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June 2, 2012

Tales of Xillia 2, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beast


 So the countdown for the next installment in the Tales series has come to an end -- and with it, the reveal of Tales of Xillia 2


While I have my reservations about it being a direct sequel (and the fact that Tales of Xillia 1 has yet to appear in the states), I’m okay with this.  You may think me a hypocrite for accepting another sequel in this franchise while blasting it elsewhere -- i.e. Final Fantasy XIII-2 -- but that’s because A) I’d like to pretend that the Fabula Nova Crystallis project doesn’t exist, and if I don’t look at it it’ll go away, and B) in my experience, the Tales series has been consistently good.

And by consistently good, I mean it’s probably one of the most unappreciated franchises in the past decade or so.


Sometimes I think we live in a parallel, distorted-mirror universe.  The moment we as a species master the art of inter-dimensional travel, we’ll visit the other Earth and see a number of interesting sights.  Domesticated animals are required to wear clothes; Gordon Ramsay went into electronics; Final Fantasy (post-VII, if you’re particularly devoted to the franchise) languishes in obscurity, while the Tales games are hotter than a pyroclastic flow.  As a result, all wars have come to an end and we’ve all embraced peace…because everyone’s too busy playing the games to bother fighting.

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m a bit biased because I’m still recovering from Final Fantasy XIII (and more recently, certain parts of Kingdom Hearts 2 and Birth By Sleep in general).  Square Enix -- or maybe I should say Squaresoft -- has done some fantastic work in the past, and for better or worse they manage to make some colorful worlds with satisfying gameplay and characters.  But damn, can you imagine if it was the Tales series that was so popular it got referenced by Two and a Half Men?

His Mystic Arte turns him into a tiger.

Likewise, I’ll admit that the series isn’t exactly perfect.  Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is the weakest game in the series (that I’ve played), effectively giving the franchise its Final Fantasy X-2.  I liked Tales of Legendia, but apparently I’m one of the four people out there that did.  Tales of the Tempest supposedly sucked.  But in my experience, based on the games I’ve played -- in order, Symphonia, Legendia, Abyss, Vesperia, DotNW, and Graces f -- I think that if I had to choose one franchise to follow to hell and back, it would be this one.

…Okay, besides any given Atlus game.

There are just so many things that the Tales series consistently does right.  Call it preference -- or fanboyism -- if you will, but give me a chance and I’ll at least try to prove my case.

A Mix of Action, Comedy, and Drama
Thousands of years ago, I explained that my love of Animorphs came from my perceived understanding of “balance.”  To put it VERY simply, a good story -- not always, but typically -- strikes a nice harmony between things happening, things that make you happy, and things that make you sad/think.  It’s why Animorphs sought to include references to Sean Connery and featured a preponderance of cinnamon buns in a story ostensibly about the horrors of war and the corruptive influence it has on all parties involved.

"My butt grew huge!  I had megabutt!" --Actual line

You would think that video games would be the perfect place to strike a balance.  Yet, time and time again they’ve shown us that there’s still a lot of ground to cover; there have been games that sacrifice everything for explodey bits and gore, games that try to make you think but end up coming off as pretentious (and brain-dead), and games that could sooner run for president than tell one decent joke.  And yet, with little fanfare, Tales games have been doing it for years.

There’s action -- conflict internal and external -- that justifies the need for sword-to-sword combat.  There’s drama that asks the heavy questions, and invites you to explore the depths of the character and the world at large.  There’s no shortage of comedy -- a self-awareness and spirit that pokes fun of characters and conventions, and just plain takes a shot at whatever’s on-hand in the story.  How do you get out of a giant turtle’s body?  Out the butt, of course!  What are your weapons?  Courage, love, and sexuality!  The Moses Happy Dance!


 There was a quote from the producer of Valkyria Chronicles on the subject of the story and tone: “Even in times of war, there’s more that fills the hearts of men than thoughts of hatred for the enemy. For the very reason that death could be just around the bend, people need to live life to the fullest, and that means laughing just as hard as they cry. That was our theme.”  The Tales games aren’t just going for laughs or dramabombs; they want to try to give you the full experience, and they’ve got the process down pat.

A Prime Example: Graces f’s early hours
It feels like just yesterday that I was playing through Kingdom Hearts 2 and wishing that I didn’t have eyes as I suffered through Roxas’ prologue.  Given that, you’d think I’d be plagued by PTSD flashbacks as I played through Graces -- not as sword-slinging hero Asbel as I knew him, but as his tweenage self.  You’d think that I’d blast it to kingdom come, saying that it was just filler until the main story.  But there’s a difference between Graces and KH2.  For one thing, Graces’ prologue is actually connected to the plot; for another, it actually sets up and contributes to our understanding of FIVE of the seven main characters.  Third, something actually happens -- and not any knuckle-dragging through awful mini-games.

A lead character in a JRPG...smiling?  What sorcery is this?!

You want action?  How about thwarting an assassination plot, exploring a cave and fighting a demonic creature, and seeing a girl murdered before your eyes?  You want drama?  How about abandoning your brother and secret admirer AND your home to become an invincible knight that’ll never lose another friend, simultaneously casting aside your childish pride and title as lord-in-waiting?  You want comedy?  Two words: Tiger Festival.

I think I just found the name of my first child.

A Wild Cast
The Tales series is infamous for its distinctly Japanese style (putting the J in JRPGs since 1995!).  Therefore, it’s doomed to ridicule in the West.  Meanwhile, gamers will lap up any title featuring faceless soldiers, guns, and/or zombies.  Riveting.

Quality.

JRPGs, depressingly enough, have become a niche genre.  Games from the east have fallen out of favor, and even those that manage to slip through the cracks are still given no small amount of heat (up to and including Final Fantasy…though not without justification).  It’s a shame, too; if half the sales that went toward Operation Raccoon City went to any given Tales game…well, refer to my earlier statement about world peace, and add reaching nirvana to that.

It’s true that Tales casts rely on clichés and archetypes to give you a basic glimpse of a character.  Vesperia had Flynn, the straight-arrow of a knight.  Symphonia had Lloyd, the requisite dumb-but-kindhearted hero.  Legendia had Will, the smart old guy -- old in this case being twenty-eight -- with a checkered past.  (Hell, I think it’s a requirement for each game to have one guy several years older than the rest of the party.)  But whereas other, poorer games -- JRPGs included -- are content with giving you that archetype and leaving it at that, Tales games do what they can to flesh out members of the main cast as well as the villains.  So yes, while Sophie from Graces might be the requisite amnesiac girl with hidden powers and lacking in social graces (I see what you did there, Namco), she also brings with her a slew of quirks, a love of crab omelets, and a brutal dissection of what it would mean for a girl in her situation to actually exist in a real-life circumstance with every implication observed.  One of these things is not like the others…but we’ll get to that in a bit.

A Prime Example: The Vesperia Cast
As I understand it, Vesperia’s leading man Yuri Lowell is one of the most popular Talescharacters, period.  There’s a reason for that; in a genre infamous for oversleeping idiots and brooding whiners, Yuri proved himself cynical but capable, pondering but proactive; several of his defining moments came from him practicing vigilante justice, and murdering not one, but two untouchable lords/politicians in rapid succession.  (Kind of makes me wonder if he should be on trial for the casual murder of countless mooks throughout the journey, but I digress.)  His motion of taking the law into his own hands made him a direct foil to the aforementioned Flynn; while the knight managed to keep his hands clean and worked to create a revolution in line with the law, at times he found himself frustrated with the system, and actually got promoted because of things with the system, and actually got promoted because of things Yuri did.  In spite of that, Yuri comes to grips with his actions; while he doesn’t burst into tears and scream at the sky, he realizes that he’s stepped into a moral gray area that keeps him from espousing justice so readily.  It’s not enough to slow him or the plot down, but enough to change the perspective of both his allies and players.

Or maybe they just got lost in his eyes.

And on that note, no Tales game -- no story, period -- can work without characters playing off each other.  To do that, they need to be distinct and, be they evil or good, a delight to see.  That’s why you’ve got characters like Raven, the supposed “dirty old man” who’s actually a war veteran, has a mechanical heart, and moonlights as one of the toughest bosses in the entire game.  Or Estelle, the well-meaning (if a bit naïve) princess with a healing ability that effectively poisons the world.  What’s important to note is that, even if you’ve seen screenshots and descriptions of these characters prior to release, you can go in expecting to like one character (“Raven’s going to be amazing,” I said to myself) and coming out liking another (“I can’t decide if Raven or Karol’s my favorite!  Woe is me!”)  Who’s Karol, you might ask?  Just a kid who starts out as a coward and eventually becomes tough enough to solo the damn universe.

The World, and Impact Therein
Towns, dungeons, and a world map.  If nothing else, you can expect that much from a JRPG.  Give players that much, with all the standard toppings (forest level, ice level, lava level, etc.), and they’ll be satisfied.  Take away pieces of it, and…look, I’m trying my hardest not to take another shot at Final Fantasy XIII here, but it’s really hard.

THIS DIDN'T HAPPEN THIS DIDN'T HAPPEN THIS DIDN'T HAPPEN

Tales games, as expected, have routinely delivered on that front.  While there have been some black sheep (Legendia featured only one major town), there are still enough varied locations in the series to stay diverse and memorable across installments.  Remember Symphonia, and how it had two separate worlds?  Remember the low-tech style of even the largest towns in the mana-destitute Sylvarant, while the mana-wealthy Tethe’alla had sprawling cities and modern flair offset by the underprivileged living on the crumbling fringes of society?  Or how Graces featured entire countries revolving around elemental crystals in stark contrast to their environments, but only as a measure to control the harsh climates and conditions?

Each world takes on a character of its own -- doubly so when the merry gang of adventures takes part in what goes on within it.  While you’re travelling about and applying a strict policy of sword-to-bandit-faces, it’s common for you to act as an ambassador between multiple parties, ranging from organizing the emigration of a small village to another world, all the way up to reconciling the differences between countries with a few choice moves.  That’s right; Tales games manage to do the impossible, and make politics FUN.

Diplomacy, ho!

Pictured: aggressive negotiations.

A Prime Example: Tales of the Abyss
Almost as if aware of its trend, Abyss manages to kick both main character Luke and the player right in the brain stem; Luke’s motions toward becoming an ambassador -- as suggested by his teacher Van -- end up leading to the fall of a mining colony and the deaths of tens of thousands; said colony sinks into a shifting abyss of muck and miasma deep within the earth.  Luke spends the rest of the game trying to make up for his mistakes and selfishness (although you could argue that it could have been prevented if everyone thought to treat Luke like a person instead of the average Jersey Shore fan…but I digress).  Said efforts include doing what he can to stop a war, acting as a liaison between countries, deciding what to do with a sudden population spike via emotionless clones popping up all over the planet, and dealing with the deeply-entrenched dogma that stretches across the planet…oh, and killing the Pope when he turns into a big ugly demon. 

If there wasn’t already a game out there called Tales of Destiny, Abyss could have easily taken the title.  That dogma I mentioned?  It is serious business.  In a nutshell, “The Score” is a record that predicts events large and small, from wars and red-headed saviors to individual readings that tell you about auspicious days; it’s to the point where some people don’t leave the house if The Score says not to.  There’s a religion based around it, and part of your “diplomatic measures” includes protecting one of its most notable figures.  It’s as much an enemy as the monster-pope, and even then it’s not the religion’s fault.  But back on the subject of the world…well, let’s just say it’s called Tales of the Abyss for a reason and leave it at that. 

Kids love it.

The Combat
During his Final Fantasy XIII review, Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation asked why the game couldn’t just let him walk toward an enemy and bash it with the X button.  While I respect him and his reviews (even if he didn’t exactly love Skyward Sword), I can’t help but wonder if the Tales games slipped under his radar.  Or maybe he was just trying to make a joke and a point by way of not discussing it.  Or maybe he just really hates present-day JRPGs, and the less time he has to spend with them the better.

Which is a shame, because as far as I know, there’s never been a Tales game where you wait your turn and attack through menus like a gentleman engaging in a duel with a waitress at a restaurant.  Using its increasingly-complexly-named “Linear Motion Battle System” or LiMBS, battles take place in an arena where you fight with an array of skills, spells, and items in real time.  You’d think that the combat would be slow and finicky because it’s an RPG; you’d be wrong.  It almost feels like you’re playing a fighting game, as you have to block, move around the field, dodge enemy attacks, manage your items, protect your party members, and bust out some ZOMGcombos.  There’s plenty of variety between the characters, too.  From standard in-your-face swordsmen to spellcasters to heavy hitters, there’s one character per game that’ll suit your fancy.

Knight in shining armor...DO WANT.

And like a fine wine, the battle system gets better with age.  I remember in Symphonia when moving out of the way of certain area-of-effect attacks involved targeting a different enemy so you could move from one 2D plane of movement to another.  In Abyss, you gained free-run, allowing you to more easily move around the field with a full 3D range of movement.  Vesperia added instant kills; after hitting enemies with a certain-attribute attack, you could pull the trigger and murder them with one blow.  Graces purportedly has the best battle system of them all right now, giving you full range of motion, an emphasis on dodging enemy attacks, multiple fighting styles per character, and doing away with standard MP counts so you can attack (almost) at your leisure.

And now in Xillia 2, you can execute some real-time weapon change.  I’d call that a win.

A Prime Example: Tales of the Abyss
I could take the high road and cite the skill system, over limit system, or the ability to create some lengthy combo videos…but instead, I’ll just post a video showing off their bitchin’ damn super moves.


Deconstruction

“Deconstruction means to take apart a trope so as to better understand its meaning and relevance to us in real Life. This often means pursuing a trope's inherent contradictions and the difference between how the trope appears in this one work and how it compares to other relevant tropes or ideas both in fiction and real Life.”

What does this mean for Tales games?  Well, it means two things: first, it’ll take you through some familiar territory.  It’s purposely clichéd and cookie-cutter at times, particularly near the beginning, or before you have a chance to learn too much about the characters.  And then, suddenly, just when you think you’ve got the story all tied up and figured out, NARRATIVE DROP KICK!  World’s sinking into planet-wide quicksand!  Ancient conscious-less entity of destruction hovers above the planet!  Goin’ to motherfuckin’ Mars, don’t wait up!  Tales games keep you guessing until the very end, and part of the fun in playing them is seeing just how your expectations are betrayed.  But more importantly…


A Prime Example: Tales of Symphonia
Tales of Symphonia is what would happen if Final Fantasy X-2 actually tried to tell a story.

Lead heroine Colette is so similar to Yuna you’d think that she was a wholesale copy.  I mean, really -- a polite, cheerful girl (and a bit of a klutz) whose life has been entrenched in scriptures dictating her destiny?  A girl sent on a pilgrimage to save the world by travelling through dangerous ancient ruins while outwitting technology-wielding enemies (and occasionally getting kidnapped)?  A girl who acts like there’s nothing wrong on the surface, but is secretly harboring no small number of fears and worries?  It’s a miracle there wasn’t a lawsuit.

So you go through the game, expecting to save the world by dint of Colette’s pilgrimage.  And then you discover that saving her world, Sylvarant, will bring ruin to another world, Tethe’alla.  And then you realize that Colette completing her pilgrimage means her becoming a holy figure in the worst possible way -- sacrificing her humanity and life.  And then you’re ready to head to the final temple, complete the pilgrimage, and save the world…or at least find a way to save both worlds.  And then Colette becomes a lifeless husk, one of your friends reveals he was an angel all along, and you get your ass sliced off by said traitor AND ANOTHER ANGEL that’s masterminding the whole operation.  And then the game starts for real. 

And you’re not even off the first disk.



To say that a lot happens would be an understatement, but for now let’s go back to Colette.  Given that her entire life has focused on the pilgrimage and saving the world, she…well, doesn’t take losing her purpose in life all too well.  She puts up a front as expected, but she shows cracks in her armor repeatedly -- in the optional skits more than anything, but she has a slew of episodes where the universe just decides to stomp her face in and she gives the appropriate response.  Thankfully she doesn’t go on a killing spree, but she still comes very near to losing the will to live.  And just in case you were thinking that lead hero Lloyd manages to BS his way to a happy ending, don’t; he learns that his ideals come with an extreme amount of weight, hard work, and cracking the game’s ultimate question: how do you save the world?

And that, ultimately, is the key to the Tales games.  It has a question underlying all the colors and swords, and has its characters use the journey to come up with a solid answer.  How do you save the world?  What is justice?  What does it mean to protect your friends?  Questions like these give the entire story focus, and portraying it through a multitude of perspectives and possibilities gets players thinking.  It keeps them engaged.  It adds depth.

And you know what?  With all that in mind -- with all those qualities, and characters, and combat mixed into one solid package -- you get something pretty nice.  You get a great game.  And when you do it enough times without fanfare, without fame or fanaticism, you get something even better.  You’ve got yourself one hell of a franchise.

Take note, Squeenix.  Namco’s got you in its sights.

/gushing



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