The Tales series of JRPGs has always been just on the cusp of being amazing. The battles are interesting, the skits wonderful and often hilarious time wasters, and really the only thing keeping the series from standing toe to toe with the best of the best like the Persona series is the presentation. Tales of Xillia is another great entry in the series. Its attempt at strategic yet action packed combat is noteworthy, and there are certainly some key comic moments, but it falls into a lot of the same pitfalls as its predecessors.
In a first for the series there are two main characters that you can choose between. Milla, who is more magically inclined and is the human incarnation of the Lord of the Spirits (Maxwell), and Jude, a medical student who has a surprising knack for solving problems with his fists. Each character gives the player a different perspective on certain events, but it doesn't change the overall arch of the story nor the gameplay. Like other Tales games before it you can choose to actively play during combat as any of the characters in your party, or multiple characters if you have some friends along for the ride, so the choice between Jude and Milla feels arbitrary when it comes to combat.
Having two characters does, however, add some impetus to replaying through the game in new game+ mode. And the new game+ mode implementation in Xillia (and indeed all Tales games) is admittedly fantastic. Earning titles throughout your initial playthrough earns you points which you can then use to acquire bonuses or change what carries over from your previous playthrough. There are also multiple difficulty levels, so after you complete the game on Moderate (which took me 47 hours) you can immediately go back and play it on Hard or even Unknown.
The narrative is generally a weak point for the Tales series, often falling into the cliched 'saving the world' JRPG archetype, albeit with a couple of story twists here or there to keep things going. Tales of Xillia is no different in that respect, but I did find it slightly more interesting than some other Tales stories and I liked the fact that none of the main characters are truly evil. Stories always feel more realistic when they contain a conflict populated by people who think they're doing the right thing (it's pretty rare for someone to decide to do something simply to be a jerk after all). Sombre moments come into play as well, though I've become somewhat desensitized to the self sacrificing nature of playable characters over the years because their deaths rarely stick. Much more touching are things like Elize's tragic circumstances, Leia's insecurities, and Rowen's failings in the past. Some of these emotional angles are unfortunately not capitalized upon, and Elize's background story in particular ends abruptly without a satisfying conclusion.
What always keeps Tales stories from being complete snooze fests are the characters and particularly their skits. While walking around you can often trigger conversations between characters that can range from discussing the main story arc of the moment to just gossiping about the mundane. This is where these characters' personalities come into focus and you start to appreciate them more and more. The only real issue I have with this set up is that all of the character dialog does lead to some almost unavoidable inconsistencies, where two characters will, for example, be pissed off at each other in the main story but gabbing like school girls together in an unrelated skit. There are times where this is taken into consideration, however, and this is certainly appreciated, such as an awkward moment shared between two victorious teammates after a battle.
One aspect of the Tales series that consistently shines is the pure amount of voice acting found throughout. Each main story plot point is voiced, naturally, but so too are all of the skits and conversations both in and outside of battle. It's quite clear that a lot of effort has been put in here. Most of these voices work extremely well too, although Milla is a tad bit dull to listen to even if that does match up with her character, and Elize sounds a bit too much like an adult trying to play a child and overdoing it. Music is present throughout as well of course, but for the most part I found it to be forgettable, with the sole exception of the introductory anime cutscene.
Speaking of anime cutscenes, I really wish there were more of those. The anime portions do a great job of showcasing the most epic moments in the game, but most of the cutscenes are done in-engine, which leaves a lot to be desired. Larger motions come off well in this format but the lack of more nuanced facial features and poor lip synching means you lose some of the emotion that should be in certain scenes. It's unfortunate that there are often more emotions on show during skits with talking heads than during main story cutscenes. I do, however, appreciate how the in-game engine allows your outfits to make an appearance.
Tales games are known for their battle systems and Tales of Xillia is no different. This time a link system has been added to the standard, fast-paced action-oriented system that we all know and love. Depending on which of the other characters in the battle you opt to partner with you'll get strategic benefits. Rowen can block incoming magic, Leia can steal from opponents you knock down, while Alvin can break through enemy guards. These can give benefits while fighting certain monsters, but I found that they weren't really necessary and I could win most fights perfectly easily while never switching out the character I was linked with. The only thing you have to watch out for are bosses that use items to heal themselves (something you can prevent by having Leia steal the item from them). Otherwise, these bonuses to linking are just that; bonuses to your strategy and far from being necessities.
The part of linking that you truly can't ignore are the linked artes. By filling in a gauge on the left of the screen and performing the correct arte with the right partner you can produce linked artes, which greatly increase the damage you would otherwise be doing. Completely fill the gauge and you can enter into overdrive. In overdrive artes don't cost TP and you can use linked artes to your heart's content. This, combined with arcane artes, are major factors in taking out the game's bosses. Overall I found the battle system to be slightly slower in terms of pacing and not as focused on mitigating damage as the battle system in Tales of Graces F, but it was still a blast.
I really cannot wait for the day that the Tales series goes the extra mile and transitions from being a great JRPG series to being one of the greatest. As it is, Tales of Xillia is a fun JRPG with an addictive battle system that tries to add a layer of strategy, but it doesn't quite nail it. Any JRPG fan should definitely get this game as soon as they can, but shouldn't expect to be thinking deeply about the story for weeks to come.
This review is based on a retail copy of Tales of Xillia for the PS3