Tales of Xillia 2 is the sequel to last year's successful Tales of Xillia on the PlayStation 3. Much like the previous game, it’s charming, wonderful, and rewarding all at the same time. The worlds of Rieze Maxia and Elympios return as well as most of the gameplay from the original, and being the 14th title in the Tales series, it follows tradition with an exciting and compelling story that's home to an absolutely incredible cast of characters.

While it boasts a new story line, it does borrow just about everything that it can from its predecessor. Everything from locations, enemies, and characters are reused or recycled, and this might be a bit tiring for those who recently completed the first game – but the familiarity also provides a sense of reward when you come across an enemy that you already know how to fight, or a city layout that you've already memorised. There's a definite sense of déjà-vu, then, and being a direct sequel, a lot of things will only make sense if you've played the original. Essentially, it feels like an additional adventure that's set in the same world that fans have come to adore.

Players now control the near-silent Ludger Will Kresnik throughout the journey, who travels with many of the loveable cast from the previous release, with a few fresh faces thrown in. The new affinity system between characters is probably one of the best additions found in the sequel, as it allows you to form deeper bonds of friendship, with personal stories being unlocked bit by bit. While not directly related to the main plot, the character specific side quests provide some of the best narrative in the entire game. Even outside of these quests, the highly developed cast make the typically grand adventure all the more gratifying.

Much like the colourful characters, the combat system is a true gem. A combination of fighting genre mechanics and extensive RPG elements is where the series has always excelled, and this release only improves on the formula. Granted, it’s a fairly difficult system to get the hang of, especially if you didn't play the first title, but it's one of the most rewarding that we've come across in a long while. The bare bones concept of combat is to balance offensive and defensive abilities while managing action points, and since fights take place in real time, this is done on the fly by either using standard attacks or Artes to go on the offensive, then switching to more defensive options like sidestepping and blocking while you regenerate your action points. As complicated as this gets, Ludger and his friends are at least slowly introduced to the fighting mechanics, which should give you enough time and experience to get a good grip on things.

However, as hinted, it's highly recommended that you have some experience with the first title before diving into this hefty JRPG, as the often complex character progression and equipment systems will seem much easier to wrap your head around if you've already journeyed with prior protagonists Milla and Jude. The brief tutorials and story recaps attempt to introduce each new concept or plot point, but considering how fast and frequently these are thrown at you early on, it can be a difficult amount of information to retain.

But while combat and player statistics may prove to be either confusing or familiar, story progression is handled in a fairly unique and innovative way, and centres around the rather mundane subject of debt. Early on, Ludger is slapped with a mysterious and massive debt, which limits his ability to use the rail roads to get around, instead forcing him to perform story and side quests in order to unlock new areas. It's a great way to steadily make your way through the vast amount of content, while also providing a good, simple, and rewarding sense of progression.

As you've probably guessed, though, debt is just about the only simple concept on offer here. One of the biggest and most confusing changes from the previous game is that your party is now upgraded with the new Allium Orb system. Essentially, special items are equipped on each character so that they automatically unlock new traits or abilities as you battle. Unfortunately, this means that you must constantly micromanage the Allium Orb in order to use each warrior to their full potential. In turn, this often feels like a chore without an instant, worthwhile reward, and paired with the confusing visual layout and design of the system's screen, it’s a shame that upgrading your party feels like an unnecessary step backwards from the previous title's accessible Illium Orb.

Oddly enough, the developer has also found a way to integrate cats into your quest. Finding felines throughout the world grants our heroes the ability to send them on brief quests to find items. Ludger's cat Rollo will also follow you just about everywhere, offering its sassy attitude at regular intervals. Fans of the original will also notice that Ivar is back with his wild puns and goofy personality, and these minor comedic moments help ease the mood in some of the narrative's darker situations.

You can even hand a controller over to your real pet cat if you wanted, as co-operative play with up to four local friends is possible, but much like the many other features in this title, it’s a bit overly complex. While it’s not a direct drop in/drop out system, each character can be set to 'manual' or 'semi-auto' from the fiddly in-game menus, giving other players the ability join you in combat. However, co-op play will annoyingly hinder your fighting prowess, as advanced features such as linking party members and combining combos won't be as effective without the artificial intelligence backing you up.

At least between battles, friends get to enjoy the wacky dialogue and catchy tunes. The voice acting is superb, and even with recycled sound clips, the audio sounds fantastic and full of life. Regrettably, the visuals don’t deserve the same praise. Outside of the amazing pre-rendered cut scenes, the graphics are blocky and muddy, which means that it's admittedly hard to find any kind of visual improvement over its predecessor. It’s easy enough to look past this most of the time because of the game's colourful environments, but during close-ups, it can certainly be a bit distracting.

Conclusion

It’s safe to say that if you enjoyed Tales of Xillia, this continuation comes highly recommended. Even though Tales of Xillia 2 contains a lot of reused assets and features found in its predecessor, the minor refinements make most mechanics better than ever. Several unnecessary complexities may hold the sequel back for some, but the strong story, engaging battle system, and brilliant character development should appeal to both casual and hardcore JRPG fans alike.