I haven’t been updating recently because the current anime season hasn’t been engaging enough for me to write about on an episode per episode basis. I may eventually do full reviews on the three shows I’m actually interested in, but for now, lets talk about a recent JRPG, one of the best I’ve had the pleasure in playing for a long time. Spoilers abound.
Some context. I’ve been a big fan of the ‘Tales of…’ series ever since playing Tales of Symphonia on the game cube, several years after its initial release. Since then, games such as Vesperia and Abyss cemented my love for the series, second only to Shin Megami Tensei when it comes to JRPG franchises, although I have yet to go back and play older tales games prior to Symphonia. Recent entries such as Graces F and even the first Tales of Xillia, however, haven’t been scratching me in all the right places compared to earlier entries, in particular my prior favorite of the series, Abyss.
In terms of story, Graces F offered fairly little in terms of theme. Most Tales game have a ‘power of friendship’ narrative which often serves as the solution to a larger theme, such as racism, technology, justice, identity, and fate. However, in Graces, other than some vague environmental lip-service had very little in terms of theme. The story seemed to be explaining to us that the solution to having no friends is the power of friendship. Needless to say, I didn’t find that particularly riveting.
More importantly is the first Xillia, which largely felt like a repeat or perhaps a revision/contradiction of Vesperia minus the theme of justice. For the sake of time, I’ll leave it at that and also note that the gameplay in both of these games felt somewhat minimalist compared to earlier entries, bolstering no world maps, less sidequests, less characters, less costumes, and generally less things to do past the main plot. Simple, pointless stuff like that that can superficially enrich a gaming experience.
So, Tales of Xillia’s sequel hit me completely by surprise. I was always going to play it of course- I hadn’t outright hated recent entries, after all. That said prior to release I was skeptical. The debt system seemed like artificial game lengthening at its worst, new protagonist Ludger being silent and having his decisions being decided by the player came out of nowhere, and multiplayer (important to me and my mulitplayer buddy) seemed to have been kneecapped by his forced inclusion and superior abilities (chromatus and weapon switching) compared to the rest of the cast. On top of that, direct Tales sequels such as Dawn of the New World usually ended up being inferior to the original product. Xillia 2, however, quickly dispelled all doubts as I (we, but I’ll continue saying I for the sake of simplicity) made my way through the game. Xillia 2 is not just a solid entry that makes me optimistic for the future of the series, it may just be my new favorite entry overall.
So, I could talk about the gameplay, which would largely be me talking about the tweaks, additions, and wealth of content, but I instead want to talk about the story and the ‘responsibility’ in the title for this post. The ‘responsibility’ refers to what is, in my mind, Xillia 2’s most important addition both to the original game, the series as a whole, JRPGs in general, games in general, and fiction in general, fantasy fiction in particular.
The original Xillia lacked responsibility. What do I mean by that? Well, to explain it in as few words as possible, no one had a job, or a role really. Sure, Milla was Maxwell, but during the game she can basically do whatever she wants, namely a vengeance quest against the humans using spyrix technology, characters such as Ivar clearing up loose ends. Sure, Jude was a medical student, but he quits school during the game’s runtime to join Milla on her journey. Sure, Alvin’s a mercenary, but he’s just hanging around to betray the party, although hints of being tied down can be seen through his dying mother subplot. I could go on, but the point is that for the most part, none of these characters have responsibility- those with power can use it however they want, and anyone can do anything they desire with their only obstacles being with those whose desires conflict, namely Gaius and Exodus among others. All other fantasy fiction has this element, and it lacks responsibility- they have a responsibility to save the world, something so grand and abstract that it can’t possibly relate to everyday existence in reality, but that’s usually about it. I believe that’s why it’s called ‘fantasy’ fiction- not just because of the literal setting of dungeons and dragons, of magic and wide open landscapes and heroes and villains, but as an escape from what ties us down in day to day life, where we can live through the protagonists who can do what they want and gleam self worth through defeating a bad guy and saving the day.
Xillia 2 begins aggressively. Upon selecting new game, you’re thrown into a battle where you’ll be confused and probably fumbling about helplessly, even if you’ve played a Tales game before, you’ll likely be fumbling around because such a sudden fight with no tutorial happens so soon. Afterwards, the game throws you into more fighting as it briskly tutorialises you in a test set by Julius, the brother who was just trying to kill you in the dream the game began with. Despite all this, you still fail after being presented by numerous choices set up by the game’s new choice system, regardless of what you pick. Following that, Ludger has to deal with a terrorist attack on his first day working at a railway station, meeting a young eight year old girl during said terrorist attack, having to kill an alternate version of his brother using a mysterious new power, and being settled with a 20 million gald debt that seems almost impossible to pay off. Immediately, Ludger is burdened with more responsibility than he probably knows how to deal with- he’s in crippling debt, needs to to jobs to pay off such a debt, and all the while he has to protect Elle, the girl he met who is trying to search for her Daddy. After all, who else would help her?
The debt system’s inclusion has been heavily criticized for this game. In order to progress the story, players are forced to do various jobs (usually collect X items or kill X monsters) in order to earn enough money to pay it off in small installments. In this way, player agency is somewhat restricted- they now have an obligation toward the game. Why do this, then? The game would still have a good length comparable to the rest of the series were the debt system not included. My answer is this- to lend to the theme of responsibility, and also to make the player value the choices they make with their money, as well as encourage you to take place in the game’s various side stories featuring individual members of the cast, sometimes comparable in length to a main story chapter. This game still requires you to buy things- equipment and items and such. Early game, it will be difficult to buy these luxury items that make the game easier whilst simultaneously progressing the story. In the beginning, I had to stop myself buying that shiny new sword that I could easily afford at the cost of making the next debt payment that much harder and longer to reach. Of course, you still have to buy the essentials, the apple gels and life bottles that keep you alive. The decisions obviously aren’t nearly as difficult or particularly strong as a parallel to real life money spending, but nonetheless, I feel that the debt system adds a much needed layer of realism to the story that enhances player agency by paradoxically restricting it. Every action is precious, which ties in to the larger themes of the story and, of course, the new choice system implemented through Ludger.
Ludger isn’t the only character with responsibility, however. Jude is now a full time doctor researching technology crucial to saving the world, Prime Minister Rowen and King Gaius of Rize Maxia constantly have to worry about their people and how their actions affect diplomatic relations with Elympios, Elize is at school after having spent most of her childhood as a sheltered waif, Alvin is a salesman whose actions are also surprisingly important when it comes to diplomatic relationships between the two worlds, (or countries now that they were both connected at the end of Xillia 1) Leia is now a journalist in training effortlessly and optimistically trying to improve her chosen craft, and Milla and Muzet are both full time, high ranking spirits whose time in the human world is very limited compared to the first game. Most of these new professions and jobs now run parallel and central to each of the characters, emphasized by their more sensible designs (these people are wearing actual clothes that actually make them look like they work in that profession? Not just colorful, over designed rags?) and the character stories and their central conflicts in this game are either about choices they made in the first game (tying in to the games larger theme of how our choices affect the world around us) or about how their new profession and the problems they encounter in that line of work. Characters such as Elize and the two spirits Milla and Muzet don’t fit this template exactly, but the overall effect is not really lessened in my eyes. Every character feels unique and more human than ever before, bolstered by surprisingly decent comedy moments in skits and lighter story scenes.
The fractured dimensions are an ingenious idea. Soon, it becomes Ludger’s job with the help of the Chromatus, (a black super sentai looking form with different power levels that get slowly unlocked over the course of the game) which can only be activated when in close proximity to Elle, to go to these fractured dimensions and destroy them. Essentially, they are parallel universes where key decisions were made by the characters that cause it to diverge heavily from the ‘prime dimension’ where the game takes place. Killed characters and villains make a return from the first game to haunt characters and remind them of what could have been had different decisions been made by both parties. It is frequently heartbreaking, especially during the individual character stories, to be forced to put down these individuals using the Chromatus. The fractured dimensions are about choices, they’re parallel dimensions, yes, but they’re ‘what if’ situations more so than wacky alternate worlds designed to build a convoluted time travel stories filled with plot twists. Rather, contrary to most games featuring choice, they’re a mediation on the choices that weren’t made. Sometimes you realize that these dimensions featured happier ends for some of the characters, their relationships, and the world as a whole, sometimes the characters leave these dimensions feeling shaken, but ultimately happy with and accepting of the choices they did make. While Xillia 2 is focused on what didn’t happen, eliminating such dimensions is sad not just because of the extreme loss of lives involved in destroying a whole other world, but because they are destroying a whole other path. As the dimensions are destroyed, so too are their doubts, but such experiences teach them new things about themselves and the people they new in heartfelt ways.
Finally, the theme of responsibility and choices hits ‘the feels’ right of the park towards the end of the game. Over the course of the game, you learn that Ludger’s brother Julius frequently rigged events so that Ludger would never awaken his Chromatus or join the spirius corporation which destroys the fractured dimensions. Both more or less orphaned, Julius is Ludger’s sole guardian, and surrogate father figure. He does what he does, keeping Ludger sheltered and in the dark, not because he hates Ludger, but because he wants to protect Ludger. In fact, he is overly protective. But this behavior isn’t restricted just to Julius alone. Ludger also displays this behavior. Ludger and company eventually meet a man named Victor in a fractured dimension, one that is set ten or so years into the future. Victor is Elle’s real father, and is, in fact, Ludger’s future self who used Elle to lure Ludger into his dimension so that he may kill him and take his place in the prime dimension, having killed the entire rest of the cast in his world to achieve this end. Why? Over protectiveness. He wants to reset his life using the wish of the spirit Origin (basically the ultimate authority, or God) to reset his life and live happily with Elle, the rest of the world be dammed. His fatherly love for his daughter veers heavily into the psychotic, and this behavior can be contrasted heavily with Julius’ behavior. People become obsessed with their responsibility, their work, and their are few responsibilities greater than raising a child. In this way, Xillia 2 becomes a game not just adding responsibility to add realism, it becomes a game about responsibility, and how our actions effect reality, operating on a scale as grand as gods, planets, diplomatic relations, alternate dimensions, and other grand ideas, and the smaller ones of friendship, love, and parenthood, fatherhood in particular. I find it especially poignant that Ludger is in the most trouble when he is promoted to vice president of the Spirius coporation specifically so that he can be kept away from Elle, who he had only recently discovered to be his daughter. At this point, Ludger has to choose- a choice that has been foreshadowed since the very beginning, his daughter, or his boss? His parenthood, or his job? His own happiness, or his child’s?
In order to save Elle at the end of the game, he has to kill Julius, his brother. Metaphorically, he as to give up his dependence on his brother, his surrogate father, so that he can be relied upon by his friends and family, and obviously Elle. It’s no accident that Ludger kills Julius in the past, when the two were happily living together, helping Ludger through his dependent existence. It’s no mistake that his last words are “now it’s your turn to look after someone special. Go create your perfect world” Xillia 2 presents one of the few stories I’ve seen where ‘coming of age’ feels completely appropriate- not just becoming more confident and independent, but also giving up the most important aspects of your childhood and creating the world of an entirely new, important, and dependent being. The empathy and emotions presented here are incredibly strong and true.
The bad ending of the game involves refusing to kill Julius, in other words, refusing to come out of your shell and become independent. The two good endings after the final boss, the CEO who was keeping you away from and manipulating your family for your own ends, can be boiled down to choosing your own happiness or your daughters happiness. By choosing your own, Elle dies, but because she was fractured, the ‘Prime’ Elle will inevitably be born again. Ludger becomes CEO of the company, and an after credits scene shows him meeting Elle’s mother, who he of course had only met for the first time. Essentially, this is a less extreme version of the actions Victor took- she shirks off responsibility in the short term so that he can try again later on a ‘more perfect’ environment. Ludger has his cake and eats it too in this ending. In Elle’s ending, Ludger sacrifices his own life so that Elle can live and grow as a person. A post credits scene shows her interacting with the cast as a grown teenager, living quite happily as time marches on. Here, Ludger realises that the happiness of the people he loves is more important than his own happiness, and that in fact sacrificing his happiness, similar to what Julius did, actually makes him happier. As Rowen says in his story ‘to spread joy is the greatest joy of all.’
There are smaller elements that I can touch upon before wrapping up this post, such as the villains. Origin is not a villain, but he is the ultimate power in the Xillia universe. Unlike most JRPGs, the power of god is not something to be rebelled against and defeated. Rather, it is a tool to be used and reasoned with. Origin is depicted as a child looking fairly similar to Full Metal Alchemist’s ‘Truth’ character, although unlike Elle, he is clearly old and wise, and clearly believes in the strength of humanity. Origin is the world personified as a young child, clearly aged yet still vulnerable and burdened by the endless possibilities of the past, future, and present, as represented by the fractured dimensions. If they continue to grow in number, Origin and thus the world will be destroyed. Due to the promise he made, he can grant one wish to the human who comes before him. Ludger, in both endings, chooses to wish away the fractured dimensions, in other words, choosing to accept the one path he and many others have chosen instead of worrying about what could have been. The villains however, the spirit of time Chronos and CEO Bisley, both wish to use Chronos for entirely opposite ends that will not solve anything. Chronos is sick of humanity tormenting Origin by creating new fractured dimensions. They use the power of Chromatus constantly, visiting fractured dimensions and becoming catalysts holding such dimensions together. He wants Spirits to rule over humans, using them as mindless sources of mana, or food. Bisley is sick of Spirits and how uncontrollable their powers are, and wants to have Origin wish the Spirits to be subservient to humans. In other words, both want to subjugate the other side, an ‘us vs them’ mentality, which is saddening due to Judes revelation that Spirit artes are not inherently dominating the spirits power, but are in fact politely communicating with the spirits. The villains seem to believe that Origin, or the world, is a tool or a battleground upon which their only goal is to defeat the other side. They’re like youtube commenters if Origin was the internet. Despite being aware of the fractured dimensions and their importance, they are ignoring the bigger issue in favor of trying to destroy one another. They have understandably misinterpreted their responsibility to the world and their people. It’s not a ‘humans are more powerful than you’d expect!’ narrative commonly seen in anime, it’s a ‘both sides have good and bad aspects, but lets try to get along for the sake of a better future.’
Xillia 2 blends together almost perfectly. It preaches understanding, empathy, love, selflessness, confidence, and responsibility with a greater layer of realism and understanding than any of the other Tales games or games in general. Xillia 2 is a triumph, so bring it on Tales of Zestria!