The Tales series has always been an unusual one as far as RPG’s go – at its core it’s an RPG, filled with a long and detailed story, lots of stats and leveling up, and an ultimate evil that must be vanquished at the end. However, it sports a very hectic and entertaining real-time combat system, giving direct control over your party’s actions.
It’s been nearly three years since we last saw a Tales title here in the US, and that wasn’t even on the current generation of consoles. Instead of remaining on the Playstation as did the previous titles that made it to the US shores, Namco decided to make this game a Gamecube exclusive (for the moment).
Was it a wise move? Would the possible limited market hurt this fantastic series? How did this game turn out as a whole? Let’s find out.
Tagging along with last year’s fad, Tales of Symphonia is completely cell-shaded. Instead of designing a cartoon-like world like Zelda did, Namco uses this to make a realistic looking world, giving the characters a pastel yet detailed look. The effect makes the places you journey through seem alive.
Character animation is very well done, allowing the characters to express emotions with their movements. While their facial expressions lack the same amount of emotion at times, it’s serviceable enough to get the point across.
Watching this game in combat is a visual treat. Weapons will flash, spell effects will radiate across the entire screen, and enemies will crumble before the visual onslaught. No character is ever fully at a standstill, even if they aren’t doing anything at that exact moment. Those times are very rare as it is, since there’s no standing around during combat.
Namco should also be commended with their anime introduction, as it’s a beautiful sequence of hand-drawn art, well worth watching through multiple times. As you progresses further into the story, you’ll realize that some of the segments of the intro were lifted directly from the more important plot-points. They won’t spoil anything to one who hasn’t seen that part of the game, yet they will bring a smile to you once you have.
Unfortunately, there are a few negatives which drastically bring down the overall score. First off, the overworld map looks like a throwback to the PS1 era. Extremely few polygons, poor detail, pop-up and fog, and even 16-bit looking sprites populate the world as you walk outside the gorgeous towns and dungeons. It’s serviceable, but that’s about it.
Outside of combat, Namco decided to use a ‘focusing’ effect on the world. Once you get beyond a certain radius on the center of the screen, characters come less distinct and foggy. Namco’s reasoning is that they want you to focus upon the center of the action. I found it extremely distracting, making it look like somebody smeared Vaseline onto my TV screen. This is extremely noticeable during some scenes that have no central character to focus upon, making the whole party a blurry mess.
Namco is known in my book as capable of creating a rip-roaring soundtrack when the game requires it. The introduction to Soul Calibur and Soul Blade come to mind here. Unfortunately, they disappoint a bit in this area, as while the soundtrack works well, it doesn’t make you want to run to your favorite site and order it. Thankfully the tracks that you’ll be listening to the most (the combat themes) are energetic, pumping you up for the battle ahead.
It’s the character voices that make this section truly stand out. Namco has taken the time to professionally rerecord the voices into English for the American audience. For the most part, it works out very well. Lloyd sounds like your average mostly-clueless hero, Genis the younger brother, Colette the friendly damsel, and Kratos the mercenary. Some of these voices are perfectly done (Kratos and Lloyd come to mind), while the rest sound quite good.
None of the voices are cringe inducing, or of Resident Evil quality. In fact, odds are that you’ll look forward to the next vocal sequence, as for the most part they’re quite funny.
In addition, the team is usually very talkative in combat. They’ll chant their spells, yell out what special move they’re pulling off, and they’ll complain if they’re being beaten up. Their speech quickly draws you into the game as a whole.
Only one negative point needs to be made – as you journey through the game, you’ll encounter many ‘skits’ as the game calls them. Basically, some of the characters discuss the latest plot point, or just poke fun at each other. From my understanding, in the Japanese version these sequences were completely vocal. Here in the US, we only get a text overlay.
The controls while playing the game normally are no different than most RPG’s – controller to move around, A to talk, etc. During combat however, where the meat of the game lies, is where you need a concise control scheme, one that allows you to get to everything with a touch of a button.
And Tales of Symphonia delivers.
A is your basic 3-hit combo, B (in conjunction with the analog) lets you attack with one of four predetermined special moves, X guards, and Y pauses the game to open up the battle menu. In addition, R changes your target, L delays any special move you’re putting out, Z starts the ultra-powerful ‘Unison Attack’, the C-Stick has your allies use one of two predetermined special moves, and the digital pad choose battle orders.
If you think that it sounds complicated, it will very quickly become second nature less than an hour into the game. This is a good thing, as combat is extremely fast-paced and an absolute ton of fun.
The best part is that if you don’t like the controls, you can completely remap them to your liking.
Generic RPG plot #1: A group of people get together to save the world. Tales of Symphonia wastes absolutely no time in letting you know of the basic plot, as from minute one, you’ll be looking at it. Thankfully, as you advance deeper into the story things will change, but you’ll still be facing that plot overall.
That said, I don’t have too many other complaints about this game in general. Tales of Symphonia is an entertaining romp right from the get-go, drawing you into the story and the characters within, engrossing you in a battle system that I think should be seen more often.
So, what is the basic plot? In short, Colette, a female you encounter not 30 seconds into the game, is one of the Chosen – in short, her ‘job’ in life is to evolve into an angel and save the world, restoring peace, prosperity, and mana, to the planet. You, as Lloyd, decide to take it upon you to follow her in her quest, getting into all kinds of trouble along the way.
Through a series of revelations, betrayals, and more combat than you can shake a stick at, you’ll eventually come to the end. What is that end? You’ll have to play through the game to find out. Let’s just say that it doesn’t disappoint in the least, though.
The core of most RPGs are the battles you’ll encounter around almost every corner. This game is no different. Unlike most RPGs, however, the combat system is completely different than the norm. It’s not turn based at all. Instead, it’s non-stop action.
You’ll take direct control of Lloyd (or any character in the party if you want), while the AI (or your friends) take control of the other three members. Thankfully the AI is intelligent enough to know how to fight, when to cast, when to walk away, and when to run for the hills.
How does it do it? Normally, your force is broken into two lines. Your spellcaster (or spellcasters, if you go for a balanced party unlike my usual team) do their best by default to keep away from the enemies. If somebody comes near them, the rest of your team is usually intelligent enough to break off their current target and assist them.
In addition, they’re constantly looking for enemy weak points. When you first encounter a new enemy, your team will cast at random, trying to find a weakness of the creature you’re fighting. Once they find it (and after a ‘I’ve found their weakpoint!’ vocal from them), they’ll concentrate on using only that line of spells against their target. After a while, they’ll remember this information from combat to combat, thus making your life that much easier.
However, you can pull back on the reins of the AI at any time. Do you think they spend too much time in combat, or use too many special moves? Do you think they should ignore what they’re doing and have them assist you all the time? Change it. While there’s a huge list of choices for the AI, odds are you’ll let them do their own thing. They’re quite smart in my experience.
In addition, you can command the AI to do certain moves/spells at any time. Just pause the game, select the spell, move, or item that you want to use, and they’ll start doing that immediately. You can keep doing this repeatedly if you want, as the game will buffer a single move or power for your partners.
As you progress further into the game, your list of powers will drastically expand, giving you even more tactical choices in combat. Your allies will gain the ability to devastate the entire enemy group in one spell, and you’ll gain the powers to annihilate creatures with a single swipe of your blade. This leads to a battle system that never gets boring or dull no matter how powerful you get.
In addition, there are no random encounters, as all monsters are visible upon the lands you travel. If you want, you can easily sidestep the monsters and skip any random fight you come across. Just don’t do it too often though – you need the experience and gold that they drop more often than not.
The best part about the combat system? The next to no loading time as you go in and out of combat. You’ll look at a simple ‘screen cracks apart’ animation, and poof, you’re in battle. Leaving combat is just as fast. The same thing happens entering and leaving towns. There’s nary a pause at all overall as you travel around the world.
In short, this different-from-the-norm RPG is the perfect way to energize even the most bored of RPGer, one that’s tired of the turn based genre as a whole.Your $50 will get you at least 40 hours of gameplay (and upwards of twice that depending on your speed) the first time through, and there’s two additional difficulty levels allowing for further play-throughs. Combine that with the ability to play this game with up to four players makes this an outstanding purchase for any RPG fan.