The Darkest Timeline
Did you think you knew the Tales series? It’s a string of colorful anime-style action RPGs with wholesome themes like loyalty, friendship, and overcoming prejudice, right? Well, here comes Tales of Xillia 2 , a game whose primary theme appears to be, “life’s a bitch”. How else to describe the story of a poor yutz who has inherited world-destroying powers and is repeatedly blackmailed into performing unspeakable acts in order to keep his skin and his family intact? This game goes to some very dark places, particularly for a sequel to a title with a fairly standard power-of-friendship JRPG storyline.
Ludger Kresnik is having an unusually awful first day at work. He was supposed to be shoveling gruel at a train station cafeteria, but instead he stumbles into a hijacking, discovers that he’s inherited a family curse, is blown up, and wakes up saddled with a gigantic debt for his medical treatment. Along with the cast of Tales of Xillia and a mysterious little girl named Elle who is on a quest to find her missing father, Ludger travels down an increasingly horrifying rabbit hole in which he must destroy other worlds in order to save his own. His tale is well-written and emotionally harrowing, not at all what one would expect from a Tales game but absolutely worth experiencing.
If this sounds compelling to those of you who normally prefer, say, the Shin Megami Tensei series to Tales , I’ve got bad news. Tales of Xillia 2 isn’t recommended unless you’ve already played Tales of Xillia . To experience the story as intended, you’ll need the kind of knowledge of the game’s world and characters that can only come from experiencing the first game. Sure, there’s a Xillia Encyclopedia included, but it’s better as a refresher for veterans than a reference for newcomers. Without having played Tales of Xillia , you’ll be confused by the convoluted history behind current events and blind to the emotional nuance behind your party members’ interactions.
Xillia veterans will find a lot to like about this sequel, though. Set a year after the world-changing events of the first game, the veterans on the cast have grown up and are undertaking new challenges. Older cast members are now central geopolitical figures, while the younger ones are discovering their new passions in life. Although Ludger and Elle are new characters, they merge naturally into the existing cast, and each veteran character has a series of side stories that provide them with satisfying character development. This extended cast provides much needed comic relief at points, but also learns some hard lessons about idealism versus reality.
There are various improvements to the game’s systems, as well. Weaker original cast members have been given powerful new abilities, and the character link battle system has been improved. When you link up with a partner on the battlefield, you can choose how closely they cling to you, allowing you to link with healers without sacrificing their ability to heal the entire party. NPC party members have slightly improved AI, though they’re still prone to poor choices like repeatedly using an element against which a foe is strong. Playing as Ludger gives you more combat choices than ever before, as he can switch between three weapon sets and has a powerful transformation ability that can wipe out all but the most daunting foes. He’s almost ludicrously overpowered against ordinary foes, but he’ll still have a tough time against bosses on the game’s higher difficulty levels.
The most advertised new feature in Xillia is Ludger’s ability to make dialogue and storyline choices throughout the game. The results of these choices alter everything from the direction of a conversation to character relationships to the game’s ending. Most of the choices don’t have far-reaching consequences and some of them are the traditional JRPG false choices in which events will run their course no matter what you say, but it’s a good start for a company that has traditionally had completely linear storylines. The false choices even have their place in the game, underlining poor Ludger’s lack of power in the face of the massive forces conspiring against him.
So far Xillia 2 sounds like a great deal, but sadly the title is hamstrung by two poor development decisions. The worst offender is the banking system that requires Ludger to pay off a certain amount of his debt before he can access new areas or advance the storyline. Making money requires taking a host of boring fetch quests that drag the player through recycled areas from the first Xillia game. Kill this, loot that, pixel hunt for missing cats, etc. The original game’s world may have felt small for some players, but it feels far too large when its only real purpose is as a staging ground for fetch quests.
Worse, the debt system completely kills the game’s momentum. It gets worse and worse as the game progresses and Ludger’s crisis comes to a head. Imagine coming off a highly tragic and emotionally charged scene, only to be told that you have to pay off another 200,000 gold before you get to see what happens next. It’s only at the very end of the game in which Ludger is given the option to make payments at his leisure, and at that point, it’s far too late. The entire thing smacks of artificial padding that was completely unnecessary considering the quality of the important parts of the game.
The other mystifying design decision was making Ludger into a mostly-silent protagonist. Tales has never dealt in silent protagonists, and the only reason to do so here was a misplaced desire to portray Ludger as “you”. It’s simply off-putting to have the rest of the cast be fully voiced but have Ludger speak only in shrugs, grunts, and monosyllables. When he blurts out the occasional full sentence near the end of the game, it’s obvious that the developers themselves struggled with the silent protagonist motif. What’s most frustrating is that Ludger doesn’t have to be silent at all. He is fully voiced in New Game Plus mode. Why couldn’t his voice be a game option from the outset instead of restricted to a second play through? Bandai Namco really whiffed that one, especially when it comes to reaching out to its (less tolerant of silent protagonists) Western audience.
The voice acting issues don’t stop with Ludger, as Elle’s performance is problematic as well. It’s never easy hiring an adult to portray the voice of a child, but Elle’s actor simply doesn’t display the emotional range necessary for this difficult role. Elle is an innocent child with a bratty streak who goes through some serious trauma over the course of the game. Her English-language actor is good at Elle’s mischievous side, but not as strong when it comes to sorrowful or otherwise emotional scenes, coming off as petulant when that doesn’t seem to be the writing’s intention. The rest of the cast cast has mostly strong performances, (I give particular kudos to Elize’s actor for demonstrating the quick maturity that happens to young teenage girls) but it’s a shame that the game’s two central characters were fumbled.
Graphical issues complete the problems that drag down the game. Most of its areas are completely recycled from the first game, and the improved quality of the few new areas is obvious. Poor old Reize Maxia from the original Xillia is looking a bit tired, especially since none of the major changes to Reize Maxian society are graphically depicted in the game. In addition, technical issues that weren’t present in the first game have cropped up. Transitions from the environment to battle screens often hang for several long seconds, and character models in populated areas frequently fail to load until you’re right next to them, creating a rather startling pop-in effect.
In the end, Tales of Xillia 2 is most notable for its unusually dark storyline and strong character development. It’s only truly worthwhile when played as a sequel, however, and is dragged down by poor design decisions. It’s a quality 20-hour game that has been stretched out to an interminable 40-60 hours by filler content and mandatory grinding. As long as they’re up for retreading ground and engaging in some very serious business, Tales super-fans will enjoy it. I’m not, however, comfortable recommending it to newcomers or to people with only a casual interest in the series. There’s simply too much to wade through in order to get to the good stuff at the core.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.0 Graphics
Xillia’s world is lovely but looks a bit dated now, and Xillia 2 suffers from graphical load issues. 4.5 Control
The improved Xillia combat system is a blast to play, and Ludger is a one-man wrecking machine. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Music is fine but largely recycled. Both new main characters suffer in the voice acting department. 2.5 Play Value
The main story and character storylines are compelling, but there is far too much boring and repetitive filler. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best