It's not just Ludger's look that grabs you, with his dapper navy shirt and yellow tie overshadowed by his half-and-half black and white hair - right down to differently colored eyebrows. Unlike the last game's heroes, it's something that isn't there that claims your attention: his voice. Ludger is mostly a silent protagonist - in the hour and a half I played, the young man only spoke in grunts, mumbles and other monosyllabic noises. That reflects the other most obviously new part of the game, namely the dialogue choices Ludger can make. One early scene has Ludger waking from a nightmare in which he was fighting a shadowed version of his older brother, Julius - a scene with as much foreshadowing (pun intended) as Ludger's hair. He wakes up a little unnerved, and Julius asks him what's wrong. You're then offered two choices, with L1 for "Julius, I had a dream where last night you killed me" and R1 for "It's nothing." Several choices like that came up during those opening 90 minutes, some meaningless, others a bit weightier. Though it seems unlikely they'll have too deep an impact, it's still a change that shows Xillia 2 is trying to build up a different relationship with its new leading light.
Just as quickly, the game establishes its nature as a sequel. Xillia 2 is set a year after the original, with 20-year-old chef Ludger living with Julius and a seriously tubby moggy called Rollo in the familiar urban locale of Trigleph. Within half an hour, Ludger bumps into the first game's hero, Jude, and the two just happen to be headed in the same direction. Jude's is far from the only returning face you'll see in this second adventure.
It sets up Xillia 2 to reprise the original's tone of huge, all-consuming adventure - you're knee deep in that within the hour - mixed with fun, humor, and general lack of taking itself too seriously. That's most conveyed in the returning optional side dialogues, particularly in the opening through Elle, a mischievous, spirited eight-year-old who soon emerges as a key cog in the Xillia 2 plot. She immediately falls for the dumpy, blank-faced Rollo, who charms from the off when he reduces Ludger's credentials to nil with one dubious meow.
Despite the new characters and a Xillia encyclopedia that briefly references themes and ideas from the first game, it's soon clear if you've not played the original you're missing a fair amount. The plot itself roars ahead at breakneck speed, sparing little time to ground new players. Similarly, while Tales' distinct action-orientated JRPG combat is introduced with decent tutorials, it has so much similarity to the original that it feels like it was designed with transition in mind. That's including the idiosyncratic method of moving around the arena, as well as the attack combos, special arte moves and linking up with other characters.
Xillia 2 does introduce new ideas and concepts down the line that I didn't get to see or explore in my brief time with it. There's the major plot point of the existence of alternate timelines and the Kresnik family's ability to take on different forms (there's that shadowy foreshadowing), and an Animal Crossing-style loan payoff due to medical bills (damn the system). On the gameplay side, Ludger learns how to swap weapons real-time in combat, and there are the deeper changes to character progression and skills that you'd expect with a RPG sequel.
If I've got one takeaway from my limited time with Xillia 2, it's that players interested this time around may want to make the time for the original first. After all, it scored four and a half stars in our review, and you've got two weeks to get through it before the sequel hits PS3s in North America and Europe on August 19 and 22, respectively.