There’s a reason we don’t see all that many direct sequels in gaming these days: they’re extremely difficult to do effectively.
This is particularly true in genres where individual installments are sprawling, lengthy affairs with narratives of a length equivalent to your average TV series — such as, say, role-playing games. This isn’t to say that developers don’t have a good go at it — Square Enix has done it three times to date with the Final Fantasy series’ X-2, XIII-2 and Lightning Returns installments, for example, and one of the best things about the wonderful Shadow Hearts series is the coherence of its narrative, particularly between the first two games — but often it’s just easier to have games in a series like this be thematically similar rather than directly related to one another.
Such has been the case for most of the Tales series’ lifespan, bar a few outliers like Tales of Destiny 2 and Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. Xillia 2 has a difficult role to fulfil, then: it’s the sequel to a great game, and it needs to follow up all the things that title did well, improve the things it could have done better and provide a very good reason for people to go back into the same world with the same characters.
Does it manage this without “reducing, reusing and recycling?”
Well, no. But if you think about it, this isn’t altogether surprising. If you’re building a direct sequel to something and setting it in the same world, populated with the same characters, of course there’s going to be some recycling going on. Of course you’re going to see some of the same places, meet some of the same people and perhaps even fight some of the same monsters. It’s how the game handles the overall experience that is important; are you just retracing your steps from the previous game, or are you doing different things in those environments?
If you’re building a direct sequel to something and setting it in the same world, of course there’s going to be some recycling going on. It’s how the game handles the overall experience that is important.
Xillia 2 walks a fine line but ultimately remains standing proud. Yes, you see a lot of places you’ve seen before, but you visit them in pretty much the opposite order to the previous game. Yes, the “wander around and explore while gathering all the treasure that has been scattered over the landscape in convenient little bags and sparkly gathering points” gameplay is largely the same, but your motivations for doing so are different thanks to the sidequests and the loan mechanic. Yes, the battle system is recognisably familiar from the previous game, but it features new characters, new moves and a new progression system.
The same, but different, you know?
We’ve already talked earlier this week about how the “silent protagonist” nature of Xillia 2’s leading man Ludger makes the game immediately different from its predecessor, which had two highly scripted protagonists, each of whom had their own playable path. We’ve also talked about how the game’s new structure — a linear sequence of “main chapters” punctuated by more freeform sequences in which you’re free to explore, gather treasure, repay Ludger’s debt and delve into character-specific stories unique to your party members — makes the game feel a lot more “open” than its predecessor, even with the gradually relaxing restrictions the game places on where you go as you progress.
What all this adds up to is an experience that is comfortably familiar while simultaneously managing to feel like there’s a fresh and interesting take on things unique to the new game.
What all this adds up to is an experience that is comfortably familiar to those who have already spent 50-100 hours in the lands of Rieze Maxia and Elympios, while simultaneously managing to feel like there’s a fresh and interesting take on things unique to the new game. And, of course, there are plenty of brand new things in there, too; the game isn’t purely recycled content.
In fact, the moments where this brand new stuff comes in are arguably all the more effective for their presence among things we’ve already seen. They seem more important, more noteworthy, more interesting; they help to flesh out an already well-crafted game world into something that feels even more coherent. It’s already exciting to get to go to a new place in a sprawling RPG; it’s even more exciting when you’ve been set up to expect little more than an alternative pathway through all the locations from the previous game and instead you get to go to whole new dungeons, fields and other locations.
The moments where the brand new stuff comes in are arguably all the more effective for their presence among things we’ve already seen.
Then there’s one of Xillia 2’s core plot hooks: the so-called “fractured dimensions”. These parallel existences are somewhat akin to the different worldlines in Steins;Gate — they represent the natural results of what would happen if different events transpired in the past. In some cases, the effects are subtle, only discernible through your interactions with non-player characters and what you can interpret from their apparent worldview. In others, changes are more drastic: the dead might be alive; the living might be dead; major events might not have happened; major characters might not have been born.
It’s easy to write off Xillia 2’s reliance on fractured dimensions as an excuse to pad the game out further by forcing you to take yet another trip through places you’ve already been. And that may well be true to a certain extent — the game even points out the first time you knowingly go to one that you may wish to spend some time gathering the “new” treasures in the alternate version of the field you’ve been exploring — but there’s a strange joy in spotting the differences for yourself, much like in the aforementioned Steins;Gate. That was an altogether different experience, of course, being a visual novel in which you had practically no freedom to explore things for yourself. In Xillia 2, meanwhile, you have the opportunity to wander around, talk to people and acquaint yourself with the strange new world — similar but different — in which you find yourself before doing what needs to be done to get yourself back to the “prime” dimension.
Ultimately Xillia 2 achieves what it sets out to do: tell a new, original story in the same world, and it manages to do so without compromising those things that made the first game so great. Perhaps it could have done it in a more efficient fashion with less padding; perhaps it could have done so with a little less recycling — it couldn’t have hurt to make the field areas a little more interesting, for one thing — and perhaps it could have “gated” its content a little less obviously than it does, but ultimately it’s a success: its story is compelling, its characters are as likeable as ever and it strikes an excellent balance between callbacks to the first game and new, original material.
Reduce, reuse, recycle? Well, if you can make a great game out of it, why the hell not, I say?