You may be inclined to disregard Namco Bandai’s latest offering in the Tales series, but although it's the thirteenth main entry in the franchise (not including spin-offs), and bursting with strangely dressed teens with voluptuous hair-dos – as well a few girls who need to be told that strategically placed ribbons don't qualify as adequate clothing – Tales of Xillia is a beautiful, rewarding, and, most importantly, enjoyable adventure.
The story revolves around the journey of two playable characters: hardened spirit wielder Milla Maxwell, and pacifist medical student Jude Mathias. Set in the land of Reize Maxia, where for many years spirits and humans have harmoniously existed side-by-side, our heroes discover a secret facility draining mana from humans to power an evil weapon called the spyrix. Milla, the physical embodiment of the mystical Lord Maxwell, journeys to Fennmont to destroy the device, where she encounters young Jude, and the two become entangled in a quest to return mana to the world.
Tales of Xillia provides you with the option to play as both of the protagonists, each offering a slightly different story viewpoint, and featuring some unique scenes. Not only does this encourage replayability, something rare for a 40 plus hour campaign, but it's also an intriguing feature, where the two main characters’ stories perfectly complement each other. However, it must be noted that the vast bulk of the two campaigns are exactly the same, and not all players will be determined enough to skip through the same dialogue sequences a second time to experience the minor deviations.
The majority of your time with the game will be spent questing, shopping, exploring, grinding, and excitedly soaking up the scenery. Xillia features a nice new addition to the levelling system called the lilium orb, a Final Fantasy X-style web which can be expanded and customised to your own preferences, unlocking new sets of skills along the way.
The combat system has also been improved, with the addition of linked artes, a feature where two characters combine to fight and perform special moves once a gauge has been filled, dealing devastating blows to the opponent. Brawling as a team and pulling off linked artes is very rewarding, although the attacks can be a little tricky to execute at times.
The release's combat is one of its best features, though, being both dynamic and strategic. Monster battles are optional, as the foes appear on land, so can be avoided if preferred. Characters can freely run around the battlefield, such as in Ni No Kuni, which makes each individual clash feel exciting and energetic. Battle strategy can also be setup so that a fellow computer-controlled teammate will guard your back in combat at all times, and any character can be selected to work as a healer.
If you're new to the series – or the genre as a whole – the game is equipped with plenty of optional tutorials to keep you informed during harder battles, and it gradually eases you into the moment-to-moment gameplay. However, the combat difficulty curve is slightly off, as you'll happily hack through hordes of monsters, and then be pitted against an extremely strong boss, often forcing you to backtrack and grind for a while before challenging the adversary again. This is made easier by the random appearance of bronze, silver, and gold bacuras – strange, square enemies that reward you with plenty of XP once slaughtered.
The bright anime-style visuals fit perfectly with the dreamy and colourful fantasy settings, which thankfully have aged well in the past two years since the game's original release. From the picturesque, tranquil shores of Kijara Seafalls, to the Eastern-infused spiritual village of Nia Khera and beyond, the title consistently wows with one beautiful setting after another. There are also some absolutely stunning anime cinematics, which, although few and far between, always leave you eager for another dose. While there are some minor visual pop-in issues, most noticeable in busy town areas where salesmen randomly jump into view in front of you, and some slightly stiff character animations outside of combat, this shouldn't put you off an otherwise gorgeous gaming experience.
It benefits from a great team of voice-actors, too, who have lent their voices to the majority of the major dialogue sequences and all of the skits, even if the speech isn't always perfectly lip-synced. The cast have a great rapport, with some humorous and often cheeky banter between the stars. Furthermore, the adventure boasts a lovely soundtrack, with a heavily oriental influence, and while not always memorable, each track projects the perfect atmosphere for every individual in-game town and village.
Energetic combat and awe-inspiring settings make Tales of Xillia a highly enjoyable title. It may not be the best in the series, but there's still plenty of fun to be had – twice if you dare to play through the campaign as both Jude and Milla. This is a must-buy for Tales fans, a good entry point for newcomers, and an all-around excellent JRPG.