Review by KingZeal

"Tales of a Fantastic RPG!"

One thing I've learned in all of my years of gaming (I'm 23-years-old and was practically born with a controller in my hand) is that a lot depends on faith. When you purchase a game, you're taking a leap of faith that the money and time invested into it will pay off. Sure, educated consumers have less chance of throwing away their money on pure garbage, but sometimes the games which look good on paper don't fare so well in execution, and there will always be those "sleepers" which slip by unnoticed, only to be forgotten except for a few lucky individuals.

I sincerely hope that Tales of Symphonia doesn't fall into the latter category. This gem of a title hasn't received as much hype as a Square-Enix game, or even a fellow Namco title like the Xenosaga games, but it remains a solid entry into the genre nonetheless. In this day and age, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find an RPG that retains classic elements while still remaining fresh and exciting. Somehow, though, ToS manages to pull it off.

And so, without further ado, here is how I rate the game on its many aspects. Each ranking is, of course, on a scale from 1 to 10.

Graphics: I'm not picky when it comes to graphics in RPGs. Of course, spectacular graphics are undoubtedly a good thing, but you don't have to "Wow" me to keep me satisfied. As long as I can tell the characters apart, know exactly where I'm standing on a map, and don't notice any major glitches (such as a dog floating in space), aesthetics don't mean much to me. ToS delivers in this regard. However, the game does have some other impressive graphical qualities. The characters all look exactly like their designs show, battles have plenty of flashing lights and purdy colors, and the cel-shading does a good job of blending modern 3-D technology with a more "traditional" look of 2-D sprites. All good stuff.

However, that doesn't mean there aren't a FEW gripes graphically. Some enemies are mere palette swaps of other, earlier enemies (but to be fair, the game doesn't do this NEARLY as often as many other RPGs), the characters aren't nearly as expressive as they should be, and the in-game cinemas (of which there are maybe THREE, not including the opening) are kinda unimpressive. Still, none of this forces me to bring my rating down very far.

Rating: 9.0

Sound: Again, sound isn't something I really care about, so long as there's nothing that doesn't grate my nerves. Aside from a select handful, the characters' voices are all handled rather well and boast veteran vocal talents like Cam Clark (aka "Ryudo" from Grandia 2 or "Liquid Snake" from the Metal Gear Solid Games) and Tara Strong (aka "Rikku" from Final Fantasy X). Voices aren't very prominent within the game, but when it's there, it's a nice addition that doesn't detract from the scene. Except, as I said, for a FEW instances. But then, if you don't like them, there's always the option to turn them off.

Sound effects work well within the game, and there as some sounds you get accustomed to hearing and implementing in your game style. Small chimes, bells, whistles, and vocal noises indicate significant happenings within gameplay, and they're all distinctive enough for one to pay notice to them without being annoyed by them. Yes, they ARE kind of repetitive, but it's nothing someone who grew up hearing "HADOKEN!" screamed about three hundred million times can't deal with.

As for the music- there's really not much to say here. The soundtrack is full of diverse, atmospheric tracks, interesting character themes and heart-pumping battle music. What more could you ask for?

Rating: 9.5

Gameplay: Well, now it's down to the nitty-gritty. Sound effects and graphics are nice and all, but games are made and broken by gameplay. Fortunately, ToS has much to offer in this department. The battles are more Action-RPG oriented, so you'll be doing a lot more in battle than smacking an enemy with your sword and then wait for it to retaliate. From the moment you start a battle to the moment it ends, you are in complete control of almost everything that happens. While it's true that you only control one single character while everyone else in your party is CPU-controlled (unless you opt for multiplayer), you can dish out orders at any time in a battle and tell your party members exactly what you want them to do and when you want them to do it. You can even assign shortcuts to other party members' moves on your controller- handy for when you need instant healing.

Most of the time, though, you'll probably be playing as Lloyd directly, so I might as well focus on that. Lloyd is a straight-forward melee character, no question. He has no magical, healing, or support abilities whatsoever. His job is to hit the enemy until it doesn't get up anymore. I guess Namco made him this way so that a player wouldn't have a hard time grasping combat. Unfortunately, this does make the game a bit of a button-mashing affair, as you'll spend most of your time in battle tapping "A A A B B X, A A B X" over and over. (Just to explain: "A" is for regular melee attacks, "B" are for special moves, and holding "X" is to block.) Of course, you'll learn when and how to pull off maneuvers in battle and you'll soon be smacking enemies with crazy combos right and left. But the point is, aside from a few other special functions, these are pretty much the only buttons you'll ever need to use. Still, combat is fast-paced enough to keep your attention most of the time.

The game has lots of sidequests, optional events, and minigames for you to enjoy, though some of them are really trivial and annoying. There's nothing even remotely close to "Triple Triad" or "Blitzball" here. And the sidequests are often challenging, but too short. In addition, almost every dungeon in this game has a puzzle that usually involves crate-pushing and switch-flipping. Most them have the right amount of difficulty- not TOO obvious while not reaching "Zelda-esque" levels of frustration, either.

One other major gripe I had with the gameplay was the amount of backtracking. Yes, backtracking is a burden MANY RPGs must carry, but ToS takes it to and extreme. For an example, there's one section of the game in which you must explore an area but you can't pass unless you get something. You then travel to that city to get that certain thing, but then you learn that there's an obstacle to obtaining it that will require you to go to yet ANOTHER location. And often, these locations aren't exactly "around the corner", either. Sometimes you'll have to walk across entire continents (stopping for battles along the way) while you walk back and forth between destinations on some dumb fetch-quest. The game seems to go out of its way just to make you go back to an area you already visited sometimes, and it just leads to a disturbing amount of backtracking.

But the bottom line is, the game is still pretty fun, and that's all that matters.

Rating: 8.0

Story: This is it- the moment of truth. Gameplay aside, the worth of most RPGs relies on the strength of its story. Some RPGs with incredible gameplay (such as Grandia) get pushed into the "mostly forgotten" zone while games with flawed gameplay but SUPERB plots (such as Xenogears) received unyielding accolades. Knowing this then, how does ToS' s plot rate?

Put simply: It has the Best Damned Plot I've Ever Played.

While that's quite a boast that I'm not sure everyone will agree with, I feel this game is deserving of it. Somehow, Symphonia manages to balance vibrant, relatable characters, superb character development, well-rounded (and often humorous) dialogue, TONS of unexpected plot twists, loads of deep, intertwining backstories, AND complex plot threads and make it work. Some games (such as Lunar) has the vibrant characters and humorous dialogue, but not very many plot twists or much backstory or character development. Xenosaga has more backstory, development and plot twists than you can shake a stick at, but the characters are mostly plot-driven cogs and are sorta hard to relate to. RPGs have often swayed one or another, never really striking a balance with either.

Well, in ToS, that balance has been found and, in my opinion, it single-handedly raises the bar in RPG storytelling.

The bad news, though, is that the story doesn't really offer very much innovation. Characters fit familiar archetypes, the plot recreates familiar situations, and sometimes, it's easy to tell where a major plot thread is going to lead. In fact, during the first ten or so hours, the game seems almost like a Final Fantasy X clone. (Which is fine with me, as I happened to like that game.) However, I can almost guarantee that the story takes enough of a unique spin during the latter half that it dismisses these familiarities and becomes something entirely its own. But, unfortunately, the plot never really goes beyond the "formula" established within the genre.

But, that's not so bad. As I often say, originality isn't everything. Sometimes, the way a story is TOLD trumps everything else.

Rating: 10. 0

And there you have it. Tales of Symphonia has taken its place as one of my top-five favorite RPGs, along with Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy X, Skies of Arcadia, and Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete. Anyone who likes light-hearted, traditional J-RPGs will fall instantly in love with this game. Anyone who's looking for a road less travelled will, unfortunately, have to keep searching.

Final Score: 9.5 (Not an average)

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 08/27/04

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