Review by ShyningFade

"Dwarven Vow # 22 - If words just aren't enough to express one's joy, have ye change of pants ready"

Waz dis, waz dis, waz dis?! An rpg for the gamecube? Here in the states? Good golly, sweet Molly, what a surprise this sure is! And not only that, but it's a great game that completely blew away all my expectations? Nah, this can't be real... And although I refuse to believe that this game is in my gamecube, being played non-stop for hours on end, I feel the need to review the dream that is Tales of Symphonia.

First Impressions:
Now, when I first heard about this game, I had mixed feelings. I was one of the many people who was disappointed at first glance with the whole cel-shading appeal that many games have taken on recently. And seeing as how it would be another anime inspired title, I seemed to think that this would be one of those games with cheesy humor, stereotypical characters that were more bland than a piece of gnawed on cardboard seasoned with a light mud sauce. And although I had enjoyed previous Tales games somewhat, I felt uneasy rushing in at the first original rpg for the gamecube, as big as the drought had been. But one of the things that i've learned, is that hype tends to kill a game. And ignoring this one for awhile was the best thing I could have done.
This game is one of the greatest game experiences that i've been fortunate enough to play, reminding me strongly of the same feeling one would get while playing Phantasy Star IV, the SNES Lufia games, and even a sprinkle of Secret of Mana on the side. It's good to feel like a kid again.

Storyline:
If there's one thing that I can't stand about overly critical reviewers, it's those who play the game, take in nothing about the world and the characters, and simply dismiss it as being cliche (which it can be, i'll admit), solely pointing out it's shortcomings. I suppose people are expecting storylines such as those found in the "Xeno" series of games on a daily basis, but to be honest, sometimes simple is best. In the past few months, I find myself really appreciating games with a storyline that isn't uber in depth and supreme, but enough to make the world feel like a living, breathing place. And that's what Tales does, and does nicely.
The main premise is that Colette, a young girl living in the town of Iselia, has been chosen for the role of the Chosen (repetitive, eh?), the one person who is to transform into an angel, and ascend into the heavens in an attempt to regenerate a dying world. This draws comparisons to Yuna from FFX, but is more than different enough to maintain a unique feel for her character and her story.
Alongside her, you have Lloyd, the main character of sorts, who is the class dunce. Always sleeping in class, and suffering from a massive case of A.D.D., this is the guy you'll feel right at home with leading the way.
Next up is Genis Sage, who, get this, is a GENIUS! Oh play on words, how clever thou art! He's Lloyd's best friend, and along with Colette, become a part of events which will eventually lead into a world enveloping plot. Young'ns saving the world? Don't worry, it's better than you think.
In a strange contrast to the seemingly cheery environment, we have the race of Desians, half-elves who at the start, seem to be the main antagonist of the story. Causing humans to live in fear, treaties are established so that the half-elves can cultivate human beings as slaves in places known as "Human Ranches", in exchange for the safety of villages. That's one of the main treats of the story, in my opinion, by having something seem so happy and cheerful, only to get stuff like that thrown in. This game likes to change things up a bit, so despite cliches, it's still a unique plot.
And with plot twists aplenty (although a few can be seen from awhile away, it's still plenty to keep you interested), you'll find yourself caught up in this well made story. Nothing extraordinary, but the characterization goes above and beyond the call of duty, with a little addition known as "Skits".
These remind me a lot of the private actions seen in Star Ocean 2, where you find little scenarios that allow you to learn more about the character and their intentions. While some may view this as pointless filler, I applaud Namco for adding this, since it helps make an already vivid, animated world and characters even more lively. Very cohesive, and well made. Quality that works is better than originality that seems forced, I say.

Gameplay:
One of the many things that an rpg needs to have in everyone's opinion, is the story. However, i'm one of those people who likes to play their games, which is why Tales ranks so high in my opinion.
For anyone who hasn't enjoyed a Tales game before, allow me to break it down for you. Gone are the days of picking "attack", or "magic" or "item" and watching it (sometimes slowly) play out. Instead is a real-time combat system, akin to a fighting game of sorts. To be honest, it reminds me a lot of Super Smash Bros. Melee with rpg stats. And trust me... that's a VERY good thing. You have a 3d environment, but generally fighting is done on a 2d plain. You can switch targets, making your intended path go differently, and the attacks themselves have 3d elements as well, making it a fun experience without being too overwhelming.
You only control one of your characters at a time, while your other characters in the party (up to four total in the group) are controlled by full customizable AI. Is someone using up too much magic? You can adjust that. Want your character to rush to the frontlines and lay the smack down? Change that pansy's AI and there ya go. Tons of freedom for this game. Defending attacks is as simple as pressing the X button, and Y is used for the menus.
Now, the actual combat. Just like in Smash Bros, the A button is your basic attack. Pressing it yields one attack, which can be done up to three times for the most part. Then pressing the attack button with Up, Left/Right, Down, or Neutral gives you other attacks, each with their own purpose. Let's take Lloyd for example. Doing the neutral A combo will make Lloyd do a simple slash into a spinning attack, which will hit everyone close to him. So while it's 2d in general, 3d elements make it feel more natural, which is a good thing. Up and attack allows you to combo aerial opponents, down and attack allows you to do a thrust type attack, which mind you, has it's own separate attack value from slashes. It's little details like these that make you consider each pro and con for every attack.
Oh yeah, and that's just basic attacks. With the B button, once again very similar to the Smash bros (SSBM from here on), allows you to unleash a variety of special moves, which you yourself can customize for your own ease of use. You can map special moves to neutral, up, down, and left/right. Also new to the series, you can use the C-stick to map two more moves, even moves that don't belong to your character. So you can call for healing, or for a teammate to rush in with a special of their own to create some nifty combos. On top of this, Tales offers a limit-break type deal, where a meter fills up and the team enters a Valkyrie Profile style attack sequence, where pushing their respective button (Z to activate, and A for 1st character, B for 2nd, X for 3rd, and Y for 4th) and a direction allows them to unleash their preset move. And what happens if two characters use a compatible move? They combine to create a flashy unison attack, which tacks on even more damage to the end of the combo. As an added bonus, special attacks in this state are cost free, so it makes building up that huge meter worth the while.
Now, in any fighting game environment, especially with all the features that this game provides, one can say screw it, and to hell with strategy. However, Tales takes this opportunity to say, "Hold it! We loves the skill." You now have a grade system, which ranks your characters on how well they can perform. Relying too heavily on specials will lower your rank, as will dying repeatedly, taking too much damage, or for the most part, just mashing buttons. However, if you can pull off an elegant win, you'll be awarded with more points. It's a small incentive to play this game as it was meant to be played, allowing the players to use Grade as a sort of currently, letting players purchase EX gems, Materials, and even options for the New Game plus; bonuses that let you decide what you can transfer over and what not, adding even more replayability to an already finely crafted game.
Oh yeah, almost forgot - there's still more gameplay features. EX gems I feared would be a lot like materia of FFVII fame, but it's a lot simpler. EX gems give you a slight bonus in stats or a benefit, and up to four can be equipped. Each EX gem bestows four different abilities each, with each character having a different arrangement of abilities. So depending on which ability you set your EX gem to, you can unlock a special one by pairing them up correctly. Lets say you have one gem equipped for Magical (which increases magic ability) and Defend (which increases defense... what were you expecting me to say?), you'll have a new ability which makes spells even stronger. So by successful pairing of abilities, you'll have even more options in battle, so you can customize characters as you please.
And on that note, characters also have titles that they earn from story moments or by achieving goals in combat. These titles alter what stats characters excel in during level ups, and by gaining the appropriate titles, you can make a melee fighter even more powerful, or give him more hp, or accuracy. It's this kind of freedom that really makes the game so fun. Oh yeah, replay. It's got plenty of that.
And it's not just the actual combat that stands out, either.
Items have a different means of use, due to it's real time nature. Upon using an item, you have a short 2 or so second delay before you can use the next one, so you can't just spazz out with the items. Not to mention that you're limited to only 20 items a piece instead of the usual "cram 99 of each of these things in my pockets, that's okay!", you can only have 20 of each. Paired in with the timer which can REALLY make a difference in the harder difficulties, this causes the player to think a bit more before blindly using an item that they might have needed later. While it might sound restrictive, it allows the player to make use of a cooking system, where characters can combine items to create a meal that heals, that's quicker than meals on wheels, cures ailments, or a combination of both. It's really in depth, with about 24 recipies total, and ton of variations on each. Sure, you can just make a sandwich with just bread (hey, sometimes you gotta go ghetto), but by adding meat and veggies characters will get more health. So even though you can have only 20 of each, you have more than a fair share of options to get your health/status back.
Then there's magic. You know how in most rpgs spells usually follow three basic, set-in-stone paths. One type for healing, one for attacking, and one for status changes. And usually they're just stronger versions of the previous ones. Tales however, does away with that too. Sure, each spells has different power and cost, but due to it's fighting game nature, different spells will be more/less user friendly to use in combos. So while a spell might do a ton of damage, it might propel an enemy high into the air, out of a potential combos reach. So if you like paying attention to detail, and not mashing buttons, this game really gives you a lot to do. And that's probably the biggest understatement possible. If I were to replace every word in this review with the phrase, "THERE IS A LOT TO DO!", it still wouldn't be enough to explain it's greatness. But fret not, while it seems a bit overwhelming at first, the game allows you enough time to get used to each of it's features before moving on to the next, and with more options available to you as the game progresses, it just keeps getting better and better. And even after it's done handing out all of those tasty options, each still provides players with tons of hours to figure each and every one out to it's fullest potential. I could rave about it for hours, but I'm sure you get the point. Yeah, i'm shutting up now.

Graphics:
Oh, sweet cel-shading, how I love thee. As I mentioned earlier, I used to dismiss the somewhat current "fad" of cel-shading. But after giving it an open minded take, I found myself enjoying it. And while it might not be as silky smooth as Wind Waker is, it's still more than enough to make it one beautiful game. Characters are well drawn, not to mention well animated, The world is bright and colorful, but in no way blinding. It really captures the feel of the game perfectly, and paired with the storyline and gameplay, it's a good package through-out. The only minor nitpick I have with the graphics, is that there is a slight blurring effect that is used time to time. But aside from that, there's really nothing about it to take points away from it's presentation. And with the ability to customize nearly everything about your menu screen, both menus and character/world graphics are a nice package. No problems here.

Sound/Music:
Composed by veteran musician Motoi Sakuraba, fans of the Tales series (not to mention many, many other series who've been given his treatment) will be right at home with this soundtrack. And while there isn't exactly a game with a perfect score, each of them are extremely well done. Unlike most rpgs where songs can get a bit on the annoying side from hearing them too much, Tales has a sound that's refreshing to the ear. I'm sure I haven't heard all of the music yet, so I still have plenty to experience in the aural department as well.
Sound effects are crisp as serve their purpose well, only complimenting an already stellar package.
Voice acting, believe it or not, is very well done. A lot of reviews that I have read mention how emotion is placed into lines that seem out of place, but that couldn't be more far from the truth. Although it's not as finely crafted as say, a well dubbed anime (which are far and few in between), it does very well for an rpg, and exceeds my expectations greatly. Pretty much like everything else in the game. And a note worthy addition that I feel I must mention, my all time favorite voice actor, Cam Clarke, has a pretty big role in the game. Memories of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rushed to my mind, along with Metal Gear, Akira, Grandia II, and many other animes/games. Often times they mix themselves together, and I hear "Hello Brother, i've brought you some pizza! TETSUOOOOOOO!!! Oh ho! Hey doods! Cowabunga!", but I digress. In short, voice acting rawks. If for nothing else, it has Cam Freakin' Clarke. It's a good time for english speaking gameplayers, as the dubbing recently has been improving at a steady rate. So all in all, a great, solid soundtrack complimented by a stellar cast of voice actors (who only rarely sound out of place or uninspired).

Closing Thoughts:
All in all, this is the rpg that i've been waiting a long, long time for. Everything is just complete in here. Sound, Graphics, Storyline, and most importantly, Gameplay... this is what the gamecube needed. And thankfully, it's an exclusive in the states, so it should help a struggling system out, which it most definitely deserves. And although Star Ocean 3 and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocture are practically going to be perfect games, I can't help but feel like this game will be the number one game of the year for me. I didn't buy into the hype, as i've said before, hype usually ends up making ones expectations too high. But even if I had, nothing would have prepared me for all the minor details that this game has. Hell, even though I tried to be thorough with this review and mention every single little thing, I know that i've missed a lot. And that's really saying something. This is one of those games that should go down in history as one of the greats. While it still may be early, i'm sure it'll last the test of time. This is one amazing game.
With multiple difficulties and a near fully customizable new game plus, i'm stunned to say that this is an rpg worth playing over, and over, and over again. I'm trying hard to force myself to come up with reasons why I shouldn't give this game a perfect 10, as I don't want to sound too over-optimistic, and i'm hard pressed to do it. Yeah, the graphics could have been a touch better, even the sound. But all in all, this is as good as it gets. Considering this game well exceeded by expectations, and is an absolute riot (oh yeah, did I mention that this game is multiplayer, as well?), it would be wrong of me to not award this game with a 10. Honestly, I haven't been this happy with an rpg in a long time, and i've been playing rpgs since the very first Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior.
I'd give three thumbs up here, but sadly, I only have one. Oh wait, two. I forgot that both my thumbs still existed... after how long i've been playing this game, i'm surprised I haven't worn either thumb off yet. But the night's still early... looks like mr. thumb and I have some unfinished business with Tales of Symphonia....


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 07/19/04


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