Review by nintendosega

"Has many moments of greatness, but they're overshadowed by hours and hours of pure tedium"

One game that interested me ever since I had first heard of it was Tales of Symphonia, an RPG for the Gamecube with an intriguing visual style, with top-notch voice talent, and with (apparently) high production value and epic scope. My enjoyment with the game unfortunately began to fade as I progressed through it, and by disc 2 I found myself almost begging the game to end. It's certainly a worthy effort but it sinks itself by its very tedious game design.

I'll start with the graphics. ToS makes use of cel shading to great results. Towns look great, much detail is present, and they can (and even occasionally do) make good use of the cel shading to have cool effects and cutscenes. The characters are also well designed and look great. There are no long load times when entering battles and the game can USUALLY support all the action that occurs in this fast-paced combat system, though dramatic slowdown DOES occur during some of the bigger spells. A focus-blur technique in cutscenes when the camera gets close also tended to get on my nerves a bit.

This is rare, though, since most cutscenes don't get in close at all, most taking place from an above view, with nothing but (sometimes) voiced text boxes. You just read through the text, (while listening to the dialogue,) and push A when you've read it. It kind of ruins the intense moments where they reveal something have to PRESS A to read the rest! Somtimes, characters are even interrupted in mid-sentence to have you push A to bring up the next text box. There's almost no movement from the characters. Actual cutscenes, with camera and character movement, facial expressions, and voice acting turn out to be surprisingly few and far in between. The "above view" camera seems to be the priority in the gameplay as well. This type of angle is very "early 32-bit" and really should be done away with but it's here in a good portion of the towns, making traversing them a drag. Presentation-wise, this game was a little half-assed.

On the occasion that the camera will pull in and actually show the characters talking, you will be treated to a terrible lip-synch and no facial expressions whatsoever. The graphics during the game are definitely great overall, though, aside from a bad-looking worldmap, occasional framerate issues, and the occasional gender-confused character. Seriously; look on the box of the game. (the front of it.) See that person with red hair? That's a man. Yeah, I'm serious. ToS has a couple of characters first, I wasn't sure if they were boy or girl. Genis, for example...I actually thought he was a girl for the first 2 hours of the game.

Graphics pros and cons;

Cool cel shading
Battles move fluidly until spells are used
The anime cutscenes are awesome

Battles occasionally slow down like you wouldn't believe
Cutscenes are really a joke
World map looks like an N64 game
There were like....2 anime FMVs in the entire game...
Very last-gen presentation

Before I go on with the review, I should mention the anime cutscenes. You are mislead to believe that there are many anime FMV's. There aren't. I think I counted 2 or 3 over the course of this 50-hour game. Don't be mislead. While it was a cool idea to combine anime with cel shading, it was simply another missed opportunity.

Tales of Symphonia's gameplay is completely a mixed bag. Random battles and bosses are just fun. It's great getting to mash the A button at enemies and letting the CPU take care of everything else. I seriously was anticipating the next boss. It's great how battles aren't random, and it's nice that the CPU is somewhat intelligent. Not flawless, (often Raine was supposed to cure my poison, but she never did...) but usually, I can run right at an enemy, and trust that one of the other 3 characters (controlled by the CPU) will cure me. The size of the world and scope of the storyline is also something to be admired here. This was not a rushed game in any way, it was a product that its developers clearly put everything they had into.

Thing is, it's not any fun... At times the game seems a bit over-complicated. Many menus throughout the game aren't explained at all, and I had to find out why I had to go to a 'Tech' menu to change moves, or what the hell a 'Synopsis' was....or what the difference was between a Strat menu and a Status menu...way too many menus, with way too many names. Doing things like playing with 4-players, switching the controllable's all just unintuitive and something the gamer must find out how to do. More of a problem is the fact that the game often unceremoniously dumps you on the world map with no idea what to do, or where to go. The 'synopsis' menu sometimes helps, and sometimes doesn't. Once you do find out where to go, though, you have to walk there, which is a very slow process. While the lack of random battles make this A LOT less painful than it could have been, walking long distances from point A to point B and then back again can get very annoying. Eventually, you get another mode of transportation, but even then, navigating the world map's a chore, since cities and towns and dungeons are not labeled on the map located on the side of the screen, so you just have to go to every single dot that represents a city or town or dungeon until you find the city or town or dungeon that you were looking for. The towns and cities, by the way, although big, are strangely empty. There were very few important events that actually happen in towns, and they end up being simply a place to restock your weapons and armor, then just leave. Very few of the buildings are open to you, and the streets seem surprisingly empty. For all its size, the world (outside the opening town and a couple others) just doesn't seem to be alive.

The biggest problem with this game, though, are the dungeons. Ugh.... the dungeons and puzzles are EXTREMELY TEDIOUS. At first, they aren't bad, but by the time you reach disc 2, you may end up regretting ever playing this game. Disc 2 is loaded with nothing but dungeon after dungeon. It seems like the plot is only there to get you from one dungeon to another. And even more annoying is the dungeons' difficulty and frustration levels. At the Shadow dungeon, I seriously considered selling this game. I really did. Another close call was when you're required to do an annoying, time consuming puzzle to get into a village, then, when you FINALLY get into the village and speak with the village elder, he gives you permission to go to........ANOTHER annoying dungeon! It's filler in the worst possible sense of the word.

Picture the Sphere puzzles from Final Fantasy 10. Picture about 20 of those, some right after one another, and picture many of them being up to 3 hours long. That's Tales of Symphonia for you. To tell the truth, I'm surprised to see all these 10/10 scores here. Never have I seen such an overrated RPG. I think that some of these people claiming that this was the 'best RPG ever' simply didn't finish it. I really don't see how it's possible to have gotten to the Shadow Dungeon, the 'Escape from Walgaia' dungeon, and the Heimdal Entrance puzzle, and still rate this game a perfect 10. The insanely annoying (and unbelievably frequent) dungeons simply serve to take whatever enjoyment I got of the plot and combat system and drag it into the dust. To make things worse is the fact that a few of the dungeons are of the "Non-Walkthrough" variety. In other words, you can look at a walkthrough, but it's very difficult to follow a walkthrough for the dungeon. (The Heimdal Entrance is one of these, as is the Shadow Dungeon.) This just creates a complete sense of helplessness, and you look at the clock; you've been in this dungeon for 2 hours, the FAQ's are no help, and you have no idea what to do next to solve this completely unnecessary puzzle and get back to the plot. Tales of Symphonia contains quite a few dungeons like this, and it's just really too bad. Then there's the type of puzzle where the only way to solve it is to guess. Some puzzles require nothing but guesswork, and you may very well be trying for a long time to complete a puzzle that's very much trial-and-error. These puzzles are the good ones, though. At least a walkthrough will tell you exactly what to do. (Although since these puzzles require guessing the right solution, looking up how to solve them just seems like cheating.)

And what's even worse is that the developers knew how difficult these dungeons were; during the dungeons, the characters will even complain (in "skits," which is dialogue between the characters that appears onscreen,) about how annoying the dungeons are. Is this Tales Studios' idea of a joke? To torture the people who purchased their game? When even the characters whine about how annoying the dungeons are, you know there's a problem.

These time-consuming dungeons create another problem with the gameplay; The game is way too easy battle-wise. During these dungeons, there are BATTLES (of course there are,) and while they aren't random battles, (you do see the enemies walking around,) the enemies regenerate every time you re-enter a room, so you will get in hundreds of battles over the course of the game, many of them in dungeons. And if you have a lot of trouble in the dungeons, as I did, you will have to backtrack a lot, and get in these battles over and over again, which level your characters up. Sure, you can try to flee from the battle, but it's a pain and it ends up being quicker and more fun just to fight the enemies; it really is a fun battle system. Problem is, you will over-level without even meaning to, and the game's challenge will be gone. I found the game's battles more difficult EARLIER in it than as it went on. Plus, equipment that dramatically increases your stats...(some items can increase your strength from...say...700 to 789.) is simply lying in treasure chests in plain sight. So Tales of Symphonia's made up of extremely easy combat and terribly tedious dungeons, sandwiched between static cutscenes, long treks across an ugly overworld, and uneventful town-hopping. Not great.

Gameplay Pros and Cons;

Many towns and cities
Fun battle system

Painfully annoying and overly-frequent dungeons
Way too easy to overlevel by accident
World map travel is slow
Towns and dungeons aren't labeled on the navigation map
Towns aren't very interactive and rarely serve much purpose

Moving on to a slightly less painful aspect of the game, the music's at the very least tolerable. Some towns have amazing music, and some towns have terrible music. The world map theme is repetitive, and I don't even remember the battle theme. It feels like a mixed bag. Maybe I'm spoiled by other games in the genre, but ToS's music, to me, didn't do much to stand out. I think Motoi Sakuraba, the composer, decided that since the world was bright, the music should be bright too, and at times the music verges on being annoyingly upbeat. The best songs in the game are the more sad and moody ones. (For example, the music in the town of Ozette and Asgard is pretty amazing.) The dungeon music's great as well, though you will learn to dread this as the game goes on. Then there's Hima, where the goal seemed to have been to make the music as annoying as possible. Pretty much the definition of a "mixed bag."

As is the voice acting. First of all, don't be mislead. This game, majorly, isn't voiced. I don't know if it's due to the limited space on the GC discs, only important events are graced with voice acting, and even some of those aren't voiced. When there is voice acting, it's not very well done. Despite the top-notch voice cast, (Including the likes of Tara Strong and James Arnold Taylor,) Tales of Symphonia's loaded with over-acting. It's not a travesty (with this talent it can't be,) but it just The actors aren't helped by dialogue that seems unsure if the game it's in was meant for children or adults.

Sound pros and cons;

Music sometimes very good
The game does feature voices, which is rare in GC RPG's
Quality voice talent

Voice acting isn't always the best
Music is overall not very memorable
More than half of the game isn't voiced

Last but not least, the story. Well...I don't really know what to think. I can't even describe much of it, since it would be revealing a huge spoiler. The writers sure love their plot twists, so writing a description here is pretty difficult. What I can say, though, is that it seems to make no effort whatsoever to hide its influences. The first half of this game's such a ripoff of Final Fantasy 10 and Grandia II that I'm amazed there's no lawsuit.

As I said, there are a number of plot twists throughout and eventually the plot does begin to finally take its own shape, but it really takes its time getting there. After an (un)surprising plot twist, the plot's direction completely changes, and then, when the game's plot opens up, the adventure "really" begins. However, the trend of unsurprising plot twists continues, and each twist (except maybe 1 or 2) is made very obvious beforehand, killing any of the surprise of it's actual reveal. When a game's storyline relies as much on gimmicky twists as this one does, it probably would have been a good idea not to spoil them in advance with clues so obvious that one would have to be under the age of 10 not to guess them beforehand.

Characters, though likable at a glance, seem to bicker and argue constantly, (especially in the Skits) and it just feels so mean-spirited at times that I literally just, by the end of the game, didn't like any of them. Lloyd gets picked on in these skits so much that it becomes almost difficult to watch, and yet even he's not a likable main character, since he also makes a complete ass of himself on more than one occasion. Characters also have a tendency to keep secrets from the rest of the party, and this ends up screwing them all over on so many occasions, keeps happening. Tales of Symphonia easily features one of the dumbest casts of characters I've controlled in an RPG to date.

That said, the plot here's actually pretty solid once you get past the predictable first half. Then...the game makes the mistake of over-staying its welcome. 50 hours is a long time to play an RPG, especially one with such big flaws in so many categories. The plot presents some great ideas and some of the characters are likable....But overall, it's just too long. The final 10 hours of the game feel like complete filler.

The game's design does this storyline no favors; Disc 2 of Tales of Symphonia is loaded with almost nothing but dungeons; long, puzzle-ridden dungeons, and these stop an already-struggling plot dead in its tracks. There are very many "final dungeons," any of which could have ended the game, but don't. Instead, after the dungeon, the characters prepare for...another final dungeon. And another one. And you keep hoping that it is the last one. (It isn't.)

Storyline pros and cons;

Epic in scope and the second half is pretty creative at times
Some cool ideas and interesting characters

Goes on way too long
Characters sometimes got on my nerves
Dungeons interrupt the plot's momentum constantly

Overall, ToS was a good game at heart that ruined anything it had going for it with it's annoying puzzles. They just served to interrupt the action, ruining any momentum that the plot may have gathered up. When they stick you in dungeons near the end of the game that take hours and hours, it just becomes impossible to even care about the plot. The fact that over-leveling accidentally is basically impossible to avoid makes the game's combat become too easy. The story doesn't have much emotional punch, and cutscenes carry little weight due to the way they are presented.

Despite this very negative review, I need to stress that Tales of Symphonia is really a solid RPG at its core. It's unfortunately not one that I could get much enjoyment out of. It definitely has its moments; moments such as those concerning the town of Ozette, for example, were pulled off extremely well, and it was during times like these that I realized how much potential this game had. Its flaws were not from laziness or from lack of trying, but the developers destroyed their own game by testing our patience far too often. It's worth a try for GC-owning RPG fans, but be warned in advance....this game's loaded with so many hours of pure tedium that it serves to destroy this otherwise very solid product.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 09/21/04, Updated 10/01/09

Game Release: Tales of Symphonia (US, 07/13/04)

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