Review by Gunarm Dyne
"Tales of Addiction"
I'll start off by saying that this game is the primary reason why I even got an XBox 360 to begin with. Even though a PS3 port is in development with additional content, I don't regret buying and playing through this version one bit. Now then, onto the breakdown:
While the story begins with the protagonist, Yuri Lowell's, efforts to retrieve an object that allows his home neighborhood (the slums of the Imperial Capital) to have a constant supply of clean water, the whole of the plot follows the standard template for the Tales series in that the game can be separated into three distinct Parts or Chapters, with each Part ending with a major boss defeat that provides a sense of closure for one area but allows a twist or opening for the next segment of the story. This process takes a simple beginning and turns it into an epic adventure that quickly involves everyone on the planet.
The story itself is fairly easy to follow so long as the technicalities of the blastia technology within the game don't distract the player from the big picture. The characters in the game are able to understand the idiosyncrasies of how their own technology works, allowing the player to follow the main plot and enjoy the game itself. A few of the story elements are cliched- such as the final antagonist being a grave threat to the world that the ancient people couldn't destroy, while some others offer a fresh twist and allow for great character development.
This is one of the shining points of the game. Not only are the 8 playable party members very distinct and become very memorable, the same can be said about several of the antagonists and even a few of the NPCs. Every major character in the game receives a substantial amount of development as they work to overcome their own personal demons while on their quest to save the world. Perhaps the best interaction comes during scenes between Yuri and Flynn where the two basically take turns chiding one another for forgetting their ideals or taking a potentially deadly path while retaining their lifelong friendship.
Other unexpected attributes of the characters are their unique characteristics and fighting styles. This is one of the few games out there where the main character is left-handed, the character who uses the heaviest weapons is a 12-year-old boy, and one of the main party members is a dog who is perhaps even more human than the humans themselves. The voice actors in the English version did a very commendible job in capturing the essence of everyone's personalities very well.
In addition to the normal story elements, the game incorporates a series of optional skits that allow for a glimpse into personal conversations between the party or even some of their inner thoughts. Many of these skits can be triggered after major story elements but several others can occur by staying in one area for a certain amount of time, completing or not completing certain optional tasks, or even by taking a certain action in the right place. While a lot of these skits are serious in nature, much of the game's humor takes place in them as well. One great example is to cook the Sorbet recipe while in the game's ice dungeon during Part 2 (or any subsequent return). One of the towns that becomes available late in the game allows the player to view any skits that became available during the game up to that point.
While the game by no means takes full advantage of the graphics potential that the 360 has, I'm actually glad that it doesn't because then it wouldn't feel like a Tales game. The characters are cel-shaded and have a great array of expressions, the town layouts are simple and have all of the necessary facilities for game progression while their appropriate sizes are shown in backgrounds, and the world is huge and ripe for exploration.
The characters themselves are definitely designed according to their personalities. Yuri's long hair and how he draws his sword are both indications of his laid back attitude but also of someone who enjoys a good fight. At the same time, people with airs of a regal nature like Estelle and Flynn show their stances on maintaining a presentable appearance despite having to rush into swarms of monsters. While every character can be used as a strong example, there is absolutely nothing that beats Rita's mismatched socks!
None of the towns take more than a few minutes to explore and this helps keep the focus on the battle aspect of the gameplay. After fighting several battles, the party can enter a town, rest at an inn, restock supplies and ingredients, and be back on the map in about two minutes. Even though nearly all of the towns are far larger than what can be explored, adding those portions would just be a waste of time and space.
The world map is absolutely huge and most areas can be explored immediately after obtaining the ship (so long as the player doesn't head for the city that advances the plot at that time). This allows the player the chance to obtain several synthesis ingredients and take on tougher enemies for a bit of a challenge and to get some extra experience. Sadly, the option to fully explore nearly three full continents is entirely optional. By the time the story reaches those continents, the team has gained the ability to fly and they can just land in front of each location on those continents that serve as the next dungeon.
One factor that I particularly liked, even though it doesn't fully come into play until Part 3, is the weather system. If the party camps out or enters a certain area, the weather is very likely to change from sunny daytime to night, heavy rain, fog, snow, or strong winds. Nearly every different area is affected by the weather changes in the form of different enemies, which adds to the exploration factor when it comes to trying to fill out the Monster Book or gain certain synthesis materials.
The game's simple, yet easy-to-look-at design and town layout while offering a huge incentive to explore the nearly 100 regions in the world definitely add to the full enjoyment factor while playing.
Most of the gameplay involves traversing around the world and various dungeons while progressing through the main plot and allowing for a massive amounts of side quests. The world map has a free-rotating camera that allows the player to view the area at different angles and decide how best to view the path ahead while towns and dungeons have a fixed camera. In both cases, enemies are encountered by making contact with them on the map. If two or more groups of enemies are close enough, the party will fight all of them at the same time, adding to the challenge of the battle.
The battle system itself follows its predecessors in the real-time battle system that allows one or more players to take control of one of the characters while the AI handles everyone else according to a strategy set by the player. Like Tales of the Abyss, Vesperia incorporates a Free Run system that allows the character to move over the entire circular battle field rather than be stuck in a linear position the whole time. This effectively allows the characters to circle the enemy and more easily get around some attacks and spells. One major flaw in the battle system, however, is an occasional situation on the edge of the field where one character will charge at an enemy in a straight line and get stuck against the edge rather than travel along it in order to actually reach the enemy. Breaking out of this requires either allowing the enemy to move to another spot where the character can approach it from a straight line or use the Free Run to move the character. Other than that, the system is very solid.
Aside from the battle system, the game follows its predecessors in the series by having an enormous cooking system. As the game progresses, the team can learn recipes by seeking out the Wonder Chef, a character who disguises himself as strange object and grants the team recipes for finding him. The team can also learn new recipes through side quests and by having a particular character cook a certain dish several times. Each recipe can be cooked once before either needing to fight a battle or stay at an inn. Since each character has to cook a recipe about 20 times to fully master it cooking after every battle whenever possible is highly reccommended. Cooking also offers several bonuses such as refilling the party's HP or boosting certain stats for the next battle. Thus it's definitely a good idea to save some ingredients for after a tough battle or before a boss fight (when there isn't a save point that restore's the party's health automatically).
Like all of the other recent Tales games, Tales of Vesperia is meant to be played several times. Various incentives for this include earning special titles for characters that also allow them to change their outfits, completing the game's Monster and Collector books by analyzing every enemy in the game with a special Magic Lens item and collecting every single item in the game. The XBox 360 itself also awards Achievements for meeting many of these requirements as well. While it is possible to collect 100% of everything in the game itself in a single playthrough (including all of the titles, items, monsters, etc.), at least 2 additional runs are required to unlock all of the Achievements.
As a means of customizing the experience to keep it fresh, the game offers a special currency called Grade. Grade points are awarded or negated during battle depending on the team's performance. By taking damage or using an elemental attack that doesn't hurt an enemy, points are lost, while finishing under a certain time, creating high combos, or achieving Secret Missions during many of the boss fights, points are awarded. Before starting a New Game after beating the story once, the player has the option to spend Grade points at a special shop that changes the game's settings. Many of these allow for carrying over the previous run's data so the efforts spent to master recipes, skills, and filling out the Monster and Collector books don't have to be repeated. The shop also offers a challenge in setting up the game to allow the team to only earn 1/2 of the normal amount of experience points, allowing for a low-level run of the game while an option for 2x or even 10x the experience allows time to be saved on grinding for levels.
Aside from replaying the main story, the game encourages using a mix of party members, especially by allowing the player to remove Yuri from the active party and control any character they wish. Nearly all of the characters come equipped with a great balance of skills to customize their abilities to meet the player's tastes. In most cases, each member offers positive skills that set him/her aside from the others. The one exception to this is Raven, who I've dubbed "The Load" because he's one of those who comes with certain abilities, but other characters beat him out in those. Of course placing him in the active party can still be done for those who want him included.
The music is the highest point of the game. Every selection in the soundtrack is perfectly catered to the situation it's used in and helps contribute to the atmosphere based on the current events or what the characters are doing. The second overworld theme, "March of Brave Vesperia" is my personal favorite track in the game. Listening to it never got dull and made traversing the enormous world map not feel like a chore at all. The orchestral soundtrack compliments the overall game in a manner that can't very well be described in words and has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated.
In short, RPG fans and fans of the Tales series in particular will not be disappointed with this latest entry. Despite some minor flaws and a bit of a learning curve for people who have never played a game in the series in the battle system, Tales of Vesperia offers a unique experience that will be very difficult to emulate in future titles. For those with an XBox 360, this title is a must-have. For those with a PS3, here's hoping that its port will reach US shores.
REPLAY VALUE: High
FINAL SCORE 9.3
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 04/21/10
Game Release: Tales of Vesperia (Special Edition) (US, 08/26/08)
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