Review by MSuskie

"Tales of a game you've played a billion times before."

To create a great game, one must generally need two ingredients: Originality and execution. Without originality, how will your game be separated from so many other titles out there, even if it's a lot of fun to play? And without execution, even fantastic ideas can be wasted in a below-average game. The two work side-by-side to deliver those rare, unforgettable gaming experiences that people cherish forever.

And then there's also one more ingredient that can be used to fool people into thinking your game is great, when in reality, it's not. That ingredient is timing.

Tales of Symphonia has little in the way of originality or execution. In terms of concept, it's no different from the gazillions of other RPG's out there. As a game, it's not bad, but not quite enjoyable enough to make it stick out. I am convinced that its popularity is due only to the fact that it arrived at a time when RPG-starved GameCube owners needed it the most. Before Symphonia was released, the only decent RPG in the GameCube library was Skies of Arcadia Legends, and that was a port of a Dreamcast game. Again, timing is a key factor here. Without timing, Symphonia would have nothing.

That's not to say that Symphonia is a bad game. It's not. It simply has no significant strengths or weaknesses. You will enjoy it, but only because you can't find a reason not to enjoy it. It's “good” only in the sense that there's really nothing wrong it. It's like any other RPG out there, really. And sure, the game is engaging and compelling and entertaining, but no more engaging and compelling and entertaining than hundreds of other RPG's on other platforms. It's a lengthy game that will take quite a bit of time to complete, and you'll enjoy the game enough to see it through to the end but not enough to feel as if you're really gaining something through the experience. It's fairly challenging and mildly diverting, and once you complete Symphonia, you'll put it back on your shelf and it will never cross your mind again. It's the videogame equivalent of a movie like The Chronicles of Riddick or a TV show like Prison Break. And while it's not a crime to be a fan of any of those – I'm moderately entertained by all three – if you consider any of them to be prime examples of their type, you need to play more games, or watch more movies, or check out some 24 sometime.

The only thing even vaguely unique about Symphonia is its look, and this is a major plus as far as I'm concerned. The graphics themselves are very anime-style, and while I'm really not an anime fan, I've always liked the look of anime. The enormous eyes, the oversized heads, the exaggerated physics, the quirky visual humor… I love it for some reason, and the very fact that this game deploys anime art makes it all the more endearing for me. The cel-shaded character models animate wonderfully (something you can't say about real anime) and blend in perfectly with the environments, which are seemingly watercolored with delicate pastels. Though technologically this game is really nothing a Dreamcast game couldn't have done, I appreciate the effort.

But then we actually get into the important stuff, and that's where Symphonia takes a tumble.

Problem number one: Deception. When you first flip on Symphonia, you're treated to an amazing FMV intro in full anime that seems to illustrate certain events and moments throughout the game. It looks as if this intro is made up of select CG taken right out of the main adventure. Not only does it look fantastic, but you'll actually believe for a moment that CG sequences actually litter the game itself. People, please do not let this epic, extraordinary intro fool you! The main adventure has absolutely no FMV movies to speak of. Namco, stop trying to trick us! Bastards!

And then there's the issue of the story itself, which again appears to be grand and epic when viewed as a sum-up through that amazing CG intro. The plot could not possibly be more tired and predictable. The hero… Uh, you see, the hero's name is Lloyd, but I prefer to call him Reluctant Hero. He and his friend Whiney Sidekick are tasked with escorting Doomed Girl across the land, with the help of Stiff Adult and Battle-Hardened Warrior (not to mention just valuable inclusions as Quiet Girl With Hidden Feelings and Obnoxious Ladies' Man). Doomed Girl is said to be the chosen one, selected by the gods to replenish the land and blah, blah, blah... You can essentially figure out what I'm going to say, so I'm not going to strain my finger muscles.

Seriously though, every RPG cliche in the book is represented in some way in Symphonia. And that's not including the obligatory plot twists, such as the enemy who becomes your friend and the ally who betrays you. I'm talking about the basic structure. You can jolly well bet that this “replenish the world” thing is not all it's cracked up to be, and that an alternate world will be introduced at some point. Obviously, there is an evil race out there to thwart your plans. They will attack your hometown before you know it, and Reluctant Hero and Whiney Sidekick will be blamed for the atrocity and banished into exile for it. I forget whether the adventure starts with Reluctant Hero being woken up, but it probably does. Hell, I'm surprised you don't have to save a princess at some point. Making the story more generic would take some serious imagination.

My reviews always have this awkward transition from story to gameplay, because I can rarely find a smooth way of getting from one to the other. So bear with me on this.

As far as gameplay goes, Symphonia's battle system is really all it's got in terms of originality. And even then, that's only because we're moving into a phase in which more and more RPG's are featuring real-time battles as opposed to turn-based ones, and Symphonia solidifies on this thought. Anyone who thinks that Symphonia's battle system is even slightly genre-pushing needs to play Star Ocean: The Second Story, a great and often overlooked PSX classic that Symphonia often seems to mimic (that this game is even being compared to Star Ocean is a huge compliment). It's real-time, which is good, and although you're only able to control one of your team members at once, you're given an admittedly robust set of options and scripts with which you can determine what it is that your AI-controlled buddies do.

Battles unfold almost like a modern fighting game, with control limited to side-scrolling movement despite the fact that characters and enemies move on a 3D plane. You can shuffle between basic attacks and tech moves, all executed with some simple analog-stick-and-button combinations. Your basic strategies are all here. The melee-style fighters like Reluctant Hero and Battle-Hardened Warrior will strike enemies quick and hard from the frontline, while more predominantly magical characters such as Whiney Sidekick and Doomed Girl will play it safe from the back, casting spells and healing party members while occasionally entering a few attacks to regain some MP. I've found that the AI is surprisingly efficient in doing what I want it to do. Again, AI itself is customizable, so while you'll only be controlling one person at any given time, your teammates cooperate with a respectable level of intelligence. This is good, because I usually just choose to control the more close-combat fighters. Managing MP is just another stress I never need, and it's somewhat relaxing when the computer will do it for you.

I've also heard that you can fight battles with up to three other players, making for some pretty intense four-player co-op fights. Of course, since multiplayer options are restricted to battles, playing long sessions of Symphonia with friends means all but one player will be just sitting around most of the time, waiting for the next fight. I've never tried this, and therefore I am unable to tell you how well it works. When I play videogames with friends, we play real multiplayer games, thank you very much.

I don't know where to go from there, though, because everything else in Symphonia is just so painfully been-there-done-that. It would almost seem like overkill for me to describe anything else that occurs throughout your adventure since you already essentially know what's going to happen.

I mean, the basic structure is that same town-to-town design that we've seen in just about every RPG ever made. You go to the next town, talk to people, upgrade your weapons, solve a problem, and move on. So much of what happens in Symphonia is actually quite unrelated to the actual story, yet it's mandatory to complete it to move on to your next objective. Many of Symphonia's tasks would have made great side quests but are instead forced on the player in order to stretch out the game, making it longer. A lot of RPG's do this, and it's annoying (and yes, you will at some point run into a group of kids playing hide-and-seek). And while the overworld is huge, it's more linear than you may initially think. Whenever you arrive at a town or area you're not supposed to have reached yet, Reluctant Hero will make up some sort of weird excuse that prevents your party from entering. (“Some old ruins, huh? Sounds boring. Let's go.”)

The dungeons? Yeah, there are dungeons in this game. I feel like Namco really tried to imitate the 2D Zelda games with its old-fashioned, trap-ridden, maze-like dungeons. They're frequent, like Zelda, and contain a lot of “puzzles” that prove that Namco still has a lot of studying to do in the action/adventure field (even Capcom managed to pull off a few amazing handheld Zelda titles, so you'd think Namco could handle this). Most dungeons are loaded with simple objectives that require you to either push blocks (groan) or search for items (fetch quests =/= fun). At the very least, I am so thankful that Namco decided not to implement random battles into Symphonia. That would make the dungeon-crawling even more a pain in the ass.

Even the usually reliable Motoi Sakuraba disappoints here. Symphonia's soundtrack isn't bad at all, but it's difficult for me to believe that this was written by the same guy that did Star Ocean: The Second Story and Baten Kaitos. The music itself is much like the rest of the game – passable, but not in any way extraordinary. It's kind of repetitive, especially since he uses the same few tracks over and over again (there's a distinct town theme, a dungeon theme, a dungeon entrance theme, a bad guy theme, and so forth). I'm thankful that the battle melodies aren't grating after a while, but that's not to say they're catchy. You'll learn to ignore the music rather than absorb it, which is unusual for the great Sakuraba. At least the soundtrack matches the rest of the game in terms of quality.

Pros

+ One of the few decent RPG's in the GameCube library.
+ The game's striking, anime-influenced look is vibrant and colorful.
+ The battle system is kinda fun and offers a lot of flexibility.
+ It's quite long and will keep you going for a while.
+ I suppose it's hard to really outright complain about anything…

Cons

- …But there's just nothing really outstanding about this game.
- The story is extremely generic and contains every RPG cliche in the book.
- As does everything else.
- Dungeon design is rather uninspired.
- Disappointing musical score.

Overall: 6/10

I liked Tales of Symphonia, but only because I had no reason not to like it. There's really nothing wrong with it, per se, but I've seen everything Symphonia has to offer so many times before that I can show very little respect for its developers. What ever happened to originality? What happened to creativity? Where did all the new ideas go? They went into Baten Kaitos and Paper Mario, two vastly superior GameCube RPG's that are nowhere near as popular as Symphonia simply because they didn't arrive first. If your only console of this generation is GameCube and you're looking for a great RPG… Well, get another console and play a game like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which could beat the crap out of anything the GameCube can offer in the genre. But if you must get an RPG on GameCube, please avoid the mainstream vote and go for far more original and polished experiences in both Baten Kaitos and Paper Mario. Play Symphonia only if there's nothing left, because Symphonia is almost completely average. And when you sink lower than average, you start to hit bad. And you don't want to go there, my friend.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 07/20/06


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