Review by Rememberance

Reviewed: 04/20/06

Middle Child Syndrome

If you have a younger sibling you are well aware of the younger child/middle child syndrome. Basically, at times, your younger sibling will try with all their hearts to beat you at something you have already done and done better than they could hope to. It's cute and later on it teaches them where their talents lie and may eventually surpass you and make you proud. Tales of Symphonia suffers from younger sibling/middle child syndrome. Many of its mechanics and aspects seem borrowed and cloned from other, more renowned games, namely Star Ocean 2. Tales tries hard, very very hard, to be unique and special, but ends up with a watered down and cloned feel to it. By no means a horrible game, ToS at times feels a bit lack luster, especially to players who may have played some other games where ToS draws its inspiration. However, ToS has a charm all to itself which will grab many gamers and draw them in, letting them see past the cliches and cloned mechanics and view a great RPG experience.

The story of ToS is very very well done. It does get a bit convoluted late in the game, with some parts making you think "What a second, what the hell just happened?" There are some pretty big plot holes, again, late in the game. At times, it seems like the developers of the game simply wanted to put too much into the story yet just didn't know how to explain it all or just couldn't explain the story as well as they wanted. So the player is at times, left with a headache or a sense of WTFness. However, the story still progresses fairly smoothly and is well done, plot holes and problems not with standing. I have been told that this is a prequel to another Tales game, Tales of Phantasia. If that is indeed true, then that would explain a few of the holes and problems with explanations. I guess the developers either expect you to have already play ToP or expect you to play it soon after playing Tos. If that's the case, then they succeeded and failed at the same time. I definitely want to play ToP after playing this game, since it really peaked my interest into the Tales series. However, you shouldn't have to play another game to understand what is going on in the game you're currently playing, prequel, sequel or whatever. The history and background for the game is also very well done, with tons of unique stories and legends for the player to read about as the game progress. Some of which the player will disprove and others they will experience first hand. I will say however that at times the story does seem a bit cliche with how it plays out. There are several common and easily recognized plot points and characters. They're well done and are enjoyable as you play, however, they're still cliches.

Those cliches are a major reason why I call ToS a middle child. Several of its story aspects seem stolen or taken from other games. In all honesty, I could compare this game to Star Ocean 2 and the similarities would be startling. Many many aspects of SO2 seem to be incorporated into ToS. That's not saying that SO2 didn't take the same story and gameplay techniques from another game I'm just not aware of, but playing through ToS made me feel like I was playing through Star Oceans kid sister. There were so many similarities and throw backs I was taken back for awhile. One of the few areas where ToS doesn't seem to be a clone is in the character department. At least, it didn't clone SO2.

The characters are very very likable and well done in this game. And let's face it, when playing an RPG, how well you relate to the characters will influence just how much you like the game itself. Without likable characters, no one would play even if you had the best battle system and history and story lined up for your game. If you don't like who you play as, you're not going to like the game. Rest assured that, even if some of the characters are annoying, each is fleshed out, given a great history and mature as the game progresses. Several times I found myself stuck simply because I couldn't choose which characters I wanted in my party. Which is a good thing. Having that sort of trouble should be in every RPG a person plays. However, there is a distinct lack of characters in ToS. You have 2 dedicated fighters, 5 hybrid fighters, 1 healer and 1 mage. 4 of the hybrids have healing magics, but not near the level of your main healer. Unfortunately, this limits how you will play the game. Most players their first time through will stick the healer and the mage in your party and the main character Lloyd who is a dedicated melee fighter. That leaves 5 characters, all hybrids *meaning a mix of melee fighting and magic using* for your last character slot. Usually it will depend on exactly what part of the story you're at, but not having a selection of magic users or healers to choose from, limits party formation. It's not a huge problem, but sorta irked me as the game progressed. Other than that, the characters, their stories and how they relate to each other is very very well done.

There's not too much more to say about the story with out delving into the plot and giving out spoilers, no matter how minor. I will say that the story does go through many ups and downs and quite a few massive "twists" leaving both the characters and the player wondering just who they can trust. Don't worry, it all gets sorted out in the end. For the most part.

Alright, the gameplay in ToS is a double edged sword. On one hand, I loved the combat, cooking skills, "affection" and skills found within. However, the long, overly done and eventually ridiculous dungeons had me pulling out my hair and reaching for a strat guide, not because they were overly difficult to get through, but that just required sooooo much and forced so much back tracking. In fact, the dungeons are my biggest complaint with ToS, followed shortly by it's clone like feel. As I played through the game, I found myself breaking the game into sections. I could only take so many dungeons before I either had to stop for a minute and do something else or just stop for the night. Later on, the dungeons just tired me out, with repetitive block puzzles or mind benders that were for the most part just completely useless or required too much back tracking for any sane person to handle. In fact, the dungeons ruined the game for me so much that I would have given ToS a lower score than I did. However, I still enjoyed the game and had a good time playing and reading the story that I felt ToS deserved a better score. I will warn you though, if I hadn't enjoyed some aspects of the as much as I had, ToS would have easily received a score of 5 or 6, solely based on just how crappy the dungeons are. That's right, a 5 or 6. Be prepared for some very scream inducing dungeons later on. Some may even make you throw your controller down in disgust. Hopefully, the story will make you continue on in face of horrid level design.

As far as combat and character development goes, ToS again shows off its clone feel, but does it in a way that still makes it pleasurable to continue playing. In terms of skill and stat advancement ToS offers 3 systems. The first influences what skills you can learn as the game progresses. The game allows players to choose if each character will be Strike type or Technical type. Depending on what type you choose, your characters will have vastly different skills. Some characters are built more towards one type or the other and will have much better skills. The biggest example of this is your healer. If you don't choose the right character type, you are all but robbed of the strongest healing spells in the game. After you have chosen which type your character will be, you now have to learn skills. As your level advances, you gain new skills, but only if you have used earlier skills a certain amount of times. All characters will learn their basic skills at a specific level, that's not a problem. But in order to learn later, far better skills, you must use your earlier skills a set amount of times in battle *on the field and in town doesn't count". Later in the game when you gain new party members, you will feel limited, mostly because each of the new characters starts off with zero uses in their skills. They may be level 50 yet they have never once used their skills. So you either have a gimped character in your line up or you power level them for an hour or two till they catch up. Trust me, it gets annoying, especially for the hybrid characters when they have melee attacks, magic attacks and healing arts. Finally, ToS allows you to tweak your characters stats by giving them titles earned either through mini games or just by progressing the story far enough or by reaching a certain level. This is a great way to focus the characters in the way you want. The mage may still have a low natural strength score, but if you wanted to, you could give him titles and accessories that improved on that, making him a passable fighter when he has no TP left to use. You'll weaken his magic attacks, but it's up to you on just how to affect your characters stats.

I thoroughly enjoy the combat system presented in ToS and wish more RPGs would adopt a similar system. Instead of a turn based system or an active battle bar, the game plays out a bit more free form. You can move around the entire battle screen and can spam skills and attacks just as fast as your fingers can move and as long as you have the mana points to use said skills. You only fully control one character, the other 3 are controlled by the games AI system. You can dictate which skills they use and how they fight/react in battle by going into each characters tech screen and either allowing or disallowing certain techs that can be used in battle. You can also set each characters AI to suit your needs. You can change what monsters they attack, where they position themselves on the battle screen, if they use healing arts or support arts more, if they go all out with their skills or if they only use them sparingly. A few other games have done this battle system before and have done it better, but ToS takes the system and doesn't destroy it, instead, it adds to the enjoyment of this game in such a way that you do enjoy battles. Which is a good thing, because the leveling in ToS early on is horrid. Many times I feared I was underleveled and not prepared for what was coming. Also, there are no random battles, instead you can see all monsters on the screen and can run or fight as you want. Some monsters will still hunt you down and for an encounter, but for the most part, you have control on when and where you fight.

The last big gameplay elements for ToS are the cooking and affection aspects. Again, it seems that ToS borrowed ideas from other games that did these systems better and watered them down. The hidden affection does nother but alter a few late game scenes, which some people equate to separate endings. To me, it doesn't do nearly enough. A change in a late game scene is not a separate ending. The ending doesn't change in any significant way other than in the very last scene, you see a quick blip of the character you had the most affection for. No battle changes, no skill changes, nothing else is affected by affection. The only reason to go astray of the games natural affection progression is if you really really can't stand the standard coupling. Other than that, it's rather pointless as far as I am concerned. The cooking aspect is fun and proves to be a minor mini game. As you collect more recipes you can heal your characters more after battle *allowing you to save those precious healing items for bosses* and cure status ailments. Each character has an innate cooking rank for each of the different foods you can cook. Some characters will stink no matter how hard you try while others may just not be able to cook a certain dish, but will be masters at another. Again, other games did this better and in more depth, but ToS does it well adds a bit of variety to how someone plays the game.

For a semi old game, ToS shines in the graphics and audio departments. I'm not a huge fan of cell shading, but with ToS, it adds a bit of flavor and charm to the game. Nintendo seems to be using these technique with several of their games and it does well, but sometimes I felt I was playing a completely different game, their style being so related to ToS'. It's a shame, but again, the charm added to this game by being cell shaded was great and I did enjoy the visuals. In battle, each spell and technique is unique, some of the later spells being just pure eye candy. Levels are well done and vibrant and a joy to walk through, even if solving them is horrid. Some town are just spectacular and will quickly become a players favorite areas in the game.

The audio and sound tracks are very very well done. The music is enjoyable and the voice actors did a very good job. However, I do have one complaint with the acting. Did they have to use the Teen Titans Robin for Lloyds voice actor. During several climatic fights and scenes I was half expecting Lloyd to scream out "TITANS! GO!" and throw a birdagrang at his foe. That's more of my own problem than a problem with the game. Robins voice actor does a grand job of voicing Lloyd and I enjoyed it. Still though, as a joke, just once, they should have had Lloyd scream Robins battle cry. I would have laughed so hard and it would have been just a little fan service. Still, the sounds are top notch and I found myself turning up my TVs volume just so I could hear the music that much better.

ToS still feels like a watered down clone of better games to me. As I mentioned earlier, ToS to me feels like a watered down and cloned version of Star Ocean 2. I'm not saying that Tales of Symphonia isn't a good game. It is. However, I got the distinct impression that ToS was trying to emulate SO2 and while not quite surpassing that game, made a memorable gaming experience none the less. My biggest peeves, the dungeons and the clone feel, by no means kept me from playing the game and other aspects of the game that I did enjoy kept the game from getting a much lower score, based solely on how much I enjoyed them. However, ToS may not appeal to everyone and aspects I really disliked may keep some people from even trying this game. I will warn any player right now, the dungeons late game are horrid, mind numbingly horrid. And even though ToS does feel like a middle child trying and striving to impress its older siblings, it's still a gaming experience any avid RPG fan should have. Even my boyfriend who isn't all that into RPGs enjoyed ToS. Its appeal across gaming fields is a sign that, while not a break through hit by any means, it's still worthy of purchase and will have a welcome home in many gaming libraries.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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