Pros: One of the best stories in the series, fantastic battle system, the best written skits in the series
Cons: Short by series standards, missing several features from past entries
Since this is an RPG, I won't go into details on what happens outside of the opening act. This is a spoiler free review after all.
Tales of Xillia is unique in that it features two main characters, Jude Mathis and Milla Maxwell for players to choose from, each with their own unique story paths. This is great in theory, but in practice it is clear that Jude's path received more attention from the developers. Both characters are well developed, but for several story reasons Milla just gets the short end of the stick. The player doesn't miss any critical information on either path, you just learn some things later depending on the path you chose and the context often favors Jude.
The Tales games love inventing new terms for each game and using them mercilessly which can be quite confusing. Thankfully for the player, Jude is an honor student and is all too happy to explain everything you might have questions about. (this is part of the reason his path is the better first choice) So Aside from a few plot related terms that are purposely left in the dark, the player should have no problem following along with this universe's unique tech and nature.
The skits offer a fleshed out look into the lives of the characters and can often have the player on the floor with laughter. They are entirely optional but you should always take the time to view them. Skip them and you may never learn of Bazongas! (Play the game and it will make sense)
The Tales series is famous for having epic plots with many twists and Xillia easily has the best in the series. You won't see them coming and in retrospect they make sense, none of them are out of left field. (Many of these twists are also better told from Jude's perspective, yet another reason to choose him first) The villains are all fleshed out and are even easily sympathized with. There is no clear cut right or wrong to the plot, even if the game initially paints it that way.
The main plot is short by Tales standards, clocking in at around 45 hours compared to the usual 60 plus. I personally don't mind this since the plot feels much more focused as a result.
The Tales series uses the Linear Motion Battle System that is renamed with every entry. The current "Dual-Raid Linear Motion Battle System" allows for you to link with other party members and coordinate attacks and unleash devastating combo attacks. Each of the six main characters are fully playable in battle and each offer their own unique combat style. Combat is fast and emphasises skill over raw levels and stats. Thanks to several improvements you can defeat even the strongest enemies at low levels. This can easily be exploited sadly.
Overworld Exploration ditches the world map much like Graces and opts for more direct routes between cities and dungeons. This allows for more general exploration and hidden items at the expense of feeling somewhat small. Shops now upgrade by trading items to vendors and level up the more you trade, offering better items and discounts as you go. These items can be found in chests, dropped by monsters and found scattered across the overworld. Thanks to this and the improved battle system it is all too easy to become over powered very early in the game by exploiting some high level areas found just off the critical path.
The game is Cell Shaded and output at 720p with some mild AA. The battle system runs at an unlocked 60fps and large encounters often lead to slowdown instead of dropping frames. The overworld is capped at 30fps. The install clocks in at 2264MB and load times are rarely over 5 seconds. Nothing here will make your jaw drop even if it is the most technically impressive entry to date* The fully animated cutscenes however, will impress.
(* Tales of Xillia 2 is already out in Japan, but I am on a media blackout for the title since a US release has been anounced for 2014)
Nothing special here on a technical front, the voice actors all sound their parts and do a great job acting them out. The music is well done, but somewhat generic aside from a few choice tracks. You won't be using this to demo your sound system but you won't be tearing your eardrums out either.
The Tales series has featured lots of optional content over the years, from the Colosseum to the bonus dungeons and even Cameo fights with past Tales characters. Xillia is clearly lacking, there is no cameo battle, the bonus dungeon is a short retread of past areas, Link Arts are lacking for everyone aside from Jude and Milla, bonus costumes were all but stripped out for DLC fodder... it is easily the least feature packed entry in the past 10 years.
The Grade system has been tweaked from past entries and has been merged with the Title system. In prior games Grade was awarded for doing well in battle or take it if you did poorly. As before, the game grants you titles for meeting various milestones, but now each title is worth a set amount of Grade. Grade is used to buy bonus effects in future playthroughs, such as 2 times the experience, or carry your items over from a past playthrough. It encourages the player to play through multiple times for missed events, or just to see how much they can break the game. Some of these are almost required for higher difficulties.
Overall I am quite happy with this entry in the series, my first playthrough clocked in at 44 hours with a lot of optional side events and boss battles completed. I also cleared the EX dungeons 3 times post game and beat the super boss at his best. I am currently working on my Milla playthrough and I will update the review should my opinion change. The cast is very likeable and well written, combat is fun and never feels like a chore, the plot avoids cliche and stands on it's own. It is a shame this series doesn't get more attention in the west, as it is a great love letter to old school JRPG fans.
I purchased the Collector's Edition from Amazon on release for $99.96
Game was played on a Sharp 70LE732 1080p LCD using stock speakers.