Review by RageBot
"Symphony composed with flying colors."
During the 1980's and early 1990's, Nintendo ruled an ocean of endless hours spent on playing role playing games. However, when Sony entered the fray in 1994, many third-party companies moved on to produce games for the more technologically advance Playstation, rather than Nintendo's N64. With Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and other, less familiar RPG titles, moved to the competition, Nintendo's ocean dried up almost completely. Now that they are left with a desert, this game proves to be a valuable, vast oasis for Nintendo.
Released by Namco, the Tales series is one of the most popular RPG titles in Japan, but unlike Final Fantasy, its titles are infamous for not being localized. This game, the fifth released of the series, and the third to see the light of day in English speaking countries, is one of the finest of its series, and possibly the very best of the few games that are available in the west. Plus, it the first game since the very first, Tales of Phantasia, not released in the west, to be released on a Nintendo console, and the only one of them released in the west.
The story begins with a legend. Two kingdoms battled each other for control over Mana, the ultimate resource, more valuable than water. Without it, nothing can live. Out of the chaos a hero arrived, Mithos was his name. He separated the warring armies, putting an end to the massacre. Then a voice is heard from the dark, and the main protagonist, Lloyd Irving, wakes up. Lloyd is a typical lazy boy - he sleeps in class, he hates to gain knowledge, and he gets bored with everything. He becomes more responsible later on, though.
Other protagonists has their distinct personalities. Colette is an over cheerful, hopelessly apologetic girl. Genis is a spunky teenage spellcaster. Raine, who is Genis's sister, is an archaeology freak, and she literally spanks anyone who speaks ill of ruins, research and information. Kratos is a silent mercenary who looks down on people of lower skill. Those are your initial five characters, all with cliche personalities, that suit the drama of this game.
There are three other, more mysterious, less cliche characters: Sheena (Whose voice is provided by none other than Jennifer Hale), Presea and Regal. However, Presea and Regal are the last characters you get, and the clock will hit the 30 hour mark before you get them. Along with them, you'll find possible the worst character of them all, Zelos, a nobleman, a laid back party animal and a womanizer of the worst kind, all in the same body.
Luckily, the distinct, cliche personalities of the characters are the worst part of the game, so now we are out of the storm. While Lloyd is bored at class. a mysterious light shines from a nearby shrine. Colette, who is destined to become the next "Chosen", goes there in order to begin her journey, while her close friends, Lloyd and Genis, decide to aid her. It is there than you learn about the Chosen, her duty, and her destination, which is known as the Tower of Salvation.
You'll also learn about the Desians, an organization of Half-Elves, keen on enslaving and eliminating all Humans, as well as assassinating the Chosen. The Desians seem to be purely malevolent beings. While they all have a degree of Human blood, they hate their Human side, and terrorize many Humans via means of martial law, senseless massacres, and enslaving Humans in special ranches, where they are working past endurance, whipped for every little thing, and treated like dirt.
After leaving the shrine, Lloyd and Genis happen to see the horrors of the ranch. Seeking to help an old woman enslaved there, the two are caught by the Desians, leading to the burning of their village, Iselia. Lloyd is then forced to fight against a monstrosity. During the fight, the monster talks, and she has the old woman's voice. Lloyd and Genis then realize the meaning of the Exsphere - a tool to enhance strength, which kills the user if poorly handled. The Desians breed Exspheres from Human lives in the ranches. With that horrid notion, the two are exiled from their village and head to the distance with Colette, as well as Raine and Kratos, her guards for the journey.
I can't tell much further without spoiling major events, because the plot is as convoluted as a mountain road, and has more twists than an old metal spring. When you reach disc 2, about 45 hours in, things start to get really interesting. There are some major shockers at that point, and by saying that, I mean that they give Xenogears a run for its money. If you haven't played Xenogears yet, go ahead and play it, it might just be the best role playing game ever made.
I can say, however, that many aspects of the plot are based on the last independent title, Tales of Eternia. As with that game, there are two worlds divided. The world of Lloyd, Colette, Genis, Raine and Kratos is called Sylvarant, it is a world of low technology, where most of the people live in villages and live off the land. The other world, where the rest of the characters come from, is called Tethe'alla, a world where technology flourishes, large cities dot the land and magic is incorporated via said Exspheres. Both games also deal with social issues - Eternia deals a little with the bigotry of the elite. This game, however, goes much deeper, and tells of a dystopia where Half-Elves discriminate Humans and vice versa. All eight elemental summons, called Spirits this time, return to this game, as is the one the govern them all, Maxwell.
While the protagonists are not the best characters I've seen, the main antagonist is one of the best characters ever in a video game. You first meet him at about the 20th hour of the game, next to the first massive shockers of the game. While he seems to be a generic, heartless evil at first, he later turns on to be more of a saint gone wrong. He has his ideals, he has his reasons and his cause seems just, but not justifying of his deeds. He's not the best villain ever, that title goes to the antagonist of Final Fantasy Tactics (Another game you simply have to play), and he seems to be inspired a lot by Sephiroth, but he's really awesome nonetheless.
The battle system is nowhere near as good as the phenomenal story, but it's still very good. Most role playing games use a battle system in which the player and the enemy take turns in attacking, and you input each command separately. Square tried to crank the strategy up a few notches with their Active Time Battle system, but Namco goes above and beyond that in their series. As the battle starts, you control one character. You directly attack the enemy by pressing A, use special abilities with B, block with X, enter the menu with Y, and switch targets with R. You can also change your active character, by pressing Z once in the menu. In this game, it can be used to run away from a spell's damage zone.
A unique feature of this game is the Unison attack. You get a gauge that fills by attacking enemies, and once it's full, you can press Z to initiate a massive combo against an enemy. You can choose which attacks should be used for the combo. Use them wisely, and time them so that they are chained together. It's also best to start a little combo before the Unison Attack, so that it carries over. The longer the chain, the bigger the damage bonus. In addition, if you execute specific attacks, you can end the combo with a devastating finishing strike. It's a lot like having a Limit Break gauge for the entire party.
The method of encountering enemies is also nice and simple. One of the things I really dislike about role playing games is the random encounter system. It's a little tweaked in some games, such as Sony's Wild Arms series, but it always annoys me. Well, there are no random battles in this game! The enemies are all out in the open, and you can choose to avoid them if you wish. While traveling through the world map, enemies appear as shadows with eyes. They can be standing still, moving around, or chasing you. If they are chasing you, you WILL be forced to fight them. Just yield, as you can avoid most enemies if you want.
Dungeon design is also improved tenfold over previous Tales games. The Sorcerer's Ring, a recurring item in the Tales series, makes a brilliant return here. Not only do you not have to equip it, but you use it many times throughout the game. Each dungeon features a puzzle that you must solve via the ring, and they are mostly creative. Many dungeons feature an altar that changes the ring's function: It usually emits flames, but through many dungeons, it can conjure lightning, water, ice and even function as a radar. Almost every dungeon is fun to solve, and you can run away from most enemies, so they don't spoil your fun.
A new thing in the Tales series is skits. Originally available in Tales of Eternia in Japan, this is the first time that skits are introduced to the west. At various times, you'll be prompted to press Z. Doing so will bring about a muted conversation between some characters, which is usually humorous, and very Japanese in the choice of the emotions and words. Titles also make a return from Eternia, and this time, they can enhance your status, but they only matter when you level up. The grading system, also introduced in Eternia, has a new feature too: The grade is quantified to points. Each battle, you can gain grade or, if you're bad, lose some. It can then be used to buy things from specific stores.
Cooking is also improved, as now characters can improve their knowledge of cooking, and may use additional ingredients. In addition, some recipes let you use any kind of meat, vegetable, fruit or fish that you choose, and there are many more ingredients compared to Eternia. yet another new function, albeit not at all necessary, is being able to use one character as your on-screen avatar, and another one as your active character in battles. While organizing your party, you can press the A button to "flag" that character. It'll now appear on the game map. However, you need not use it at all in battles. Organizing is done via the Y button. There are specific sets of titles that can change the character's clothes to a new piece, including swimsuits.
The graphical style is plain anime. While there's nothing bad about it, it's uninspired by that point. The music is not the most epic in video game history, but it has some very solid tracks. Some of the tracks could fit a Heavy Metal album, if only real guitars were used, instead of usual video game music.
I strongly advise playing this game, especially if you don't own a Playstation and wish to enter an incredible role playing experience.
Final grade: 9.4/10
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/05/12, Updated 04/22/13
Game Release: Tales of Symphonia (US, 07/13/04)
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