Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-09-05 17:30:44
Tales of Xillia - Niggles and Imperfections
Namco Bandai's Tales of Xillia (PS3) is, sadly, one of the worst Tales of games that I have played. I'm a big fan of the series, and rank both Symphonia (GC) and Abyss (PS2) as among my favourite games from the JRPG genre. With those games, I don't recall becoming frustrated with them at all, and, rather, I remember them both vividly and fondly. Having played Abyss again recently on the 3DS, I can safely say that the game is still good fun to play and has a great cast of characters and a strong sense of narrative pacing. With Xillia, I cannot say that I have enjoyed my time with the game anywhere near as much, and the following are just a few reasons why I think this is:
#1 - The Plot Isn't Good: There is a point in Symphonia where a character betrays the party. This action impacts upon the entire game thereafter and is executed well. In Xillia, character motivations become so convoluted and nonsensical that every new betrayal (and there are a lot of them in this game) adds an extra layer of frustration to the narrative. One minute you're on King Gaius' side; the next you're fighting him. Then you have an ally in the form of a spirit girl; then she betrays you. In almost every new location the party visits in the first two-thirds of the game, the mercenary party member Alvin wanders off, only to return and betray your party again and again. It makes no sense that a character would betray the group so many times and continuously be allowed back in - I lost count of the amount of times Alvin did something untrustworthy and dangerous to my other party members, and yet, somehow, he's still hanging around with them as if nothing happened.
On a broader level, the plot is simultaneously predictable and generic and needlessly convoluted. While the core drive of the story is simplistic, the way in which it is delivered is confusing. There is a constant barrage of terms being thrown at the player, to the point that it all starts becoming white noise. These terms mask a fairly simplistic plot about saving the world, but they fail to resonate with me as a player. It's not that I can't handle rich lore and world-building in games, but in Xillia everything just comes off as being unnecessarily convoluted for the sake of convolution.
#2 - It Recycles The Series: Throughout Xillia I kept spotting character and narrative trends that have been explored in other Tales games. For example, the character Leia, despite using a fighting staff rather than a magic one, is basically Cheria from Tales of Graces (Wii; PS3). Both are childhood friends of the male main character and have some sort of secret crush on them; both were sick as youngsters, making the main character overly protective of them; and both fulfill the same basic role in the party as competent healers. When you see two incredibly similar characters juxtaposed across two closely-released Tales games, you realise that in some respects the writers aren't being especially unique in their character choices.
The storyline in general is very similar to that of Tales of Symphonia, albeit with a greater focus on the competing monarchies at play and less emphasis on the 'chosen ones'. That said, the war between the worlds of Reize Maxia and Elympios and the competition between both nations vying for supremacy through intergalactic rifts is a little too close to the similar conflict between Sylvarant and Tethe'alla from Symphonia. There is little in Xillia to give it its own identity; it's a by-the-numbers story with a few interesting characters, but a mostly predictable core narrative that rips off the series' best.
#3 - The World is a Mess: So Xillia is one of the first Tales games to do away with a world map. Instead, environments are tied together organically, meaning that every area - even the walks between cities - is an explorable location, complete with treasure chests to open and terrain to traverse. While this sounds great on paper - a game such as Xenoblade Chronicles did this masterfully - the way in which Xillia executes it is awful, considering that this is a Playstation 3 game. Whereas Xenoblade and Final Fantasy XII featured unique and interesting environments to explore, Xillia's world is so lifeless and dull as to be insulting.
Every outdoor environment is basically identical to the last, minus a different colour here and there. You enter an area full to the brim with far too many enemies and walk to the next area that looks exactly the same. Occasionally you'll see a small cave in the cliff-side or an elevated area, but otherwise the outdoor environments in Xillia are thoroughly uninspired. I challenge anyone to argue that these areas aren't practically copy-pasted versions of each other. As a result, I cannot help but feel that the 'expansive' world would have been better if there was a typical Tales of world map, as what has taken its place is painfully boring and houses some of the worst outdoor JRPG locations I've seen in a long while.
Dungeons are slightly more interesting, but it feels as if the effort put into the beginning of the game is lost as the game goes on. Thus, in the earlier stages of the game the player has to explore a gorge, full of undulating rock faces to navigate and ivy to climb. There's also a pretty cool forest full of poisonous mushrooms that explode in your face on contact. As the game goes on, however, these areas are exchanged for linear mechanical corridors with serviceable colour swaps to make them appear different to each other. Throughout, there's none of a game such as Ni No Kuni's environmental charm on display. There has been a tendency among modern Tales games to do away with dungeon puzzles, and this is especially apparent in Xillia - compare the multiple creative uses of the Sorcerer's Ring in Symphonia's dungeon environments to the bland corridors that can be run through without a thought in Xillia, and there's an overall lack of polish on display here that the series has otherwise been known for.
#4 - Imbalanced Character Selection: In Xillia, the player can choose to either play as Jude Mathis, a medical student, or Milla Maxwell, a minor-deity. The idea is that depending on which character you choose to see the game through the eyes of, different events will transpire from different perspectives. Alas, the game seems designed for Milla to be the main character, as her significance is far more apparent throughout than Jude's. Jude spends his time following Milla around while she embarks on her quest, kissing at her feet. Having played as Jude, I felt throughout as if my own character lacked a purpose.
It's not terribly fun to spend the majority of the game obsessing over another character. It almost feels as if Milla should have been the main character throughout as standard, as apart from a few specific points in the game, there isn't much to differentiate between the two stories. These aren't two wildly different narratives coming together in unique and exciting ways; Milla is on a journey and Jude is there to help her. Playing as Jude throughout feels like playing as a mostly useless ancillary character on someone else's quest. While things do become more interesting near the end of the game for Jude, it doesn't change the fact that there is a clear imbalance between the importance of the two main characters in the game, making we wonder why Xillia offers the option to play as two different characters in the first place when Milla could have easily been the main protagonist.
#5 - The Battle System is a Pain: On the one hand, the battle system in Xillia is among the series' best. There are plenty of artes to be acquired and battles are fast-paced and frantic. However, the developers still haven't ironed out issues such as slowdown in bigger fights, and there are two core issues with the gameplay that frequently annoyed me throughout. Firstly, the link system - while a good idea, allowing for two party members to link up in fights to deliver hyper-powered combos, I had issues with the links breaking between fights. Every time a character dies in battle or leaves the party for a while (the latter of which happens an alarming amount of times throughout the game) the link is broken, meaning that you constantly have to keep re-establishing links in the bigger fights. Local multiplayer is also a pain due to the link system, with one player clearly playing a dominant role over the other. It doesn't make things any better, either, when excluded party members complain about being left out of fights over long periods of time. If I'm not using you in battle, Milla, it's probably because I'm choosing not to.
A greater issue, however, is the boss fights. Boss fights are usually great opportunities in Tales games to show off your strategies in battles, chaining together combos and coordinating your team with carefully-chosen abilities and attacks. In a game like Abyss, there is a real sense of strategy to battles, and better players can deliver huge combos to enemies without getting hit once. Rather than making the game cheap, the ability to chain together moves against bosses and carefully dodge attacks is part of the learning curve of the games, making Tales titles play like fighting games, complete with the ability to master the battlefield seen in that genre.
In Xillia, there's no such luck. Bosses do this terribly annoying thing where they break free of combos regardless of how well you're playing, and they do it all the time. You can be chaining together all sorts of epic moves against a boss, when suddenly out of nowhere an exclamation mark appears above their head, and an impenetrable shield forms that prevents you from attacking them. In Xillia, boss battles are hardly any fun, because every four or five hits you land on a boss is met with a hit back. You'll be in the middle of a complex combo and then you'll suddenly be interrupted. And this happens again and again. Battles ultimately become a game of caution, where you run in, land a few strikes, and then run back or block to avoid the inevitable backlash. It feels as if a lot of the skill and fun of landing combos on enemies has been removed from the game for the sake of making bosses seem more powerful. It's not genuine difficulty, though; more a cheap way to prolong battles and to make your strategies less effective.
#6 - Side-quests are Flawed: Tales games have never really perfected the art of the side-quest. While they exist in other games in the series, there's often no indication within the game that you're on one. Thus, unless you write down somewhere, 'Go back to this town and do this thing for that one person' you can easily forget about them. Xillia has a side-quest journal, which is a step in the right direction. Sadly, it's a really bad side-quest journal that often confuses rather than informs.
Throughout the game, I never knew how to complete a lot of the side-quests. Some are easy, such as collecting ten of an item; others remain in your journal for hours without explaining how to fulfill the next objective. My side-quest log throughout the game was full of tasks that I couldn't work out how to complete because the objective was non-existent. I knew the quest was still active, but as for what I had to do to resume it, I couldn't rightly say. Add into the mix various points throughout the game where you can miss entire side-quests or vital steps within them without the option to go back and pick them up, and I found that the game made me remarkably paranoid. After every major story event I'd go back to all of the major cities, just to see if any of the side-quests had updated and to ensure that I didn't miss anything. The Tales series needs a side-quest journal, but the one in Xillia is, in many respects, more trouble than it's worth.
There were myriad other issues I experienced with the game throughout - for example the pointless upgrade system (the lilium orb system) that allows for players to 'customise' the way their characters develop, but lacks a purpose as characters still occupy typical 'class' roles in battle. Why would you want to bother building up the physical strength of a healer when the healer's moveset is clearly magic-based? It's a lot like the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, only less entertaining, and as characters aren't blank slates (as they are with the license system in Final Fantasy XII) and instead clearly have intended directions to take their stats in, the whole thing seems a little pointless.
Or how about the removal of in-game unlockable alternate costumes, which have existed in the series for as long as I can remember? Instead, all extra costumes, bar a fairly bland colour inversion set, require money to download, and they're insanely expensive for what they are. Each costume costs an insane 2 pounds and 59 pence on the PSN, and, given that each of the six characters in the game have about six costumes each, that's a ludicrous amount of money just to get a few costume swaps in the game.
All in all, Xillia has not been an enjoyable gameplay experience for me. Having discussed the game with someone who is relatively unfamiliar with the series, the concerns listed here remain valid; they too grew frustrated with the above points. And, as someone who loves the series, I cannot help but felt let down by Tales of Xillia.