Review by UltimaterializerX
""The Gamecube has no good RPGs" officially died with Tales of Symphonia's release."
In a generation that loves RPGs, the Gamecube has never really made its mark in the RPG community. Because of this stereotype, people practically gave up on the Gamecube as a system willing to deliver any RPGs worth playing. But this continues no longer. Tales of Symphonia bursts onto the RPG scene as a title exclusive to the Gamecube, and a title that is so well-done and complete that even the people who never bothered to give the Gamecube any respect will not help but take notice. Games like Tales of Symphonia don't come along very often, and no matter what system this title would have been on, it would have made a gigantic splash.
"I want a world free of sacrifice."
The story begins from the perspective of Lloyd Irving, a teenager with a heart of gold, not to mention an absolute moron. He loves to sleep in class, he has horrendous study habits, and oftentimes relies on his two best friends, Genis Sage and Colette Brunel, to help him get by. But Lloyd has a reason to be this way. His mother was murdered when he was too young to remember what happened, and he has no clue as to the whereabouts of his father or whether his father even lives in the first place.
The trio of children grew up in a town called Iselia, guided by their mentor and teacher, Raine Sage. Raine and Genis are siblings, though Raine's maturity and age has allowed her to act as the mother of the family since the disappearance of their real mother. Raine is a strong woman who does not back down from her beliefs, and has no compunctions against bringing down the hammer on any who would challenge them. Raine is the perfect type of leader --- strong-willed, yet open-minded at the same time --- but her personality indicates that her strong will covers many underlying issues stemming from her past.
The game starts with Raine teaching her class, and Lloyd typically asleep in the back of the room. The class is studying the World Regeneration Journey, a story in which the Chosen of Mana goes on a worldwide pilgrimage to save their world of Sylvarant from its current decline. Colette, the Chosen of Mana herself, is a student of the class and knows the answers to nearly ever question Raine asks. Lloyd, as always, learns next to nothing and the rest of the party is stuck explaining everything to him throughout the game. Raine's lesson is little more than a refresher course however, as the beginning of the game marks the time when Colette is about to begin the World Regeneration Journey itself.
The Light of the Oracle, the symbol that the Chosen must begin her journey, soon appears at the nearby Martel Temple to set the game in motion. When the party arrives at the temple, they manage to recruit a mercenary named Kratos. Kratos is a mysterious, cold figure who seems only dedicated to his profession and not much else. He vows to commit himself solely to the safety of the chosen, and he also makes it a habit to constantly remind Lloyd of how poor Lloyd's swordsmanship is in comparison to his own. After some more events, the party is attacked by the Desians, the main villains of Sylvarant and an organization of Half-Elves that seems focused on little more than making lives miserable for humans. The entire purpose of the World Regeneration Journey is to bring peace to Sylvarant, which includes the scouring of the Desians.
The party easily fends off the Desian attack, and after more dialogue back in Iselia, Genis convinces Lloyd to go to the Iselia Human Ranch, a Desian-run ranch that uses humans as slaves, to assist a friend. Though it violates a non-aggression treaty Iselia has with the Desians, Lloyd agrees to go anyway. The results are disastrous, as Lloyd is not only recognized by the Desians, but Iselia is raided and destroyed afterwards. Worse yet, Colette decided to begin her World Regeneration Journey without allowing Lloyd to come along. After being exiled by the mayor of Iselia, Lloyd and Genis, with no where else to go and no one else to turn to but each other, set out into the world around them in an effort to find Colette, help her complete her pilgrimage, and fix the mistakes of their past.
"You pathetic, inferior being!"
Tales of Symphonia's storyline of saving someone as they travel on a journey may seem cliché, and it is. It's the exact same story seen within Final Fantasy X and Grandia 2; however, Tales of Symphonia is far different. The game's story begins as a bland series of predictable nonsense, but as the game progresses, you will learn of the true nature of the game in that the story goes far deeper than anything you could have concluded at the onset. Colette's journey, while important, is but mere exposition for the more underlying motifs and plot lines within the game.
The game plays out like a well-written Shakesperian. The beginning of the game --- the cut scene that appears when you first turn the game on --- resembles Shakespeare's strategy of using early fireworks to keep the groundlings in the front of the audience interested early, knowing full well that he was to bore them with mounds of exposition later. The true beauty of Shakespeare's playwriting came in how his plays evolved as you read them, and Tales of Symphonia does the exact same thing. Colette's journey can be interesting in its own right, but the game's story eventually involves into an entity far bigger than what it seems at first. The game examines the effects of world order, and whether or not accepting authority is always the correct thing to so. There is also a large, underlying examination of racism and prejudice's effect on the world, and all sides of the issue are carefully examined closely - views upon holding onto one's past, the struggle between femininity and masculinity, and even the struggle to find one's place in the world are also looked at within Tales of Symphonia, not to mention many other viewpoints. Colette's journey is but a look at the surface, both in the game's raw plot line and the underlying philosophical debates that can be drawn from the game's late plot line. The game's story is told in superb form; the story constantly builds upon itself with one plot twist after another, which not only sucks you into to game's storyline and the hidden meanings behind them, but forces you to look at the same issues that take place in your own world around you as well.
"Feel the pain of those inferior beings as you burn in hell!"
It's difficult for an RPG to survive on story alone, but Tales of Symphonia needs not worry about such things. It has a superb battle system, as well as equally amazing gameplay. Before you even go into the world and start taking names with the game's near-flawless battle system, the options given to you in the menu alone make this game one of the most well-done, in-depth RPGs ever made.
Gone is the method of stockpiling 99 items and using them to get through any situation. The most number of any item you can have in Tales of Symphonia is 20. Gone are your characters having meaningless Status screens. You can earn titles for your characters and equip them in your characters' various status screens, which not only gives your characters a more personal feel, but also slightly affects their stats. There is also a Synopsis section for players who feel the need to brush up on what they have done in the game so far, be it for reminiscence or to give themselves a quick memory job of the game's events.
In terms of equipment, each character has set types of items that they can equip; you can't simply slap anything on each character. Characters like Lloyd and Kratos are the ones able to wield heavy equipment, while Colette wields lighter equipment. Each character's possible equips suit their character, which is a very detailed aspect of the game. And even though you cannot see what armor or accessory you have equipped on a character when in the field of battle, the same cannot be said of the amazing weapons in the game. Meticulous detail is given to all of the game's weapons, and it shows when your characters use them in battle. The weapons your characters wield range from a simple wooden sword to weapons that are alive and moving in and of themselves, and the way your weapons blend in with the general feel of battle is superb.
Some of your characters are not proficient in the healing arts, but they make up for this by Cooking. You start off with a simple Sandwich recipe, but as you traverse through the game, you can encounter the enigmatic Wonder Chef by searching every possible corner of every town you encounter. A bit of an oddball at first, The Wonder Chef soon becomes the comic relief of the game - when searching for him, you'll never see him in his real form; rather, he takes the shape of various household items and hides himself away in odd places. It's your job to find The Wonder Chef whenever possible, and when you do, he will teach you bigger, better recipes to add to your collection of foods. The entire Cooking system seems a bit off, but it adds a large tone of realism to the game. It's a nice change to not have every character capable of casting high level healing spells after each battle, and you'll have to carefully consider when and where to use your money and rations in order to keep your party going. You'll also enjoy the fact that you'll be eating Steaks capable of curing the entire party of Paralysis, Omelets capable of curing the entire party of Poison, and Cream Stew capable of curing the party of everything.
Your characters will all eventually equip Exspheres unto themselves, and thereafter attach EX Gems to the Exspheres themselves. It's a system similar to Final Fantasy 7's Materia system, though it is not nearly as in-depth. After your characters equip an Exsphere --- you never actually get the Exspheres as an item; the characters all have them innately equipped from the beginning --- each character will have four slots available for the equipping of EX Gems. There are four levels of EX Gem, 1 being the strongest and 4 being the weakest, and after your characters procure and equip multiple EX Gems, their natural fighting and character abilities are available for release; furthermore, as your characters equip more EX Gems, Compund EX Skills become available to your characters. These allow your characters to not only enhance themselves further, but to give themselves a more personal feel to them as well. For example, Lloyd has a Personal EX Skill that allows you to walk faster in towns and dungeons, while Sheena has a skill that slows down the reaction time of enemies in dungeons. The entire system is wonderfully crafted, and when taken full advantage of it allows you to craft your characters to your own personal liking. You're also able to develop your characters as Technical (T) or Strike (S) type characters, which is another way of depicting between magical attackers and physical attackers. You can develop any character in either field (though each character has a field that they are more well-suited for) depending on the types of EX Skills you assign to them, and whether your character is developed as a T or S type decides what types of Techs they will learn.
Each of your characters has a set list of Techs unique to themselves that they will learn as you progress through the game, but depending on how you choose to develop your characters, only certain Techs will be learned by your characters as you progress. This adds a wonderful effect of humanism to your characters, and keeps the feel of battle unique; no battle will feature all of your characters using the exact same skills over and over again. Every character has a unique skillset, and Tales of Symphonia does not allow you to simply teach all of your characters identical abilities. There is a wonderful - perhaps necessary - variety to your characters' skills.
"Do you earnestly believe that you can defeat me?"
The true beauty of all of the detail put into your characters, of course, is seeing it in action in the field of combat. Tales of Symphonia's has a live action battle system, and though it can be difficult to get used to at first, players will quickly learn that the all of the work out into the behind the scenes detail on the characters directly translates into true beauty on the battlefield.
Solid Snake and Otacon once had a conversation about whether or not love could bloom on a battlefield. For them to have such a conversation, they have clearly never played this game. Even the battle-hardened Solid Snake himself would fall head over heels for the ingenius wonder that is Tales of Symphonia's battle system. The first thing to note about Tales's battles are that the vast majority of the game's random battles are optional. As you walk across the world map, towns, and dungeons, you will not be magically sucked into battles to the death out of no where; rather, you will see the enemies walking on the field. You, not the game, choose how many random battles you will fight.
Once in battle, the wondrous constitution of the meticulous detail given to your characters all comes to a head. When a battle first begins, your characters start on the left of a circular field, while the enemies begin by being positioned on the right. You will only control one character manually, while your other party members are controlled by the computer. This doesn't mean that you don't have most of the control over the battle, however. Before anything even starts, there is a Strategies option in the menu that allows you to control nearly everything about the AI of your party members, from their starting positions to how aggressive they are, from which enemies they are to attack to how far away they should stand from said enemies while attacking, and even how they are to ration their Tech Points in battle. If you want, you can even have all of your allies do nothing while you do all of the work on your own. There is even a setting that allows you to control any character you wish in battle. You don't have to control Lloyd, though most players will do so anyway on first playthroughs of the game.
This all leads to what will feel like unorganized chaos at first; your allies will brutally massacre enemies as if they are extensions of Napoleon Bonaparte, while you'll wind up scurrying after each enemy like an ant in a feeble effort to get kills on your own as well. But despite the growing pains that most players have when they initially experience the battle system on their own, half the fun of the game is slowly learning how the system fully works and then using what is learned in the field.
For starters, even your basic attack has multiple uses. By pressing different directions on the analog stick while attacking, your characters can attack with aerial assaults, ground combos, or you can simply take any enemy dumb enough to stand in front of you and maul them into submission. Mashing the attack button can't win battles on their own however, because no character is able to keep up a flurry of attacks forever. For your characters to avoid getting destroyed after unleashing attacks, there is a blocking function that allows them to stand their ground. Not that this allows them to stand there forever, for if a character blocks too long or gets hit from behind while blocking, their guard will be broken and they shall be at the mercy of any enemies smart enough to keep up the pressure.
But battles are far more in-depth than simple attacking and defending. Techs are a large part of battle; a lot of attention, both extraneous as well as normal, is given to their use. There are four combinations of the B button and two combinations of the C button that Techs can be shortcutted to, and by doing so, Techs can be unleashed with speeds that keep up with the speed of battle rather than by sifting through a menu. Physical characters have Techs that can be linked together when done in the correct order, which allows some characters to let loose multiple Techs in a row. The magical characters have their own Tech characteristics to worry about, as they must stay away from the enemies and charge their spells before they reach resolution. If they get hit mid-charge, the spell is left interrupted and uncast.
With a solid mix of physical melees and Techs flying all over the place, the game's battles play out with enemies and allies flying at each other with everything they have, and because of all the action going on at once and the methods with which the actions are all executed, the battles have the feel of the RPG and fighting game genres mixed together. Battles are an absolute pleasure to watch, and even more fun to participate in. As the game progresses, the battle system evolves as well. There as Unison Attacks that combine Techs in one moment of unleashed hell, Shortcuts that allow you to command seemingly your entire party at the same time, and various other strategies and nuances that seem to take everything about the characters into account when they're on the battlefield.
"It could almost be called art."
Tales of Symphonia closes out its brilliant design with wonderful cel-shaded graphics and a brilliant music score composed by Motoi Sakuraba. The game's design is absolutely gorgeous, with amazing detail given to all of the environments. The towns, dungeons, and world map's graphics are so detailed and lifelike that you can easily be fooled into thinking the world as your own. The color scheme used through the game is very bright, which only serves to enhance the surrounding features even more. For example, there is a large town that you visit in the second half of the game that houses all three class structures --- the wealthy, the middle, and the poor --- and the graphics only serve to enhance the various lifestyles within the city. The slums have unpaved roads and dirty citizens, while the commoners have relatively average homes, average character models walking the streets, and average scenery. The full attention is given to the wealthy section of town, complete with multistory mansions, paved streets, formal attire on the citizens, and bustling plant life in the surroundings.
The characters themselves are drawn in cartoon fashion, but this does not cause the game's overall graphical prowess to suffer in the least. They blend in well with the surrounding environments, and it gives the feel of traditional RPGs to go along with the present-day modernization trend undergone by most new RPGs released in the last few years.
Score-wise, though not every track is of the near-perfect standard created by the rest of the game's qualities, it is still an amazing piece overall. Most of the tracks fit well with their surrounding environments, and some of them manage to stand out from the rest as being the brilliant music most RPG fans love to hear during their play. The music that plays during the opening cutscene, the Angel Battle theme, Exire's theme, Asgard's theme, and the theme playing during the game's final dungeon are all tracks that stand out from the rest in that they are able to draw a full range of emotions from those who hear them. They, along with most of the game's musical score, only serve to enhance an already brilliant gaming experience and allow the game to be a complete product with few if any flaws.
"The boy sets out on a journey, bearing his sins. Do not forget the past."
Tales of Symphonia is nothing short of a well-crafted masterpiece. Everything is put into the game for a reason, everything builds upon itself, and everything about the game continues to build upon itself until it reaches its awe-inspiring climax. Part of what makes the game so amazing is that everything, not simply the music and battle system, is given such attention. All facets of the game compliment each other perfectly, which can easily be seen by simply turning the game on and taking in the artistry of the opening cutscene.
There are also a ton of amazing nuances within the game that fly under the radar, but serve to prove how in-depth the game truly is. There is a Collector's Book that keeps track or the items you obtain, and there is a title you can earn for collecting all of the items. There is also a title that Colette can earn for naming all of the dogs in the game, as well as a Grade Shop that appears after the game is beaten the firs time. With the Grade Shop, players can spend the Grade they earn after battles on various bonuses that carry over to the next game, including unlocking Mania difficulty, restrictions or benefits on items and experience points, and the ability to retain the titles and Techs one has worked hard to earn on a first run through the game. Even after Tales of Symphonia ends, you don't run out of things you can do thanks to the innate replayability within the game, as well as all of the loose ends that you can sew up. Tales caters to the needs of players who like to achieve everything possible, as well as players who only want to experience the game once. Tales simply has so much to offer that nearly everyone who plays the game will likely find something to love about the game, and because the game does everything so well, players may be surprised at not only everything that the game has to offer, but how well all of the game's parts mesh together to form such a brilliant product.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 01/03/05, Updated 02/08/10
Game Release: Tales of Symphonia (US, 07/13/04)
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