JRPGs are a genre of computer game which traditionally have a significant disconnect between mechanics and story in fundamental terms, accompanied by a narrative explanation for aspects of the mechanics. This is most clear in an example like Final Fantasy VII; the materia central to the plot also have a mechanical integreation in the form of the ability learning system. Exactly how this bringing together of player-controlled aspects of the game and the traditionally passive storytelling style of the genre plays out is a key aspect of a game’s success. Tales of Xillia ties many of its narrative points to gameplay mechanics – the levelling-up system is acknowledged in character in the dialogue, for example – but fails to ever really convince.
It is very much an archetypal RPG; everything about it, from the limited freedom of movement afforded the player at any given point to the characters and plot, is almost perfunctory in execution. In itself this is no bad thing; Ni No Kuni was exceptionally formulaic in almost all aspects but had a strong visual style, relatable characters and unproposing mechanics executed well. Yet Xillia fails to make a particularly lasting impression on any level beyond the mechanical; its characters do not stand out from competing games within the genre, its story burns so slowly as to challenge the player’s endurance, and its aesthetic is mostly unremarkable. The mechanics of the combat – arguably the only mechanics most JRPGs have – are very strong, but ultimately cannot carry the game alone. While it does not innovate particularly within its franchise, using the same semi-free-movement system of other Tales games, its distinction between the characters (and the variations within a core system that each offers) and development of the standard block and evade mechanic to encompass a sidestep maneuver make the frequent battles enjoyable. The main innovation present is the partnership one, whereby the player-controlled character can be linked to an AI-controlled teammate and combined special moves used – these combined moves can in turn be chained, and by strategically switching partner (and even switching party members mid-battle) the chain can be prolonged. The party AI is particularly customisable, as many RPGs offer now, and this is vital on higher difficulties; usually, most fights for the early game (even boss battles) can be brute-forced through on normal difficulty without any fine-tuning but for players that wish for more challenge the scope is there for a much more strategic game.
This kind of difficulty and attendant increase in complexity and required system mastery would be good were the plot stronger; the presence of a mode whereby the battles are a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, addresses a frequent complaint with games that the story cannot be experienced by less skilled players. However, Xillia‘s story suffers from major pacing issues and a fundamental lack of inspiration. While it eventually picks up, the first fifteen hours or so of gameplay offer little incentive to continue save the interactions between player-characters. It is these “skits” which are the selling point of the franchise – they drive forward the non-main-plot interactions in an optional format that avoids lengthy cutscenes, and can be watched at leisure. In this way, Xillia is one of the most streamlined RPGs around; its combat is granular and customisable, it has a fast-travel system available almost from the start, its non-plot character development is entirely optional, the player may save anywhere and the exact nature of the challenge can be set at will. Yet the overall result of all this is a game which feels empty; enemies recur with only minor aesthetic changes frequently, the stripping out of non-critical interactions to the skits (which are simply talking portraits rather than actual cutscenes) limits the design space of the main storytelling sections and so, with everything so neatly parcelled up, the end result is a disjointed game – a kind of buffet effect where no one aspect feels properly united with any other. What this results in is the inherent distance in RPG design – between the mechanics and the story – becoming far too distractingly apparent. Perhaps more so than in many RPGs, progress in Xillia feels like FF13‘s linear progression between plot points.
The biggest problem with the story is it takes well over ten hours to even properly develop its core plot; the very fundamentals of it are explained within the first hour, but all the subsequent actions simply skirt around it. A simple story – as it lays out at first – needs memorable aspects, but Xillia makes ignorance its trademark. There is no memorable villain save shadowy figures who recur as boss fights or briefly-introduced enemies in cutscenes. While this is thematic – since the game attempts to depict a conflict between nations, the lack of a clearly-defined figurehead – and the distance placed between the player-characters and the enemy nation by narrative contrivance – is unrewarding. The very first villain introduced is charismatic and would make for an interesting nemesis even if she is not a major figure, but her being replaced by a series of other characters each left mysterious feels disjointed and vague. Simple plots work best in games if they are charismatically told – and for that a level of character development beyond the skit/cutscene separation that Xillia offers is needed. What most of the cutscenes do is provide the barest framework of interactions and so the characters are mostly single-note archetypes, limiting the design space for interesting development. By the 15-hour or so mark where the game is really finding its feet, there has been little real meaningful character progress and it is this troubled pacing which really sets the game back. Furthermore, the attempts to tie together mechanics of the game with plot points feel a little too disconnected; they work as character gimmicks for skills and inputs, but often their integration into the plot feels expository and awkward.
Technically, too, the game sees problems which affect its created world – the localisation accentuates how limited in scope the characters are, and creates a caricature-esque tone that at times grates. The voice acting is generally not specifically bad, but instead uninspiring; however, some crucial NPCs do suffer from awkward dialogue which, when the game is trying for more serious moments, limit the impact of those scenes. It is a kind of unconvincing heightened tone that, even when trying to be serious, wants to be blithe and comedic; the personalities and voice-acting of the characters fits the amusing skits perfectly but sits less well with the main plot.
All told, Tales of Xillia is an example of how good mechanics cannot support a game if there is no good framework for them. It is not abstracted and gamist enough to be a pure system-mastery challenge (for the JRPG genre does not suit such games, and the prevalence of story scenes makes it clear that simple gamism is not its aim) but yet the story suffers from awkward pacing and uneven localisation. The level of perseverence needed to be sufficiently engaged in its ultimately slight and poorly-paced opening act to continue to better parts really makes it a game suitable for RPG diehards only. There is a good game on a mechanical level, and a passable game on a narrative level, hidden behind an inaccessible opening – which is made even more starkly obvious by the numerous design choices intended to make a traditionally inaccessible genre more welcoming to new players. Were its opening acts more strongly defined, and the characters presented initially as less one-note, then it would be a far better game.