I always give a big sigh of frustration whenever one of the Tales games is released. Not because they’re bad, no. In fact, they’re consistently some of the most fun, colourful, engaging RPGs around, with wonderful soundtracks and a lot of content. It’s just that they take a bloody age to play. I don’t know if the team over at Namco are aware of what an editor is, but it seems like three days before deadline they panicked and threw together everything they had. Armed with a script the size of a phone book and a song in their hearts, they created this: Tales of Xillia. And they only gave me a week to play it. Here are some first impressions.
First off, go into this with exactly the same expectations you would have for any other Tales game. There will be a young, bishounen protagonist, probably with a slightly weird haircut, who fights with swords and is naive about his own abilities at the start of the journey. He will find himself accompanying a girl who, it turns out, posesses some sort of magic and isn’t really human, assisted in his efforts by a tough but affable mercenary who for some reason never receives payment. If you’re not yet familiar, it’s probably best to sit this one out – it’s very much for fans.
The Tales series has never been the best-presented series in terms of polygon count or lighting effects, so what they’ve always done to make it up is embrace the colourful aesthetic with both arms, and once again it’s on display here. From a somewhat slow start in an austere campus building at night time through to exploring a waterfront pathway to a mountainous village, Namco haven’t skimped on the scenery. The icing on this already-delicious cake comes in the form of the luscious anime cutscenes which have become a staple of the series, although they suffer from being few and far between.
There’s a rather lovely JRPG soundtrack with a good mix of styles, ranging from sweeping orchestral stuff to thumping battle music. It does help to imbue the game with a sense of importance and scale, and the included soundtrack CD of the special edition sweetens the deal. It’s nice to have goodies with a game, and the special edition of Tales of Xillia is particularly nice – in addition to the game and soundtrack, there’s also a lovely artbook to keep fans engaged.
But that’s it. That’s all I remember. I don’t even remember the characters’ names after playing the game for a week and that is by no means a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all very well designed and implemented, and the traditional Tales battle system is as perfect as ever, but it feels like a game without a soul. An RPG without a story is like a smile without a tooth. It ruins the whole impression of the game by lacking a narrative hook to draw us in. We’re given no reason, at least in the first fifteen hours, to care about any of these cookie-cutter characters or anything they do.
It’s evident that a lot of work has gone into Tales of Xillia, and that strikes me as a shame. As a critic, you learn to love games that try hard and succeed, and games that don’t try and fail, because they give you a lot to work with. A game that tries its hardest and fails though has to be the most disappointing. The whole of Tales of Xillia is much lesser than the sum of its parts. It has the makings of a great game, in the same way that a pile of scrap is the makings of a great car. And, much as it pains me to say it, it just doesn’t work. 45%.