Review by Ashley Winchester
"Finally A Game To Make Gamecube Owners Revel"
Before I even begin this review, I want to briefly touch upon a subject directly related to it. At the time of my writing this, there are two other review for Tales of Symphonia posted on GameFAQS.com; both reviews are written within days of the game’s release (one being penned on the day OF release), and both reviews containing enough words to describe a game like Pong. I’m sorry, but a game like Tales of Symphonia requires just a BIT more time and effort to review than the previous two efforts provide. To this end, I will attempt to give an *actual* analysis of the game, even if it may be too “wordy” as detractors of my reviews claim. With this out of the way…
Of the following, one or more may be true: Tales of Symphonia is the latest release in Namco’s “Tales” RPG series. Tales of Symphonia is for the Nintendo Gamecube. Tales of Symphonia has a playful, child appealing look to it. Tales of Symphonia manages to actually make the rehashed elements contained in said game fun. Tales of Symphonia requires some time to finish it. Tales of Symphonia is an excellent game. Believe it or not, but all of these statements, as well as many others, are indeed true. Though I’ve since gotten back into RPGs for some time now, the Tales games are the one series that never transcended my RPG rebirth. I paid a small fortune for Tales of Phantasia back in the day (as anyone who bought new Super Famicom games can relate to) and then purchased Tales of Destiny when it released. That was basically the end of my love for the Tales series; I suppose that in retrospective, I had little to like in the first place: The only real interest I had in Tales of Phantasia was that Nintendo Power magazine had a small feature on it, and that the game had so much memory that it even had a theme song. Yes, I admit that my reasoning for liking the game was not quite the best, however after playing it and its successor, I did find much more to enjoy. I even purchased Tales of Phantasia: Narikiri Dungeon, the gaiden side story Tales of Phantasia spin off that released on the Gameboy Color console a few years back. Then the road block: Tales of Eternia proved to be (in my opinion), a lackluster game with seemingly nothing new to offer and not enough effort put into what was. The next game, Tales of Destiny 2 (NOT to be confused with the English language Tales of Destiny 2, which is actually Tales of Eternia) which released for the Playstation 2, managed to hold my interest for the first hour or so, but then it dropped so fast I was back in Akihabara the next day filling out the trade in slip. Heck, I even gave Tales of the World: Narikiri Dungeon 2 a try but gave that up shortly as well. Yeah, I know it’s a fool’s behavior to bash a game after only playing an hour or so of it, but there was just nothing I liked; nothing new, and certainly nothing warranting my spending 25+ hours on a game that didn’t deserve it. Thus, come August 29 and the release of the newest installment in the series, Tales of Symphonia, where was I? Sure, I was in a Softmap store, but not purchasing this game; no, instead I had to get my hands on the Shinyaku Seiken Densetsu Mana Blue SP package, ignoring entirely the mounds of Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Symphonia Plus Packs that littered the streets of Tokyo’s Electric Town. Thus, what I am about to say may come as a surprise.
Unlike games I am interested in where I follow the PR religiously, I had ignored any and all Tales of Symphonia (hereafter referred to as ToS) media even if it was as visible as a playable kiosk outside AsoBit City. When I finally decided to purchase ToS, a short time ago, it was really out of boredom more than anything else. To my great amazement, ToS had my attention from the moment I turned it on. The game has one of the most memorable theme songs in recent years, complete with some nice animation to boot. So nice was the presentation, that it actually made me forget the fact that just about every other game manufactured today has the exact same style of opening. After playing around with the configuration settings a bit, I was ready to begin playing ToS. The first thing that came to my attention was the rather ‘playful’ art style Namco had opted to go with. While I have nothing wrong with a game that looks like a cartoon (see my Wind Waker review if you doubt me), it does remain to be said that the addition of another “child’s game” to Nintendo’s library does not exactly bolster the ‘grizzly, blood stained’ image Nintendo seems to want to convey to garnish sales with gamers above age 12. Nonetheless, even if one hates cartoon designs, I think it’s quite agreeable to say that the style lends itself to ToS flawlessly, and in many ways proves to be the first game that actually offers MORE than just a different style of art. (Why is it that Unlimited Saga, Saga Frontier 2, Auto Modellista, and all other games like them have to be such crap anyway?). The only grip with the graphics of ToS is that, with a component connection no less, they sometimes seem a bit too washed out and blurred. One may wonder if this was the effect Namco hoped to achieve or if its actually a problem with the graphic engine itself.
Moving onto the music, the compositions heard in ToS are nothing short of resplendent. While the Tales series has never had bad music (on the contrary, the only reason I was able to tolerate the Japan only ''true'' Tales of Destiny 2 *was* the music), those tunes contained in ToS really do shine above many of the other memorable ones the series has to offer. With a soundtrack spanning an impressive four discs worth, there is enough variety of music to keep everyone pleased. Standard RPG fair tunes, cutsey melodies, climatic battles, sad remorse...cliched yes, but if this is the kind of work that following the beaten path can do, what's the problem? Even the battle music exudes brilliance in that one actually does not get tired of hearing it over and over; which, of course brings me to the next aspect.
As any Tales series veteran knows, the games utilize a battle system that is nothing short of a cross between an action game and a fighting game. Labeled the LMB system (or any of its variants thereafter), the Linear Motion Battles are really anything but traditional. Instead of players simply choosing commands from a list and queuing while their avatars enact their desires, the Tales series requires direct, and constant input into one (or all) of the characters on the battle field. The general dynamic is that battles are presented in a 2-D format where players must physically move their characters to the monster and start mashing buttons. Added innovation comes in the form of special attacks which require specific button combinations (nothing too complicated however, usually just hold up and press attack) to utilize. ToS offers a slight update to this system in the form of simulated 3-D battles: while the action still takes place on a line (hence Linear Motion Battles), monsters will not necessarily stay on it. Thus, with the simple press of the “R” button, Lloyd (the main character), will switch his attention from perhaps the enemy in front of him, to the monster directly to the right of him. As a result, the battles are still linear, but also a form of 3-D at the same time. The other concept behind the battle system in the Tales series is that although the computer AI will dictate the actions of the other party members (the player only has total control over the hero), the player can at any time, call up a series of menus and thus directly input commands for their comrades. Should the player want more control however, they can actually change the player controller character in battle and control all aspects of another party member, leaving the hero to the AI. Even with the computer doing most of the work however, the player is able to select from a decent number of battle mode types, such as all out attack, conserve magic, or defensive play to help decide what the AI will do.
Aside from the innovative touch on the battles, ToS also features a system the series has LONG needed, if not the genre itself: player decisive battles. Gone are the random encounters that have plagued the Tales series in the past (well, the formal series at least) and seemingly every other RPG spawned, and instead is the ability to actually see what you are getting into. Monsters will materialize on the map, usually in the exact number which will be in the battle itself (they like to group together you see), and if the player wishes to, they can run into the beasts to start the battle. Obviously there will still be some required battles (bosses), as well as the simple reality that players can not avoid all monsters, but the simple fact that you see what you’re going to fight does a world of difference for the player who has grown extremely tired of fighting, regardless of how fun those fights may be.
One might think that despite the childish look of the game, the story itself would be cookie-cutter kid’s fodder. Well, it isn’t; not by a long shot. In the first few hours of the game alone, players will witness murder, pillaging, cruelty, and many other “adult” concepts that seemingly have no place in a child’s fantasy world. Well, wake up because while ToS may look childish, it sure isn’t. The plot is surprisingly dark, even for series standards. That is not the say ToS is not without its cute and embarrassing moments, but it’s hardly anything along the lines of Elmo’s Magical ABC Adventure.
Another promising feature in ToS (although not new), is the use of voice acting for key moments. While those not fluent in Japanese may opt to turn off the voice acting entirely, it is nonetheless a great feature of the game. As with seemingly any Japanese voiced production, all the characters are voiced by proficient, professional voice actors who know how to do their job. (I can literally count the number of English language games that have a similar level of voice acting quality on one hand). Stereotypically, the cast fits the bill: the young main character who is overly assertive and who thinks he has much more presence than others may, the flirty young heroine who is both polite and casual at the same time, the older and more distinguished warrior who has little patience in dealing with the antics of children, etc. Each of the characters have their own personality, and each of the characters has their own sense of understanding, all of which are realized in full by the excellent voice acting. As with previous entries in the series, players have the ability to call up the “Party Conversation Screen” as one may deem it, while wandering around the various maps (towns, dungeons, overworld, etc). On this screen, accessed via the “Z” button in ToS, the various party members will converse about the current events (or sometimes random ones) which may offer clues as to what the player should do next if stuck, but which will always serve to reinforce character development and attitudes. This optional feature is a nice little ability for players who wish to learn more about their avatars, as well as learn more about the game world itself, and hear the professional voice actors who lent their talents to the game in the first place. Unlike other games in the series however, the player is only able to enter the party conversation screen at select times in the game.
ToS has loads of other nuances to keep players busy, the most prominent being that of the cooking system. Players can learn various recipes around the world, and then in turn use the various food stuff items they win in battle and can buy in shops to cook up the 5 star gourmet meal of their choice. Food can do everything from recovering life to giving temporary status boosts. The game even offers a smidgen of Final Fantasy X-2 by allowing players to jump at select points (much as Yuna does in said game). Also, the now pre-requisite magic ring returns once more, allowing the player to solve puzzles by launching a projectile from a seemingly ordinary piece of jewelry.
Perhaps one of the strongest elements however, is the strong detail paid to character development. As mentioned earlier, each character has their own personality and behavior, however little touches thrown into the mix serve to further this development even more. Early on in the game, for example, one of the characters is having a birthday. Lloyd, the main character, did not know about this however, and thus has no present to give. His friend though, plans to give some homemade food and thus Lloyd feels somewhat lost in what he should do. While not affecting the game itself, the presence of multiple choice dialogue (dialogue where the player gets to choose from a selection of possible responses) also adds dimension to the characters, providing off beat replies or even nonsensical ones altogether.
It goes without saying that no game is perfect, and obviously ToS is no exception to that rule. Of the few problems with the game, perhaps the most noticeable is that its rather linear. Dungeons and maps offer seemingly little to actually explore, instead providing a straightforward path with which the player must adhere to. While this may not come as a loss to some, I on the other hand, miss games like the original Tales of Destiny, or even Star Ocean, where dungeons had branching paths-a-plenty, and a wrong turn could result in a bit of time spent going in the wrong direction all for nothing at all. As it stands now, there isn’t really a strong element of exploration given the fact that you really can’t explore in the first place. The only true 3-D traversable area is the overworld map; the dungeons and towns are more like 2-D maps designed to look otherwise.
Directly related to this fault is the issue with camera angles. Taking another page from the Final Fantasy series, ToS relies on a fixed camera to display its content, and at times that fixed camera can be problematic. There are instances whereby the player must actually stop to think of where the block they are pushing will land (to name a very early example of this issue) as they are not able to move the camera around and therefore get a more exact view of their effort’s destination, in this case, where a block will land when pushed down a hole in the ground. Furthermore, the few times there are “side paths” in the dungeons and maps, quite often there will be background foliage or sediment actually obscuring the view of any hidden treasure, thus requiring the player to forage around in the dark, so to speak. These two problems, and any others, would all have been resolved if the game had a true 3-D camera, or at least one which offered the player some manner of control over it.
The final issue is that the game spans two discs. While this is hardly any kind of problem, (really, it’s not difficult at all to open the Gamecube lid and change discs when the time comes), the fact remains that in this day and age, a double disc game is a true rarity, with most of the exceptions being on Nintendo’s Gamecube. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Nintendo is just plain foolish in its actions. For over a decade it proclaimed that cartridges were its goal because of issues with child safety and longevity. Then, when it finally wakes up and decides to progress with the rest of the market, Nintendo releases a console that uses 3 inch DVDs which not only can’t hold as much data as full sized ones, but are in their inception a threat to small children. Just plain stupidity in my opinion.
Tales of Symphonia is quite possibly, the best game yet released on the Nintendo Gamecube, a console sorely lacking games with actual quality put into them. One trip to Messe Sanoh or Yamigawa Soft yields dozens of Gamecube titles just waiting to be purchased, but none of them actually worth the money. In America, the situation is even more diffused as dozens upon dozens of crap titles line the shelves of software stores. Tales of Symphonia however, is a true gem that if given the chance, will amaze players and prove worthy of not only their game purchase, but also the console purchase as well. Unlike the rancid Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, ToS is actually a game that takes a great series and makes it even more enjoyable. It will indeed be a shame if this game never makes it out of its native language, but even if such is the final truth, it is so fantastic that even non-Japanese literate gamers should make the choice to import it.
[Revision Note]: Well, it looks like Namco has decided to release Symphonia in English, and Gamecube owners and RPG fans should be happy with this. Let's just hope that Namco doesn't botch up the translation like it did with the Sony Tales releases...In retrospective however, I somehow wished Namco would have decided to release Baten Kaitos instead, though in all fairness Symphonia is a much more traditional RPG.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/18/03, Updated 03/22/04
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