Tales of Xillia is a JRPG developed by the Namco Tales Studio and published by Namco Bandai for the PS3 in 2011 and 2013. The story follows a medical student named Jude and the human incarnation of the lord of all spirits, Milla, who have a chance encounter in the kingdom of Rashugal. In the core of a research facility, Milla's powers are drained by Rashugal's new spirit-fueled super weapon, the Lance of Kresnik. Emboldened by Milla's conviction in spite of losing her powers, Jude joins her on a quest to destroy the lance and save the spirits of the world.
What immediately sets Xillia apart from previous games in the series is its usage of two distinct main characters that the player can pick between at the start. You can still use both freely in combat, but there are a few sections of the game where you are treated to some very different events depending on if you picked Jude or Milla. Most of the story remains the same, but what little unique content there is is quite neat. Not to mention that there is a lot of foreshadowing to pick up on in a second playthrough. As such, I recommend playing as the other character in NG+ should you want to see everything, as that allows you to blast through the repeated story segments incredibly fast.
As for the story as a whole it's...oddly paced, but overall good. I have two medium-sized gripes with it. The first being how long it takes for the main plot to shift beyond "get to Rashugal and destroy the lance". The game obviously uses this time to introduce a lot of characters and concepts, but that doesn't stop things from feeling almost padded. Had the game not been so good at throwing some really good reveals and scenes between Jude & Milla at me just as I was getting annoyed with the pacing, I might have written off the whole thing entirely. It's not even that there are tactically placed plot twists meant to shake your understanding of things (though those exist as well), it's that it does some really brave, almost dark things by the series' standard that I found quite refreshing.
My second gripe has to do with Jude and the point of the story. As I played, I had a hard time discerning a theme. The story makes sense and is told well, but I couldn't figure out what it was about for the longest time. I eventually settled on the theme being "everyone deserves to live", which is shown through some good scenes in the lategame. But the fact that it took me so long to make that call tells me that the first half or so of the story is a bit shaky, and I'm gonna blame Jude for that.
Being one of the protagonists, Jude is afforded a lot of screentime, but I feel like it's somewhat wasted at times since he changes so little beyond just becoming more like himself. I hope than metaphore makes sense. What I'm trying to to convey is that Jude is such a goody-two-shoes that he almost jumps at the oppurtunity to help Milla just because he's such a good guy. That's fine on its own, but I feel like there should be something more at play between the two.
I think there should be slightly more friction between them at the start. Jude is a medical student, so he obviously respects human life. Maybe the story would be better off if he tagged along with Milla initially just to keep her from hurting people on her quest. She already doesn't know much about humanity, so I could totally see her being a bit stab-happy in order to protect spirits. That way, they would both have something explicit to teach one another throughout the journey, instead of just having Milla's determination rub off on Jude.
As it stands though, I still like their relationship. It's presented as being more platonic than romantic, which is nice, as it avoids the common pitfalls and clichés JRPGs usually include when dealing with romance plots. The rest of the cast is also nice. They make for some good dynamics together, especially in the numerous skits. Their arcs aren't anything special for the most part (if they even have disernable arcs at all), but they still manage to add to the proceedings. Yes, even the loud-mouthed mascot that's obsessed with Milla's boobs. Don't ask me how they managed such a feat, I'm just telling it like it is.
Xillia's combat system mostly builds on Vesperia's, but there is a tiny bit of Graces' in there as well. While artes take TP just like in most of the series, your combos are limited by a stamina-system, just like in Graces. It starts off a bit limiting, but you get enough stamina to be comfortable before long.
The new mechanic for this game is linking. Any time, you can link with another party member in order to share some passive abilities, get them to perform their unique support move (binding, guard breaks, healing, stealing...) and have them perform powerful Link Artes with you once the Overlimit gauge has filled up one segment through fighting. Once it's full, you can enter Overlimit and chain Link Artes until it's nearly empty and then finish off with a Mystic Arte to really bring the pain.
If you limit yourself, then this combat loop isn't very difficult to comprehend and make proper use of. But as is often the case in this series, there is an ocean of depth just waiting to be tapped into and it's very easy to drown in it.
For starters, every character has unique mechanics to their name (I'm particulary fond of Jude's "nothing personel, kid" teleport dodge and Milla's partial spell casts). The game is also loaded with artes to play with (you can set up to 16(!) of them in your shortcuts), most of which can be used to trigger Link Artes.
And with the game having abilities that incentivize swapping link partners, you are meant to try to at least set up a single character so that they can properly link with 3 other ones. This is an incredible feat to undertake as this is difficult to set up in a way that feels good to play (your favorite artes might not trigger Link Artes with all of your current party members). It's also just hard to remember what artes correspond to what characters, especially if you are prone to switch what character you play as like I am.
The depth doesn't feel as needless as it does in Vesperia (since there are some hard battles best won with the correct link partner), but it's still hard to go from intermediate play to high-level play. What I settled on after a while was to ignore the partner-switching abilities and instead set up my favoured characters (which were all but two of them) with a dedicated partner in mind (usually Jude or Milla, as they have the most artes that trigger Link Artes) and then cycle between them every other area. It kept things fresh without being all too complicated, but I recognize that I gave up on mastering the game completely. Having depth is nice, but you gotta teach the player how to swim before you unleash the sharks.
For the leveling system of this installment in the series, it was decided that they should rip off the Sphere Grid from FFX. A brave decision, but seeing as they did it much better than Square Enix's attempt, I can only call it a success.
Compared to the Spehere Grid, the Lillium Orb system has two key differences that actually makes it worth a damn. The first being the elminination of sphere items being required in order to move to a node and reap the benefits (you just get a set amount of points to spend on nodes in the orb per level). The second being that it's actually non-linear in a signicant way. It works like this:
Every character has two personal sets of Lillium Orbs to their name, which are spider webs of connected nodes. All of the main stat nodes (attack, defence...) go out in a straight direction from the middle while the secondary stat nodes (HP, TP...) populate most of the nodes connecting those main lines. By connecting all the nodes in a section, you unlock the ability (an arte or passive skill) sealed in the middle. In order to expand the web one notch, you need to connect three sections of nodes in the outermost layer, one of which is pre-determined and two of which can be chosen by the player.
What makes this so interesting is that by picking particular nodes while ignoring others, you can unlock more layers faster, getting you more artes and marginally stronger stat nodes at the cost of being underleveled in certain stats. It's really fun to evaluate what abilities are the most important to that particular character and then move along to a new layer full of new abilities. As a result, you can actually cap out on one or two stats before the final boss, making certain fights (especially in the postgame) feel a lot less level-restricted. Of course, to balance out the max level being what it is, your node points per level start diminishing after a while, so it's important to come to grips with how to best build each character before long.
But just like the combat system, it is really difficult to keep a whole party's worth of information in your head. To build a single character well, you need understanding of their mechanics and you need to re-evaluate their passive abilites every few levels to make sure they're being the best they can be. This takes a lot of time, which can be off-putting to players less interested in min-maxing.
Thankfully, the game does offer an auto-leveling system and an auto-assigning system for support skills. Relying on these systems isn't optimal in the slightest, since the pre-programmed leveling system only focuses on stat nodes, no matter if the connected abilites are mediocre. But for those characters you don't care about a lot, it's a nice way to get them up to par at least.
The game also has a secondary progression system that I quite like that's related to the shops which works on the same design philosophy as the Lillium Orb. Instead of making new towns and shopkeepers offer new stuff as you progress throughout the story, everyone sells the exact same thing. In order to improve their stock and reduce their prices, you can buy things from them, which gives them a minimal amount of points towards the next level. But to really get some results you need to donate money or items found randomly while fighting and exploring areas. These donation items come in different categories and the different shops get extra points from specific categories. What shop wants what items gets shuffled around after a few battles.
Just like with the leveling system, you can go for a balanced approach or focus hard on a single shop. For example, you can donate a lot to the weapon shop in order to skip ahead a few weapon tiers, which saves you the money you would spend incrementally upgrading. Or you could focus on upgrading the food shop in order to get better food as soon as possible, which provides you with some really strong buffs for a select number of fights.
I was particularly fond of the defence and exp buffs for boss fights. For my second playthrough, I basically treated the game as a boss rush, skipping normal enemies and using exp buffs to make up the difference in leveling during bosses. I don't think the cooking system has ever been this simple and useful in the series.
The world design of Xillia is its weakest element. Instead of having a map populated with towns and dungeons or the simplistic routes from Graces, the game offers a fully realised world. Said world being comprised of a lot of samey-looking forests with cliffs and cave systems only separated by their enemy rosters and visual theming. It wouldn't be so bad if these connecting areas felt distinct in spite of how they looked, but looking at how they are designed map-wise, most of them could be exchanged with eachother and it would barely make for a different experience. They don't get harder to navigate nor offer any interesting puzzles. They're just large areas meant to be traversed for a bit of treasure and they frankly feel like filler.
The actual dungeon areas found at the end of a connecting area are much better, as they feature more verticality and some puzzles, but they only represent a third to a half of the game's areas, making their impact on the whole game less than ideal. I understand wanting to get rid off the map screen, but what's here isn't really better. Good thing there is a generous fast-travel system in place, so you only need to get through these areas once.