Review by LegatoBluesommers
"One outstanding game in the short list of quality JRPGs on the 360"
When a gamer hears the letters RPG, the first thought tends to have something to do with characters like Cloud Strife, Squall Leonhart, and their Final Fantasy series kin. However, one RPG series not developed by Square Enix that has been gaining notoriety in the past few years is Namco's Tales series. Though it has been a long running affair dating back to mid 90s, the game that really propelled the series into the spotlight was the GameCube hit Tales of Symphonia back in 2003. The newest installment, Tales of Vesperia, takes Symphonia's winning formula and polishes it to a shine. The XB360 has been weak on the RPG front due to its poor sales performance in Japan, but ToV is a quality game that could very well start turning that trend around.
The world of Terca Lumeris is a fairly prosperous one: life has been made easier due to magical artifacts known as blastia, which serve many different purposes, the most important of which being the barriers which defend the human cities from the monsters that roam the land. It is in one of these cities, the capital city of Zaphias, where we meet Yuri Lowell, a former knight of the empire that controls much of the continent. Yuri lives in the city's lower quarter with its poor and unfortunate, who are shunned and mistreated by the nobles who live in other areas of the city. One day, the aque blastia that maintains the lower quarter's water supply suddenly disappears, creating chaos as the uncontrolled water floods the area. Yuri learns of an imperial scientist who had recently been researching this particular blastia and goes to his home in the noble quarter on suspicion of theft. However, to Yuri's dismay, he is the one who gets arrested by the knights for trespassing, and is locked up in the castle dungeon. Naturally, he escapes, but things take a turn for the interesting as he runs into Estellise, a young noble who is being pursued by the castle guard for some reason. She says she is looking for a knight by the name of Flynn Scifo who, conveniently enough, is Yuri's closest friend. However, Flynn is on duty away from the capital, and Yuri, also needing to leave the city to pursue the aque blastia thief, agrees to take her with him to find Flynn. And so the adventure begins.
If there's one thing the Tales series is proficient at, it's creating large scale, lengthy narratives with strong character development, and Vesperia is no different. The overarching scheme is a common one in RPGs: young hero leading a fairly normal life gets drawn to a small conflict through a series of not-so-normal events, meeting some new comrades on the way, and the conflict that once was small gains a new twist here and there until it becomes a much larger one. What makes the game's story so compelling how its characters respond both to the things they encounter and with each other, and on this front Yuri is easily the most intriguing character in the game. His strong sense of justice isn't anything new for RPG protagonists, but the extremes to which he goes to see that justice carried out (particularly against the more corrupt souls that cross his path) is what gives him an edge. In fact, justice is a prevailing theme throughout much of the game, and it's always unfortunate in those instances where the game's focus shifts away from it. This is especially true in the second half of the game, where much of the story is devoted towards exploring the mysteries of blastia rather than bringing resolution to the conflict surrounding Yuri's tendencies toward vigilantism. The game's supporting cast is a mishmash of some tried and true RPG archetypes (the dirty old man, the cowardly boy, the abrasive intellectual, etc), and while they aren't as interesting as Yuri, they are executed well enough that they don't feel like a drag on the story. The main thing the story lacks is a strong cast of villains. While there are several badnicks that Yuri and co. meet in the game, their characters aren't explored well enough to get a good feel for just how evil (or just misunderstood) they really are. This is most easily seen in the game's last villain, who felt rather forced into the role of causing problems for the party just because there wasn't anybody else left to do so.
The gameplay of Vesperia is derived heavily from the template that most Tales games follow. While on the field or in a dungeon area, battles are not random: you can see enemies markers (which may represent any number of enemies) wandering about, and making contact with them initiates battle. On the battle screen, you control only one character of your party directly while the others are handled either by AI or other players. While the field exists in 3D, normally you can only move in 2D on the plane between you and your targeted enemy, while the camera view looks directly at this plane (like in a fighting game). However, one addition to the series since Symphonia is the free run command, which pans the camera out and allows you to run around the field freely in 3D. However, since your fighting abilities are limited in this view, it is mainly used for evasion. In the normal view, you use a three button combat scheme: basic attacks, special attacks (called artes), and defense. Basic attacks can be chained together to do combos, and change in speed and range depending on the character, which weapon type they are using (for example, Yuri can equip swords and axes, but attacks faster with swords), and directional input. Basic attacks also refill the character's tech point (TP) supply, which in turn is consumed using artes. Artes are divided into strike and magic artes. Magic artes are spells that activate after a certain period of time after being cast. Strike artes are weapon techniques that activate immediately and can be chained with basic attacks to extend combos. As characters level up and use their existing artes, they can also unlock new ones. One twist that has been added is the fatal strike, which allows you to defeat enemies with one blow after they have taken enough damage from certain kinds of attacks. What makes the whole setup so attractive is the freedom the player has to choose their own fighting style. If you prefer to be on the frontlines constantly wailing on enemies, Yuri is a good choice. However, Yuri can't use magic artes, so those who prefer long distance combat would be better suited to other characters. The AI control for the unmanned characters is good, but not great. They do a good job of staying active in the fight and fulfilling their battle roles, but sometimes they make very poor decisions. For example, Estellise makes good use of her vast array of healing spells on her own to keep the party in good health, but will too often use a much stronger (and more costly) spell than the situation calls for. Also, while you can customize the strategy each AI controlled character uses, they tend not to follow it very well.
The game's visual style will seem very familiar to those accustomed to anime. The use of color is vibrant and exaggerated, and the environments sport considerable detail and variety. Those looking for the kind of realism you'd see in something like Gears of War won't find it here, but in truth the style employed here is much better suited for the characters and the adventure. Also noteworthy is how well the graphical fluidity is maintained despite all the hectic activity in battle: slowdown is virtually nonexistent. Vesperia does an excellent job in the sound department, especially the score. Composer Motoi Sakuraba's work is first class in this game, as the soundtrack stays in almost perfect harmony with the action on screen, and there are more than a few tracks that will find their way onto gamers' MP3 players. The English voice acting is shaky in spots (the young boy Karol, in particular, can be quite grating), but at least passable in most cases. However, special mention is due to Troy Baker, who absolutely nailed his performance as Yuri. True to form, Vesperia is also overflowing with optional quests and such, adding value to what is already a lengthy game (around 40 hours).
In many ways, Vesperia is simply a natural progression of the Tales series onto today's gaming hardware, but it stays unique with some positive gameplay tuning and solid storytelling. On a system that hasn't been too kind so far to its RPG fans, this game is a reminder that the genre most certainly isn't dead. It has that special something that many RPGs in the past few years have lacked, but was so commonplace in the days of the PS1: an adventure so robust that it warrants playing twice. Or more.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 12/04/08
Game Release: Tales of Vesperia (US, 08/26/08)
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