Tokyo Xanadu Review – An Unoriginal, yet Memorable Romp
A game releasing on the PlayStation Vita is a unique occurrence in 2017, though that might be the only time you can use the word unique when describing Tokyo Xanadu, Nihon Falcom’s latest release. The game is essentially the mashup of Atlus’ Persona and Falcom’s own Trails of Cold Steel, which are arguably among the best JRPG’s around. Combining two great yet different things isn’t always a sure-fire thing. Sometimes it works (chocolate and peanut butter) and sometimes it just doesn’t (ice cream and pizza). The results here? I’d lean more towards the chocolate and peanut butter side of the spectrum.
Set in a fictional suburb located on the outskirts of contemporary Tokyo, the game has a very Persona-esque opening; ten years after an unexpected earthquake shook the city to its core, a seemingly normal high-school student, Kou Tokisaka, stumbles upon the knowledge that our world has become connected to an otherworldly dimension through magical portals called “Eclipses” that are formed by negative emotions yet are unnoticeable to the average person. He also learns that he is a “Wielder” someone who can enter these Eclipses and fight the monsters (referred to as Greeds) that lurk within by summoning a magical weapon called a “Soul Device”. Kou gradually becomes acquainted with other Wielders, with whom he begins to work alongside to stop these Greeds from entering the real world. The plot then snowballs from there.
Both Persona and Legend of Heroes are known for their slow openings, and Tokyo Xanadu dose not differ in this aspect either. The first five chapters are dedicated solely to the recruitment of party members and establishing their backgrounds. This isn’t a bad way to start a game, but the main plot remains dormant throughout. By time things do start to pick up, the game is already almost over. Falcom is known for their worldbuilding, and they do a remarkable job here of establishing the underground world of Wielders and the various factions and organizations that exist within it. What doesn’t help is that Tokyo Xanadu is a relatively short game. My own playthrough clocked in just barely over forty hours, and that is with me going out of the way to take part in all the non-required activities available. While that may not sound so short, you have to remember the games it is inspired by can go well over eighty hours, so spending more than half of that time just setting the stage doesn’t give the rest of the story much time to breath.
While the plot may start off familiar and predictable, in true Falcom fashion they begin to take the twists you are expecting and curve them in a way that surprises. What keeps you invested until that happens, though, is the characters. On paper, the party members all may seem like imitations of one Persona character or another; the flirty idol, the martial arts-loving girl, the cool under pressure student council president, the tough guy with a heart, and the shut-in hacker. However, the characters here all have distinctively different personalities and characters arcs from their Persona counterparts. Individually none of them really standout above the rest, but as a collective they are quite endearing and interesting.
The only other flaws I have with Tokyo Xanadu’s storytelling is that the crux of the story falls flat if you don’t feel an emotional connection to a certain Mary-Sue character. And then there’s the epilogue, which adds two more hours of gameplay, but is essentially a case of the developers wanting to have their cake and eat it too. That said, while there’s no word on any sequels, with the universe they built it would be a travesty to not be continued in some capacity.
Be warned that there is no English dub, only Japanese voice acting here. The translation job itself leaves room for improvement, with there being more than several typos and other grammatical errors. The soundtrack, which offers a nice mix of orchestral themes and J-pop tracks, however, is a home run.
When you move past Tokyo Xanadu’s story and characters, its Trails of Cold Steel roots become visually evident. The game runs on the same engine that Falcom used in the previously mention series and is made of almost entirely of reused assets, which means everything from the locales and the character models to the menus are the same. This isn’t necessary a bad thing as I do like the art style, but it’s nothing to write home about it either. On the technical side, things do slow down a bit in the busier action scenes, but otherwise everything runs quite smoothly.
The similarities are more than skin deep. The moment-to-moment gameplay of Tokyo Xanadu is identical to that of both Trails of Cold Steel games. For those that don’t know, that means when you’re not dungeon crawling you spend your free time wondering around town. Tasks that are available to you during these periods consist of playing minigames, performing requests, and viewing character bonding events. In another nod to Persona, Kou also has social stats (Wisdom, Courage and Reputation) to manage. Ultimately though, they require little attention from the player and will generally increase by themselves just as you play the game.
Hanging out with party members and other important characters works in a way similar to Persona’s Social Links, but instead of managing a calendar, you have Infinity Shards. At certain intervals, you can use these Shards to hang out and increase relationships with your chosen characters. The number of Shards you have available is limited, though you can acquire more by completing requests. Despite the fact requests are made up almost entirely of fetch quests and dialogue puzzles, what stops them from feeling tedious is the work that Falcom puts into crafting all their NPC’s. Instead of simply being quest-givers, these characters have clearly defined personalities and their own story arcs that you can keep taps on by checking up on them every so often, which their requests tie back into and give you ample reason to want to help. The only unfortunate thing about the bonding system is that it doesn’t reward you that well for maxing out bonds; it is not without any gameplay benefit, but the most substantial reward you receive is in the narrative payout.
The one thing that does set Tokyo Xanadu apart from its influences is its combat, although it does borrow from yet another Falcom developed series, Ys. The action-focused combat is probably one of the most fluid I have played on a handheld. The camera did give me a few issues early on, but after a few hours I got the hand of it and it became a non-issue. Unfortunately, the combat isn’t particularly difficult; the battles can be a cakewalk even on hard, though the difficulty setting does offer Nightmare and Insane modes for those looking for more of a challenge.
I came in skeptical about only having one character on the field at a time, but was surprised by how often I switched between characters; the process is seamless with each of the characters have distinctive differences in how they control and their fighting styles. The Greeds you encounter are discernibly weak to one of the five elements present in the game, so the key to mastering the combat becomes switching to a character whose strength matches that weakness and then from there it is all about identifying that enemy’s attack pattern. Along with your typical base, range, and aerial attacks, you also have X-Strikes and X-Drives balancing out your arsenal; gained through building up their respective gauges by dealing damage, these abilities can be used to unleash a powerful cinematic attack or to temporarily strengthen your character against all elements and make them immune to status effects.
One common fault in the Trails of Cold Steel series is in their dungeon design, so it’s not unexpected to see that Tokyo Xanadu stumbles a tad in this aspect. Linear and plain, the dungeons are rarely much to look at. Usually filled with inoffensive busywork in the form of button pressing, the dungeons are short enough that their staleness never becomes an issue. The lack of enemy varieties is another matter. After switching things up quite often at the beginning, they begin to rely on the same enemies designs with only a simple palate changes setting them apart from earlier foes, and unfortunately bosses are no exception.
Although it lacks the political intrigue and complex storylines that Falcom is known for, and it won’t engross you in the same way that Persona can – if you’re a fan of Trails of Cold Steel or are still trying to get your high-school fantasy kick, you’ll most likely enjoy Tokyo Xanadu. It’s action-focused combat offers a nice change of pace to the familiar gameplay loop and introduces several characters worth getting to know. And for those without a Vita, an enhanced version of the game is expected to release sometime later this year on the PlayStation 4.
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