Role-playing games in the West tend to embrace traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasy (like the popular "The Elder Scrolls") or Star Wars-inspired sci-fi ("Mass Effect"), but Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) are not constrained by J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas. JRPGs provide a window into another culture, and Namco Bandai is one such glazier. "Tales of Xillia" and "Dark Souls II" are two very different JRPGs, and Western audiences will get a chance to experience both within the next year.
The "Tales" series has always taken its inspiration from Japanese animation. "Anime is broadcast in Japan constantly," franchise producer Hideo Baba told us at Namco Bandai's Global Gamers Day 2013. "Most kids grow up with [it], and that culture translates to games."
"Tales of Xillia" (pronounced "ex-ill-ee-ya," if you're curious) is the latest entry in the long-running "Tales" series. These games combine the complex narratives and detailed worlds of JRPGs with the fast-paced combat of a fighting game.
In "Tales of Xillia," dual protagonists Jude Mathis and Milla Maxwell ("Tales" characters often have Western names) recruit adventurers for a four-person party and journey through a detailed fantasy world, stopping frequently to fight real-time battles with all manner of monsters and malefactors. Along the way, they confront villains, solve mysteries and ponder philosophical dilemmas. Young, colorful characters dominate its cute anime aesthetic and belie the convoluted narrative and serious themes.
In contrast to the feel-good party-based "Tales of Xillia," "Dark Souls II" thrusts its lone protagonist into a cruel world where death lurks around every corner. Rather than a simple setback, death is a game mechanic in "Dark Souls II."
Players often rest at "bonfires," which restore health and replenish healing potions at the expense of making most previously slain monsters reappear. Upon dying, a player returns to the last bonfire and loses all the experience points and progress earned prior to death, but retains any items collected.
Tough enemies never reappear, and level shortcuts like unlocked doors never reset. "Dark Souls II" will kill you over and over, but aims to provide a perfect balance between carrot and stick. Death is swift and unforgiving, but the player has all the necessary tools to avoid it. [See also: 10 Great Games You're Missing ]
Enemy locations and tactics never change, and a single enemy is rarely strong enough to kill a player outright. Advancing cautiously and keeping a shield raised will keep players alive, and safely reaching the next bonfire allows players to spend their experience points on much-needed upgrades to strength, health, defense or magic.
"We hope players will enjoy going through the deaths as they play the game," director Yui Tanimura told us. Even controlled by one of the developers, the protagonist fell from a high parapet before an ogre's hammer crushed him and a demonic chariot ran him over. "Dark Souls II" looks fiendishly difficult, but simply taking in the game's majestic, sinister atmosphere and bizarre creatures is a worthy reward.
Whether your tastes skew towards the saccharine or the punishing, Namco Bandai's next two JRPGs offer something a little different from the standard first-person shooter or western RPG fare. "Tales of Xillia" will reach North American PS3s on Aug. 6, 2013, while "Dark Souls II" on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 may slip over into 2014. Namco Bandai has not yet released prices, but expect both to retail for about $60.
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