"Tales of" games have got a pretty decent following now outside of Japan but they definitely aren't everyone's cup of tea. So let's take a deeper look at their most recent release and try to help people understand this game a bit more. However it's safe to assume that if a person loves cats there's a good chance this is the game for them.
Tales games stand out because of a unique mix of visuals, humor and combat. These games can be both fun and funny but each is a different story with different characters so the mix is always different. However the most recent release is a sequel and continues the story of the Xillia group.
First off this is a long game. That said I wouldn't call it plodding or boring. The game has a mechanic based around the main character being hellishly in debt and the story, broken up into chapters, is kept behind a "paywall" so to speak. This means to get to the next story chapter the player needs to complete sidequests to make money for their next payment. If the player gets more than the amount of money required for their next payment on hand the game will force the player to pay of their debt in 10% chunks.
This can get really annoying but honestly it's a great system. The previous game had trouble keeping the player at an adequate level compared to the enemies the game would push at you. With the debt system players are kept in check. You can't really over-level because once you finish the side quests for a payment you really want to go back to the main story, as well you can't over-gear.
Tales of Xillia had an interesting system for gear, you payed materials to get new levels of gear unlocked and any shop would have the best gear from then on. Though this kept a player from having to backtrack to find specific gear or items it also meant you could get really good weapons and armor very early-as well building up the resources for these new levels of gear meant grinding which would over-level the player-which would make the game boring.
Xillia was not a bad game, it had a decent story and characters with a good combat system, but these other systems did a disservice to the game as a whole. Xillia 2 makes a very serious decision to not let players get too powerful and sticks to it's guns. Enemies level to you in new areas often so just because you get stuck and do too many battles in one area doesn't mean you have to be too powerful for the next zones and there seems to be some element of experience lessening based on level to enemies so even if you fight the monsters that drop loads of experience everything will even out over time.
This means you get more out of investing in learning the combat system.
There have been some big changes to how combat works in this game that bring out what already worked in the first game. Since you can't really over-level and crush your foes working out the combo system makes every fight something interesting. Fights are quick and fun, for the most part, with greater rewards for getting longer combos and loads of extra titles to work on at any time.
The first thing to look at is the affinity system. This game has a main character, Ludger, and when he links up with other characters in combat he slowly gains affinity. Affinity raises the affects of actions in combat as well as the chances of certain actions happening-like a character reviving him if he dies.
The problem is that the cast is really big, so it can be hard to recall which party might be best at a particular juncture, but linking with allies and performing linked artes give a lot of variety to combat. Add to this the fact that Ludger can actually change weapon types on the fly and any combination of Ludger plus three other characters can create dozens of options in an encounter.
To help with the large cast the game slowly introduces everyone to Ludger. The game is actually good about introducing everything this time around. Tutorials help explain this fairly complex combat system to players early on, but then move to after battle tips based on what the player is learning. Did you experiment with defense in a particular fight and do something new? The game will probably throw a tip up for you after battle. Did you accidentally switch partners while doing a linked attack? The game will probably explain more to you about what you just did.
I wish more games had this sort of system where players are not left without essential info but given a chance to find their style and then learn the deeper elements as the game demands it.
However the game also changes how characters gain skills using a new system where characters are set up with elemental ore absorbers: after battle everyone gets elemental ore and if someone is set to get fire from the element they'll gain points towards certain skills or artes. As the game progresses you get a lot of different absorbers that give you different elements and better rates(x2, x3, etc.). Where as Xillia's choices for learning new skills were not really choices about builds so much as what order you wanted to unlock everything in Xillia 2 pushes a bit more towards a strategic approach.
Though you will still unlock everyone's skills before endgame you do have a great deal more strategic choice along the way. But still, in the end it's not a huge change by the end of the game.
Beyond combat there's the elements of the story. This game has a silent protagonist....ish. Silentish. One might say JRPGs are finally attempting to work towards more player ownership like western RPGs, but this is not the case. Ludger will be like any other character in the story for the most part, he has a history and a relationship to the events, but every so often the game will ask you to answer a question with either L1 or R1. An either/or choice. Unlike in Mass Effect where these choices create a character over time Ludger remains empty, and unlike Fallout: New Vegas these decisions don't have larger connections to factions or events to really have depth.
The problem with the choices in the game is that they turned it into the worst part of all the Tales games: the ridiculous chase for "everything." Tales games have this problem where they just load the game with stuff, so much stuff you can't do everything or get everything in one playthrough. Not that a person should really try to do everything in one go but this style of game design is just problematic to me. Its a turn off that affects the series as a whole and causes me the most problems.
How it manifests in the choices in Xillia 2 is that there are clear right choices. Sometimes the game will let you know you made the right choice, sometimes it won't. While there are a few choices with no right or wrong, and a few that conflict along the way, this makes a game that can be clearly explained in a FAQ or strategy guide. To me this limits not just the character of Ludger as an avatar for the player to experience the world through but wastes an opportunity to actually let players feel like they're a part of a grand JRPG story.
While I know we aren't going to see JRPGs push into these areas of choice the way western games do any time soon with a real degree of success this element of the game stands out as being notably less well done than basically any other part.
This is strikingly opposed in the rest of the characters. Xillia 2 actually takes great advantage of it's setting to tell an interesting main story as well as character specific stories. While some of the characters stories aren't going to land for every player they all explore the lives of these people in this new world. I've heard people say the game is more Sci-Fi where the first was more fantasy and that does ring ture. This game feels like it's looking at these larger elements from how nations interact and capitalism to how people deal with the ones they care about and time's affect on us all.
Though a lot of this game is laid bare in a way the first game kept hidden this means you can see much more development in the world this time around. This is a world in conflict on it's most basic level and when the stories exploit this to their fullest the game works beautifully. Seriously though this game is great from a story perspective and as it picks up steam towards the later chapters you find lots to like.
As well the game has these "fractured dimensions" become a key point. A chance to see the world in a slightly different way as well as to find out truths that might have been lost in the prime dimension. For a bit of fun talk to all the people in the game world and compare their stories to their doppelgangers in the alternate dimensions. Some great shenanigans in there.
The last big points of the game are the elite monsters and the cat quest. After the player completes a new chapter several elite monsters appear and give out big rewards. These are a great chance to not just experiment more with the combat system but a good addition to the game as a whole that provide some much needed variety to a game where the majority of fights last less than 30 seconds. While a player might be able to just avoid these monsters until several chapters later completely fine the ability to basically always have a big fight waiting for you is a great addition and fits the "at your own pace" vibe the game is creating.
The cat quest is also an amazing game long side-quest where you try to find cats hidden throughout the game. Every new cat lets you search a new area with, well, the cats you've found to get items from that area. There is a whole series of rules and whatnot to go with this aspect of the game so I'll just say it's a lot of fun and approaching purr-fection.
I would recommend this game to basically anyone that likes JRPGs. And anyone who played Xillia should give this game a shot; I only got half way through the first game but still understood enough to appreciate the story and characters fully. The combat system is better this time around, and having Ludger able to switch weapons on the fly means that players who don't want to switch from one character to another can still have great control of the battlefield yet Ludger is decidedly a jack of all trades melee fighter.
Though I wouldn't advise someone to play the game that wants a game that they can push through quickly I'll say that the debt system isn't as bad as some reviewers are making it out to be and it helps to keep the gameplay fun throughout. Add to that the ability for a Tales game to give more than the usual amount of wit and humor and honestly it's a really good game to spend a few dozen hours with and if you think it sounds good not playing it would be a cat-astrophe of epic proportions.