Tales of Changing Tides – First Impressions On Tales of Xillia for PS3

2013 is going to see Tales of Xillia, the 13th entry in Tales the famed JRPG line released exclusively for the PS3. Some of you will feel a breathless, tingling sense of anticipation at this, as the rest of you should. Or maybe it’s only me. Why? Well, we’ll get there in a minute.

As a 30-something-year-old gamer, I started my RPG career in an environment where the only RPGs to be found had a “J” firmly planted in front. My introductions to the world of the RPG came via the original releases of Phantasy Star, Dragon Warrior, and Final Fantasy…yes, at one point Final Fantasy was a game and not a glorified 40-hour cutscene, but I digress. Time would see me delve into The Elder Scrolls, Baldurs Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and a host of other classics. But I always stayed true to my origins. Legend of Dragoon and Xenogears both received heavy rotation at the same time Everquest was trying its damnedest to murder what few social skills I have.

But we tend to return to our roots, and mine rest squarely in the boldly colored realms of heroes and heroines possessed of oddly colored hair. Except there was one tiny problem. When that nostalgic turn-based itch circled back around in 2009 I found myself hunting a rare game. This was the age of the MMO. The age where Bioware and Bethesda and their ilk reign supreme in the console space. The age where Japanese studios have a distressing tendency to keep many of their quality offerings safely tucked away over the horizon (Xillia released in 2010 in Japan, yet they find no qualm with lobbing noxious, flaming balls of tar with “Final Fantasy” stamped on the side at us with near Call-of-Duty regularity).

So to paraphrase one of greatest antiheroes ever: Given the choice whether to be content with online or western-style RPGs, or burrow through industry offerings for another throw, a better throw of the dice, what is a gamer to do?

The answer came in the form of a copy of Tales of Vesperia for the Xbox 360. What started as a simple “lets see how this goes” ended up many, many hours later with my considering this game a benchmark of JRPG design. Engaging combat system, well-written story and characters, and gorgeous visuals, all while retaining that signature “JRPG” flavor. What’s not to like? Well, that depends on where you’re setting the mark. For a JRPG fan like myself, this was an enormous two-layer spice cake with vanilla frosting served with a tall glass of milk for dinner. However, bear in mind Oblivion, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and the like got traction on consoles in large part due to a need in the market for anything which wasn’t a traditionally-built JRPG. An overwhelming sense of sameness permeated the genre and developers recognized this. Those who jumped ship, myself included, embraced the new styles of console RPG (The Elder Scrolls were not new ground to tread, having been around on PC for years). But that doesn’t mean what came before was bad – just that tastes changed.

Which gets us back to the fact Tales of Xillia is en route, well, eventually (oh, did I mention they’ve already released the sequel in Japan?), and I couldn’t be happier. After being force-fed arrow-to-the-knee memes alongside impressive levels of rage spawned by discontent with how certain trilogies wrapped up, I’m ready to go back home for a spell. But I’ve got standards. The observant amongst you will note Tales of Graces came and went back in March with little fanfare. A, by many accounts, solid JRPG outing with some balance issues, I had cocked my eyebrow and waved it on. Close but not quite. Don’t hand me a burger when a steak is on the grill. My patience looks to be rewarded with a game that visually looks closer to Vesperia than Graces, yet expands upon the already quality battle system and takes a swing at adjusting the skill development of its predecessors.

Xillia maintains the 2D free-roam combat Tales has become known for, while combining the Technical Point system from Vesperia with the Combo Chain system from Graces. One item falling into the category of “cautiously optimistic” was the introduction of a Final Fantasy-style grid for skill development. I don’t know quite how I feel about this. A big, big part of my draw to Vesperia was the masterful job done to make each character unique in personality, appearance, and play style. I’m keeping my fingers crossed they’ve designed Xillia in such a way as to allow players the freedom to steer characters down a particular path, but not gone quite so far as to introduce an everyone-can-do-everything level of customization. Doing so would strip the series of what I found to be an important element and do a disservice to the fans.

But a game doesn’t make it to 13 releases without the developers having a clue what the winning formula looks like. Despite the missteps made with Graces, I’m sure Xillia will execute as well as Vesperia did, so I will simply kick back and patiently wait for a street date for my badly-needed fix. Which had better be soon. Real. Soon.

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December 31, 2012 - 8:21 am