One in a Xillian
A 15th anniversary effort for Namco Bandais long-running Japanese RPG franchise, Tales Of Xillia represents almost everything worth celebrating about the genre. It reformats the often obtuse mechanics of arcane battle systems and character statistic management into a welcoming and understandable package, and backs them up with some of the most beautiful anime visuals the series has ever seen.
The expectedly epic story (around 50 hours, with side-quests adding more content) focuses on medical student Jude Mathis and elemental summoner Milla Maxwell, striving to save two worlds linked by the use and abuse of spirits. Its an environmental parable disguised by layers of mysticism and fantasy, but never heavy-handed with its message. The teammates who join along the way mercenary Alvin, mentor Rowen, mage Elize and healer Leia benefit from surprisingly rounded personalities, though the females fall into slightly clichéd anime stereotypes at times.
Xillia is one of the few J-RPGs to actually allow any real degree of role playing, giving a choice between Jude and Milla as your main playable character at the beginning of the game. Its a laudable effort, though it stumbles in its execution, with the bulk of the storytelling effort weighted in Judes favour. Choosing Milla results in stilted cutscenes such as the pairs first meeting, where Jude literally falls into Millas path, disappears, then returns shortly after. There are several similar disjoints in the narrative, too many instances of stuff just happening, and theres a constant feeling youre missing something from the other perspective.
This is mitigated somewhat by the battle system. Tales games have always been more active than their entirely turn-based brethren, but Xillias approach may just be the best the series has seen. The core remains unchanged, with players directly controlling one character while other active party members behave according to vague pre-set orders heal, defend, heavy attack, etc. However, characters can now pair up, supporting each other by flanking enemies or combining powers for dual assaults. Switching pairs only requires a quick tap of the D-pad, resulting in a fluid combat experience that feels more like a tactical beat-em-up. Its speedy and genuinely enjoyable, with boss battles in particular adding a level of spectacle to the proceedings. The associated character growth system, a web of linked Lilium Orbs not-dissimilar to Final Fantasy Xs sphere grid, is also probably one of the most intuitive mechanics found in a J-RPG, allowing you to unlock and use as many stat-buffing skills as you have points for, resulting in a truly customisable roster.
Despite the flaws of its story progression, Xillia is a joy to play, and its rapid combat and likeable characters prove an addictive combo. An overall high point for the series, and modern Japanese role players in general.