Developer: Namco Tales Studio, LTD.
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
# of Players 1-4
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
Score: A- (90%)
Tales of Xillia was one of last year’s great JRPGs, offering up an intriguing plot, a party of interesting characters designed by different artists, the series trademark fast-paced battles and plenty of the usual JRPG tropes all adding up to a lengthy and memorable game experience. The follow up, Tales of Xillia 2 changes up things a bit with two new main characters, a much darker tone, even faster combat, a different skills leveling system, loads of reused maps (this is a good thing – more on this below) and a fair amount of humor thanks to a localization team having a blast with their translation efforts. The result is a game that will pull you in for the long haul as it takes Ludger Kresnik and company on a journey spanning a few familiar and all-new areas (well, all-new to those who haven’t played the first game)…
Unlike the chatty cast from the previous game, Ludger is strangely quiet in that old-school JRPG manner, with his voice actor limited to a few one or two word lines of reaction dialog throughout the bulk of the game. Fortunately, the returning cast takes up the slack and both Ludger’s older brother Julius and the oddly energetic (and somewhat annoying) little girl, Elle Marta get their share of talking in to keep things more interesting. Ludger’s got plenty of power within him to make up for his lack of words, and in the game’s first hour or so, we get to see him go from pretty decent cook and new employee of the city’s railroad line to potential world-saver (and definite destroyer of alternate worlds).
The only time Ludger “speaks” at length is during a few skits and the brief cut scene mini-game where you’ll need to choose between one or two options that will either change how a part member feels about him or quickly pick an answer that drastically affects the story. The latter bits are timer-based sequences where if you don’t choose, the game picks an answer for you. If you’ve saved before an event (you’re not always given this luxury), you can retry and see what your other response will do to the unfolding plot. Some of your choices are life and death, but others seem almost anticlimactic at first, with ripples that spread to later events that may have you reloading an older save if you don’t like where the story is going. On the other hand, things are grimmer here intentionally and some of the choices are so obviously jerky that it’s tough to go down some roads with intent on making things worse for Ludger and company.
Ludger may have battle chops and coin-flip decision making talents to spare, but what Ludger doesn’t have when the game kicks into gear after the opening is money. He gets knocked upside the head with a rather massive debt and ends up signing a contract that forces him to work it off by taking assorted side quests that usually mean monster dispatching and item retrieval in simple to complex forms. These missions range from short messenger runs for some really lazy people to all-out boss fights with some fearsome (and stupidly large) enemies. The debt thing is simultaneously amusing and annoying because each time you get a certain amount of Gald, your phone-like communicator buzzes and it’s Nova telling you you need to make a payment. Even when the game allows you to manually pay when you want, she still calls in with the same lame jokes that make you want to beat her on the noggin with a sack of Gald just so she’ll can it with the humor about Ludger’s situation.
As with previous Tales games, the story really doesn’t get rolling until a few hours in, but ToX2 manages to move at a fast enough pace that it rarely lags. Super-quick loading between areas means you’re never out of the action for long and although you’re hoofing it from place to place for the early part of the game, once you get your world map, a fast travel system opens up that allows you to get around even quicker. Granted, you’ll still need to fight enemies if you want your party to survive past a certain point, so the speedy action-based gameplay works hugely in the game’s favor. No doubt, some new players will be daunted by everything the game throws at them in the many tutorials stacked at the start of the adventure. Nevertheless, using what’s learned there and expanding upon it as the game gets more challenging is key to winning battles in record time.
You can control Ludger throughout the game or swap to anyone else in your party with ease. Ludger is probably the best bet for all-around play, as he’s able to switch on the fly between three weapons (swords, pistols and sledgehammers) and after a certain point, can transform into a VERY powerful version of himself for a limited time. Mastering the Skills each weapon has is a matter of practice and working with the new Allium Orbs system, which replaces the Illium Orbs from the first game. Each party member needs to have an Allium Orb equipped in order to learn and upgrade Skills and Artes and there are more than enough to go around. There are plenty of Orbs in the game tuned to one or more elements and you’re constantly earning points by defeating enemies, completing quests or discovering points throughout the game (represented as glowing dots in assorted spots on nearly every map).
The new system takes a lot more busywork than the old one, but it pays off big time. You need to switch out orbs every so often to learn new Skills, but you soon find out that the orbs you start out aren’t as great as the ones you can craft, gain as rewards or discover in your travels as the game progresses. Of course, linking Artes in combat is a huge part of the fighting, as it helps grow those talents and deepen the bond between characters. While you can grab up to three other friends and pass out controllers so you can play cooperatively, expect completely new players to flail about until they get the hang of linking with other players, switching links on the fly and pulling off stylish moves before the most skilled player finishes off most of the enemies. On Normal difficulty, with the exception of major bosses, battles can last as little as two or three seconds against weaker enemies. Bumping up the difficulty increases the challenge, but don’t take Normal too lightly, as the game can be tricky if you’re back attacked or have multiple enemy packs jump you when sprinting.
The drawback with this exploit is the points system is linked to a badge system that changes the side-quests and some of the Elite monsters as you earn more points. It’s entirely possible to miss out on some of these optional missions because you’ve graduated to the next badge and next set of monsters (oops). Then again, as of this writing, I’m only about 63 hours into the game, so I’m not sure if the creatures I missed out on will be making a comeback at some point. Then again, I have almost 30 save files from different points in the game, so if I wanted to, I could go back to an earlier save and play the game “normally” to see what happens if I try to encounter each creature as it pops up on the list. Then again, that almost turned into a bad idea in one case when I decided to go up against a GIGANTIC crab thing that had probably the most amusing description in the game. Whomever lifted lines from “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s NEEDS to get some sort of raise, is all I’ll say…
Seeing your list of Skills and Artes grow to ridiculous levels is great stuff, especially if you start exploiting the fact that you can gain unlimited points by finding an enemy-free area that has point pickups in the same spots, looping around that area to grab points, going off to fight for a few minutes, then repeating the loop for as long as you can stand it. Using this method, by mid-game, my party was a force to be reckoned with, packing way too many Skills and Artes and making short work of most enemies and some bosses. The team did almost buy the farm a few times when I got overly cocky trying to zip past one very large monster who whipped around just as I passed by and caught my team off guard. I’d forgotten to set a new strategy, was running low on potions and had auto-potion use on, so stock was burned through before I knew it and it was only though luck and TP recovery skills that we made it through.
Speaking of funny stuff, this time out there’s a goofy mini-game that has you scouring everywhere for lost kitties (100, to be exact) using Rollo, Ludger and Julius’ rather well-fed pet cat. You’ll find some cats on your own as part of side-quests, but sending Rollo out can not only get you some choice items and rare goodies, but more kitties added to your growing collection. This part of the game is a painless time-eater because it only involves going to a menu, selecting an area to hunt in (and if needed, an optional item that speeds up the search effort or adds to the search results) and getting back to the main game while you await Rollo’s return. Clearly, Tales Studio KNOWS you’ll be playing this game for a while, so it actually uses a real time clock that gives you bonuses depending on which day you play.
Yeah, you read that right, folks. Play on a Sunday and you get a chance to three times the amount of goodies. Monday? You get bonus items for searching in a certain area. Tuesday? Double the chance for stuff (and so forth and so on). I found this out by starting the game up on Friday evening, playing past midnight and seeing the bonus change when I accidentally hit the Home button on my PS3 controller. I wasn’t sure until Sunday rolled around and I smiled because it’s an awesome little touch. There’s even an exploit here as well that can be done if you send out Rollo, go to your menu and tinker with your Allium Orbs or Party formation or anything else for a few minutes and then close the menu. By that time, Rollo is back and you can send him out again with no penalty. Conversely, you can send him out, save the game, quit and load your save up and he’s back with goodies and maybe more kitties. By mid-game, I had all the areas I’d been to except two 100% completed (all items found) and some very handy special gear for a few characters.
As noted above, the game reuses assets from the first ToX, but it’s not a bad thing at all, as the story mostly takes place in the same areas a year later. There’s an alternate dimension thing happening, so you’ll see palette-swapped maps and enemies from the first game along with new areas that seem familiar thanks to the art direction. Only the most jaded gamers will gripe about the asset reusing here, though. Hell, I’m betting this game couldn’t have been turned out so quickly if it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Besides, things like the item crafting system, new Orbs, the less linear structure and the great short to lengthy new chapter character-based side stories all make those “old” areas seem fresh to a great extent. If Ludger weren’t the strong and mostly silent type, the game would be even better. However, he is what he is and while not quite as likable as the returning cast members, makes up for his blandness with those flashy fighting moves of his.
Par for the course, the game tracks all sorts of data and if you haven’t played the first game, there’s enough to read in the Library section of the menu that it’s one way to kill time between Rollo’s goodie-finding missions if you want to find out all about the game world and some if its inhabitants. I’d babble on about the music (which is stellar), voice acting (Elle can be a screechy pain in the eardrums and there’s no Japanese VO option, but overall it’s fine work) and some other stuff, but I’ve not slept much in the just over four days I’ve been playing this game. I think I’m near an ending of some sort, but I’ll find that out once I wake up later this afternoon or evening and fight it out with a few not so nice types I made a Quick Save before I left this morning to go write up these impressions.
Bottom line, ladies and gents: If you loved Tales of Xillia, you’re going to need this one to wrap things up in one way or another. Tales of Xillia 2 is a more polished than its predecessor and while not flawless, offers up dozens of hours of content, plenty of goodies (you DO have some other PS3 Tales saves on that HDD, right?), DLC if you want it (or wisely pre-ordered or bought that Collector’s Edition outright) and (so far) a very satisfying and at times intense story all going for it. Buy it, but make room on your plate for Tales of Hearts R, which is Vita-bound in November here. What, you don’t have a Vita yet? Go get one, I say – especially if you’re a JRPG fan. This is one of those years where you can’t toss a found kitty (me-ow!) and not hit something coming over from Japan you’ll most likely want.