I Shall Give You Endless Earth

Every avid gamer out there has at least one series — or perhaps even just one game — that they latch onto and will defend to the death.

For my friend Alex, it was the Ar Tonelico series, a generation-spanning series of role-playing games from Gust, the team best-known for the Atelier series. And, once I’d played through all three games in the series, I became a true believer, too.

I came to Ar Tonelico and its two sequels quite a while after their initial release, but they’re not as old as you might think — or as their dated graphics might suggest. In fact, the initial games’ release on the PlayStation 2 just as the PlayStation 3 was starting to wind up and capture the attention of everyone probably contributed to the fact that, although rather wonderful, these three games are somewhat underappreciated by many, and even unknown to some.

So let’s rectify that, shall we?

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Eorzea Diaries: Fixing the Hunt

It’s been a little while since our last report from Eorzea, the setting of Square Enix’s spectacular rebooted MMO Final Fantasy XIV, and so it’s about time we checked in.

Last time we spoke, you may recall that there was some controversy over a new game system added in the 2.3 Defenders of Eorzea patch, known as The Hunt.

Loosely inspired by the similar mechanic in Final Fantasy XII, The Hunt challenges denizens of Eorzea to track down and defeat numerous powerful monsters in exchange for a new type of currency: Allied Seals. This currency is in high demand because not only does it allow access to some attractive vanity gear and exclusive minions, it also indirectly allows players to acquire Sands and Oils of Time, which in turn allow them to upgrade item level 100 “Weathered” weapons, armour and accessories into their item level 110 counterparts.

There was a problem, though: the attractiveness of these rewards meant that there were suddenly swathes of people zerg-rushing the monsters for The Hunt, which caused all manner of other problems.

Now that patch 2.35 has been released, incorporating a few fixes to The Hunt, is the experience at least playable now?

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Tales of Xillia 2: The Difficult Second Game

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?”

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Tales of Xillia 2: Those Who Fight Together…

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.

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Tales of Xillia 2: Becoming a Better Person

Long gone are the days when an RPG could get away with a linear progression system, with characters simply learning skills at predefined levels.

Instead, these days we see all manner of different takes on the traditional “level up” system — and a few games that abandon it altogether in favour of alternative means of progression.

Tales of Xillia 2 doesn’t totally abandon a conventional progression model, but it does do some interesting things with how you develop your characters’ abilities and progress through the story. A number of different systems all interact with one another, ultimately allowing you to tailor the game somewhat to how you want to play.

But does it work? Well, read on and find out.

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Tales of Xillia 2: A Test of Character

One of the most important things for any party-based RPG to get right is that feeling of everyone having a place.

This can be handled in two different ways according to what kind of RPG we’re contemplating. Dungeon crawlers like Demon Gaze take a mechanics-focused approach in which every member of your party has an important role to play in combat, but outside dungeons they tend to fade into the background somewhat, with the player-controlled protagonist tending to take centre stage for important events.

Meanwhile, more story-centric RPGs emphasise the narrative trope of nakama, a Japanese term typically used to refer to the idea of true companionship — the idea of a group of characters who band together and become a substitute family for one another. They may not necessarily agree on everything, but they share common bonds that are usually strengthened by their shared hardships.

One of the things I liked most about the original Tales of Xillia was that it blended elements of both of these approaches. And its sequel, unsurprisingly, follows suit.

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Tales of Xillia 2: Some First Impressions

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?

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Oh, Japan!