Tales of Xillia 2 has one brilliant idea. It's something that presents an entirely new spin on the familiar structure of a Japanese role-playing game, and it even has an allegorical relevance to the real world. It's one of the most intriguing ideas I've seen in a game of this genre. Sadly, for all its conceptual brilliance, it's also one of several factors that make this a slightly disappointing entry in the Tales series.
The idea in question is debt. Your lead character, Ludger Kresnik, is in hock to the Spirius Corporation following a devastating terrorist attack apparently carried out by his own brother, an elite Spirius agent. Despite trying to prevent the atrocity, Ludger is stung with a 20 million bill for his medical care, and then forced to pay it off while tracking his fugitive brother down.
When this bombshell is dropped after the introductory sequence, I was honestly thrilled. Here was a concept that echoed the financial reality of the world - relevant when the game originally launched in Japan in 2012, and arguably even more relevant today - and also added additional jabs at privatised healthcare and unscrupulous lending. Subtext and depth, and the game hadn't even properly begun!
To be fair, in gameplay terms, that opening sequence is a massive speed bump. Set almost entirely on a train, it finds you jogging down carriages and engaging in battles against enemy soldiers at the end of each one. The game uses these skirmishes to rather laboriously detail its Cross Dual Raid Linear Motion Battle System, which is as complex as it sounds. It's just a shame that it does so in such stodgy fashion. The carriages never change. The enemies are identical. And yet you chug through them over and over, like Groundhog Day with extravagant anime hairstyles.
It's a stultifying opening even by the heavy-handed standards of Japanese RPGs, so the prospect of anything new at the end of that chore feels like a breath of fresh air. And, to begin with, Ludger's debt does put a genuinely fresh spin on things.
Rather than being some amnesiac waif searching for his cosmic destiny, you're a hapless guy paying for someone else's misdeeds and squeezed by a soulless corporation. Yes, there are the expected flourishes of supernatural power, cartoonish monsters and wide-eyed girls with cute animal sidekicks, but there's an underlying humanity to Ludger's plight that really stands out.
The English language translation is excellent, as you'd expect from the Tales series, and the voice acting is also top notch. The characters skirt close to cliché at times, particularly where the female companions are concerned, but each is memorable and fun to be around. True to form, the story veers from po-faced drama to goofy slapstick, often in the same scene, so the fact that none of the characters feel out of place is worthy of praise.
The story is solid, if overstuffed. It picks up a lot of threads from the first Tales of Xillia, with several key returning characters. It's technically possible to play it without knowledge of that game - there's a glossary to get you up to speed - but it's really a game for people who know their Dr Mathis from their Rowen.
Those coming to the game with prior Tales experience will certainly be better placed to make the most of the rich but often overwhelming combat system. Played out in real time, and heavily focused on special attacks known as Artes, it's a tweaked version of the system from the previous game, which in itself was an evolution of the combat that has run throughout the series.
Here you can link to other characters to unlock new combined attacks, gain affinity bonuses, equip different skills, level up your abilities, select different Arte types by gathering energy in different elemental fields and more. You can swap between three weapon types on the fly and later in the game transform into a Chromatus spirit form. That's all on top of a fast-paced, block-and-counter fighting style that wouldn't be out of place in a fighting game, and with the expected RPG healing and stat buffing items on top of all that. It's daunting stuff. You can automate pretty much everything, including Ludger himself, turning battles into a spectator sport, but this has its limitations.
Battles in Xillia 2 quickly fall into one of two categories: one where you so easily demolish the enemies that encounters rarely last longer than 30 seconds; another where enemies are so overpowered that victory becomes a war of attrition. While the combat system is genuinely impressive, and full of depth and nuance, the game really does a poor job of demonstrating this to players - or at least players who haven't already come to terms with it in the previous game.
So many early battles - and there are a lot - can be beaten with button-mashing or fully automated characters that there's no incentive to learn the deeper systems that are needed when a rock-hard boss fight comes along.
It's here that the intriguing debt idea proves problematic. At regular intervals, you're interrupted and asked to make a payment towards your enormous obligation. At first, the sums are just a few thousand, but they escalate fast. If you don't pay up on time, there's no great penalty, but since your freedom to roam the gameworld depends on paying back the money you owe, your progression through the game requires a constant flow of gald, the game's spellcheck-taunting currency.
If that sounds a bit grindy, well, that's because it is. The best way to earn gald is to undertake jobs from the obligatory jobs board, and these are fairly mind-numbing. Kill a set number of monsters in the wild areas between towns. Deliver items and ingredients to NPCs. Collect a set amount of inventory-cluttering tat.
This repetition collides with the combat - gracefully designed but stodgily implemented - to create a game that has all the timesink dragginess of an MMO or a free-to-play game. You'll churn through the same small and blandly designed wilderness areas, mashing your way through dozens of hollow victories, all to earn a few hundred gald towards your next payment, which will grant you a short burst of forward momentum in the engaging story.
And that is Tales of Xillia 2 in a nutshell. It's not an essential sequel, but it has bags of charm, a fascinating combat system and a storyline that manages to feel noticeably different to its genre peers. But it's also constructed and paced in such a way that its best features take too long to become apparent or are buried underneath mindless busywork.
If you played through Tales of Xillia, this is an interesting but rather lumpy postscript to that adventure. If you've never played a Tales game, this isn't the one to start with.