Let’s get something straight before I get into this post. I goddamn love the Tales games. Symphonia was the first one I played, and I still hold great regard for it. Heck, Tales of the Abyss may just be my favourite game of all time for it’s incredible mix of fast-paced, cooperative action RPG combat, complex characters with dynamic, game-long arcs, philosophical musings and surprisingly sharp, cynical political intrigue. I’m not gonna go over my whole history with the franchise here, but suffice to say the quality of the Tales of games seems to have been on a downhill slope since Abyss.
Vesperia was very polished, but it lacked thematic depth, and almost none of the character got any development at all. Symphonia 2 was, in terms of story and characters, a pretty reasonable successor to Symphonia, but everything else, especially the combat, seriously suffered. Graces was just a big ol’ bag of clichés, and the combat system took one step back for every two steps it took forward, and so here we are now with Xillia.
Xillia took a long time to warm up, but where I’m up to now (about 25 hours in) it’s quite engaging and even quite clever. It’s certainly a step up from Graces, which didn’t have a single original thought in its entire lengthy story, but the cracks in the formula are definitely showing, and the repetition of tropes by this point hurts the game more than anything else.
Yes, the Tales franchise has many faults, but none so obvious or unfortunate as its torturous tendency to repeat itself from game to game. More than anything Xilla just feels offensively safe, taking absolutely no risks, and this is compounded by the poor pacing for the first 15 or so hours, wherein the player is given no real sight of the overarching goal, and given no real character conflict or development to get behind in the meanwhile, which is almost unprecedented amongst all the games within the franchise I’ve played.
Now, this post was originally going to be a point-by-point critique of where I think the Tales franchise has been going wrong in recent years, but I’ve decided to take a more positive spin on things and instead write out a bunch of ideas I’d love to see realised in future games.
Let’s Have a Proper Romance
The Tales games often have at least romantic subtext between the main hero and heroine. Tales of the Abyss and Symphonia 2 are the only games in the franchise I’ve played where the core romance was explicitly stated by the end. Unfortunately, in both cases the development of this relationship was dragged out torturously over the course of the (lengthy) game.
In both cases it was reasonably justified, mind. Emil and Marta were just kids, kids who hadn’t live a normal life at that, experiencing their first romance, and the factors that held it back from developing faster were believable – building a false, idealised image of each other, issues with self-worth etc.
In the case of Abyss, Tear and Luke had lived lives that had emotionally retarded them, so the clumsy manner in which they explored the developing bond between them was certainly understandable, especially considering the amount of individual growth they each go through and the extreme circumstances surrounding them.
All that said, understandable and justified as it may be, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Thus far Xillia has plenty of sexual tension, and if Jude and Milla’s relationship goes anywhere at all I feel pretty safe betting it won’t be till the very end.
So here’s the first thing I’d love to see in a Tales game. A romance that has the characters come to mutual acceptance of the other’s feelings early in the story. Let the conflict be the perils faced to their emergent relationship. Heck, you could even make the issues they face a microcosm of the bigger human issues the narrative tackles.
Cut most of the frustrating umming and erring, instead of featuring two children stumbling over each other and their own feelings, feature two reasonably emotionally mature characters in touch with their own feelings and unafraid to follow their impulses. There’s still heaps of growth and development to be had there, but it would be vastly more associable for adult audiences.
Let’s Get Seriously Dark
So Tales of the Abyss turned out to be surprisingly dark, especially in the last third of the game. Characters arcs were undone, people died, not just villains or nameless soldiers either, people for whom you’d gained much respect and fondness. The main team is forced to come to terms with the fundamental humanity of the people they’re fighting, and bitterly struggle through doubt and tragedy to achieve their goals.
Vesperia’s vigilante justice sub-plot made for an interestingly dark subject such games normally don’t tackle. It asks if it’s ok to take a life for the greater good, to act outside of the law because of the system’s inadequacies, despite the anarchic outcome which results from following that train of logic to its extreme conclusion.
However, Vesperia loses to Abyss in sheer impact because of its reluctance to take a conclusive stance on the matter. Abyss asks what the higher purpose is in living, but what’s impressive is the bravery with which it then turns around and says “there isn’t any!” Worrying about higher purpose is a first world issue, and if faced with the inevitability of death you’d be damn happy just to be alive. This is what Abyss asserts, and whether or not you agree you at least have to give the game credit for having the gall.
Abyss didn’t pull its punches. Early on mistakes are made with grave consequences and the game is extremely explicit that no amount of apologising or atoning can ever undo or make up for what’s happened. They will have to live with the consequences for the rest of their life. Heck, early on Luke has trouble killing people, even to survive, and come end of game he’s still haunted by the reality of what he’s doing, no matter how necessary it may be.
So here’s the next thing I want to see. Let’s get properly dark with this series. I wanna see a proper grimdark iteration to counter all the juvenile optimism the series has been spouting recently. Characters are motivated by self-interest, progress comes with great sacrifice, no-one is clear-cut good or bad, and small groups don’t just change the world. Make the goal more personal, have the protagonists fight for something on a smaller scale, and the difficulty of this simple task can be the greatest reflection of the darkness of their world. This could tie into the previous romance point. The difficulty of preserving love in difficult circumstances. Tragic lovers tied to the ideals of opposing factions. Heck, in narrowing the breadth of the narrative there’s huge scope for deepening it instead.
Give us a Real Strong Female Protagonist
While not exactly bad in this regard, the extent to which Milla’s potential as a character in Xillia is being squandered is frustrating to no end. She’s strong and determined, but her inability to temper her actions with an accurate assessment of her own strength makes her come off as stupid more often than brave.
Her stupidly revealing outfit is laughably excused one moment by her lack of awareness of her own sexuality, and at another is suggested to be an intentional ploy to hinder male assailants, but it just comes off as hugely incongruous with her established personality as asexual and focused on results, and their opposing methods of justification just make her come off as bipolar.
I don’t want to harp on this for too long, but it’s truly amazing how much bad character design can subvert the character’s personality and believability.
What’s more, if Milla is so focused on results, she ought to be callously using every human resource around her, but despite how obviously reliant she is on the rest of the party, she never does anything to encourage their helping her. It’s partially explained by her unwillingness to involve humans in her conflict, but if she isn’t coming off as contradictory, then she instead appears to be a child who wants to have her cake and eat it too.
It’s a real shame, because for once the heroine is arguably more the focus of the story than the hero, so to see that squandered on a desperately confused portrayal of a “strong woman” is immensely disappointing. I’m not asking her to be morally impeccable as well. Watching a character like Milla cleverly manipulate the other characters to her benefit, all the while being acutely aware of the limitations of her own strength, always devising a method to overcome these weaknesses. That would be interesting to watch play out.
So here’s the next thing I want, a properly strong female protagonist. She doesn’t even have to be the main main character, just one of the party members is fine. Make her strong, determined and skilled. Kind of like Iria. Have other characters try and pin her down with traditional femininity and let her shove that back in their faces. Don’t explain away her non-traditional elements with a tragic backstory or other BS like that. Really fuck with peoples’ preconceptions of what a female character in a JRPG should be like. Of course, it’s even harder than that, because it’s important to retain a sense of femininity to the character so she’s not just a standard male character who’s got girl parts. Hey, you could make her one of the lovers in the aforementioned grimdark tragic lovers story. Look, now it’s all starting to come together!
Let’s Mix up the Setting
Gonna keep this short, since the post is long enough at this point.
I’m kind of sick of the samey fantasy settings that pervade every damn game in this franchise. At least mix it up a bit and give us some nice sci-fi like Final Fantasy does (Tales of Xillia 2 looks like it might go this way). Heck, make the setting an analogue to an actual historical period and place. Surely we’ve seen enough of these spirit-based fantasy lands with two large warring kingdoms. At least Abyss mixed things up by chucking a Theocracy into the mix and making the politics complex and halfway realistic.
So yeah, I’d love to see a radically different setting for this grimdark tragic lovers story with a strong female protagonist.
These are just my ideas. This post was an excuse to let my imagination run wild with the pre-established strengths of the franchise in order to relieve my frustrations with its stagnation. I’ve slapped a “Part 1” on the title because there are a bunch of other ideas I’d like to explore in a later post. I invite you, dear readers, to share your ideas and thoughts in the comments. Contend my ideas, or give some of your own. Should be fun either way.