Review by Arctic Wolves

"You won't find out what a Symphonia is, but you'll have a good time anyways."

Tales of Symphonia (ToS for short) is the latest instalment in the Tales of… series, and the series' first foray onto the Gamecube. Symphonia is the first 3-D Tales, and shows it with a 2-and-a-half-D battle system. More on that later. Symphonia is an action-RPG style game, where battles take place in real-time, and it includes many components that lend to this large game; there aren't any tired, overused devices (for the most part), and the new systems are easy to learn, yet still quite effective at creating a diverse game.

The meat of any game, and also the strongest point of ToS is its gameplay, mainly the battle system. Firstly, you have your typical RPG where you can wander around towns and talk to NPC's and examine things to find treasures and other things. Then you've also got your dungeons where you can wander around, solve puzzles, and fight enemies (who appear onscreen before you fight them, thankfully). There's also a world map, on which you can still see enemies before you fight them, and you can even find treasures scattered about. Battles will get a whole section to themselves, they're so in-depth.

Aside from being where lots of story takes place, in towns you can also find the Tales trademark, that crazy Wonder Chef, hiding as various objects. Once you examine an object that is the Wonder Chef, he'll appear in a flourish, teach you a recipe, and leave. Cooking is a pretty big part of the game. You can buy various ingredients from towns, and every character has their own proficiency for every dish, meaning how good they are at cooking it. The effects of cooking are various, ranging from HP and TP restoration to temporary stat increases. You can cook at the end of every battle if you want, or you can go into the menu any other time and select a dish to attempt, however you cannot use this method to continually make dishes, since after one your characters will be full until you wander around some more or get into another battle. You can fail at cooking, however; failure to properly cook a dish means that nothing, or reduced effects will occur, and success means that the desired effects will occur. It is also possible to add other ingredients to a dish, aside from the required ones, and these will either amplify or add more bonuses to a dish. In ToS, Cooking is quite accessible, unlike how it was implemented in the last Tales game that saw the English language, Tales of Eternia (Destiny II, for those who don't know).

Dungeons are your standard fare; puzzles and fights, but ToS has a nifty little gimmick to get more out of dungeon puzzles (groan or yay, depending on your tastes). See, this funny little Sorcerer's Ring doo-dad normally shoots a ball of fire (which has all sorts of uses by itself), but almost every dungeon has the ToS Glowing Orb™ that changes the function of the Ring, and usually has an accompanying scene that clearly spells out the function and possible uses for the Ring. It leaves room for more puzzle ideas, but you'll still find those abhorrently annoying block and button pushing puzzles, which are unnecessarily drawn out and monotonous. You'll also encounter clichéd, obligatory locations, such as the sewer and mine dungeons! Hurrah!

The world map is subject to being huge and sparse, yet predictable. Some locations are hard to find before you find them beforehand and have a nice little red dot showing you where to go, but you'll quickly learn that any extra goodies hidden are on places so out of the way it's almost obvious that they'll be there. Any peninsula, or remote island you aren't required to visit is likely to have a treasure chest on it, or an optional character skit. These optional skits are very easy ways to change Lloyd's, the main character, relationship with one character, and the options are pretty straightforward, with one answer being rude and the other being nice and kind-hearted. There are also Guiding Monuments for every area, which allow you to ride Noishe the pseudo-dog, which makes you move faster and gives you a better panoramic view. And let me tell you, if you're not riding Noishe or in another vehicle, the camera zooms so close to you it's very difficult to tell where you're going. The only catch is that while riding any vehicle, Noishe included, you can't see treasures or skits on the map. Clever, but that doesn't change the fact that it's sometimes unnecessarily aggravating to wander around blindly with a pitiful view of your surroundings in hopes of stumbling upon something.

Now, once you touch an enemy, you're thrown into a battlefield via a shower of shards as the screen shatters and the battle music begins. You'll be in control of the first character in your party, and you can even have the other three characters controlled by the other controllers for multiplayer amusement! Multiplayer isn't the focus of the game, though, so don't expect anything special. Anyways, you can set your character to Manual, Semi-Auto, or Auto. Auto means you don't do anything; you're giving full control to the AI, which might not be a bad idea sometimes, but it isn't terribly fun, I would rather rent Tales of Symphonia the Movie. Semi-Auto tries to get you to cooperate with the computer, which might sounds nifty, but really isn't. Bottom line, you don't get along well with the AI, which assumes that you can't even move by yourself. True, there is auto-guarding if you're not moving, but you have to push an extra button to jump, and anytime you hit attack or opt to do a special attack, the computer will move you itself into the range it thinks it best and unleash your attack. Problem is, most of the time you'll change your mind on your way to the enemy and decide on a different course of action, or you'll run right into an enemy attack and die. Oops. Really, the only way to experience ToS is to play Manual, which gives you total control over everything; the computer will not control your character in the slightest. Learning to play Manual early is a good thing you'll be happy for later, and it's not as daunting as it sounds.

You can perform regular attacks in battle with the A button, and expend TP with special attacks by hitting the B button and various directions, as well as using the C Stick to a similar extent. Before, or even during battle, you set which special attacks you wish to be associated with which direction and press of the B button. The C Stick attacks are a little different, since you can use that to issue orders to any party member, whether it's the one you're controlling or not. The game allows most characters to chain special and regular attacks together for multi-hitting, combo action. Being a real-time game, spells have casting times that are mostly indicative of their power. Anything greater than a novice spell is accompanied with a dimming of the screen, and no two allies can cast advanced spells at the same time, which is somewhat limiting if you have 2 or more spell casters. The same limitations apply to enemies, though, so you won't get spammed by multiple spells from multiple enemies (there are plenty of enemies who can spam spells all by themselves! Joy!). You can also use the X button to guard physical attacks from your front (with some exceptions) and recover from being tossed into the air. Shortly into the game, you'll also learn the Guardian skill for every character, which expends TP to create a shield against everything for a short time (magic included). So basically, you use three buttons in battle, which is a nice, clean scheme that allows for a surprising amount of depth and control over your characters. It's also quite entertaining; you must pay attention to every battle, since it's unlikely that the AI can do it on its own (and the AI seems to be equally slacking if you are), and it doesn't feel like a chore. You'll have fun fighting in this game, plain and simple, and you may even seek out extra battles, although there are some points where it gets annoying to wade through masses of fights against the same enemies again and again in some dungeons (the clichéd sewer one comes to mind… again!)

ToS is a 3-D endeavour, but this doesn't mean you can move as you please on the battlefield. Rather, the character you're controlling can only travel on a straight line which is defined by whichever enemy you have targeted at the time. While you can just change targets to get out of a corner, it would have been nice if you could have also done what the computer does and travel in any direction at any time, instead of guard against an attack and still suffer (lessened) damage.

Special attacks are learned by using your old ones 50 or 200 times and being a certain level, which is interesting enough, and the AI will usually accomplish the tedious task of performing the more useless attacks over and over for you. If you were so inclined, you could even disable the other attacks for the AI so it would only use a certain one (or not use a certain one, as the case may be). Some special attacks are learned as part of the story as well, and there are even 3 Hi-Ougis (super specials) that the game makes no effort to tell you about, and are rare and impractical in regular battles, but are fancy and quite powerful on the rare occasions you do use them.

Lastly, there are EX Skills and EX Gems for your characters to equip. Each character can equip up to four EX Gems, ranging from levels 1 through 4 and then a final, MAX EX Gem. These EX Gems give a character an array of skills to pick from that have all sorts of effects, and from level 2 on, the skills offered are unique to each character for the most part. Sometimes, skills will combine to form more powerful Compound EX Skills, which are key to obtain, and some of them are extraordinarily useful. Each skill is also either a Tactical or Strike type, and depending on which type of skill your character has more of, their ability growth will sway to either the Tactical or Strike side. However, at any time you can switch types and forget old specials to learn the new ones of the different path. It's an easy to use system with a lot of variety, although in the end you'll realize that most characters have a set of EX Skills that they “should” use because they simply are the most helpful, and depending on player preference, you may prefer to have a certain character as T or S type. It seems confusing, but there really isn't as much variety here as it seems. Most of the T or S specific attacks are rather predictable, and players will usually find one path that they just find more useful.

The story of ToS isn't anything groundbreaking or new, but it works. One character described it best as a “little game of good and evil.” The quest starts off simple enough, and is pretty straightforward. However, at about the time that you realize this initial quest just won't last for two discs of playtime, things take a wild shift and you acquire a new goal, which will take you the rest of the game to complete. Although the story gives you various sub-goals, the fact is that for a majority of the game your goal stays static, and doesn't change. You'll occasionally see hints of what could have been a greater plot, some real epic kind of story, but these are quickly forgotten in the wake of righteousness that is Lloyd. It gets somewhat nauseating, and by the end of the game the entire party is infected with this goody-two-shoes syndrome and it feels kind of stale. Maybe I just don't like the air headed “good and evil, white and black” approach of Lloyd, but there things could have been much more dynamic, even among party members. The real problem is that while you're charging through the game trying to defeat evil so good can reign, you'll realize that it's just not that simple, and I felt that Lloyd was being stubborn and jackassed in the way that he tried to thrust his ideals upon everyone else he meets. Some of the party members don't even seem like they should stick around through all this, but they invariably also jump on the Lloyd bandwagon of justice. There are even some moments where the story seems to take a different direction (Lloyd quickly stops this nonsense) with dramatic twists, but they don't impact the overall story at all, unfortunately. I wouldn't call the story simply “average,” but it's not anything special.

As you may or may not know, ToS features some experience voice actors, and they pull off the roles quite well. For the most part, you can feel the emotion, and really get to ‘know' the characters, and they all seem to fit the personality of the characters. There are some great lines and hilarious writing in ToS, and the voice actors make it even better. There were only a few instances of times where emphasis was placed on the wrong syllable, and as far as localization goes, there was only one blaring mistake (where they used the word castle twice in the same dialogue box but misspelled it “caste” the second time, so it was even more obvious). In-battle voices are also excellent, they fit and only add to the hectic experience. The only complain I have are some of Genis's chants; she (yes, Genis is played by a female voice actor) sounded pretty bored during some of the chants. There weren't any voices that seemed mismatched or out of place, which was a new experience for me, and a welcomed one at that.

There are a bunch of optional Z-Skits throughout the game where you push the Z button to initiate a scene where the heads of your characters chat about current events in the game. Originally, these were voiced, but for the English version, they dropped the voice acting for these. You can instantly tell they were meant to be voiced; there's no way to speed up the slowly scrolling text of these scenes, and some of the text is brutally hard to read against some backgrounds. Some of these scenes are quite funny, and some of them also add a lot to the plot and personality of the characters, but they seem empty, in a way. You hit Z, and the music dims and… there aren't any voices. The fact that the music still dims makes it seem even more hollow, but they are, after all, only optional, and they aren't key to completing the game. I'd still recommend you read them once though, just because.

One final note about the story: if a single, recurring idea easily bores you, this story won't keep you interested. By the end of the game, I felt like I was watching an episode of Schoolhouse Rock or something since they were shoving the whole “racism = BAD” topic down my throat, yet it was presented as if I was a four year old, and I got really tired of that. It's possible to present such themes in a more mature manner, and it's even possible to (gasp!) present complex, mixed themes, so the player doesn't feel as though they're playing some poor attempt to brainwash them.

The graphics are presented in a cel-shaded, anime style, yet it's also very cartoony. This does not mean that it looks like some Saturday morning kids show, they still manage to incorporate the emotions of the characters and the atmospheres of various locations into this art style to create a very unique visual experience. It's still quite a departure from Wind Waker, so don't come into ToS expecting that. Yet ToS is still a pretty game. They use blurring effects liberally, and sometimes to great effect, although on occasion the blurriness is rather annoying and focuses on the wrong part of the screen. Towns are lively and feel that way, despite there being instances of a town with many people yet only two visible houses. People often have numerous things to say, and even say different things depending on who is leading the party and what they are dressed in (costumes are a nifty little side feature of ToS). Dungeons each have a fresh look, and they don't get repetitive in terms of visuals. Bottom line: ToS is aesthetically pleasing, yet it won't cause your eyes to explode from visual overload.

The overworld is often trashed in ToS, probably because after playing games like FFX and the upcoming SO3, it seems archaic to “revert” back to the old overworld method of traveling. While it's not ugly, I will say that it is quite sparse. Again. Aside from forests and mountains, there really isn't much of any interest happening here. No birds go flying overhead, and the only life you see will try to kill you. Towns are also few and far between: there is a lot of uninteresting, dead space between locations. And I mean a lot. It would have fared much better had they opted for a Chrono Cross style map; one that is small yet lively and varied. And the view when walking around on the world map is awful, as I mentioned before. It's not quite as bad as I described it previously, but it's still quite disorienting and aggravating. The overworld serves its purpose well enough, and it's hardly a cause for graphical concern.

Easily the prettiest part of the game is the in-battle visuals. With spells flying every which way, and swords a-stabbing and chakrams a-throwing, they had to take care to make sure that the place where the player would be paying the most attention also looked the best. And they did. Even after over 80 hours of gameplay, the visuals still aren't stale, and I'm still not tired of seeing Revitalize twice every battle. Animations are all snappy and flashy at the same time, so you won't get bored watching them either; even the ultimate attacks are quite short and won't make you feel like you're watching a semi-interactive battle movie. One problem, however, is that, in the heat of the battles, things tend to slow down. Especially endgame, when both enemies and allies are breaking out their best techniques and spells, things will often slow down. Not considerably, and usually no more for a second or two, but it happens often enough for the player to become fully conscious of it, and it disrupts the flow of battle.

The score for ToS is composed by one of my favourites: Motoi Sakuraba. Now, his work on the Tales series has never been his best, and… Tales of Symphonia is no exception. After composing such sweeping scores for Baten Kaitos and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, using a full symphonic orchestra among other musical arrangements to produce a stunning aural experience, it's strange that right in the middle of his “orchestral” period that Sakuraba opted to switch back to his old synthesizer for the ToS score. In this day and age, synthesizer music is easy to pick out, and the quality of it is often inferior to what an arrangement of real musicians could put forth, and it's no exception here. The tracks for ToS are simply… good. They won't grate on the ears, but you'd be hard pressed to remember any specific melodies. There are some surprisingly nice tracks, but for the most part it all sounds quite generic. It suits the game, but it doesn't add a new dimension to it, which is a shame. A fully fleshed out score could have really made something epic out of Tales of Symphonia.

The actual time it takes to complete the story portion of ToS is pretty respectable: I've yet to hear of anyone who's finished it in under 40 hours (some claim 35 hours, but I've never see any proof to back this). For someone like me, who has to find every treasure and explore everywhere in between plot events, it took much longer. To complete every sidequest in the game, and find *almost* everything took me a grand total of 80 hours. There is a hefty amount of sidequests, and it's quite likely that you'll miss some of the time restricted ones on your first playthrough, so multiple playthroughs are a definite possibility. They expect it, too, since after beating the game, you can use your earned Grade (in-battle assessment points, basically) in a game to purchase modifiers for a new game. It's no New Game+, but it's interesting to go through the game again with double experience and all your endgame techniques. There are also numerous character titles, and it is impossible to get all the titles in less than three playthroughs. While most people could probably let the titles slide, it's almost impossible to get all the different costumes in one playthrough. There's a lot to do in ToS, and chances are players won't do all of it, but I'd say it's worth a second run through just to try all the stuff you didn't do on your first try.

It should be noted that Tales of Symphonia sports one of the most aggravating and poorly done “bonus” dungeons I've ever suffered through. It is, for the most part, totally based on luck, not skill. I will say no more and let players discover this complete annoyance themselves (which has an absolutely ridiculous reward, since after beating this dungeon, chances are you won't have anything else to beat except for the laughable end boss), but know that I did not have fun playing through it.

Tales of Symphonia is a nice little gem. Lately, there haven't been a lot of RPG's for me to get into, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience afforded by ToS. If you're not sure what you want to play next, and are a fan of action RPG's, or even if you're not quite into RPG's but like action-oriented games with some story backing, then definitely pick up ToS. It'll keep you busy for a good while, if nothing else. This latest instalment in the Tales of… series is truly deserving of the name.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 08/13/04

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