I like to compare the longrunning Tales action-RPG series to fast food: they're not particularly nutritious and you always know what you're gonna get, but when you've got the craving, they can't be beat. Hideo Baba, on the other hand, says they're more like gumdrops.
I had asked Baba, the man who directs and produces the Tales games, about the reputation that they're all kind of the same: same JRPG gameplay, same hack-n-slash combat, same anime-styled graphics, same stable of restorative items. Often they even share the same voice actors.
I wish I had recorded his response.
"A quick analogy," Baba said, holding up two candies that were on the table next to us. He kept them in his hands as his translator explained his words in English. "Take two of these gumdrops as an example. The wrapping might be the same, but you open one up and it might be a completely different type of candy."
Hideo Baba is a jovial man, the type of person whose enthusiasm makes you smile even when you don't understand a word he's saying. In energetic Japanese he defended his series, saying that despite the similar anime wrappings, every Tales game is actually rather distinctive.
"Even if the foundation of the game might be the same, we always change the story up, the characters, the music," Baba said. "We always try to tweak the battle system in a way that offers something new. Some of the stuff is the same, but I wouldn't say that everything is identical."
I don't know if I agree with him there, but one of Baba's newest games, Tales of Xillia, which came out in Japan back in 2011 but won't hit U.S. shores until August 6, does change things up in one significant way: there's a female protagonist. A rarity, for a video game—especially a Japanese RPG.
"It's something that we're slowly seeing a change in," Baba said, "but I think the majority of video game players is ultimately male... With Tales, the female audience has actually increased quite a bit. In response to this growing female fan base, we wanted to make a character they could resonate with. We wanted them to feel like, 'Oh, I want to be this character.' We made sure that she came across as a very strong female."
It'll be interesting to see how it turned out. Buzz from Japan has been good for the first Tales of Xillia—they're already up to Tales of Xillia 2—and the game looks great.
During a brief chat at a hotel in Manhattan yesterday afternoon, I asked the bubbly producer about a number of topics. I asked about the Vita games they've released in Japan: Tales of Innocence R and Tales of Hearts R. (The Rs stand for "remake.") His answer was refreshingly candid.
"Unfortunately, at this present time we don't have any plans to release any of the Vita titles," Baba said. "One of the main reasons is, unfortunately the PlayStation Vita is doing relatively poorly in North America, so it's one of those things that if the numbers increased considerably, then it's something we could consider."
But wait a minute: didn't Baba say last month that this will be a "Tales-filled year"? "I can't say much yet," the producer answered, smiling, "but please look forward to more announcements."
One other frequently-asked question: why don't the U.S. versions of Xillia and other Tales games give people the option to play with Japanese voices and English subtitles?
"Of course we want to cater to the hardcore audience," Baba said, "but I think it's very important to cater to the more casual user who doesn't want to just read the subtitles and wants to enjoy the game in their native language. I think for first-time users who pick up one of our games for the first time, I think it'd be a lot more of an enjoyable experience playing it with English voices."
"So why not offer options for both English and Japanese voices?" I asked.
"We've definitely heard this feedback from a lot of our fans across the world," Baba said. "I can't promise anything at the moment, but we're definitely looking at the option. I can't say which title it might be in the future, but hopefully, eventually, we might have that option available in one of our titles."
And what does Hideo Baba make of the Wii U? "I think the Wii U is a brilliant console that offers a lot of innovation and possibility for new types of gameplay," Baba said. "However at this current time we don't have any development plans to make any Tales of games for the Wii U."
The PS4? "It just got announced. I have to say I think the specs are great," Baba said. "I'm sure you're wondering, 'Do you have any plans to develop for PS4 at this time?' Just like the Wii U, we actually don't have any plans."
The next Xbox? "Pretty much the same answer for that one as well," Baba said.
Okay then. Current-gen platforms it is. Tales of Xillia and Tales of Xillia 2, which came out in Japan last November, are both PS3 exclusives. And when I asked Baba to share some words about the future of his longrunning series, he said they plan to stick with the consoles we know and love.
"Foremost we just want to make sure that we're able to provide the next titles on a console that a lot of our fans already have," he said. "So basically there's just a lot of things that we keep bringing to the plate, whether it's stories or characters, whatever console it may be, we want to make sure we bring the best to the fans."
The Tales games certainly aren't for everyone; not every RPG fan can tolerate the mawkishness and anime-styled graphics you can find in most of them. Some candies can be an acquired taste, after all. But once you've got a taste for them, they can be delicious. Baba told me he thinks Xillia is the most accessible entry to date; 2013 may yet become the year when more RPG fans develop a taste for gumdrops.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.