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After Ni No Kuni: Tales of Xillia's western assault

Tales of Xillia arrives in the west two years after its Japanese launch. VG247's Dave Cook plays the full game and speaks with director Hideo Baba about why Namco is taking a JRPG charge in western markets.

It's times like these I wish I had dabbled in the 'Tales' series long before now, because at the time of writing I've just broken the six hour mark in Tales of Xillia and I'm really enjoying it.

The game first launched in Japan in September of 2011 and it's taken this long to come to Western shores. Namco's timing couldn't have been better thanks to the resurging popularity of games that many would deem to be 'very Japanese' such as Ni No Kuni, Project X Zone and Fire Emblem: Awakening.

The quick-fire announcement that Tales of Xillia 2 will be localised in 2014 lends weight to the view.

There's a visible appetite for games hailing from Japan right now and if you're already a fan of the country's output then you might not get what I'm talking about, but trust me, I see more and more of you dabbling in - and getting excited about - Japan's rich array of RPGs and tactical games with each passing month. Tides are certainly shifting.

So what is Tales of Xillia then? Well, it's a hefty RPG that begins in the world of Rieze Maxia and stars Milla Maxwell, a spirit god who commands a group of elementals called The Four. She breaks into a science facility to destroy a mana-consuming weapon called the Lance of Kresnik and happens across a nervous young scholar called Jude.

Due to the intervention of an mysterious saboteur the plan fails and Milla loses The Four to the device, causing her to effectively turn human. She is then forced to become a fugitive with Jude in tow, which sparks a massive quest across the world that yields valuable lessons about responsibility and what it means to be human. It's also rife with heart-warming comedy.

Aside from playing final code and talking about it here, I also decided to speak with the game's producer Hideo Baba to discuss the surging interest of the genre in western markets. I asked him if he could see the genre's fan-base expanding from all the way over in Japan and he replied by way of a translated interview.

"I think one of the reasons is the world setting that [reminds users of] animes or comics," he answered, "the unique characteristic of Japanese ways of expression. Western people are great at photorealistic ways of expression, including the Hollywood movies. Of course, lots of Japanese developers introduce the photorealistic ways of expression to describe the in-game world, but this is the big reason why Japanese unique video expression is still supported by western people.

"The representative video game genres used to be shooting, simulation, action and RPG before. The action games are still enjoyed by many people in a various different forms. However, I personally believe that there are still lots of possibilities in JRPG genre, and the more popular JRPG genre, the more activated the videogame industry can get, so I would like to stick to releasing the titles in the west."

Baba isn't wrong, Tales of Xillia's visual style is striking - perhaps not to the same degree as Ghibli's work with Level-5 in Ni No Kuni - but it does whisk you away to a colourful land that has been visibly influenced by facets of Japanese history and culture. The soundtrack is also a joy, with sweeping orchestral compositions worthy of the genre's finest musicians. It's quite simply an aural delight in a sea of murk and grit.

Combat-wise, if you're a fan of Ni No Kuni's real-time scraps then you'll feel right at home with Xillia. In similar fashion you can roam the world and walk into enemies to trigger a battle, which then takes your squad to a battle area that can be navigated freely. You can flick between any of the four characters in your active party while in the field, and link two of them together to create brutal chain attacks.

It all feels a bit button-mashy at first seeing as most early encounters can be completed with melee swipes alone, but once those enemies start to block, flank and dish out punishing area-of-effect attacks you'll need to start formulating a strategy. I was so addicted to the game's plot, characters and levelling grind that I didn't actually care that its combat mechanic doesn't do much in the way of innovation. It honestly didn't matter to me.

You won't hear me saying that I enjoy grinding in games often but in Tales of Xillia it's massively compulsive thanks to the orb-based levelling system. Anyone who remembers the "Sphere Grid" progression mechanic at the heart of Final Fantasy X will know just how addictive it can be to light up nodes to unlock new skills. The same rings true here, as I found it genuinely difficult to stop playing when I know a few more fights would grant me more of those damn orbs.

And as daft as she looks I also really felt compelled to see Milla's story through. She's a brilliant character who - thanks to losing her powers - has to learn how to adapt to the human way of life. It's like when Thor is banished to Earth in the Marvel flick, or when Arnold Schwarzenegger adjusts to the rules of reality in The Last Action Hero.

The way she becomes enthralled by simple things like feeling hunger for the first time is both quaint and touching. Then you have fellow star Jude who develops from something of a shy wuss into a strong-willed hero, and together with Alvin - who I'm 99.9% sure is voiced by Troy "Booker DeWitt" Baker but can't say concretely until it's actually confirmed in writing - make for a hilarious double act.

In fact, Baba told me that Namco's dedication to translating the game's plot and dialogue as accurately as possible is why it's taken so long to surface in the west. "[It's] a fact that we take a long time to bring the game to the western countries because of the big volume of texts, and high-quality localisation to faithfully keep the same meaning of storyline in translation from Japanese texts to each western language," Baba explained.

He continued, "Moreover, it is difficult to translate some unique Japanese expressions and to find the closest words in each language, which takes us a long time," and added that he assigned extra staff to the process to make sure it didn't take too long, which is further proof that Namco really wanted to get Tales of Xillia into your hands.

Speaking personally, I'm glad he did because while I've really enjoyed many recent, western RPGs like Skyrim, my heart will always lie with the games like Final Fantasy 7, which was my first real experience of JRPGs back in the day, and while it's a genre I enjoy the sad fact is I just don't have the time to commit to it like I used to.

In fact, I think Lost Odyssey - which I regard as my favourite RPG of the generation - was the last JRPG I sunk something like 80+ hours into, and in turn I'm going to try and give Tales of Xillia as much attention as I can. It's a game that reminds me of why I got into JRPGs to begin with after being bombarded with a mountain of action-heavy s**t these past five or so years.

So that's my humble opinion, but what about those on the fence? Well, while I'm still technically just scratching Tales of Xillia's dense surface I feel confident that if you took a punt on Ni No Kuni and enjoyed it, you'll most likely feel right at home with this as well. All of the key ingredients of what has made scores of JRPGs enjoyable are present and correct, and it's not as hardcore as it may first appear.

I'll let Baba play us out with his own pitch to anyone who is even mildly keen on the game. Take it away mate:

"Basically I would like to recommend the game to those who like playing videogames," he said, "but I really would like to have the people enjoy the game who like reading novels, watching movies and adventures or fantasy.

"I would like those who like action games not only to enjoy its storyline but also to try its fast-paced and exhilarating battle system that is one of the biggest appeals of Tales of series. I believe they can find that there is so exhilarating battle system even in RPG. We always keep in mind of developing the battle system that never makes users feel bored."

There you have it from the man himself. Now, what do you think? Let's get chatting below and feel free to ask me anything you like about the game and I'll do my best to answer.

Disclosure: To assist in writing this piece, Namco Bandai sent Dave a PS3 download code for Tales of Xillia. No other advertising or merchandise was offered or accepted.

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