You play as either Milla, the physical embodiment of the Four Spirits who benefit mankind, or Jude, a young med student who makes a horrifying discovery when he unwisely tags along after Milla one night. They're an unlikely pair, the deity and the doctor, but their chemistry is undeniable. The companions they pick up along the way are familiar RPG archetypes – the slick mercenary, the young girl who hides a great power, and so forth – but they act the way people accidentally thrust together toward a common goal probably would. They don't crest a hill to stare off into the distance and ponder their fate. They chat, they try to get to know each other, they tell jokes, they share stories. It's all so wonderfully ... normal. Inasmuch as trying to rescue the spirits of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water before they can be used to power a massive gun can be, anyway. Part of what makes Tales of Xillia feel so light when compared to other JRPGs is that it tucks much of its characterization away in small skits that are optional to view. Hit Select when the icon quietly appears in the lower corner, and you'll be treated to a brief, usually funny, exchange between the party members. It's in these moments you get a sense of them as people, not just fighters and magic-slingers. Milla is vain about her hair and blissfully unaware that her skirt is far too short. Teepo is unfazed by the fact that he's a flying, talking doll. Alvin is either a scoundrel or a mischievous older brother type, not that one precludes the other. The voice acting and anime-inspired artwork are marvelous, making each vignette or cutscene a pleasure to sit back and behold.
The story avoids the kinds of info dumps that tend to bog down JRPGs, instead doling out small plotlines that eventually intertwine into a much larger conflict. Characters and events are introduced gradually and don't immediately seem to be connected, but let things play out and they will all make sense and, most importantly, stay interesting. A character seemingly there just for flavor might end up joining your party – or trying to cut you down in a wicked boss fight.
Gameplay is split between exploration of towns and combat in the overworld. Typically, you'll come to a new city, chat up the residents, then venture out into the wild to kill bizarre creatures. The real-time combat in Tales of Xillia seems straightforward at first, but there's far more to it than simply running up and bashing things on the head. Smacking things with your fist or swords is one option, naturally, while spending Technical Points to pull off a spell or skill is another, but the breakneck pacing conceals the many layers of thought that go into a fight's design.
During combat, you can choose to link to any of your companions, which opens up a host of combo attacks that you wouldn't otherwise be able to pull off. If the conditions are right and your fingers are fast, you can chain those combos into other attacks and pull off some truly devastating moves. The tough part is getting it all to work. The action in Tales of Xillia is incredibly fast – fights with multiple enemies can be over in a matter of seconds. Hitting the correct buttons to pull off the partner combos takes split-second timing, and understanding the ebb and flow well enough to pull it off consistently will probably take some practice.
It's a little tricky to get used to, because while the left stick provides the illusion of free movement on the field, it also helps govern which spell or skill you'll be using. Skills are mapped to the cardinal directions on both the left and right stick, and it's not uncommon to accidentally trigger the wrong skill when all you meant to do was get closer to your opponent. The left stick also determines your position around an enemy, which in turn impacts how powerful your attack will be and how you might end up supporting your partner. You can also switch partners on the fly, depending on the kind of combo support you'd like to have – one character might be good at breaking guards while another provides health buffs. In addition to all of that, you can also swap characters in and out of battle on the fly. There's a lot going on.
The chaos can be daunting at first, even off-putting, but learning the rhythms of combat and slowly gaining mastery over the breakneck pace is immensely satisfying. It also helps that Tales of Xillia gives you plenty of solid AI backup; sure, you can hop between characters during a fight, but it's far easier to just manage one and let the AI do its thing with the others.
Though it hews closely to the traditional ratio of exploration and critter killing, Tales of Xillia has more than enough unusual and refreshing elements to keep pushing you forward. The story spins out new tendrils of information at just the right speed, so as soon as you think you know what's going on, you discover that there's more to the tale. The characters are people whose company you enjoy, rather than simply endure, and the fast-paced combat keeps you mentally engaged at all times. Tales of Xillia never forgets its mission, but it doesn't neglect to enjoy the journey either.
This review is based on a retail copy of Tales of Xillia for PlayStation 3, provided by Namco Bandai.
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