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JRPG franchises don't have a great track record for giving their games direct sequels. Sure, they work well enough when you progress the series as a whole (like Final Fantasy VII, VIII, IX, etc), but when you start giving those individual games direct sequels (like Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2, XIII Lightning Returns), things tend to go sour pretty quickly. Tales of Xillia was a game I greatly enjoyed for the story, but not much else. It's sequel, Tales of Xillia 2, unfortunately follows the aforementioned trend. While not terrible, it still feels like the developers took one step forward, and then two steps back.
Set one year after the ending of the first game, Tales of Xillia 2 focuses on a brand new character named Ludger Kresnik. His brother is the top performing agent in the Spirius Corporation, and his heroic exploits have practically made him a celebrity in their home country of Elympios. Ludger wants to follow his older brother's footsteps, but failing to complete Spirius' agent evaluation means he'll have to follow his other passion: cooking. That is, until a sassy eight year old named Elle appears out of nowhere and latches onto him as her guardian. The cast from the first game quickly gets involved, and together they're all dragged into yet another time traveling, dimension hopping quest to save the world.
ToX2 is a difficult game to talk about. Some sequels are bashed for doing too much different, while others are criticized for not being different enough. ToX2, strangely, is guilty of both sins. One thing I immediately noticed when I started playing was that the starting city, Trigleph, was exactly as it was in the first game. Sure, they added in a couple new areas, but other than that it is completely unchanged. It doesn't end there, though: 90% of the game is like this. From Elympios to Reize Maxia, every single area from the first game has been ported over to the sequel pixel for pixel. The towns are exactly the same, the roads between them are still boxed in by those ugly canyon walls, and you'll fight the exact same monsters. Heck, you'll even hear the same merchants shouting in the marketplaces ("Mutton! Freeeesh mutton!")
The game plays almost exactly the same, too. While you're locked into a single character this time, instead of being able to choose between two like in the first... yeah, that's pretty much the only change. The combat is unchanged from the first, with the one exception being that Ludger can switch between a pair of knives, a pair of pistols, and a giant hammer on the fly, giving him three different fighting styles to take care of different enemies. There's also an interesting new "choice" system in the game, although I'm uncertain of how much of a difference it makes. You only have two choices at a time, and apart from developing the other party members' "affinity" for you, I don't think they affect the story at all. They even appear in the skits, but since you're able to replay the skits via the pause menu, choices and all, it all but renders them moot. The only thing I could see it doing is enticing dedicated players to replay the game to see what happens if they selected the other option.
On the other hand, for all that ToX2 doesn't change, there are a ton of things that do change, and to be honest not very many of them are good. First and foremost is your debt. Like some weird offshoot of Animal Crossing, Ludger has to take a huge loan from the bank early in the game and you'll spend the rest of the game making payments on it. That means the game will force you to take breaks in between each of it's major happenings so that you can work up an appropriate sum of money to satisfy the annoyingly hyperactive girl on your phone. How do you do this? Sidequests, sidequests, sidequests! The character specific ones are fun, giving you a mini-storyline for each of your party's characters, and they take you to some interesting places. My favorites are the ones that take you into alternate dimensions to see how events from the first game might have happened differently. They're a great way to flesh out the characters' personalities, and I actually did every single one of them! Frustratingly, though, the fun quests rarely net you enough cash to pay your loan, so after you've depleted them you'll have to resort to more boring fetch and kill quests. I do appreciate the chance to delve into my party's psyches, but that doesn't excuse the fact that this is nothing but a way to artificially pad the game. What's worse is that it can take over an hour just to work up enough money to move onto the next real part of the game! I beat ToX2 in just over 40 hours, but if they'd taken out all the debt collecting portions I probably could have finished it in half that time.
And you know what's really, really annoying? Even if you're not in one of the debt paying parts of the game, if you collect too much money your debt collector will automatically pop up demanding you give her money. She will do this every time you enter a new area, and the only way to shut her up is to concede to her demands. While you can get away with only giving her one dollar at a time, this is still extremely aggravating-- especially when you give her all your money just to shut her up, and then find out that didn't carry over to the next debt collecting part!
There are a lot of other, smaller changes made, and very few of them seem worthwhile. Like the ability to send your cat out to places you've already been to collect rare items. You'll use it to get special items you need for sidequests, but that's it. Oh, and did the developers really need to put an "X" symbol over Ludger's head to tell us that we can't walk through walls? Yeah, never would've figured that out on my own! You have the ability to craft your open weapons and armor this time around, but it's way easier just to save up money and buy them, especially since you have to use the aforementioned Kitty Dispatch to get most of the ingredients. Lastly, they changed the leveling up system. The "alium orbs" from the first game were simple enough to understand and got the job done just fine. This new one, though... I never figured it out. There's something about collecting "elemental ore" on the world map, and that's what gives you new skills. But, then, what's the point of leveling up with battle XP? If I could have brought back anything from the first game, it'd be this.
I commend the game for having very few load screens. Unfortunately, that has the drawback of there being lots of pop in when you enter a new area. ToX2's graphics are pretty in an anime-ish way, just like the first game, but they are in no way pushing the PS3 to its limits. So, why is it that I can run halfway across a town and still have to wait ten seconds for the NPC I want to talk to to spawn? This is a relatively mild complaint compared to some of the others, but still one that's worth noting.
Now, one thing I can wholeheartedly congratulate the game on is the difficulty. Tales of Xillia 1 was a cakewalk from beginning to end, but the sequel fixes this. The normal monsters still don't put up much of a fight, but the boss battles are a different story altogether. These guys hit you hard, they hit your relentlessly, and they don't let up until one of you is dead. I actually had to strategize to beat them! Button mashing will carry you through the world map encounters just fine, but the bosses will have you pausing the fight every few seconds to issue specific commands to the rest of my party. And it doesn't end with the story bosses, there are a ton of "legendary monsters" you can hunt down as sidequests, and they're all just as challenging as the ones you meet by playing the story.
Looking at ToX2 as a game, there's not much to be impressed by. It works on a technical level, but the unwelcome new additions and the sheer amount of stuff recycled from the first game can, and probably should, mark this as a half baked cash grab at best. However, there's one thing the developers didn't skimp on: the story. The first game told one of the best stories I've ever heard in a video game, and ToX2 does its predecessor justice in every way. I was worried that this would be a needless continuation of a story that had been wrapped up perfectly in the first game, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Even though it introduces so many new elements to the story, like alternate dimensions and time travel, it still feels like a natural expansion of the Xillia lore. The characters all have their own arcs that weave in and out of the main narrative seamlessly, and they all behave exactly as you'd expect them to in the given situation. There are twists and turns, and more than once I found myself legitimately emotionally invested in what was going on. People who are looking for fun and addictive gameplay probably won't find it here, but... well, I played the first Xillia game for the story, so I didn't have a problem doing the same here.
And, unfortunately, that's the best thing I can say about it. It has a really nice story. While that made it worthwhile for me, most gamers, especially non-RPG gamers, probably won't feel the same. With the annoying debt payments, recycled everything, and lack of any good new additions, ToX2 just does too many things wrong for me to recommend it. If you're like me and can get by solely on being told a good story, then definitely give it a look. If you're someone who actually needs to enjoy the game itself, there's not much here for you.
I give Tales of Xillia 2 a 4.0/10!