Review by Relle
"Something wonderful this way comes..."
Very few people outside the hardcore RPG fandom have played Tales of Phantasia for SNES. More recognize the later Playstation title, Tales of Destiny. Might've helped that Tales of Destiny and its respective sequel was actually released in America. Well, now Tales of Symphonia, a game not in continuity with the rest of the Tales universe (or so Namco says...) has been released on the Nintendo Gamecube. With the shortage of RPGs on the little cube, is this title really that great, or just a brief release from the horror that is the lack of good role-playing games?
The former. Really, it's the former. And here's why.
Like always, I feel I must start at the beginning, and in this case, it's in a classroom. Not a bad place to start, all things considered. The story will instantly remind you of Grandia 2 and Final Fantasy X. The world of Sylvarant is in decline. The evil Desians are running slave camps, mana is disappearing, and everything's generally crappy. Cue the Chosen, a girl born in times of need who must go on a journey with her entourage of bodyguards, unlock the various seals, enter a big tower, and essentially save the world. Really, right up to the tower you'll be thinking 'Final Fantasy X!' After that it'll be 'Okay, what's next?'
Namco must've had a grab bag of plot twists all ready for this game, because there are a lot of them. Some are recognizable from several miles away, while others will take you completely by surprise. I'd liken it to a soap opera, except there's very little face slapping and tossing of wine into one's face. Not to mention there's no organ music stinging a dramatic moment. What's that about, huh? Anyway, as a whole, however, the story is one of the better 'tales' to be told, especially with the cast you're given.
I have to say, this is one of the more likeable casts I've seen in an RPG. It's not just the characters who are appealing in their personalities, it's...everything. While Colette may be soft-spoken, clumsy and apologize far too easily, I can't help but smile when she does. I can't help but cheer on Lloyd, or grin as Raine investigates another artifact, or stare at Sheena's bra. Okay, that last one has nothing to do with personality, but...well, anyway, I like 'em.
It certainly helps that they're given voice by an equally great cast that matches their personalities. The voice acting in particular is a ways above other games that attempt to lend a human touch to the audible portion, though some lines are not said with the inflection they could be. In other words, some lines are not said as dramatically as they could be, or with as much feeling, but overall the quality is quite impressive.
It goes beyond that, though. This is one of the really few games where it doesn't matter who your party is. Characters have their strengths and weaknesses, but more than that, everyone gains experience points, techs, titles and levels whether or not they go into battle. That's incredibly important, at least to me, because so many other RPGs either only give points to the active party, or force you to use characters you haven't leveled up properly (or both), the latter of which strikes me as a crime against humanity. Not so in Tales. If you neglect a character in combat for half the game, then encounter a boss that requires their presence, they'll be just as strong as your A-team, ready and rarin' to go.
Speaking of battle, if you've never played a Tales game before, consider yourself in for a treat. There are no random battles. You can see every encounter before you get into it, though on the world map you won't see the creatures until you're fairly close to them. For the most part, you can avoid combat, though there are a few battles that are unavoidable by design. Hey, you can't dodge violence forever.
There is no menu-based turn-taking here. Battles are played out in real time, with active participation, much like an action game. You attack, bust out techs and spells, guard against enemy strikes, and above all, contribute to the further extinction of the monster races. It's a damned fun event, especially considering the various abilities and combos you can unleash on the unsuspecting assortment of beasties. I've often found myself searching for another battle just to try out a new tech I learned in the last one.
Fortunately, you're not alone in all this. Your three other battle companions are computer-controlled, though if you want, you can plug in a few more controllers and let your buddies take part in the action. Yes, you can play Tales in multiplayer, but it only works for battles. In between combat, only player 1 can move around and do stuff. Your friends can, of course, give helpful suggestions and comments, though I seem to recall someone saying to me, "Make them jiggle more!" when I had Sheena up on screen...
Outside of battle, you have the world map, which is not as impressive graphically as the rest of the game. The majority of the towns and dungeons are done in an excellent cel-shaded style and really shows off what a good team of artists can do. However, the world map is somewhere between N64 and early PS2 quality in terms of graphics. Not like that matters in the long run, but if graphics are that important to you, you're shallow and another word I can't say in good company. Er...sorry, never mind.
One thing of fantastically wonderful design I should mention is this game is quite non-linear at points. This is both good and bad. Good, for obvious reasons (freedom of choice, exploration, etc.) but it can end up with you entering an area with monsters beyond your ability, not to mention screwing with the game's preferred order of events. However, it's entirely possible to take two or more completely different routes through the game in subsequent playthroughs. While you may encounter a boss that'll wipe you out in under ten seconds, at least you had the freedom to get there, right? Right.
Besides, the challenge of it all is a real draw. Symphonia is one of the few RPGs of late that has really challenged me, given me a sense of purpose in my leveling up rather than just the ordinary obsessive-compulsiveness. It's not an unreasonable difficulty, either. You want to fight these creatures. You want to make them suffer. If they should happen to beat the living daylights out of you, that's no problem. They didn't beat you with cheap attacks or cheesy special powers, they did it because you weren't prepared. Just go out, level up a bit, then come back and show them your new skills. This is one of those games that gives you an honest challenge, one you can overcome through hard work and quick reflexes.
Yes, an honest challenge. One that will pummel you about the face, kick you in the shins, knee you in the groin, and other unmentionable acts. Then, when it's all over and you're crouched in the fetal position, you'll stand up, raise your head up high, salute like a battle-hardened soldier and cry out, "Thank you sir! May I have another!" Because you can win. You can beat them. You just have to work at it a little.
There are a few flaws I find I must mention, though in the grand scheme of things they're minor. Early in the game you'll be faced with a few situations where you must essentially go across entire continents on a quest, then go all the way back. It's a bit of a pain, though the game tries to make it easier on you with various methods of transportation. As well, due to the non-linearity, you can easily find yourself lost and without a clue of where to go and what to do next. Further, a lot of this game's puzzles consists of blocks. Yes, blocks. Soul Reaver fans, don't recoil in horror like that, I'm not done. Early on you'll get the Sorcerer's Ring, an interchangeable magical device that can shoot fire, electricity, create bombs and generate earthquakes, and a myriad of other powers. This is your primary use for puzzle-solving, though interspersed throughout the game is this stream of blocks. Blocks for switches, for bridges, for all sorts of things, but blocks. If you like block puzzles, good for you. If you don't, you may find it a little annoying. The Sorcerer's Ring does a good job of tossing some innovation into the mix, but still...blocks.
Okay, so when all's said and done these are, in fact, rather minor (unless you really hate blocks...) Overall this game is easily one of the best RPGs on the cube, though right now its only competition for that title is Skies of Arcadia Legends. It still manages to be one of the better titles of this generation, and that's saying a lot. I say this because the cast speaks to me (both literally and figuratively) the story is engaging, the soundtrack is a treat, the battles are damned fun, and Sheena's bra.
Er, what was I saying? Right, right, game is good, blah blah blah. So, while reports have said it will take an upwards of 80 hours to complete if you enjoy the many mini-games, such as Red Light/Green Light, Simon Says, waitressing, and more, you can expect the main quest to occupy slightly less time, but quite a lot of hours. Add to that, once you're done, you can engage yourself in a New Game+. Yes, that mystical, magical and wonderful mode of play they call, New Game+. Kudos, Namco. I tip my pants to you, good sirs.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 07/31/04
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