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August 22, 2013

RE: Tales of Xillia

So the other day I was talking with my brother while we were sitting down for a gaming session, and the conversation ended up shifting to --what else? -- Final Fantasy 13.  He still hadn’t finished 13-2 (and I suppose he still plans to, even though he admitted it’s kind of boring and the story makes no sense), but he likes bringing it up on a whim because…it’s a game that exists, I guess.  Anyway, this time around he said to me, “I think Lightning is a pretty cool character.”

There was silence between us for about fifteen seconds.  And then I said, “I don’t want to play video games with you anymore.”

We still did, of course.  But the phrase “divergent tastes” has never been more applicable than at that moment.  If you’ve been following this blog, I don’t think I need to tell you how I feel about this so-called Lightning Saga…and I’m pretty sure I went into grave detail explaining just why I think the titular character isn’t just poorly-conceived, but accidentally made into the biggest villain the franchise has ever known.   So yeah, I’m not the biggest fan.  The mere thought of that saga is enough to make me cringe.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I’m forced to come to the realization that Tales of Xillia is Namco Bandai’s version of the original FF13.  The only difference is that they do it RIGHT.

By now I’m assuming that -- if you’re reading this blog -- you know about the problems and reception of FF13.  If you don’t I’ll give you a quick primer based on some of the loudest complaints:

1) a story that made no sense
2) a story full of gobbeldy-gook terms that are never well-explained
3) a horrible cast with (at best) one or two good characters
4) a linear slog with no exploration whatsoever (this is the biggest complaint)
5) a dramatically watered-down battle system
6) a severe lack of sidequests, or any reason to explore previously-visited areas
7) Hope -- seriously, I’m one of the few people that didn’t actually hate this character…too much

Whether or not Squeenix can pull FF out of its current tailspin remains to be seen (hint: Lightning Returns isn’t going to do it).  But even if it does, in the eyes of a lot of gamers the original 13 is the blackest of black spots on the franchise…so those looking for a more palpable alternative in the Tales Series -- like me -- might find themselves more than a little wary in the face of the similarities.  But even though there are certain similarities, it’s definitely not a one-to-one comparison; in fact, given Xillia’s high quality you might not even see the similarities at all.  What Xillia does, it does well, making it immediately incomparable to FF13 -- but for the sake of this post, I want to see if I can highlight what this game does right, while its far more popular rival…didn’t.  (Bear in mind that this is based on an incomplete playthrough of the game, however, so final opinions might change in the long run.)

The first thing you’ll notice almost immediately after starting the game is that there’s no anime cutscene.  Not initially, at least.  The reason for that is because you actually start the game by choosing which character you want to play as -- punch-happy med student Jude, or magic knight Milla (who I swear owes half of her body weight to her hair).  This being a co-op run with my brother -- as we’ve done with every other Tales game up to that point -- he’s the one making a number of choices and guiding us through the world, so he decided to have the story focus on Milla.  (And indeed, for a while he played as her even when other party members became available.)  Depending on which character you choose, certain events will play out differently, if at all.  It’s hard to say exactly how much of a difference it makes to make Milla the star at this point, but whatever the case she’s at least made the key player a number of times.  (And her version of the opening cutscene is the one that starts playing for future sessions.  Note how Jude ends up getting ignored or flung aside during the action.)

In any case, a part of me is convinced that making Milla the star player is the way the game was meant to be played.  Let’s set aside the fact that this is one of the few games that allows a female protagonist, although that’s certainly a boon (even though, as a JRPG NOT called Final Fantasy, nobody will ever bring it up again in that discussion, or even recognize it exists).  The reason I say that is because Millia brings with her a sense of “density”.  So does the game in general.  This is a very “dense” game, and that’s something I can’t help but praise.  I’ll explain what I mean in a moment, but for now let’s go back to Milla -- who may in fact be one of the most interesting JRPG characters I’ve ever encountered.  And yet she’s also where the comparisons to FF13 begin -- because on a surface level, she’s the Tales Series’ version of Lightning.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  A magic-slinging swordswoman that’s inappropriately dressed for combat embarks on a mission she’s almost single-mindedly dedicated to, becoming a member of a party of six and butting heads with figures of high authority.  You’d be forgiven for thinking she’s a carbon copy, considering that they have the same on-the-surface personality and at times even sound alike.  (Fun fact: Milla has a different voice actress, but Ali Hillis IS playing a different character in this game…and is about as far from Lightning as you can get.)

You can imagine how nervous I was at the prospect of having Not-Lightning as the star of the game instead of someone actually good…but then I remembered that this is a Tales game, and the guys behind it know what they’re doing.  I don’t know how close I am to the endgame -- at least for Milla’s story -- but I can tell you right now that I’m more than satisfied with the way she’s turned out as a character.  More than satisfied.

Here’s the crux of Milla’s character: she’s effectively a god.  As the humanoid embodiment of the great spirit Maxwell, her mission is to investigate and destroy the “Lance of Kresnik” (a big whompin’ gun, and this game’s version of the hopefully-infamous Mana Cannon) so humanity doesn’t destroy itself with weapons beyond their understanding.  She’s confident that she can do it thanks to having the Four Great Spirits -- one for earth, wind, fire, and water -- by her side, and she’s dedicated to carrying out her mission.  But since this is all happening in the first half-hour of the game, naturally it doesn’t end well.  Milla’s spirit entourage gets snatched by the Lance, leaving her depowered and sent from level hax0rz to level one -- and now she’ll have to fight her way back to the Lance in an effort to stop the prospects of war.  Ah, if only it were that simple…

What’s important is that Xillia manages to sell Milla as something not quite human from the outset, investigating her nature -- what it means to be something not unlike a god -- from start to finish.  One of the first things I noticed is that her voice (at least for the English release) was a far cry from the norm.  It’s a bit deeper than what I expected, and by extension there’s a tonal dissonance.  More often than not, she doesn’t sound like a normal person using normal inflections -- and that’s entirely the point.  Milla has spent the past twenty years as a human who’s not only relied almost exclusively on the Four to accomplish basic tasks, but also completely isolated herself from humanity.  The concepts we take for granted are completely lost on her; she’s barely done any walking in her life, she loses all of her fighting prowess (something that extends to the game, in that her attack animations become remarkably clumsy), and she collapses from hunger…and ruminates calmly about said hunger in the same way a robot might respond to having a leg broken. 

Milla is the type of character who would have her mind blown by the fact that orange can be both a color and a fruit.  And in true Tales fashion, it’s something played for drama and for laughs.  On one hand, in an optional skit about cats and dogs, she says that her favorite animal is the human.  On the other hand, she states outright that she has no attachment to humans or emotions -- and she WILL sacrifice someone if they stop her from accomplishing her mission.  On one hand, she states outright the reason she chose the form she has is because she thought men would be weak against it, and she’s proud of her hair because she can use it to whip and distract monsters.  On the other hand, she tells her comrades that she views humans as toddlers, and she feels like she has to take action precisely because the toddlers are effectively playing with knives instead of toys.  There’s a directness and air of maturity about her that makes her more than a little interesting; even if she’s not exactly a conventional character (or human), she offers such a unique perspective that you can’t help but be intrigued. 

Milla’s a strange character -- something noted many times by her party members -- but her opinions and concepts are understandable as well as justifiable.  And that’s the distinction that makes her leagues above someone like Lightning; with that character, there’s almost no ability to trace her mindset or justify her actions, not to mention her inconsistencies and hazy motivations.  (And lest you forget, the turning point of her character arc is…well, it’s a thing that happened.)  I guess what I’m getting at here is that Xillia managed to make a character that’s more relatable -- and dare I say it, more human -- than someone who’s supposed to be sympathetic by design.  But I guess that’s just the way it goes.  Namco Bandai makes gods that are undeniably human.  Squeenix makes humans that are undeniably gods.

There’s more that I can say about Milla, but in the interest of saving the spoilers for a later date I’ll switch to a different topic.  While having a look at the wiki one day, I happened to notice that there’s actually a theme directly named for the game: Unwavering Convictions.  That’s a very true theme for the game, and I’m thankful that it’s even there (and named, no less) to begin with.  But it’s obvious that the theme of duality is just as important, if not more.  Two viewpoint characters.  Two countries on the cusp of war.  Two kings ready to slug it out.  And between the six party members, there are links between them that make for some interesting redefinitions.  Again, I’ll save the big stuff for another post, but for now it’s worth noting that even though the story focuses on Milla for Milla’s story, the character herself -- and several cutscenes -- focuses on her impressions of and interactions with Jude.  And given how Jude acts and reacts, it’s safe to say that the same is true for his story.  In other words, Milla is learning from Jude how to become more human; Jude is learning from Milla how to become more godlike.  One is getting closer to earth; the other, closer to heaven.  It’s concrete reality versus abstract ideals.  Good stuff, indeed.

It’s worth noting -- and award-worthy, even -- that unlike FF13, Xillia manages to explain every last bit of its world to the player.  Maybe you won’t learn what every term means from the outset, but you will learn it eventually.  I can’t explain to you what a Fal’cie is, or what a War of Transgression might entail, but I can explain to you what a mana lobe is…because the game explained it to me.  And it’s not just a one-off detail; mana lobes and various other terms form the backbone of the game’s framework.  They’re a part of the story as much as the characters, existing alongside them rather than in spite of them.  Granted there aren’t any concepts or elements that are too complex here, but in typical Tales fashion the world-building is done effectively and given its importance…though it doesn’t get as heavy-handed in its descriptions as, say, Tales of the Abyss. 

I said that the theme of duality is obvious -- and it’s outright undeniable, given how it’s worked into the gameplay.  In the past I’ve said that the Tales games have built themselves around evolution from game to game rather than starting over from scratch each time (the Final Fantasy approach).  And I’ve said that Tales of Graces’ battle system is the best the series had seen yet.  So how does Xillia compare?  Well, I’d say that in terms of the exploration, it’s a step up.  In terms of battling, it’s a step to the side.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a blast to play.  But it feels like there have been some concessions that make Graces better, and Xillia comparatively weaker.  TP (your mana meter) has returned, meaning that you’ve got to manage your character’s attacks once more and make yourself a slave to items.  The CC gauge is back to determine how many attacks you can do without pausing, but to link to the TP meter means that you have to watch both instead of just one.  But the thing that bugs me most is the loss of the dodge mechanic that made Graces the game it was -- a game that put an emphasis on, and rewarded watching your opponents’ moves and repositioning yourself accordingly at a moment’s notice.  It feels like a loss, and those mechanics are sorely missed to this day.  Among other, Asbel-shaped things.

On the other hand, Xillia compensates by trying to do its own things, and succeeding because of it.  The dodge mechanic is gone, but if you equip the right skill you can use a move that lets you shift left or right while attacking.  It’s not quite the same, but it can be used to some benefit.  If you run out of CC, unlike Graces where you had to wait a few seconds to get your energy back, here you just have to stop attacking and you’ll be refreshed.  The AI has gotten a lot smarter about using items as well, so you won’t have to waste time fumbling with menus to refill TP; for the most part, your partners will toss you items that’ll fill your meters back up -- and what’s really surprising is that if you get KOed, they’ll revive you almost before you hit the ground.  Of course, the AI still isn’t without its quirks -- the healer will run to the front lines if she runs out of TP -- but they’re hardly grievances.

The backbone of the new system is “linking”.  In a fight, it’s you and three party members against enemy hordes -- but by pressing the corresponding button on the D-Pad, you can link with a party member of choice and fight in tandem with them.  You’ll gain passive bonuses from their skills, and on the field they’ll lend a hand in ways that your other teammates can’t.  For example, if you’re playing as Jude and you link with Milla, then she’ll use magic to freeze a stunned enemy in place.  Or if you’re playing as Milla and link up with Jude, if you get knocked down Jude will teleport to you and help you back up (along with a bit of healing).  The important part about linking, of course, is the ability to use Link Artes; if you use a certain move while linked up with a teammate, you’ll be able to use a powered-up move that has one or both of you pounding on enemies.  And if you’ve built up energy in your Overlimit gauge, you can do stuff like this:

What this means is that, obviously, you’ve got the tools to do some massive damage -- even beyond each character’s spells or combos.  But more importantly, you have to consider team composition on a higher level.  Each character plays remarkably different from one another thanks to both their movesets and special abilities, so you have to build a team around that.  But on top of that, you have to decide who you want to link up.  Do they have synergy together?  Who should get special bonuses from who?  Are the characters on your active team the best fit for your game plan, or the dungeon at hand?  Will you stick with one link partner throughout the whole game, or switch partners -- and now even your party members entirely -- on the fly?  They’re all things that add new dimensions to the game…so much so that even if I’m nearing the endgame, I might start all over again one day soon with Jude’s story.

I’ll have to come back to the customization another day (as the eternal 2P, my bro’s the one handling all the leveling up with this game’s take on FF13’s Crystarium, the “Lilium Orb”), but as for the exploration element, it’s more than satisfactory.  The downside to it is that certain areas and especially monster types can feel a bit too similar for my tastes…but then again, when there’s something new offered -- and it’s offered frequently, make no mistake about that -- the game is sure to deliver.  On the whole, I would say that Xillia has a very “warm and rustic” feeling about it; you won’t exactly be spending all your time in pastures and on farms, but many areas are surprisingly large and let you explore nature to your heart’s content.  I suspect that the scale of the areas is thanks to a bit of illusion on the devs’ part; Xillia sets its camera behind the player instead of mostly above him, unlike previous Tales games. 

Beyond that, the player is incentivized to explore thanks to dozens of knickknacks -- from items to treasures to accessories that change a character’s appearance -- and even their greed doesn’t get the better of them, there are still huge swaths of land to explore, cliffs to climb, holes to crawl through, and of course boxes to push. And the towns are back in full force, offering up something different and telling about each area and its culture…to say nothing of the fact that, yes, they’re ALSO very large.  And on top of that, there are people you can talk to and accept quests from, and even beyond that the ambiance of people shuffling through schools and bazaars creates that lived-in feeling rather well.  And if you go back to certain towns, you’ll trigger cutscenes that add even more to the story.  Starting to look a little silly there, eh Squeenix?

It’s worth noting that skits -- optional conversations between characters throughout your journey -- are back in full force.  I’ve always appreciated their presence on account of how much they flesh out the world and the people in them, and that’s very true here as well.  (Fun fact: the man who’s known far and wide as “The Conductor” and has musical effects added to his attacks doesn’t know how to play an instrument or even read music.)  The issue is that while the skits are consistently informative and entertaining, there are probably more skits here than any other game in the series thus far.  It’s not uncommon to trigger one skit and watch it, only for another skit pop up afterward, and then have another skit pop up as soon as the last one’s done.  I’d even go so far as to say that you’ll be watching an average of three skits at a time…and thus far, the record we’ve gotten is five.  So if you’re the sort that wants to get back to the main story instead of little asides, consider yourself warned. 

On the other hand…     

So, bottom line.  How is the game?  Pretty freakin’ good, I’d say.  It’s giving me what I want out of a story -- including a genuine WTF moment from its almost-inevitable plot twist -- and plenty to think about.  But it’s also giving me what I want out of a game by evolving the way I play and throwing some real challenges our way (the bosses here are something fierce, to the point where a one-on-one fight had my brother losing about FORTY times).  It’s my intention to play the game solo one day in the future so I can see what I’ve missed from Jude’s perspective, so it’s going to be a good while before there’s a straight-up Let’s Discuss post.  But for the time being, Xillia’s going to be on my mind for a while for all the right reasons.  It does so much right, plays right, and best of all makes me feel all right.   

If this game hasn’t been on your mind, then maybe it should be.

Cripes a la mode.  You don't know how much it means to me to have a cast that actually LIKES each other.


  1. "In any case, a part of me is convinced that making Milla the star player is the way the game was meant to be played."

    Had to stop this post here, since it's safe to assume that the rest is under this assuption.

    I played as Jude, myself. From what others told me about Milla, the only answer to this is "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPE." Milla's route was clearly thrown in late in development. She even misses everyone else's character development towards the end of the game.

    To sum it up, your brother dun goofed. XD

  2. Hmmm. As much as I hate to admit it, I know exactly what you're talking about. There was a scene where Milla's talking to Jude and he mentions -- almost in passing -- that someone got shot. And I was just like, "You care to elaborate on that bit, Jude?" Turns out he didn't.

    Yeah, I guess it's pretty likely that I'm missing a lot with a Milla playthrough, but I suppose that'e exactly why I won't be getting the full story UNLESS I start again with Jude. It's a sneaky move, but given how much fun I've had with the game so far, a part of me's actually looking forward to it. I've mostly been using Alvin and Rowen this playthrough, so maybe next time I'll give Leia a spin. (Then again, I get the feeling that that'd require me to learn some air combos -- and I'm firmly-rooted on the ground in virtually every fighting game I play.)

    In any case...

    "Milla's side was clearly thrown in late in development when you compare it to Jude's."

    They sure fooled me, then. I admit that I can see the gaps in Milla's story, but for what it's worth it's given me a lot to think about and digest already. I guess that's just the quality of the Tales Series...either that, or my unabashed fanboyism for the franchise. Probably the latter in this case -- maybe a 64% chance of it, I'd wager.

  3. I remember being BEYOND excited when I bought my copy of FF 13 ( I'm a HUGE ff fan). Yet, 10 minutes Into the game I found myself scratching my head trying to figure out what in the world I was playing. It seemed lime an interactive movie. Not since the ending of Mass Effect 3 have I been more angry at a game. To put it in simple terms- FF 13 was a slap across the face to the FF fans. I couldn't finish it.

    TALES is my second favorite Japanese rpg series, so I'm glad to see that this is pretty good. My hats off to you for actually finishing Tales of Symphonia: Dawn to a New World. I almost finished it, but that horrible "hero", Emil, was such a pansy that in the end I just stopped. TALES of Symphonia 1 ,though ,is freaking awesome. LLOYD and Colette are just great. And the game has a great story, and an awesome cast of back-up characters (Presea).

    I love the skits, but too many can be overwhelming at times, and you mentioned this game has a lot, which might not be a good thing. I know one has the option to skip them, but if do I feel like I'm missing something.

    When it comes to side stories like the skits, no game has done it better IMO Than Lost Odyssey.

  4. Ah, yes, Lost Odyssey. It always warms my heart to hear someone mention it, even in passing. My only regret with that game is that I never got to finish it; my brother saved over my file when I was in the middle of Disc 4. The pain, it knows no bounds. Although on that note...

    "My hats off to you for actually finishing Tales of Symphonia: Dawn to a New World."

    Yeah, about that...I didn't actually finish it, either. I got close, but since my brother and I were doing a co-op run I was waiting for the longest time for him to agree to play it again, especially since we only had a few hours left to go. But when we finally sat down again to play it, he said it was boring and never touched it again. And in hindsight, I've gotta agree with him. That was NOT the series' finest moment...but I'll take a half-assed Tales sequel over a half-assed Final Fantasy sequel any day. *stares daggers at 13-2*

    But yes, Symphonia was amazing. I don't know how many times I've played through it, but I feel like playing through it all over again. It WOULD give me a chance to play as Regal again...

  5. This game won me over in the relization that Rowen and Alvin are the best parts of Malik Caesar distributed evenly then fleshed out as strong characters of their own. Not to mention Teepo is a case study on how to make your adorable mascot thingie amusing rather than painfully obnoxious. Throw in some self aware skits and you have a formula for a winning Tales of Game.

    Though I can't help but wonder... why JRPGS throttle back their best features so late in the game. This is more of the same in regards to bad pacing. It took me approximately 10 hours to fall in love with this game, where it could have easily been two or less.

    Though it may be a while till I finish it. My PS3 YLODed from pure idiocy apparently (THANKS PS PLUS SPECIALS). I did a small trek to Saints Row 3 and Dive Kick in the same day. I had that coming.

  6. Yeah, I'm trying to decide who my favorite character in the game is, and I've honestly been having a really hard time. I was under the assumption that I'd be a fan of Rowen -- because for some weird reason, all the "old men" of the Tales games have been my favorites of their respective casts -- but I can't help but find myself liking Alvin a lot more than I would have expected. Then again, that's probably because I've been using him the most in battles.

    Anyway, I can't honestly give a good answer about why JRPGs take so long to get (for lack of a better word) going. It's never been something that's bothered me too much in the past, since I don't mind, and sometimes even prefer, a "slow burn"...buuuuuuuuuuuuut I also don't understand why I have to wait for what feels like half the game to go by before I get a Mystic Arte. I guess the devs just want to ease in the player, but too often they take it too far.

    Well, whatever. As (The Great) Chef Gordon Ramsay once said, "It's not about how you start, but how you finish." And by the looks of things, Xillia's primed to finish strong. Not that it hasn't been strong already, of course.

    Also, I can't help but wonder how Dive Kick is doing with the fighting game community. I need to be mindful of streams; I've been itching to see how some of the big names handle the game. HIGH-LEVEL MIND GAMES, ALL DAY EVERY DAY!