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Rating: ★★½☆☆

“Tales of” is a niche heavily fantasy Anime stylized JRPG franchise still kicking all the way from 1995 despite nobody really giving a damn about it outside of Japan. Last year’s entry titled Tales of Graces F reached cheese levels off the charts with a story that seemingly existed just to take the theme of “friendship is power” and club the holy hell out of you with it. I simply reached a point where I could not stomach anymore of the nauseous dialogue and gave up. I am a fan of the series though and when you combine that with Tales of Xillia receiving overwhelmingly positive reception and sales numbers during its 2 year head start in Japan, it was a no brainer to pick up the localized stateside release. Surprisingly, I am disappointed but hey, at least I finished this one. Equating it as the Final Fantasy 13 of the franchise isn’t exactly strong praise either.

Enter the artistically gorgeous world of Rieze Maxia in the shoes of your choice between two major protagonists; naïve medical student Jude Mathis or wielder of four elemental spirits and a typical for Japan disproportionate woman’s body, Milla Maxwell.  Contrary to what you may initially think there really isn’t much difference between which character you use outside of a few scenarios where the dual heroes find themselves separated. Furthermore, when you consider that most gamers are not going to play a 40 hour game twice, the whole experiment winds up pointless. For the sake of this review though, it is worth noting that I selected Jude’s perspective as apparently it is recommended for an easier first time understanding of the story.  The keyword there was “apparently” as no matter how you slice it, Tales of Xillia is a bunch of convoluted nonsense.

Jude is a medical student at a university in an eternally night sky eclipsed city dubbed Fennmont. After his Professor mysteriously goes missing, Jude searches for him in an equally perplexing underground laboratory. It turns out that someone for an unknown reason is using the spirits of strong willed Mana wielders to power a dangerous cannon looking weapon called The Lance of Kresnik.

During this opening sequence Milla appears with the power of The Four (four elemental spirits that hover around and assist her) but they are absorbed by the weapon. Now completely powerless, Milla must find a way to resummon her spirits and destroy the weapon while struggling to adapt to human life and needs (hunger, mortal strength, sleep, etc).

Jude decides to assist her on this mission as a means of avenging his Professor and getting to the bottom of it all. They are quickly labeled fugitives though and escape the city thus beginning the real journey. Along the journey you meet a number of eccentric characters that join your cause including a shady mercenary, Jude’s childhood female friend, an old and battle tested butler, and an introverted shy little girl with a depressing past befriended by a talking purple plushy toy.  As to be expected from a Tales game their interactions and banter between each other is all lighthearted and charming, especially during the traditional Skits (on screen character portrait interactions) that are fully voiced and plentiful.

The pacing of the actual story though is abysmally terrible and takes nearly 20 hours to witness anything relevant. It is admirable that all these characters get a fleshed out back story but the core plot suffers greatly. Tales of Xillia does not properly introduce its villains and threats until slightly over halfway through the game which is unacceptable. The result is mounds of plot exposition throughout the second half and a completely rushed resolution.

Even your own party members just have shockingly illogical thought processes. There are more double crosses in this game than in a Pirates of the Caribbean film which sounds exciting, but not when it is this poorly written. All of these problems just hold back the exciting action sequences and ultimately leads to anti-climactic ending that leaves you wondering how the game immediately got a sequel.

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The sequel certainly wasn’t waved due to a strong battle system either.  You have your traditional real time free-roam battle system which is fine but everything else lacks complexity. There are really only two types of attacks; mashing X for combos or mashing Circle with different analog stick imputs to perform Artes; very flashy attacks that are occasionally elemental. These Artes can be chained together with characters you’re linked too (via the d-pad) and when a gauge is full you can chain those chained attacks into more linked attacks as the gauge drains. On the surface it sounds complex but not counting a few challenging bosses you will most likely find yourself mashing your way through every battle like a zombie.

For leveling up you are given a Lilium Orb per character which is similar to the Spirit Grid from Final Fantasy X but resembling a spider web. You then take certain skills and toggle them on (expending Skill Points) and button map your Arte attacks. As you select skills and upgrades the web expands, which is fine but far too many times I was forced to buy unfit and unwanted statistical upgrades just to expand the web and increase areas I did want to . There is essentially no freedom in character building meaning your characters all end up similar.

On the contrary, Tales of Xillia takes a unique and welcomed approach to equipment upgrading. As you explore the various locales of Rieze Maxia you will collect various loot and materials that you can give to shop owners. Thankfully this system is universal across all shops since as you fund the various store types (weapons, armor, accessories, items, and food) they receive better and more useful goods. This system allows for some unprecedented character development freedom as I nearly maxed out my weapon store while spreading goods equally everywhere else. In other words, my attacks packed a punch that obliterated most enemies including bosses.

Exploring Rieze Maxia as a walking well oiled team of annihilation is fun but many of the areas look too similar. The dungeon areas especially feel uninspired and tacked on just to force you through some battles before a boss fight. Everything overstays its welcome which unfortunately nearly guarantees that you will stop doing the various side quests. They are not that interesting anyway and mostly just amount to killing easy mobs of enemies or finding random items. The select few that are intriguing (a murder mystery or sick mother) take forever to go anywhere too whilst expecting you to drop everything right before the final showdown to finish them.

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The game also contains muddy textures which is a shame since the artistic direction shines as usual with a beautiful and flashy color palette. It’s all somewhat mitigated though by the gorgeous full blown Anime cinematics that always crop up during exciting segments to amplify the intensity and destruction. Annoyingly though, the opening cinematic montage showcases a myriad of exhilarating sequences that are not even in the game.

Overall, Tales of Xillia is not what Japan cracked it up to be. The series refuses to evolve in any significant way or tell a gripping story beyond its wonderfully eccentric characters. Most disappointingly this time around though is a tame and stale battle system that results in the easiest game in the storied franchise. I will concede though that rushed nature and all, the second half is fast-paced, chock full of action, and the kind of fun I hope the sequel delivers.

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Tales of Xillia is available now everywhere

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This article was first posted on August 14, 2013