Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tales of Xillia Review

Over the Christmas break, I picked up a copy of Tales of Zestiria on the PS4 for a reasonable price (£25).  After checking it out for an hour or two, I remembered that I never quite finished Tales of Xillia despite really enjoying what I had played of it, so I decided to set aside Zestiria for the time being and go back and try to finish Xillia.  As it turns out, I didn't have very much of the game left to go - just the last chapter of the story.  I managed to play through this content in a couple of days, then after a quick break I decided to start Tales of Xillia 2 rather than attempting the bonus dungeon of the first game.  I'm now about ten hours into the sequel, so you can expect a follow up review to this one at some point, hopefully a few weeks rather than months or years!  Anyway, now I will attempt break down exactly why I found Tales of Xillia so enjoyable and why I think it may just be my new favourite in the Tales franchise.

Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
The main plot of Tales of Xillia is pretty compelling, and carried me through most of the game.  Things do get a little weird and convoluted in the final stages of the game, which is a bit detrimental to the overall quality, but for the most part the game is well written and what's going on have a nice mysterious quality to them that makes you want to learn more.  The story revolves around two main characters, and you can choose which one to play as at the start of the game.  The story plays out the same way regardless for the most part though there are times throughout the game where the two will become separated for a while and you will experience scenes and areas that the other character won't.  In order to see every little thing you will have to play the game through twice.

So on the one hand we have Jude, a medical student who is running late for an important exam as the game begins.  On the other, we have Milla, who is actually the human embodiment of the Great Spirit Maxwell.  She has control over the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water, at least for a time.  Something happens very early on in the story that robs her of her powers, and leaves her pretty much as a normal human being, but with no knowledge of human culture, manners and typical day to day things that the average person just knows. As you can imagine, the comedy potential of this is pretty high, with all sorts of little scenes playing out such as Milla trying to work out why her stomach keeps rumbling, and things of that nature.

In addition to these two protagonists, there are four other characters that will eventually join your party over time - we have Elize, a troubled little girl with an animated (and very opinionated) puppet called Teepo.  I loved Teepo, he was one of the highlights of the game for me - it was always a delight to see what he would come out with next. Then there's Alvin, a rather cocky mercenary type who is more than a little shifty in his motives, and then Rowen, a butler who was formally a great warrior on the battlefield, where he was known as the Conductor.  Rounding out the main cast is Leia, a childhood friend of Jude who happens to have a crush on him, while Jude himself is slowly falling for the enigmatic Milla.

While the main story is indeed decent for the most part, as in most Tales games it's actually the characters that is the stronger part of the game, and I believe this is the strongest cast they've ever had in a Tales game.  As veterans of the series will know, there are hundreds of optional skits that you can watch, all of which are fully voice acted and most of which are very funny and entertaining.

It's great to play such a colourful game for a change!
Graphics: 9 out of 10
While the game doesn't really look light years ahead of Tales of Vesperia, the previous game in the series that was designed for HD consoles, I still think the game looks great, especially the vibrant colours.  With so many games going for a colour palette consisting of brown, mud and turds these days it is very refreshing to see such brilliant blues, gorgeous greens and ravishing reds.  The towns are all nicely designed for the most part, but the wide open areas of the world can look a little sparse and lacking in detail at times.  There's also some quite noticeable pop up at times as townsfolk and background elements are drawn in seconds after the rest of the environment is loaded.  It's a bit jarring, but it's nothing that effects the gameplay.  Finally, while the main characters and the antagonists they go up against are all well designed, less important characters and the humans that are just milling about in towns definitely look like they've had less effort spent on them.  This is understandable I suppose, but still a little disappointing.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The soundtrack of Tales of Xillia has once again been composed by series stalwart Motoi Sakuraba, who as far as I know has worked on every game in the series, which is a lot of games by this point.  As a result of the sheer volume of music he's had to come up with over the years, and also from the fact that he has his own style, his work does have a habit of sounding extremely samey at times.  There are most definitely pieces of music in the Xillia soundtrack that are extremely reminiscent of stuff that's come before, but there's also a fair few pieces that sound a bit different from previous titles.  I'm thinking specifically of the Chinese style tunes from the city of Xan Diu and surrounding areas like the Xagut Floodmeadows.   Even the standard sounding stuff is still well done, it just comes across as a little derivative.

Now let's turn to the voice acting, which I thought was great!  I do know that people had issues with Milla's voice work, but to me it sounded perfect.  Yes, so alright, her lines often sounded a little stilted and unnatural, but think about it - she's not used to being human!  She's a great spirit who has suddenly been thrust into a world she knows very little about, so of course her mannerisms are going to be a little strange.  The other characters are really well performed as well, in particular Teepo, Rowen and Alvin.

Choosing to play as Jude or Milla does add a bit of replay value to the game, but it doesn't change things in a major way.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The Tales series are action RPG's through and through, with quick, often hectic battles that can be over in seconds.  They play out a bit like a fighting game, except there is a lot more depth, especially when it comes to boss fights that often require more than just mashing the attack button to defeat.  Careful defence, exploitation of the enemies weakness and command of your other characters is important to succeed.  Of course, being the right level for the fight helps as well, but I never really found that I needed to grind in Xillia at any point, until after the story and the bonus dungeon comes into play.  After dabbling with that place for a little while, I decided to put it off until later.  You can also link with any of the other three characters in your party by pressing a direction on the d-pad, which gives you access to specific abilities.  In the case of Leia, it allows you to steal items from downed enemies.  While linked you will also be filling up a bar on the left hand side of the screen.  As the segments fill up, you can unleash powerful link attacks with your partner character, and it's it's completely full you can fire off Artes without using up any TP until the bar is drained and you start over.

In Tales of Xillia, character development mainly takes place with the Lillium Orb system.  It's reminiscent of stuff like the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X where you have nodes that you can activate with points earned from levelling up.  The nodes around the outside of a segment typically give you a small stat increase of some kind, but by completing a segment the middle will then be filled in, earning you a more significant upgrade such as an Arte or a Skill.   Artes are your active abilities that you use in battle, which are either offensive moves or buffing / healing spells.  Jude and Milla both tend to favour attacking directly with their fists or weapons, whereas other characters like Elize serve more of a healing role with a nice sideline in powerful magic spells.  Skills are more passive in their nature, and your character has a pool of skill points to spend, which increases as they level up.  The skills can be turned on and off at any time so you can tweak your characters for different boss scenarios.

Xillia also has a rather strange shop system where you have to donate random items that you've picked up from shiny spots on the overworld or in dungeons, as well as from random drops from defeated monsters.  It all seems rather complicated initially but there's actually not that much to it.  What I would do is choose either weapons or armour and then donate all the crap that I'd picked up recently to level up the shop and unlock the next tier of equipment.  Then the next time I would do the same for the other type of gear.  You still have to have the money to be able to buy the gear as well, so it's difficult to actually break the game by unlocking multiple tiers of weapon at the same time, for example.  I played with game with the combat difficulty set to Normal, which wasn't very challenging for the most part.  Those confidant in their abilities might want to turn this up a notch.

The story of the game is broken up into chapters, and as you progress you will also unlock opportunities for completing various side quests and sub stories.  Some of these are very simple one and done fetch quests, others are more in depth and will take you most of the game to finish as the next little piece of the story is doled out.  It is possible to miss out on these optional scenes (and a good many of the skits as well) if you plough on with the main story too quickly and don't take the time revisit towns that you've been to previously.  It is quite easy to go back to other areas because you can access a map and fast travel to them with ease.  I would definitely recommend doing everything that you can to get the most out of the game.

Teepo is my favourite character by far!

Innovation & Cleverness: 6 out of 10
When you get down to it, the Tales games are all quite similar to one another, with just subtle improvements and differences from one iteration to the next.  Tales of Xillia is at least a bit more free form that previous games in the series, with the wide open environments between towns to explore and the optional side content that you can take part in.  Otherwise, mechanically and stylistically, it's pretty much business as usual and will hold no real surprises if you've played one of these games before.

Value & Replayability: 8 out of 10
My completion time for Jude's side of the story was about 35 hours, without tackling the extra dungeon.  It would take roughly the same amount of time go through the game as Milla as well, and I had such a fun time going through the game that I could actually see myself doing that at some point in the future.  For now, I'm focused on completing the sequel, which takes place one year after the first game.

Overall: 9 out of 10
As I said in my intro, Tales of Xillia has knocked Tales of the Abyss off of its number one slot in this series.  The whole game was hugely enjoyable from beginning to end, and I may well come back and play through Milla's version of the story if I can find the time to do so.  From what little I've played of Tales of Zestiria so far, I doubt it's going to beat Xillia - the characters just aren't as immediately like able and the the camera seems to have quite a few issues in combat.  That's another review for another day, however.  For now, I would recommend Tales of Xillia to both newcomers and those who have played a Tales game before without reservation.  It's a refreshing change of pace from all of the western RPG's that have been released recently.