Review by ephermeran
"Tales" hits American shores with its shining fourth installment
Excellent fighting engine, keeps the fights fresh unless you're doing some serious power-leveling. Ability to control tactics for all your characters and also have shortcuts for group sets of tactics is good, though not very effective (tactics such as keeping distance or conserving TP are not enforced very strictly). Being able to manually control any character you want and form a party that doesn't even contain the main character adds some extra fun as you learn to fight with different characters' individual styles. Multiplayer mode is also a nice addition, but more of an afterthought (camera problems have been noted quite often on the message board). Fights are not random: as you walk around in a dungeon or on the field, you can see the monster avatars milling about (though not which specific enemies they are), and touching one initiates combat. Lots of side quests, though they're mostly accessible only at the very end of the game.
Unfortunately, this must be one of the worst stories I've heard for a video game. It's got all the cliches in one neat little package. The game takes a slightly interesting angle by not making the main character the hinge of the story, but you still have the "Chosen" who must save (or in this case, "regenerate") the world. Few of the antagonists are deeper than a saucepan, especially with their strained, constipated evil voices. The plot twists were hardly shocking, and some were obvious long before they even happened (a la Master Miller/Liquid Snake in Metal Gear Solid). Characters do tend to suffer from "oh, nothing" syndrome: they constantly mutter story-critical thoughts to themselves, only to attract the attention of others and then change the subject. The "skits" are nice and add some personality to the characters, but once initiated you're forced to sit through them as the characters "talk," without any way of speeding up the dialogue. The game also keeps track of the main character's relationship with the others, which can be altered primarily by stepping on special spots scattered about the world and selecting one of two dialogue options during the conversation.
The anime cutscenes, though few and far between (the lengthy opening cutscene can be quite misleading regarding the frequency of these clips), are top-quality work by Kosuke Fujishima. The 3D cel-shaded graphics are handled fairly well, though the characters are slightly lacking in facial expressions and poses. Environments are nicely rendered and do much to add to the feel of an area. Spell and skill effects are very detailed and convey the potency of attacks. Some side quests allow your characters to gain costumes, wearable both on the field/dungeon avatar (which is freely selectable out of any of your current characters) and during combat.
Some of the most famous names in voice acting have been selected for over 10,000 spoken lines from both story progression scenes and battle actions (blocking an attack, discovering a monster's elemental weakness, etc.); every line sounds convincing and fitting, expressing the core of each character's personality. There are a few annoying, grating tunes not easily overlooked, but overall the soundtrack is above average, including an orchestral opening theme was created specifically for the US version of the game. My one main nitpick with the dialogue is the far-too-overused pejorative for humans, "inferior beings." Every single one of the bad guys loves the phrase, especially when uttering it upon being killed in battle. As if there weren't any other offensive term for people of lower status...
RPGs are generally not known for their replayability. Once you've fought all the monsters and learned all the story, it's a bit stale the next time around. However, the "New Game+" option (there is no given term for another play of the game; the term is adopted from Chrono Trigger's New Game+) and the GRADE shop (buy nice bonuses for your next game based on how you performed in combat) may keep you entertained, especially with the unlocked extra-hard difficulty (replaying a game on a hard setting makes it more fun for me, but YMMV). Also, with a branching storyline (although it's really only a single split with just two branches), a second play through may be worth it to see how the story would turn out otherwise, though with one option you will miss out on a lot of costumes (see visual section). The back of the case states more than 80 hours of gameplay, but a first play through may take the average gamer 50 to 60 hours (my personal time: 39:51).
Final Score: 8/10
If you can stomach the passe storyline, Symphonia will offer a unique and fresh gaming experience. The combat engine keeps fights fast and frenetic and always fun, and the voice acting is dealt in spades. Though it is far from a perfect game, Tales of Symphonia is a prime example of just why the Tales series has become the third best-selling video game series of all time, trailing just behind reigning champions Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest/Warrior. It can hardly be considered a rental: even the hardest of core RPG gamers would be hard-pressed to finish the game under 35 hours. RPG buffs should buy it right away, and the unique fights may draw interest from gamers of other persuasions as well.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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