Review by discoinferno84

"Your hero's destined to waver..."

Luke fon Fabre is the most unlikely RPG hero ever. As a teenaged member of nobility, he has been raised sheltered in unimaginable wealth and privilege. Not only is he spoiled and self-centered, but he's completely ignorant of how the world works. He's lazy, whiny, and oblivious to anything beyond leisure. He uses a childhood kidnapping and the resulting amnesia as an excuse for his irresponsibility. He occasionally hears a mysterious voice in his head, but he lacks the common sense to tell anyone. His family has forbidden him to leave the manor grounds; his parents know he'd make an easy political target, and he's far too idiotic to function in society. Luke is happily resigned to spend the rest of his like basking in blissful ignorance, a pathetic shell of a human being.

One botched assassination attempt later, and he's accidentally teleported to the middle of nowhere. With only Tear Grants – a member of an enemy nation's military – as his reluctant companion, Luke has to somehow get back home. It's a slow process; this kid has barely held a sword, let alone killed anything with one. These humble beginnings are what make Tale of the Abyss's subtext so interesting. Luke's growth into a hero is one of several deconstructions of common RPG cliches. While amnesia is typically used to explain gameplay features within the narrative, its effect on Luke is a driving aspect of the plot. It renders him foolish, vulnerable, and easily manipulated. Duality – both literally and philosophically – creates conflict and gives depth to each of the ensemble cast's personality. No one, heroic or villainous, is what they appear to be. The concept of destiny is also tested; nearly all of the characters follow the words of a magical horoscope without questioning its validity or implications. Defying fate, seeking truths, accepting responsibility, and developing identity are the key themes of the surprisingly compelling story.

The majority of Luke's quest involves traveling to various towns and slaughtering anything along the way. Thanks to the quick pacing and an informative synopsis, it's easy to keep track of what you're supposed to be doing. The dungeons are brief and underwhelming; the most challenging puzzles include little more than moveable crates or sneaking past guards. All the creativity is focused on combat mechanics. The party will gradually grow into six members, each with unique abilities. While Luke has heavy-hitting physical attacks, his fellow swordsman Guy relies on speed and maneuverability. Tear's healing techniques are balanced by Jade's wide variety of offensive spells. Natalia's archery-based projectiles provide decent cover fire, and Anise's close-ranged punches are devastating. Since only four characters can participate in battle, groups are formed based on whatever playing styles are preferred. Given that the fights operate in real-time and allow three-dimensional movement, keeping focused on the party's performance is vital. AI-controlled characters can be programmed to focus on different enemies, consume or conserve magical energy, and attack or defend respectively. It's possible to survive by mindlessly button mashing, but it's far more beneficial to time movements and rack up combos. If done well, you'll be able to overwhelm anything.

The more technical aspects of the strategy revolve around building the characters and utilizing their abilities. Whenever magic is performed, it temporarily leaves behind a small circle of energy. If another character activates a spell within it, the attack's elemental attributes are altered and create devastating chain reactions. While such techniques are necessary on harder difficulty settings, you'll get more mileage out of AD Skills system. By equipping various artifacts, the heroes will gain extra boosts to their stats each time they level up. This process gradually unlocks dozens of secondary abilities that can be used in battle. They cover a huge range of perks, like extra health points, chargeable moves, faster spell-casting, aerial recoveries, and countering. Individual spells can be further customized to boost attack power and status effects. All of these options provide tons of freedom with regards to the design of your party; it allows you to experiment and develop the characters beyond their obvious roles. Mastering these features add plenty of depth to an already engaging game.

While staying on top of everything is simple, it could have been done better. Rather than revamping Tales of the Abyss with the 3DS in mind, Namco chose to port the game as directly as possible. None of the menus are put on the touch screen; you have to traverse the folders and screens the old fashioned way. It's not a huge problem, but Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D demonstrated how much a console title could benefit from touch-based interface. All of its potential is wasted on an option that maps and activates spells to on-screen icons. The game makes up for its oversight by drastically improving upon the flaws of its predecessor. The original version was suffered from horrendously slow loading times and slowed to a crawl during intense battles. Aside from the occasional clipping and dragging on the world map, the lag is almost non-existent here. It makes the entire process far less tedious than what it could have been.

It's a shame that such improvements didn't extend to everything else. Tales of the Abyss looked great on the PS2, but doesn't translate well on the 3DS screen. The colors looked slightly washed out, and some surfaces lack texturing. The character models move smoothly, but are grainy at a distance. Despite their flashy lighting and dazzling effects, the spells look practically identical in both 2D and 3D. It's disappointing, given how well Pushmo and Kid Icarus: Uprising utilize the system's functionality. Instead, the game focuses more on keeping everything that made the original version so memorable. All of the dialogue and cut scenes have been retained with their superb voice acting and anime-style art intact. The wide variety of side quests, unlockable titles, bonus weapons and spells, coliseum challenges, hidden bosses, extra difficulty settings, and New Game Plus are all present and accounted for. If you can see past its unpolished surface, you'll be rewarded with an adventure that can potentially last several dozen hours on a single play-through. What the game lacks in style, it more than makes up in substance.

Tales of the Abyss is an amazing game. Its story is a clever deconstruction of the ideas used in countless other RPGs. The characters have depth and undeniable charm. The combat system is an engaging blend of fast-paced swordplay and intricate combo-based techniques. The sheer amount of moves, secondary abilities, customizable spells, stat tweaking, and AI programming allow you to freely design a party based around your playing style. The side quests and other unlockables add tons of content to the lengthy adventure. The terrible loading times and slowdown that plagued the original are nowhere to be seen. However, the game fails to fully utilize the 3DS's capabilities; the touch screen is barely used, and the transition to 3D makes it look dated and unfinished. Had there been more system-specific features and more polished graphics, it would have been perfect. Despite such shortcomings, Tales of the Abyss is crammed with content and is easily among the best the 3DS has to offer. One of the greatest console RPGs of its generation is now in the palm of your hand.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 04/03/12

Game Release: Tales of the Abyss (US, 02/14/12)

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