Review by ConfusedGuy

"A Tale to remember."

Namco's Tales series of games has its own set of unique trappings in the world of modern RPGs. The most prominent of these is its battle system: a real-time action-oriented brawl that puts menu-based RPGs in their place. Symphonia, however, is landmark among them for two of its own reasons.
The first is that ToS is the first Tales game to use a 3D battle screen (which you'll hear more about later). The second is that only about half of the Tales series has been officially released in North America, and an American release of Tales of Symphonia had been promised from the start - and with the runaway success it's enjoyed so far, many are hoping that it's a sign of more to come.

Tales of Symphonia begins with a legend: long ago, there was a great tree of Mana, under which the world prospered. But then a terrible war caused the tree to wither and die. The great legendary hero, Mithos, made a sacrifice so that the world might live again, and the goddess Martel was so struck that she fell into slumber. Since then, it has been the goal of a Chosen one to reawaken Martel and regenerate the world.

This epic prologue is followed by a quaint classroom scene in the little town of Iselia that introduces the world of Sylvarant. The scene introduces the game's key characters: Lloyd, a lazy boy who isn't especially bright; Genis, an accomplished scholar (though still a child); Raine, the professor, as well as Genis's older sister; and Colette, the Chosen of Regeneration. Colette is exceptionally clumsy and, for lack of a better term, blond - yet it is her fate to save the world.

The entire scene paints a fairly goofy picture for the game, bringing the plot crashing down to earth from its previously lofty heights. But then the quest begins. Colette is called to the nearby chapel of Martel to receive an oracle from the heavens, divining her on the path of regeneration. The Desians, an oppressive organization of half-elves who herd humans for unknown tortures, sweep through Iselia and invade the chapel. The invaders are about to kill the Chosen when a mercenary appears, mysteriously skilled and knowledgeable, to help the group.

Colette and the others meet with the oracle, who tells them where the Chosen's quest shall take her first. The group returns to town, and Lloyd starts off for home - but is interrupted by a request from Genis, bringing the two to a nearby Human Ranch (which has a non-aggression treaty with Iselia). They run into some trouble, and before you know it, everyone's upset and Iselia is in flames. Monsters attack. Innocent people get caught in the crossfire. A Desian Grand Cardinal shows up. Lloyd and Genis are banished from Iselia forever. And that's just the first two hours.

From its humble start, Tales of Symphonia exhibits storytelling of the highest caliber. The plot is filled with heroism, deception, conspiracy, and strife; every party member (the playable cast eventually comes to nine characters) has his or her own backstory and unique personality. The writing is complete and interesting, and the pacing keeps players on the edges of their theoretical seats, with new surprises every minute, and two new questions for every answer. The story is told not only in in-game dialogue scenes, but also in "skits" (activated by the Z button at certain moments) - these skits are optional, but round out the characters and story excellently.

Of course, Symphonia's engrossing story is only half the Tale. The general mechanics of dungeon and town scenes are fairly predictable - a semi-fixed camera sees the party walk in 3D space; and traveling on the field is somewhat standard - a movable camera (it should be said that the control here can be slightly awkward) sees the party walk over plains, through forests, and around mountains. Both in the field and in dungeons, enemy encounters are almost wholly avoidable, as they have on-screen manifestations (ala Super Mario RPG, EarthBound, and other similar titles). But through its adaptation of the Tales battle system and several other elements all its own, Tales of Symphonia's combat is something truly never before seen.

The Tales series's Linear Motion Battle System (LMBS) has historically been its claim to fame. Once in a battle screen, both your party and the enemy party appear on the side-scrolling scene. There are no turns: all the action plays out in real time. You control the lead character, which you can change as desired, and the rest of the party is AI controlled (you also have the option of customizing their AI to make them more offensive or defensive, alter their moving behavior, specify what to do in certain situations, and more). You have an enemy targeted, and can change this target as you see fit - you can move toward or away from the target manually, and strike the target using a main action button. You can chain together button-presses and directional input to do multi-hit combos; in fact, the Tales battle system encourages combos and challenges players to see how many hits they can string together.

At any time, you can also bring up a control menu. This pauses the action, and allows you to do more advanced actions. You can order an AI party member to take a certain action (for instance, cast a healing spell), use items, even change equipment and AI configurations mid-battle. These actions aren't instant, though - they become queued up in battle, and add to the real-time brawl. Your own special techniques, magic spells and special moves, can be assigned to hotkey button combinations to use in real-time in the battle. All in all, it's a pretty brilliant system, combining the fast-paced action of a fighting game with the planning and strategy of a menu-based RPG. What's more, you can have additional human players plug in a controller and take control of the other party members manually.

Tales of Symphonia takes the LMBS to the next level. Its system, dubbed ML-LMBS (Multi-Line Linear Motion Battle System), preserves and extends LMBS into the third dimension. Essentially, when you target an enemy, the linear path between you and the enemy becomes the new "Linear Motion" paradigm - everything else plays out the same. In doing so, ML-LMBS also incorporates a number of three-dimensional proximity effects which can be used to your strategic advantage, e.g. doing a sideways sword swipe will damage not only the enemy in front of you, but also the enemy directly next to it. This also makes area-effect spells (like a circle in which party members enjoy gradual healing) both effective and impressive.

Moves themselves enjoy a number of complications. Each character has a different "type" - T for Technical or S for Strike, which determines what techniques the character will learn (based on using ones he already knows). The type can be altered by equipping EX Gems, which also add unique attributes, from increased statistics to a faster running speed. There are Unison Attacks, which string together a technique from each party member in one glorious strike. Each character also has a set of titles, some learned through the story and some through optional sidequests; depending which title is 'equipped', different statistics will increase by different amounts when a character levels up. The level of character customization in Tales of Symphonia is unprecedented.

Outside of the thrilling battle system, Symphonia has every gameplay device you'd expect and more. You can shop for and equip weapons, armor, and accessories, some pieces unique to each character. You can also use old equipment to craft new pieces, using raw materials instead of Gald (the game's currency). There are status effects, like paralysis, poison, and petrification. Consumable items follow predictable paths, though with another staple exception of the Tales series - instead of items which restore certain amounts of HP or TP ("Technical Points") and become obsolete as the game progresses, the Gel items restore percentages of HP or TP. An Apple Gel, for instance, restores 30% of a character's maximum HP, no matter how low or high that HP is. In this way, you don't have to worry about keeping up with the item treadmill, nor do all those items you bought in the last town become useless.

Another Tales gameplay device, put to use in the game's dungeons, is the Sorcerer's Ring. This ring can adopt new functions in new dungeons (depending on the design), and this function is used within the dungeon to open doors and solve puzzles. For instance, the default function of a small fireball can be used to stun enemy parties before encountering them, to burn small logs or drapes, to light torches. An alternate function can turn the fireball into a jolt of electricity, which can be used to activate electric generators. Yet another function lets you place bombs to blow up boulders. It can be used as a flashlight, an earthquake machine, a fan, and more. The ring adds a lot of depth to the dungeons.

Speaking of the dungeons, with the exception of a few towards the very end of the game, Symphonia's dungeons aren't labyrinthine mazes whose main challenge is finding where to go. The dungeons in ToS are short and to the point, using enemies and puzzles, not size, as difficulty. These puzzles are mostly of the block-pushing variety, but are fairly sophisticated for their roots, often involving holes in the floor, elevators, and other complicating obstacles. Symphonia's dungeon puzzles are, for an RPG, surprisingly deep.

There are a lot more gameplay elements to be found in Symphonia, too. Multiple methods of field transit; minigames which test your memory and attention; the Katz exploration team, which can be paid to pick up your slack by finding treasures and landmarks; Grade points, a unique statistic which can be used to purchase exceptionally rare valuables; even a system of cooking, with nearly two-dozen dishes. You can play through Tales of Symphonia all the way to the end, and barely scratch all it has to offer.

The game is a wonder to look at, too. The cel-shaded graphics are some of the best seen anywhere, and every area of the game looks beautiful. Characters are vibrant and full of energy; environments are picturesque and inspiring. There are even a few fully animated cutscenes - the only disappointment is that there aren't more of them. Symphonia also has it down in the audio department, using sound effects that fit perfectly with the actions on-screen, voice overs which are almost entirely well-acted, and a soundtrack that's well-composed and great to listen to. There are only a few tracks which can get on your nerves, but you'll outgrow them before long.

Though Namco claims a play time of 80 hours, it's more realistic to estimate 40-50 for a single play-through; but there's plenty to keep you coming back. Aside from the near-endless character customization, there are also a number of challenging and thrilling sidequests. Tales of Symphonia also uses possibly the greatest implementation of "New Game +" to date - once you're done, you can use the Grade points you've earned in battle to buy upgrades for a new game. Some of these will enhance the game (like experience and item modifiers), and some will actually allow you to carry your previous spoils on to the next game. And, since to get *everything* you'll need to play through multiple times, you'll probably get quite a use out of the Grade Shop options.

Tales of Symphonia is an incredibly deep game, and a true work of art. The story is well-written, the gameplay is exhilarating, and the extraneous offerings are plenty. Even if you're not interested in the story or character customization, you can skip the skits and leave battle settings on their defaults to just beat stuff up in armed combat. ToS is a classic in its own time.

Overall arbitrary rating: 10/10

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 07/27/04, Updated 07/27/04

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