Being an RPG enthusiast, I'm no stranger to the Tales series. Ever since Tales of Destiny, I've been hooked on Namco's hectic and ludicrously fun alternative to Final Fantasy.
Having played the game immediately after finishing with Tales of Graces F (maybe I'll get to reviewing it some day), I could not have been happier. Both this game and Graces F warm my heart that, contrary to popular belief, JRPGs are not dead and they -can- be fun again.
So let us kick off 2014 'The Year of RPGs' with Tales of Xillia
When Med student Jude Mathis encounters a mysterious girl named Milla who claims to be the Lord of Spirit, a.k.a God, he becomes embroiled in her destiny to save the world.
The Tales series never shied from using RPG tropes and genre savvy players might pick on how the set-up harkens to beloved RPG Lunar: Eternal Blue but while the narrative never takes a surprising twist or turn, the story remains good. Tales narrative strength lie not in their antagonists, their lore or their location but from the character interactions. Some single entry Tales games have sequels worth of character growth (Luke from Tales of the Abyss undergoes more growth than Lightning did in all of her games combined).
The method in which the series achieves this is called 'Skits', pressing the Select button at prompted times lets you listen to the characters converse with one another. That means, unlike other RPGs, you don't have to wait until the next plot-point or town location to witness character conversation. Now most Tales games boasted an impressive amount of interaction but Xillia cranks it up to eleven. Food, sleeping, walking around, battle, injury, EVERYTHING can prompt a skit and/or a character speaking something out loud. Story-hating RPG players (and they exist, believe me. I'm friends with those who treat it like a numbers game) might eventually get annoyed but I found it fantastic and really got to know these characters.
Long story short, Xillia boasts a more epic narrative than Graces F (that one told a more personal story). It, however, shies away from telling a trope-defying story ala Abyss (spoiler: not everyone gets a happy ending in that one) but the journey to the predictable conclusion is ESPECIALLY enjoyable and with a terrific and charming cast of characters.
Come for the story, stay for the combat. The Tales series eschews turn-based combat for real-time button-mashing, magic attack spamming orgy of colors and special attacks. It can become daunting at first but it's a system that definitely rewards you the more you try to master it.
You control one character whilst the rest of your party is composed of three AI controlled teammates. X button are normal attacks whilst O button are special artes. Notable addition to the combat is the Link system wherein you link up with one member who will follow you around the battle and perform special combination attack when you use your artes. It is chaotic, customizable and never gets old
The combat is not without flaws, though. For one, the combat seems slower than it has been in Graces F. While they're essentially different games, I still find it valid to compare them considering how Graces F is a Wii port AND is an older entry in the series. Couple that with slowdowns in latter parts of the game (when every member of your party spams Area attacks) and things can get annoyingly choppy.
I'm always wary of English VA in JRPG as they always seem to go for the lower budget, however Xillia had been a flawless experience on my ears.
Music is decent and serves the story well, though there aren't any memorable tracks except for the Coliseum tunes from past Tales series.
Tales of Xillia will not wow with the conflict that drives its narrative forward but what you will find yourself loving the journey, not the destination. This game is a triumph, a testament to what happens when you do a JRPG right. After quitting halfway through FF13, I had to cut myself in order to wash that experience from my mind...never wishing to lay eyes on Lightning and her boyband ever again.
Meanwhile, I loved Jude and MIlla and I, for one, cannot wait to reunite with them in Tales of Xillia 2!