While it may be hyperbolic to say that an RPG can live or die by its combat system — I’ve played plenty of games over the years that remained compelling despite shambolic or overly simplistic battle systems — it’s certainly an important part of the experience as a whole.
The Tales series has always somewhat done its own thing with regard to battles over the years, eschewing both the turn-based nature of many traditional RPGs and the quasi-real-time Active Time Battle style of most Final Fantasy games. For those unfamiliar, a Tales game typically involves real-time combat with a party of four characters, with various button combinations unleashing both a selection of regular attacks and special “artes” that differ according to the character. In many cases, the games have even offered multiplayer functionality, with additional players able to take on manual control of other party members alongside the main player.
Tales of Xillia featured a particularly strong take on this battle system, with a cast of characters who all handled markedly differently from one another thanks to different weapon types and unique special abilities. When combined with the Link system that allowed characters to attach themselves to one another and trigger further unique skills, it became a flexible but easy-to-understand system into which you could delve as much as you desired. Those who simply wanted to button-mash hack-and-slash could stick with a single character; those who wanted a little more variety could switch around who they played as at a moment’s notice.
Tales of Xillia 2, unsurprisingly, follows suit, with a few little twists here and there.
One of the most interesting differences comes in the form of new playable protagonist Ludger’s core special ability: being able to switch weapons. Initially, Ludger relies on a pair of short swords, but a short way into the narrative, he comes into possession of both a sledgehammer and a pair of pistols — Xillia 1 veterans will be pleased to note that Milla’s handmaid Ivar is… somewhat involved in this unlocking process — and is consequently able to switch between them at will during battle.
This might not sound like a huge deal, but each weapon has its own moveset for normal attacks, its own set of artes and even a further set of moves that naturally chain into a weapon switch, allowing you to, say, start a combo with pistols while approaching the enemy, then switch to dual blades to finish the job without stopping your relentless assault.
It’s not long before you start running into enemies where failing to take advantage of their weaknesses will leave you in a world of trouble very quickly.
The different weapon types also feed into a much greater focus on enemy strengths and weaknesses than in the previous game. Both elemental resistances and physical damage types — slashing, blunt and bullets, corresponding to Ludger’s three weapons — are extremely important to fighting effectively, and even on the default difficulty level, it’s not long before you start running into enemies where failing to take advantage of their weaknesses will leave you in a world of trouble very quickly.
One nice addition to the game’s overall formula is that of the Elite Monsters that roam the lands of Elympios and Rieze Maxia. You get information about these monsters via the same boards through which you accept sidequests, but you’re only told the vague area in which they can be found. Most are easy enough to spot, though some only spawn under certain circumstances. They all have one thing in common, though: they’re all boss-level encounters that will kick your bottom squarely into next week if you don’t handle them appropriately by exploiting their weaknesses and defending against their attacks.
Yes, defending; Xillia 2 actually makes you make good use of that “block” button in numerous battles by knocking you around one hell of a lot if you don’t bother with it. An early Elite monster encounter sees you battling a creature that can burrow underground then burst up perilously close to Ludger’s testicles, for example, and failing to guard against this easily-spottable attack leads to Ludger and anyone standing near him being sent flying with heavy damage. In a separate case, an Elite Monster that sends clear tells showing where its next powerful attack are going to hit demands that you make use of the 3D movement facility rather than, as more frequently happens, simply moving left and right, towards and away from an enemy. Sidestepping and dodging are important, and to back this up, Ludger even has a few artes up his sleeve that allow him to dodge and block while continuing to attack — though it’ll take practice to master them.
Elite Monsters are all boss-level encounters that will kick your bottom squarely into next week if you don’t handle them appropriately.
The combat system continues to grow and evolve throughout the game as Ludger earns more and more special abilities, but to talk too much about those would be something of a spoiler, so I’ll leave those for you to discover; suffice to say, there’s plenty to like for those who enjoy somewhat brawler-esque gameplay, with various button combinations unleashing different attacks. And for those who enjoy variety, Xillia 2, like its predecessor, allows you to switch the character you’re controlling any time you want for a very different feel to battle.
Xillia 2’s combat remains consistently a joy to play, and the fact that your average random encounter runs no longer than about 10 seconds or so keeps things remarkably snappy and pacy. The fact you can see enemies out and about on the field means you can easily manipulate the encounter rate to your advantage by simply dodging or pursuing your potential opponents, but the swiftness of combat plus the simple sidequests that encourage you to defeat specific monsters means that, in many cases, you’ll actually find yourself seeking out things to fight. This, in turn, has the knock-on effect of making grinding for levels — or indeed the money Ludger needs to make the next payment on his colossal debt — far less of a chore than it would otherwise have been.
When it comes to the time for a boss or Elite Monster encounter, meanwhile, you’ll actually have to pay attention rather than just hammering buttons at random. You’ll have to block, dodge, wisely use special abilities and exploit your opponent’s weaknesses — while you’d probably be able to get through the easiest difficulty level with little more than button mashing, anything from Normal upwards demands that you actually take the time to figure out all the different attacks you have available to you and make the most appropriate use of them.
All this real-time combat is, of course, something of an adjustment for those who are more used to the strategic nature of turn-based battle systems, but even if you’re not normally an action game type, I’d encourage you to give it a go: Xillia 2’s combat is fun, accessible and speedy without being overwhelming, and remains one of the most enjoyable features of the Tales series as a whole.