"I really like the characters, and it's funny," he told me. Pretty soon, he was finding ways to incorporate the characters in his fan-fiction, his favorite being the 16-year-old master swordsman Leon Magnus. He wasn't alone.
The Tales franchise has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, going from bona fide cult favorite to one of the most successful JRPG franchises this side of Final Fantasy. Unlike its competitors, the Tales series has been mostly content to stay the course over the past ten years or so. That remains the case for Tales of Xillia, which will please its now very vocal fanbase, even if it won't make many waves outside of the RPG community.
Its main innovation is that it has two main characters, rather than just the regular main protagonist. Jude Mathis is a 15-year-old medical student, the Neil Patrick Harris of the Tales series, while Milla Maxwell is a guardian of sorts who is investigating the death of a large number of spirits.
According to producer Hideo Baba, the decision to feature two main characters was born partly out of a desire to try something new, and partly out of the decision to have mainstay artists Kosuke Fujishima and Mutsumi Inomata collaborate on the project.
"Because [Fujishima and Inomata] have been prominently involved with the series, we didn't feel right giving one the main character, and the other artist a side character. We didn't want to step on anyone's toes," Baba told Joystiq.
The decision has had a number of repercussions for the battle system and the way that the story unfolds. Among them, it's now possible for two characters to attack together via "Link Artes" combos. It's also much easier to chain various artes together for higher damage. Not surprisingly, Jude and Milla feature separate but complementary skills. Jude mainly uses martial arts, while Milla is a magic user.
The battle system, as usual, is an acquired taste. For those who feel more comfortable with action than the turn-based combat of a Persona or even a Dragon Quest, the frenetic pace at which the characters bounce around the screen can be a welcome alternative. Personally, I feel there's a bit too much in the way of button-mashing and not enough in the way of strategy, which has been pretty much the case since Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube. As with many other elements in the series, individual mileage tends to vary greatly.
Apart from the battle system, Jude and Milla also figure to impact the overall replay value somewhat. It's possible to play from each character's perspective, so multiple playthroughs will probably be warranted. In the end, the two meet up and travel together, so it doesn't seem like you'll be missing too much if you don't feel like playing another 60 hours or so.
As always, one of the primary sources of enjoyment for fans will be in traveling around the world and watching all of the little animated skits that have become a Tales trademark. The Tales team tends to pride itself on the interaction between its characters, referring to it as a "foundational element" in the series.
"The core principle that we live by is that the characters live together, journey together, and experience the same events together," Baba says.
That focus is actually one of the franchise's strengths, as it tends to result in relatively deep ensemble casts that produce multiple fan favorites. It also makes for a good catalyst for its distinct sense of humor, which shows up frequently in the aforementioned skits. "Cute" is the probably the best way to describe it.
Baba himself embodies some of that energy. In comparison to the relatively low-key approach favored by Japanese developers, Baba – who has been the series producer for more than a decade now – comes across as an enthusiastic fan. During the discussion, he even carries a stuffed version of Teepo, a pink and purple doll that can animate and speak for its shy owner.
For better or worse, those particular sensibilities have helped set the series apart for 15 years now. What has also set the series apart, however, is the fact that it's one of the few JRPG franchises to make a smooth transition to the Xbox 360 and PS3. Not even Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest can make that claim.
To some extent, you might even say that the RPG community needs Tales of Xillia and its ilk. Namco Bandai hasn't done itself any favors by pushing it has hard as it has over the years, but it remains a visually impressive series that is attentive to its fanbase. Scope remains a big selling point. Like every other game in the series, Tales of Xillia figures to have a substantial number of sidequests and a huge world.
"Not everything remains the same, but it's a game that brings comfort and stability to the fans," Baba says of Tales of Xillia. "It's something that doesn't betray their expectations."
A motto, it seems, that the Tales series will continue to live by for many years to come.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.