you're trying to figure out what happens next. Besides, he's witty, smart and good with the ladies - what's not to like?
The main antagonists are a little different. In fact they're a pretty woeful group when you listen to them. Between the enormous man (with a beard and hammer to match) who has forest wolves at his beck and call, the crazy chick that literally can't seem to stand still for her endlessly agitated expressions, a girl in spandex with cat ear-shaped hair and a tail (which for the record is never explained, although I don't think any explanation would have made a big difference) who seems to be there just to throw in some sultry lines as fanservice (as if her design isn't enough to do that), and a goth with a terrible case of bed head (I mean that one hair is just endlessly poking up out of his head staring me in the face) who transforms into a Devil Jin imitation from Tekken with white hair.
The world of Rieze Maxia is the other main disappointment of the game. It doesn't feel like there are many different locales in the game, the majority of the lands which you traverse feel like they're pretty much the same except for a different type of weather or coat of paint. This also features in the enemies of the world too, with most of them being pretty similar excepting their element types. This all plays into a feeling of repetition throughout the game - despite the good combat system - as enemy types seem to be repeated quite often and with only about 3-5 different enemies in the majority of dungeons they can become a little bit boring to trudge through. Towns are probably the most disheartening feature of the game because they all feel extremely lifeless and devoid of any real individuality (except, perhaps - and that's a big perhaps - Sharilton). Most towns feature the same sorts of NPCs saying the same sorts of things, and there are rarely any outstanding requests - for the most part you'll be fighting a particular set of monsters which are "causing trouble" here or there, or you'll be searching for some item which someone needs. There is a real Oriental feel about areas and parts of the game, with places like Xian Du emphasising this with its heavily Eastern-influenced design and accompanying music, but this alone isn't enough to give the any town the life it needs.
In fact there is a dearth of additional content in Tales of Xillia. Side-quests are pretty conventional: go here and pick up this, go there and fight that. There are very few additional bosses to fight and only one secret dungeon, and once you've completed it once you're pretty much done with it (apart from grinding, and even then if you're able to complete the secret dungeon you probably don't have anything to grind for). Heck there's not even a second, unleashed version (if you will) of the final boss which there has been in the last 2 games (if not more) which is a massive disappointment. Without a world map and much extra content Xillia is a pretty linear game, but that's not necessarily a bad thing in its own right as it means you don't really need to spend any time worrying about grinding to get by, but in this case the linearity of the game does seem to take away from what the game could have been like, and it is a huge amount easier than the other Tales games (and in fact all JRPGs) I have played with only one really challenging fight in the whole game. All of this adds up to what is a pretty short game. Considering I've spent over 130 hours on Tales of Graces f doing almost everything I could find and still not being done at that, the 65 hours I've spent on Xillia and being able to get everything done and knowing that there's a sequel which has been fairly well received makes it feel like this is little more than a prelude there to set the scene for the main event.
With the knowledge that Tales of Xillia 2 was made shortly after Xillia in Asia - and the fact that Xillia 2 seems to be regarded as a much better title - one might say that it's not too difficult to try and forget about the disappointments of this first title and hope that there's something better around the corner, but for me the annoyances of Xillia are a little too telling and too obtrusive on your experience of the game to be ignored. The disappointments of the story result in a predictable game which wouldn't be so bad if the game wasn't so linear and progressed in such a linear fashion. Progressing through the world can be monotonous despite the good combat system thanks to the lack of diverse enemy types, and the lack of side-content is the real game-breaker since you can normally rely on that for enjoyment if the main story isn't to your liking. With Xillia 2 promising much more than the paltry offerings of Xillia, you'd be best to wait it out if you're looking for a full JRPG experience.