Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tales of Xillia

Tales of Xillia takes place in a world where humans are able to perform magic by subconsciously interacting with, or channeling spirits.   Some are better suited to it than others, however, which leads to the development of technology known as ‘spyrix’ that allows even people without channeling talent to perform magic.  The difference here however is that this technology kills spirits instead of simply channeling them.  Enter Milla Maxwell; otherwise known as Maxwell, the Lord of Spirits (series veterans might recognize that name).  Investigating spyrix, Milla takes on a human form and travels to the city of Fennmont, where humans are said to be developing a massive magic weapon that uses spyrix on a large scale.  It’s here that she encounters Jude Mathis, a young medical student.  Milla fails to destroy the weapon however, and both her and Jude are ousted from Fennmont.  Her resolve is unshaken however, and with Jude accompanying her, the two begin their quest to stop the spread of spyrix technology, encountering a host of companions along the way.

Xillia is interesting in that it features two different characters sharing the protagonist role: Jude and Milla.  When you first start the game, you’re asked to choose between the two.  This might give you the impression that you’re in for two entirely different stories depending on who you choose, but don’t be misled; for the most part, Xillia only has one story to tell.   The choice is less about picking a story and more about picking a perspective. Because Jude and Milla begin their stories at different points, it does dictate how you’ll spend the first couple of hours, but throughout most of the game Jude and Milla are in the party together, and thus their ‘stories’ progress in parallel.  In a way this makes the choice of who to choose feel superficial, but there are points when the two are separated, and there’s just enough content such as this exclusive to each character to make it worth playing through the game a second time if you’re invested in the world of Xillia. And if nothing else, it’s an interesting design choice.

I usually look forward to meeting party members when I play a Tales game, but for the most part the core cast of Xillia didn’t stick out for me.  Jude is, for the most part your average Tales protagonist, though I’ll give him credit for being just a bit more intelligent and levelheaded than many of his predecessors.  Jude’s biggest problem however is one you might have guessed at while reading the premise of the game; he doesn’t have a good reason to be on this journey.  He latches onto Milla initially out of some na├»ve crush, but for the first two thirds of the game if you were to ask him why he was there, he wouldn’t be able to give you a good answer.

Most of the others fill general character archetypes for me.   Leia is Jude’s energetic and upbeat childhood friend.   Rowen is an old, retired war strategist who is wise but can also be a bit perverted at times.  Milla is a woman on a mission, and thus tends to come off as all business, but she has a playful side and can be surprisingly narcissistic, particularly about her hair.  Alvin is just a bad character, for reasons I shouldn’t spoil.

On the plus side, I did grow to like Elize quite a bit.  A young girl with a tragic past, Elize is shy and well mannered, but that’s in sharp contrast to Teepo, her talking, floating doll.  Whereas Elize is polite and even withdrawn at times, Teepo is brash, talkative, and completely tactless.  The two are an inseparable pair, which makes for a fun and often-hilarious dynamic.

Though I wasn’t impressed by Xillia’s party members for the most part, the supporting cast is surprisingly strong.  Eventually Jude and Milla find themselves clashing with a man known as Gaius.  Though he is essentially the antagonist of the game, Gaius is not a bad person, much less evil.  A king trying to unite a world threatening to destroy itself, his goals are noble, and at times you might even find yourself wondering why you’re fighting him when you could be working alongside him.  Jude certainly does.  Gaius’s chief underlings, known as the Chimeriad, are also an interesting bunch. From Jiao--a big man with a good heart--to Agria—a young girl who’s seen more of the world’s terrors than anyone her age ought to have—they’re even more diverse and generally better written characters than the core cast is.  You’ll meet others as well, such as Driselle and Gilland, who the writers seem to have given almost as much devotion as the protagonists.

Progression in Xillia is handled by a large web called the lilium orb.  Akin to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid or even Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium, you unlock stat gains, perks and new artes on the lilium orb using points gained by leveling up.  The open-ended nature of the lilium orb does give you a good sense of freedom, but each character’s lilium orb is tailored in such a way as to encourage the prioritization of certain stats over others.  For those that don’t want to be bothered at all, you can set the lilium orb to automatically develop itself as you level up.

Xillia’s themes of duality extend to its combat.  The game’s battle system--known as the “Dual Raid Liner Motion Battle System”—integrates the CC system used in Tales of Graces (and Eternia) into the more traditional TP system that the series typically uses.  What this means is that each character has a certain number of ‘AC’ (Assault Counter for those that care) to spend on attacks.  This is in addition to TP, or mana that fuels their special attacks, known as artes. Every attack, whether it’s a simple physical attack or an end-game arte, costs one AC to use.  Once you’re out of AC, you have to wait a second or two for the counter to reset before you can start another combo.  What’s interesting however is that for the first time to my knowledge, physical attacks are now completely interchangeable within a combo with artes.

In previous Tales games that used TP systems, the basic idea when attacking was to soften up foes with basic physical attacks, before finishing with an arte that consumed TP.  Fighting efficiently, the sequence was always physical attacks followed by artes.  That doesn’t have to be the case with Xillia. Here you can use physical attacks and artes in whatever order you please.  Artes are still limited by TP, but now you can start a combo with them, or pepper them throughout your combo, rather than simply waiting until the end.  And because AC fully recharges instantly after a moment of inactivity, you never have to stay out of the action for long.  Xillia adopts specific mechanics of both the CC system and TP system.   Physical attacks restore TP, allowing you to do more artes.  Hitting weaknesses and playing well nets you a temporary boost to AC, allowing you to carry out longer combos.  It’s a beautiful fusion, where the two systems meet and feed into each other in a smart and natural manner.   And the result is you have a combat system that is, in at least some ways, more flexible than ever before.

Xillia also introduces the Link System, which allows two characters to link up and fight as partners in the heat of battle.  Linking with characters has a variety of benefits.  Characters linked with you will generally stay close to you, and will either cover your back (especially useful for casters) or join you in combos.  They’ll also give you a friendly wake up slap if you find yourself stunned.  In addition to the general benefits, each character has a unique link perk. Rowen, for example will automatically guard you against magic.   Leia will steal items from enemies that you knock down.

Most importantly however, linking gives access to Link Artes.  Every character pair has a set of artes that, when used together, allow them to combine their abilities.   Leia and Elize can combine Cure and Nurse—two powerful healing artes—to use Revitalize, which bathes the entire arena, curing every party member of any ailments and healing them to maximum health.  Jude and Milla can team up to use Ruination Fangs, an aerial combo where the two attack in fierce tandem.

The Link System isn’t without its drawbacks, however. Most notably, the number of link artes that can be performed is drastically skewed towards Jude and Milla, who share more Link Artes by far than any other character pair in the game.  This is especially noticeable when most pairs that don’t include Jude or Milla only have three Link Artes, whereas Jude and Milla share nearly a dozen.

Further, the Link System simply doesn’t work in multiplayer.  The AI will always control link partners, so linking to someone controlled by another player will actually force the AI to take control away from them so they can follow their routine as a link partner.  This means that you outright can’t use the Link System with four players, and with 2-3 you’d be stepping on each other’s toes.

Overall, Xillia’s combat system feels smartly designed and fun to play around with.  More than ever before I find myself experimenting with every character because each one of them is fun to play as in their own right.  Milla is perhaps the coolest implementation of the traditional ‘magic swordsman’ (a la Zelos/Kratos or Richard) I’ve yet seen in the franchise.  She has a number of offensive spells, but she can convert them into melee attacks to use in tandem with her other artes.  By carefully timing his dodges, Jude is able to sidestep enemy attacks and move behind them to deliver fast combos that hit hard (think of it as being similar in concept to Star Ocean 4’s Blindside system).  Rowen is the party’s black mage, but he’s able to modify his artes after casting them, making each spell a tiny minigame.  Elize uses powerful crowd-control spells in addition to being the party’s main healer, but can defend herself at close range using Teepo to chomp on enemies, squash them and blast them away.  And there have been smaller, subtler improvements as well, like the way the characters control on the 3D plane relative to the camera angle, or the ability to swap characters out mid-battle, like in Star Ocean. The weakness system is also improved from Graces.

For all Xillia does right in the combat department, the game is held back by inconsistency. I already mentioned how you can see this is in the number of Link Artes (or lack thereof) available to some pairs, but you can also see it in the environments, and even in how the characters play. There are some areas in Xillia that are genuinely beautiful, such as Fennmont. But there are plenty of others that are bland and completely uninteresting.  It’s also easy to see that characters like Alvin and Leia didn’t get nearly as much attention as the others, with Alvin’s link ability being rendered obsolete by the existence of artes such as Beast, and Leia’s combat ability simply not being followed through on, to say nothing of how she’s completely outclassed by Milla as a fighter and by Elize as a healer.

The game is also simply not paced well, both in terms of story and gameplay.  The plot meanders for about two thirds of the game before suddenly kicking into high gear and stuffing most of its grand twists and developments into the back third.   The combat’s basic mechanics are interesting, but not to enough of an extent to keep you engaged until you unlock your second lilium orb—where you’ll find high-tier artes and abilities that really make the combat shine, as well as mystic artes—which doesn’t occur for quite some time.

There is clear evidence that Tales of Xillia was rushed out the gate.   It is inconsistent at times, poorly paced, and could have done with a bit more time in the oven.  But in truth, the fact that Xillia is not without its significant faults is about par for the course for a Tales game.  But generally, Xillia gets it right where it really counts, while making many positive contributions to the core series formula.  I play Tales games for the combat and the characters, and in my mind, Xillia gets above average marks in both these areas; even if the characters I ended up caring about weren’t the ones I was expecting.