By popular (well, relatively speaking) request, it’s time for us to take a look at Tales of Xillia 2, the newest Western release in Bandai Namco’s long-running Tales of series.
I absolutely adored the original Tales of Xillia, as my original review over at my former stomping grounds of USgamer will attest. While the game had a few flaws here and there — most notably with some fairly bland environments in between the more lavishly detailed cities and villages you encountered in your journey around the game world — I came away from the experience thoroughly satisfied that it was one of the best Japanese role-playing games I had played for a long time.
Moreover, it was also one of the most inclusive JRPGs I’d had the pleasure of experiencing in recent memory, too. In other words, those who dislike the more fanservice-heavy direction some JRPGs have taken in the last couple of hardware generations could find plenty to enjoy in Tales of Xillia without having to worry about whether or not someone would walk in on them looking at anime panties. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that in itself, either, mind you — but that’s a topic for a whole other day that we won’t get into for now.)
As such, then, I was unsurprised to witness a certain degree of dismay in the comments section of USgamer’s recent, post-Pete Tales of Xillia 2 review, in which reviewer Bob Mackey hammered the new game with a 2/5 rating: a stark contrast to the 5/5 I gave the original. I’m not here to criticise Mackey, his review or his approach to critiquing the game — different strokes for different folks and all that — but it will probably not surprise you, darling readers, to learn that my opinion on the early hours of Tales of Xillia 2 does not, so far, appear to coincide with Mackey’s take. In fact, I rather like it.
I like it so much, in fact, that I’m going to spend the next week picking at it a little piece at a time for your reading pleasure. And where better to start, then, than with my aforementioned first impressions of the new game?
First things first, then: the thing that some of you probably want to immediately know is whether or not you should play Tales of Xillia 2 if you haven’t played Tales of Xillia first. And the answer to that is an emphatic no. It’s not that Tales of Xillia 2 doesn’t stand by itself as a self-contained story — it does — but like the relatively few other examples of lengthy JRPGs enjoying direct sequels, you get a far greater appreciation of Xillia 2’s world and characters if you already have a certain degree of context for them when you start playing.
That and Xillia 2 spoils the shit out of Xillia 1 fairly quickly. Such is the nature of the direct sequel.
You get a far greater appreciation of Xillia 2’s world and characters if you already have a certain degree of context for them when you start playing.
That aside, it’s also just plain interesting to play Xillia 2 after having enjoyed its predecessor, though, because although the two are superficially similar in many ways, there are also numerous differences that become apparent very quickly. In this way, Xillia 2 quickly distinguishes itself as its own, distinct experience while still remaining recognisable and comfortable to those who played at least enough of the original to get a feel for how it did things.
One of the most notable differences between the two games is in how it handles the matter of the playable protagonist. In Tales of Xillia, you were offered the choice of playing through the story with either Milla (apparently the earthly incarnation of Maxwell, Lord of Spirits) or Jude (the mild-mannered, floppy-haired do-gooder medical student who quickly becomes embroiled in Milla’s mess). The majority of the game remained the same regardless of which protagonist you picked, but the very opening and a section towards the end were completely different according to who you chose to play as. This allowed you to gain a full understanding of the story by experiencing important events from, where appropriate, two discrete perspectives. (For those who are yet to play Xillia and are willing to entertain the prospect of two playthroughs — the second of which is much quicker thanks to a fantastically comprehensive suite of New Game Plus options — I recommend playing as Jude first, Milla second.)
Ludger is an almost-but-not-quite silent protagonist, handled in a manner somewhat akin to the lead roles in Atlus’ well-regarded Persona 3 and 4.
Tales of Xillia 2, meanwhile, gives you a fixed protagonist: one Ludger Kresnik. Ludger is different from the very well fleshed-out and pre-scripted Jude and Milla in an important way: he’s an almost-but-not-quite silent protagonist, handled in a manner somewhat akin to the lead roles in Atlus’ well-regarded titles Persona 3 and 4 . In other words, while Ludger has a certain degree of character through body language, facial expressions, occasional grunts and short one-word utterances, his personality is primarily defined through player choice, with conversations and even action scenes often pausing for a moment to give the player two options as to how Ludger should proceed, in the latter case with an element of time pressure.
This element of “choice” is an important aspect of Tales of Xillia 2, and a big difference from the rather linear narrative of the original, in which you were very much along for the (nonetheless thrilling) ride with the party rather than actively shaping the direction the story took. Such is the importance of “choice” that it’s even a key part of marketing for the game: check out the back of the case for the game and the first thing you will see is the phrase “The Power of Choice”. And it’s more than just a marketing buzzword, too; the choices you make as Ludger throughout the game can influence everything from your intra-party relationships — another new feature in this installment — to the outcome of a dramatic scene. It gives you a much greater feeling of active involvement in the narrative as a whole and also makes the prospect of a replay a compelling option, too. Right from the very first choice you make in the game, you’re left wondering “what if I handled that differently?” with every decision point.
Right from the very first choice you make in the game, you’re left wondering “what if I handled that differently?” with every decision point.
Structurally, Xillia 2 is somewhat different to its predecessor, too, with a much more “non-linear” feel to how things proceed. Rather than the plot constantly moving forwards, punctuated by sidequests you pick up almost by chance around the locales you visit, progress feels a lot more “gated” from the outset. We’ll talk a little more about this when we contemplate the game’s various progression systems in depth later in the week, but suffice it to say that it’s a rather different way of doing things almost akin to a Western-style RPG in execution.
Essentially, the game is split into discrete “chapters”, with each new chapter being triggered by you making progress in paying off a large debt Ludger is saddled with early in the game. Trigger a “main chapter” — you’re always told when you’re about to do this so you can prepare appropriately if you need to — and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a plot-related quest that will move the main narrative forwards, perhaps unlocking access to new areas or providing you with new party members in the process. Between main chapters, you’ll need to earn money by taking on sidequests from a job board present in each town; these encourage you to get out into the fields between each settlement and explore, kill monsters and collect loot as well as taking advantage of the game’s new “Kitty Dispatch” system, in which you send an army of cats — yes, really — to hunt down rare items that you can’t find via any other means. With each new area unlocked, you’ll also run into unique Elite Monsters: these optional boss fights out in the field offer significant rewards for those who can overcome their challenging battles, so there’s always something to do.
Each party member has their own personal questline, with each giving a deeper insight into their personality and what they’ve been up to since Xillia 1.
Where things get even more interesting is when you start getting several different character-centric plotlines branching off from the main narrative. Each party member has their own personal questline to explore and complete, with each giving a deeper insight into their personality, what they’ve been up to since Xillia 1 in the case of returning cast members and, pleasingly, tangible rewards in the form of new costumes and accessories. These character stories are treated with the same importance as the game’s main questline: unlike the incidental sidequests, they’re fully voiced, feature cutscenes and often provide opportunities for a decision point or two. In many ways, to reiterate a comparison made earlier, they’re similar to the Social Link systems seen in Atlus’ Persona 3 and Persona 4 — and that’s no bad thing at all.
Throughout the rest of this week, we’ll explore Xillia 2’s cast, battle system and progression mechanics in more detail, so keep checking back for further, more detailed thoughts. In the meantime, you can probably already tell that my first impressions of Xillia 2 have been very positive. It so far seems to be a worthy successor to a great game — simultaneously familiar and comfortable to veterans of the original while adding plenty of new twists that are uniquely its own to keep things interesting.
Long story short? If you enjoyed the original Xillia and want to spend more time in that wonderfully crafted world with one of the more memorable ensemble casts in recent memory, Xillia 2 is a safe investment of both your time and money. I’ve been enjoying it a great deal so far; I hope you do too.