Same world, same characters, same everything.
It’s largely been true that each instalment in the Tales series has nothing to do with the others in terms of plot or characters, but Tales of Xillia received such praise that Bandai Namco considered it worth breaking the mould. Tales of Xillia 2 looks to continue the story begun by Jude and Milla, but must face up to inevitable questions as a result: can it live up to its predecessor, and can it stand as a game in its own right? There’s no doubt that the ending of Tales of Xillia left things open for a sequel, much more so than some other JRPGs. Final Fantasy X is a prime example of a game which wrapped things up neatly, only to see everything dubiously unravelled by the unnecessary Final Fantasy X-2, but the same issue is not found here. With the divide gone between the worlds of Rieze Maxia and Elympios, and the rise of potentially destructive spyrix technology, there are questions left unanswered about the ultimate fate of the world from Tales of Xillia. It ended on an optimistic note – but not a full resolution. Tales of Xillia 2 picks up a year after the original, introducing a new main character in the form of Ludger Kresnik. A descendent of the Sage Kresnik, Ludger has the ability to enter fractured dimensions – parallel realities – and wield powerful abilities associated with time and space. A chance encounter with a young girl called Elle sees his life thrown into chaos, as he is dragged along on her quest to find the mythical Land of Canaan. He simultaneously finds himself in debt to the powerful Spirius Corporation, which uses the leverage to pit him against his older brother Julius, who has been labelled a dangerous terrorist and whose ultimate aims are unknown.Whoa. Looking good, bro!The plot is not merely engaging but surprisingly original, as a host of factions race to reach the Land of Canaan and complete the Trial of the Great Spirit Origin. Although it peculiarly sidelines certain issues, such as Jude’s attempts to solve the spyrix problem, it has moments that pack serious emotional punch and never tires of throwing new twists and turns at you. The fractured dimensions provide a poignant look at how things might have gone if different decisions had been made and lead to some of the game’s most interesting moments. For example, a pricklier version of Milla from another reality challenges Ludger’s actions on ethical grounds and brings the whole quest into doubt. The story isn’t perfect, however. All the original characters reappear, with the welcome additions of Gaius and Muzét to the party, but their connection to the plot is tenuous at best; aside from “being the good guys”, it’s difficult to say why they join forces with Ludger. Since Tales of Xillia focused so heavily on these core characters and their personal motives, this comes across as a disappointment and robs the game of a certain pathos. The biggest problem, however, is Ludger himself. An almost silent protagonist among a group of vocal personalities, he comes across as peculiarly bland and disassociated. To make matters worse, much of his agency is taken away because the player has the ability to decide what choices he makes and how he speaks to other characters. The result is that he’s neither a character in his own right nor an avatar for the player; he sits uncomfortably in between, making it difficult to get a grasp on what kind of person he really is. He looks the part of the hero – more so than Jude ever did – but he’s like a shop window mannequin, well dressed and blank. It’s as if the other characters are carrying him around for a prank, discreetly placing him in cut-scenes and waiting for the player to notice that he’s not real. While this feeling fades towards the end of the game, his constantly vacant expression still makes him difficult to relate to.The cogs are turning in Ludger’s mechanical mannequin mind.In terms of the gameplay, the combat is as engrossing as ever, with a few new elements providing some further interest. As in other games in the series, you control one character of a party of four, and do battle with enemies in real time. Ludger can switch between three weapons – blades, a sledgehammer, and pistols – each with their own benefits, and each of which is effective against certain enemies. Switching between them is easy and adds an extra fluidity to the already elegant system. The levelling system is marginally different – stats improve on their own, while artes and skills are learned through the “Allium Orb”, where you choose an element and learn the abilities associated with it – but hardly revolutionary. Unfortunately, the ability to swap characters in and out of battle has been removed, thereby forcing you to choose your party before you leave the safety of towns and venture out into the monster-infested countryside and dungeons. This was a welcome feature in Tales of Xillia as it made fights much more dynamic, and the decision to remove it is a bewildering one. Outside of battle, there is little new to report. The ability to choose how Ludger behaves – particularly when the decision is a timed one – does add a certain tension to the game. It can also affect his affinity with other characters, which in turn will unlock bonus scenes. These extra scenes don’t always mesh perfectly with other story events, but they do seem like an appropriate reward for your efforts. There is also a new “Kitty Dispatch” mechanic, which allows you to send cats out to retrieve items from different locations. The game has an inexplicable obsession with cats of which Kitty Dispatch is but one facet; elsewhere, Ludger is joined on his journey by his cat, and Rollo, a side quest sees you finding missing felines from around the world. It’s doubtful that commanding an army of cats on item-hunting missions was high on anyone’s wish list for the sequel, but it nevertheless provides a little variety. Tales of Xillia 2 also does little to improve upon the presentation of the first game. If you played the original, you’ll recognise 95% of the environments – which were never particularly interesting to begin with. Most of the new areas introduced are Elympion cities and are even worse; you’ll spend the first few hours of the game wandering around drab urban areas which all look the same. Neither Rieze Maxia nor Elympios are especially attractive to look at, leaving the game to rely on its narrative to keep you interested.What a fascinating vista. At least he’s out of the city, eh?However, the structure of Tales of Xillia 2 can sometimes make that difficult. The story is divided into chapters rather than being allowed to flow naturally, and after each one you’re required to repay a portion of Ludger’s eye-watering 20,000,000 gald debt before the next becomes available. You’re not forced to repay the entire debt, but the process still makes your progress through the game seem choppy and uneven, as the main plot is repeatedly interrupted by side quests to earn more coin. Whether you want to explore the wider world or not, you’ll be forced to make frequent trips to the job board in search of errands. Many of these quests are a long way from being engaging; they rarely involve anything more than killing x number of enemies or collecting y number of items. Character-based quests later on in the game make for a more interesting diversion, but it still feels like a lot of padding; the main story isn’t big enough to fill up the game, and to compensate you’re made to complete extra material. The game may take a reasonable twenty to thirty hours to complete, but you can expect to spend at least a third of that time, and possibly more, delivering eggs, fighting butterflies, and collecting other people’s mail in order to pay back your debt and progress with the main story.Does Tales of Xillia 2 live up to its predecessor? Not quite. It’s a little too padded out, a little too thin on substantial story content. While the plot itself is solid, Ludger is far too blank to hold it together, especially when the game’s otherwise strong cast is pushed to the side to make room for him. Does Tales of Xillia 2 stand as a game in its own right, then? Again, not quite. Those who never played the first will need to read extensive journal entries to understand all the talk of spyrixes and spyrites, of Spirits and Great Spirits and Spirit Fossils, and all the other technical jargon thrown at them. It has a couple of new, slick gameplay features but they aren’t really enough; it borrows its world, characters, combat, and themes from the original, and fails to create anything of its own. Tales of Xillia 2 is an extremely enjoyable game, but it’s a long way from being revolutionary. Ultimately, it will always be remembered as “the sequel to Tales of Xillia”, rather than as an event in its own right.
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