Somebody’s getting trolled here, and it’s probably me.
O brilliant SPOILERS of coldest steel, rend the infinite SPOILERS, and crush my enemies to nothing! SAVAGE SPOILER FURY!
The sign of victory! (And spoilers.)
I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but I’ll go ahead and say it again: Final Fantasy may have once ruled the roost when it came to JRPGs, but its time has long since passed. What that hoary old titan used to offer has been offered on a regular basis by plenty of other titles, with the Tales franchise being as reliable as the sunrise. So if anyone tells you that JRPGs are dead, just hold up Tales of Xillia -- and as a corollary, mash the case against his face.
I said this last year, and I stick by it: Xillia is pretty much the good version of Final Fantasy 13. Straightforward, clear, endearing, satisfying, thoughtful, you name it; even with FF13 long since passed, I find it hard to believe that one developer thought that the standard JRPG conventions couldn’t be made on HD consoles…and then a significantly-smaller production showed us how wrong they were.
It’s almost as if Squeenix decided to blame the technology instead of their incompetence and lack of direction. But you didn’t hear that from me.
That in mind, I’m not going to pretend as if Xillia was the perfect game. Neither will others. In fact, from what I’ve heard there are a number of people who thought that -- despite being the 15th anniversary title -- Xillia was a botched production. No cameo battles, a “rushed” ending, tossing out several of the advances made with Grace’s battle system…and of course, a number of the areas between towns felt less like labors and love and more like randomized, cut-and-paste filler. I’m in a good place with Xillia, but I recognize that others weren’t satisfied. I respect that.
I can only imagine how many people were surprised by the reveal that the next game in the series wasn’t a new adventure in a new world, as usual -- i.e. the upcoming Zestiria -- but a sequel to Xillia. That raised a red flag for me, because the last time a Tales game got a sequel, it didn’t end well for anyone (though to be fair, it wasn’t the first). Whatever the case, Xillia 2 has long since come out in Japan, and it’s been here in the States for about a month. And in a lot of ways, I suppose you can consider it the Apology Edition to…uh…
Wait a minute. Is it just me, or does something about this feel familiar? Hold on a second. Let me check something.
Hey, doesn’t that logo look a lot like --
You gotta be kidding me.
So not only is Xillia some kind of Bizarro-FF13, but Xillia 2 is ALSO some kind of Bizarro-FF13-2? No, no, no. I’m sure I’m just exaggerating here. There can’t be that much of a connection. I mean, just look at the facts. 13-2 was the sequel to a game that wrapped up all its loose ends.
…Just like Xillia 2.
Okay, bad example. But story-wise, 13-2 was about some kind of shenanigans with time and space, featuring lore and conflicts that you’d swear were made up just for that game.
…Just like Xillia 2.
All right, but 13-2 also introduced some new guy we never would have even considered or cared about, and have him pal around with the old cast of six despite said new guy being the plot’s major lynchpin. And (at least at the outset) it dealt with the team trying to pursue some other new guy -- with a connection to the new lead, natch -- to stop his space-time shenanigans.
…Just like Xillia 2.
Well, sure, but 13-2 also had a cute little girl who we’re supposed to care about and has tragedy pressed down upon her tiny shoulders, but despite that has a strong bond to the new lead.
…Just like Xillia 2.
No. No. No, no, no, no, no. They are not the same game. They’re not. I mean, 13-2 put a stronger emphasis on sidequests and travelling to different areas via some semblance of a central hub. And it put on airs of being a darker story, despite the canon it worked with. And it had a more regimented, episodic format, as evidenced by actually having chapter names built into the game. Plus it introduced branching dialogue paths and faux-quick time events, and a couple of minor tweaks on the basic combat system, and…and…
And all of that is in Xillia 2. So am I really playing the same game here? Have time and space warped around to create the exact same circumstances? Is this my destiny? To be doomed to forever remember and bear the sins of Apology Editions, and by extension become chained to The Lightning Saga until the end of days?
…Oh wait, I just thought of a big difference! Xillia 2 is NOT a complete shitshow! Whew. Looks like my mortal soul is safe.
Xillia 2 is what 13-2 would be if 13-2 actually tried. There are plenty of reasons for that, but even then, it’s in a much better place by default. 13-2 was built around a rotten core, and refused to fix some of the glaring problems while creating plenty of new ones. (“If you change the future, you change the past.”) Conversely, Xillia 2 was built around a significantly-stronger game, despite the faults and the issues raised by diehard fans. Better story, better characters, better world; better combat, better customization, better exploration. I’d go so far as to say that it was impossible for Xillia 2 to be anything worse than “a step down”. The consistency and pedigree wouldn’t allow for much else.
There really were only two things that Xillia 2 needed to do to cement itself as the true Apology Edition. One: make up for the mistakes of the past game. Two: justify dipping back into the world of Rieze Maxia, and the misadventures of
Lightning and Hope Milla and Jude GOD DAMMIT THEY’RE
SO SIMILAR. That’s it. And in a lot of ways, the game’s already done
that. I haven’t finished the game yet --
not even close -- but it’s done well in keeping my interest and my
excitement. I want to see it through to
the end. I didn’t need an apology, but
I’ll take one anyway.
That all said, Xillia 2 is…weird. Very, very weird.
But I’ll get to that.
So here’s the setup. After the events of Xillia 1, the gang has split up to live their lives and follow their dreams -- be it to find and enjoy some semblance of peace, or try and make the world a better place. Meanwhile, new guy Ludger -- a mostly-silent protagonist, which is a HUGE departure from the series -- is off to start his first day on the job.
But as these things tend to go, everything falls apart; Ludger gets involved with some terrorists (and space-time shenanigans) on a train, and he’s forced to sort the mess out -- not only for the sake of his preteen charge Elle, but to find out how his big brother Julius is involved. Because he is, presumably. Or if not him, then an evil alternate-universe equivalent of him.
Also, Ludger may or may not be The Guyver. He can henshin like the best of them, at least.
It’s too early to say whether or not Xillia 2 is going to fall apart (or just be that expected step backward), but for what it’s worth, I’d say that all the pieces are working as intended. The game wastes NO time trying to hand the old party members back to you, and while you can’t necessarily use every one at every opportunity, Ludger gets introduced to nearly everyone in a matter of hours. On the other hand, that sort of devalues each reunion -- but given how the combat puts a heavy emphasis on multiple party members, there’s no helping it.
Still, the point that I’m concerned about is the presence of
Elizabeth Ellie Elle; she
has the potential to be someone endearing, but it’d be easy for her to sway
into the realm of annoying or cloying with a couple of wrong moves. (It’s also EXTREMELY likely that she’s got
some kind of hidden MacGuffin power, as these things tend to go.) Fortunately, she hasn’t come close to wearing
out her stay yet. She’s not my favorite
character of the bunch, but if nothing else, she actually acts and feels like a
little girl, and not just a clump of pandering archetypes.
In any case, the expectation is that -- just like last time -- you’re going to be off on a wild adventure across a brave new world. And while that’s technically true, in reality Xillia 2 is not quite as full of that frontier spirit. Setting aside the fact that you’re exploring the same world (and yeah, that means that assets are reused like no other mother, including those bland in-betweens from town to town), the game sets apart from its predecessor in an absolutely bizarre way.
See, shortly after the opening chapters -- and their respective battles -- Ludger and Elle wake up in the care of a shady guy who apparently nursed them back to health. Unfortunately, said shady guy is asking for a high price for his services: tens of millions of dollars, to be paid in full. As such, Ludger gets forced into debt -- which is more than just a conceit of the story. Essentially, YOU get forced into debt; thus, the central mechanic revolves around gathering enough money to clear one payment after another, thereby unlocking permission to travel to the next area (and advance the story, as a result).
TALES OF XILLIA 2 -- NOW WITH 20000000% MORE DEBT!
…Wait, if Xillia is a world filled with healing magic, is there even a need -- let alone point -- to doctors in the conventional sense? Also, how are we so certain that the shady guy’s “treatment” wasn’t just slapping on a couple of band-aids and calling it a day?
They didn’t even try to pretend like the debt mechanic is anything but a way to artificially extend the play time -- or alternatively, mask the fact that they probably didn’t have the funds or ability to create a lot of new assets. It’s one hell of a dirty trick, to be sure. So if you’re the type who doesn’t like stopping everything to do sidequests -- or if you’re the type who wants to plow through and digest the story as fast as possible -- then you’re going to be EXTREMELY disappointed with Xillia 2. The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth that didn’t have to be there. But it is. It had to be a conscious choice, approved by scores of men and women and put into action by an army of programmers.
Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut...I think I’m more okay with it than I should be.
It’s true that the debt mechanic slows the game’s pace down to a crawl (at least at the outset, i.e. before you’re at the endgame and money becomes a trifle). But on the plus side, think of it this way: how do you earn money in Xillia 2? By doing sidequests -- or more specifically, by playing the game. And the game is fun enough to keep things from being too punishing. I like to compare it to the Roxas prologue of Kingdom Hearts 2; in that game, you had to play the same basic, boring minigames for paltry pay, and for the reward of continuing to play as Roxas.
In Xillia 2, you may have to collect twenty bear asses, but you can do that by engaging in the fun-as-hell battles. So the question then goes from “Do I have to?” to “Why wouldn’t you?” That’s especially true, considering that you can take huge strides toward crossing a pay wall by going up against elite monsters -- themselves fun-as-hell to battle because of their toughness. And you can do that almost immediately, and regularly, as soon as the debt mechanic gets introduced.
Admittedly, that means you might have to level-up to face off with the elites, but given that that gives you items to turn in for profit, and lets you meet the kill quota for certain quests…well, it’s definitely making the best of a bad situation. And a transparent attempt to pad the run time, but whatever. Gotta get the cash, gotta get the dough.
What strikes me as strange about Xillia 2 is that I’m not willing to assume that the debt mechanic was (entirely) the result of cost-saving measures. If we think of it as a conscious choice -- and if we give the Tales Studio the requisite credit -- then we have to consider what it means to the story. And in that sense, it means a lot.
Xillia 2 is likely going to be a darker tale than last time, but not in the superficial sense. Remember, the previous game charted out the majority of the world -- and while there’s still some space to explore things this time around, the charm and chance to find “something new” is MIA. That’s reflected in a number of ways, up to and including the characters; whereas Xillia 1 had a fantasy bent to its proceedings, Xillia 2 is distinctly more modern -- trains and machines and cities and stylin’ threads for errbody. The world’s largely been saved, and the conflicts resolved; what comes next -- at least in terms of “what’s happened in the time since” comes down to settling in, and carving out a niche instead of striking out on a bold adventure.
So in a way, you can think of Xillia 2 as “darker” in the sense that it’s more -- for lack of a better word -- “mature”. Ludger may be pulled into a conflict far bigger than himself as per the usual JRPG trappings, but it’s important to remember where he’s coming from here. He’s no adventurer, and has no drive to go out and see the world; in the opening hours, he’s just cooking meals and trying to get to his new job.
Setting aside the space-time shenanigans and (Elle’s search for the land of Canaan her father told her to find), Ludger’s on the game’s adventure because it’s the most reliable way to make the absurd amount of cash needed to wipe away the debt -- again, as per the usual JRPG trappings. He’s not even allowed to take care of dimensional anomalies because he’s trying to do the right thing; he’s doing it because he’s in the employ of a major corporation. Fictional facets aside, there’s something unusually real about Xillia 2. Or if not that, something meta.
Conceptually, JRPGs offer up a chance to escape from reality -- to take on a different role and explore bold new worlds beyond the bounds of the mundane. There’s an element of wish fulfillment to them (Find your freedom! Gain awesome power! Meet ALL of the hot girls!), but what’s important is the adventure…at least in the case of good JRPGs. In stark contrast, Xillia 2 doesn’t just keep those real-world factors in play, but reinforces them -- makes them inescapable, no matter where you go or what you do.
There’s no need to chart out a world that’s already been charted. You’re fighting monsters to gain power, but more importantly to try and gain some breathing room from the debt collectors breathing down your neck. Space and time may be screwing up, but at least some of the plot is tied into the threat of terrorism and breaking-down relations between peoples that can’t get along. And the most you can do is hunker down and do your job, just trying to squeak by in a world you have no choice to conform to -- no matter how much you henshin.
So basically, Xillia 2 takes a mechanic that could have been awful and not only makes it palatable, but also a core tenet of its thematic density.
DAMN, THIS FRANCHISE IS SO GODLIKE.
How much you like or dislike Xillia 2 will come down to how much you can forgive the debt mechanic. If you can’t, then I don’t fault you for it; they made it work, but that effort could have gone elsewhere without hurting the overall game too much. Still, there are positives even beyond that. The combat is as good as it’s ever been, both in terms of Xillia and the franchise as a whole. Well, except maybe Graces, but I guess they’re treating that goodness as an anomaly.
It’s true that the best moments come from trying to crack the boss fight du jour (who reliably have their “I Won’t Flinch No Matter What You Do” shields up), but even fighting the typical robot scorpion is a treat. Somehow, the concept of “Look, I’m doing combos in an RPG!” hasn’t gotten old yet. Add in minor tweaks -- a dedicated launcher move, an increased emphasis on attack attributes and enemy weaknesses, and more tag-team moves with partners -- and you’ve got a formula that certainly hasn’t been broken.
And it can’t be broken, because it was built on some fantastic groundwork; the Link System made you consider your party layout beforehand, The Assault Counter lets you make freeform combos without worrying if Sonic Thrust will combo into Tiger Blade, and each character’s special ability lends them some originality -- almost like they missed the tryouts for a BlazBlue release.
There are a couple of other things worth mentioning quickly. The first is that -- since the pace has been slowed down -- you’re outright encouraged to do special sidequests with your party members to build a relationship with them. That is to say, you’re doing Loyalty Missions, but you’re also learning more about your comrades. They get mini-stories of their own, showing what they’ve been doing since the last game, as well as what they’re trying to do now. It’s satisfying stuff, but there are even more rewards; as far as I can tell, if you build a relationship with one character, they’ll tag additional developmental scenes onto a cutscene in the main story. A nice touch, without a doubt.
But this is The Ludger Show, and as a result, the silent protagonist brings with him some new mechanics. At regular intervals you’ll be asked to decide what Ludger will say in a situation, choosing from one of two options via the shoulder buttons. Again, these will shift your relationship with characters, but they’ll also affect how certain scenes play out. The extent of that varies from scene to scene, I’d say, but if nothing else it lets you choose just what kind of person (however temporarily/superficially) Ludger is. Beyond that, at certain points the dual choice mechanic is timed -- meaning that you only have a few seconds to decide what action Ludger will take in a tight spot. It’s not a one-to-one quick time event, but it’s close enough.
Also, can we just take some time to appreciate how far cutscenes have come in the Tales games? Jeez, some of Symphonia’s stuff looked like it was made in PowerPoint, and now it feels like there’s actual choreography when it’s time for a throwdown.
And that’s about all I’ve got for now. All told, I like Xillia 2. I don’t want to say it’s a step backward, because while it can feel like one at times, it’s still got the thrills -- conceptual and visceral -- that make the franchise so consistently strong. Still, even IF you think of Xillia 2 as a step back (a fair judgment, in some ways), put it in perspective. Even if it is weaker than Xillia 1, it’s still miles ahead of plenty of other games. Trust me. You can do a hell of a lot worse.
So I’ll keep picking away at it, for sure. And I hope if nothing else, you’re at least a little interested in checking it out for yourself; I’d bet there’s a full LP of it by this stage. The Tales Series deserves a lot more love and respect than it gets -- and if I don’t do my part to spread the gospel, then who will? The pope? Nah, man. He’s busy with stuff. Things. Like…I don’t know, cleaning out his refrigerator.
That seems like something a pope would do.
So apparently in Zestiria, you can fuse your party members together. DAMN IT, TALES! STOP BEING SO GODLIKE!