Review by GheddonLN
A nice new addition to the "Tales of" series
Tales of Symphonia for Nintendo Gamecube
I'd like to say that it's been a good while since I last played this game. Not that this means the review will be half-good; it's just that some of the complaints and thoughts I had while initially wading through the game will not make it here. I like to think about my games as I play, in various levels (artistic and technical), but since I had never developed a means to structure this ideas, some of them have been lost.
That said, let's get into the game: Tales of Symphonia is the newest game in the relatively infamous "Tales of" series. Dating back to the SNES opus "Tales of Phantasia", the "Tales of" game have grown keeping lots of its initial traits and feel: from the now-trademark "linear", fast-paced battle system to the characters. "Tales of" had never been wildly successful or properly recognized. "Tales of Destiny", for the PS1, has the unfortunate status of "obscure game it"; "Tales of Eternia"(Tales of Destiny II) was a tad more mainstream and heck, it even had voice acting, but still, "hardly anyone noticed it". I myself got into the series by having a friend lend to me his battered copy of Tales of Destiny, which he didn't play, put off by its weirdness. As a RPG fan, I had no trouble getting into it; I can easily play and have "decent fun" with a RPG. The trouble was "loving it" or "liking it a lot"; a RPG fan crosses such boundary, from "decent fun" to "love" (so to speak), when the game has an indubitable charm... at least that's how I see it. ToD's vivid world, fun and well-developed cast (with a few exceptions) and more importantly, its battle system, made it enjoy it very much and soon I was looking for Tales of Destiny II, which delivered similar thrills (from the main character and beyond) and packed a decent wallop.
Fast forward to Tales of Symphonia. Surprisingly, everyone and their mother has heard of the game. Chalk it up to the Gamecube's limited RPG selection, or to proper advertisement... the thing is, they acknowledged the existence of the newest "Tales of" game, so ignored in the past. I myself had been gearing for this adventure ever since Gamespot provided us with news on its Japanese release. I was gonna buy it and that was it. I soon got my hands on it and began playing. It definitely had that "Tales of" feel, that's for sure. I was not underwhelmed but certainly not overwhelmed. "Tales of" seems like it's going along the "Dragon Quest" path: retaining its general feel, doing little tinkering with the meat and bones and generally being good and likable all along. Still, I've got quite a few complaints, mainly on an artistic level, but we'll get there later.
One of the many important things to notice is that the game is 3D: it may not seem like much, but it's the first game of the series to embrace such graphical style. It's actually cel-shaded, too, so it still retains the series' cartoonish, cute look as far as character models go... the backgrounds are full 3D. Now, how does this work? Let's see... the character models are surprisingly good: lots of color, creative clothing, and appealing looks contribute to powerful character design. They have individual fingers, too! But that doesn't mean much. Character models are, in a few words, rather pleasing to see. Sadly, they have limited animations. Cutscenes often seem weird or downright ludicrous thanks to unearthly reactions by the personae you control: it's not only that they slice and dice sluggishly and blockily (something which can be easily forgiven, for what it's worth); it's the fact that there are not enough and proper ways to "emote". So, jumping away or dodging something can look downright funny. More fluid, and abundant, animations would have been appreciated.
...Specially with the poor work done on some of the environment. Towns are very nice, actually: houses have lots of style, lots of detail and lots of textures. More importantly, detail: flowers, shadows, tiles, pillars and whatnot. Houses look vivid and lively; they help create an atmosphere inside each and every town, imbuing it with life. The insides of many buildings are often wonderfully crafted; in general, the detailed graphics helps breathe energy into the world, which is an extremely important thing to do graphically. "Presentation", the pros call it. Tales excels here... Town-wise, at least. How's that? When one ventures into a dungeon, all the detail is killed off, favoring some of the blandest-looking caves, temples and shrines you've ever seen. It's as if they had textured longs portions of map with one or two colors only and hadn't bothered to add some detail into it. Lots of flat green is the grass, gray-white conforms the roads, with a shade or two of black representing the stones and sand... bland stone... it's impressive how much they screwed up inside dungeons, which, unlike the outsides, are lacking style and energy. You certainly won't feel uneasy when visiting the Temple of Darkness... of course, since this is a slightly lighthearted game, such thing is understandable... the problem still persists: the place is just a bunch of purple walls.
In general, the graphical department is well worked on, albeit a bit uneven. Towns and buildings are marvelous, I emphasize that; characters are colorful, but a bit canned; still, they're pleasing. But dungeons fail noticeably --not that they're horrible, but they don't have "the energy". And why is energy so damn important?! You see, "Tales of" usually stands out because of that: of how powerful the setting is; how alive the world seems.
Acoustically, the game does a decent job. It's, like Tales of Eternia, voiced. I was very surprised that it has voice acting so good; lines are delivered with good dimension, not flatly or boringly, effectively conveying the desired emotion with sufficient power; more than sufficient, as a matter of fact. It's extremely good acting, never uneven. It doesn't have long pauses like Grandia's or FFX's (Yuna's, at least) or doesn't sound like somebody merely read the script into a microphone. So, yeah, it is good. Other than that, there ain't much to comment. The music is as the previous games': sometimes crazily fast, other times upbeat, other times noisy... but in general, pretty forgettable. It's "decent" music in the strongest sense of the word: gets the job done, spices up the environment, but doesn't stick to you... the SFX noises are equally as "Decent".
So, yeah, so far, so good. We've had a strong graphical department with some shortcomings, excellent voice acting and functional music. What's next to see? Gameplay!
This is the part of the review that's usually the most interesting, right? Tales of Symphonia is a RPG: you explore towns, dungeons, fight battles, level up, wade through a world map... the norm. What's there to see aside from that?. Firstly, the game's battle system. The previous games were like this: you controlled a character --while the AI controlled the other three of them-- on the x-axis (only) and duked it out against a bunch of monsters, pressing certain button to attack, some others to perform skills and etc. The game is not much different. It's still linear, on the x-axis. You can't manually go up or diagonally; sometimes you're KNOCKED or MOVED upwards or diagonally, but as far as you can control, you're still fighting in a "linear" system. You use the stick to move back and forth, jump, and with the A button you perform a physical attack. You can tap quickly on the button to rack up hits; three or four. You can also block, dodge (jump backwards) and access a quick menu to issue directions to your computer-controlled fellas: making them cast a spell, or having them change their behavior by altering their "Strategy". Items can also be used; when you do so, you get a delay, during which no additional items may be used. This is to limit item-using, of course.
With the combination of the B button and the control stick, you can use any of the assigned techs of spells you have on your "shortcuts" (B alone, B+up, and so on). Since the character you often control is Lloyd, you get the chance to string his techs and attacks for combos. This isn't particularly effective, though, and it's much easier to repeatedly jam on a specific attack that racks hits fast while occasionally breaking off for a heal or to employ another tech that in some way or another will help you out. Comboing with regular physical attacks is actually quite effective most of the time, and it's what you'll find yourself doing lots. Stringing long and varied combos is short-lived fun, as it's easier to simply repeat "x" attack over and over for the hits. Of course, should you decide to use another character instead of Lloyd, you can employ different strategies. Most other characters control sluggishly, are slow, have poor responsiveness and are better off let controlled by the CPU. If you wish to manually cast a spell, though, shifting to another character is, obviously, the way to go.
Techs and spells are learned through experience and leveling up. Some spells, though, require certain combination of spells to be on your repertoire before they appear; and some others can only be learned by forgetting old skills! Meanwhile, skills and spells are categorized into T or S kind, which limits the types of abilities that you can learn. Characters veer into either category as you progress (see further below) and learn skills accordingly.
You're also offered to assign techs and spells to the C-stick shortcuts, to perform them quickly without any menu navigation. The slots are usually reserved for your uncontrolled character's skills. In general, I can say that battles are lightning quick, lots of fun but very easy too. They're fun because it's simple to rack up the hits, but that severs the overall difficulty. And, take note: when I say quick, I really mean it. Battles never last long. All in all, it's a fun system: simple and with an extra layer of deepness that's often left untouched but that it's there. I mean, the game is easily beaten with the good ole' "rack up hits with X attack, seldom use a combo" but if you wish to get hardcore, you CAN! So at least there's that.
According to that, it wouldn't seem that the game has a lot going for it, but as I said, it's effective and, more importantly fun. Hey, ask any Dragon Warrior fan!
What choices are we offered outside the battle arena? We can use items, buy them, heal, get some spells... the norm. A couple of interesting things: you can outfit characters with EX Gems. These EX Gems provide certain stat boosts, special command skills, protection... heck, they can even increase your speed in the world map! Certain EX Gem --which come in different levels and bestow different skills to different characters-- combinations unlock special abilities. EX Gems skills are categorized into T or S kind: by having T EX Gem skills, your character will veer into such category and will learn techs and spells of such kind; this also applies to the S kind, of course! By tinkering with this you can unlock certain techs and spells which can then be learned, before veering back into the opposite category, be it T or S.
The game also gives you the possibility to cook different plates. Their recipes are acquired by talking to the Wonder Chef, a mysterious figure nicely cloaked among unassuming items. These plates often heal you; sometimes they provide temporary stat boosts. They're actually quite useful, specially if used after fights, as they provide decent healing, saving you valuable items (which is important, as you can only carry 20 of each kind).
What else is there to see...? Oh yes. You can assign titles to your characters for minimal boosts; you acquire titles through a variety of means. This feature is generally lame, unuseful and nothing more than a passing diversion; only for the hardcore, I'd say: collecting them all is something that could only appeal to such crowd. Sometimes titles grant new dresses, so I guess there's some value to be unearthed, but in general, it's a lame feature. Other than that, you have the "skits": special scenes you trigger by pressing the Z button. They're short-lived talks between your pals, sometimes offering you the choice to answer. There are also skit-points on the map, which further delve into the character's talkative antics. These flesh out their personae and provide good fun.
You can also create figurines of your characters and partake in sidequests... and when you finish the game, you get the chance to play a New Game Plus... with a twist. You're given the choice to acquire a few upgrades (more EXP, more Gald, retain all skills...) by using your GRADE (got after beating monsters) making it a very versatile option.
Other than all of this, the game follows RPG conventions (it's a RPG game, so...): dungeon traveling, towns with stores (and uninteresting townsfolk, which kind of downgrades the life brought into them by the architecture), chest-opening. Exploration is sadly simple; it can be boring, specially if you've grown tired of RPGs as of late. It's all "Tales of", though, so kudos for that...
In general, the gameplay is sufficiently fun. The game's fun is provided by the battles (simple, fun and quick) and helped out by small gimmicks (EX Gem and Titles); both of these resting on top standard RPG-fare (exploration and whatnot).
So, with this, we now get to analyze the game's plot. Yes, indeed! How it progresses... the characters... the dialogue... what is there to see...? I'll get a tad wordy here, since this is the portion of the game that I like to analyze the most.
First off, the game boasts a decent cast. I could have used the word "cliched" and "been-there-done-that"-y, but thanks to a couple of standout characters, I didn't. These standout characters (namely Kratos, Raine, Presea and Regal) are interesting: either by being intelligent, adequately mysterious or by having a tangential, non-idealistic personality (Kratos and Raine). Because that's one of the game's most annoying problems: all the freaking idealism. "I'll save the world!". "Believe!". "Goodness... love... hope...!". BAH. Thanks goodness Kratos and Raine are cold and calculating and sometimes question all the idealistic blabber, but they're always outweighed by the optimistic Lloyd, who fits the "Tales of" bill of a dumb, but big-hearted hero with lots of potential who somehow trumps evil with, seemingly, his will only. "Let's do this, that, save that and those...". Argh! And then there's Colette, which has got to be the epitome of the cliche: loving, sacrificed and heck, "cute" define her. The girl that apologizes for everything, who says she's sorry for causing so much trouble, who is wishing to do anything for the world. As idealistic as Lloyd, except twice more annoying due to her "submissive" personality. "I'm sorry" is blurted off by her a million times, geez! I think enough Japanese RPGs have had that already!
So, the cast doesn't work entirely; the crazy dose of idealism and "good will, feel good" situations doesn't either. I think wanting less of such elements it's asking too much of a "Tales of" game, but we have to be critics, don't we? Now, that doesn't mean all is cute and cuddly: people die and are tortured, sacrifices are made. It's a mature story, don't get fooled! But with too many layers of cliche.
The storytelling is fairly good: the story flows at a decent pace. Ideas are proposed in the beginning, and they're developed simply. As if there was nothing more to it. You have to protect the Chosen on her quest to regenerate the world. That's that, and because of it, the game flows satisfactorily without much happening or a occasional twist. It's also interesting and quite fun: although the characters are annoying, they're undoubtedly likable (until they start yapping about the world and blah blah). It's not like those game that proposes something and either forgets about while riding along the tangent, or doesn't develop the ideas with sufficient skill. The game works well on this level. There are few forced "side areas", like a "yes, I can help you, but first get this stone for my company" that only let the designer shove another dungeon right into your face --there are those, though, since the initial plot is so simple, but they are executed with enough skill. So, like I said, the game flows really well.
The actual plot is good, in general. Things are turned, truths are revealed... It's, as usual, about a madman with twisted ideas. "Save the world!" is all there is to the game, but thanks to how this concept is woven and how it gets there, it succeeds in being entertaining. And, as I said before, it's very mature, with deaths, sorrow and pain... near the end the game takes a turn for the lame (the ideas are bad). Also, thanks to the skit points, you get to flesh out your party, which helps you to get closer to them and comprehend their persona. Practically all characters end up as being multidimensional thanks to the skit points (with a couple of exceptions...), so there's a big kudos for that!
Also, the game proposes a backstory: gods, wars, heroes, trees and legends. It's very, very thin, though and not interestingly woven. It's standard stuff and not told well.
So, the plot is not particularly ingenious, but it's told well. It's still TOO trite, so sometimes it's very boring even with the storytelling. The characters are likable and mostly multidimensional, but idealism runs rampant on certain key personalities, killing off their extra dimensions. This couple is also an amalgam of cliches ("It's my fault!"."If I hadn't done this!"."I'm sorry!"). The backstory proposed is merely a justification and paper-thin explanation of some of the stuff. If it were good, it wouldn't have mattered. It'd have been cool. But it deals with old stuff: wars, heroes... you get the idea.
So, it's time to conclude. Tales of Symphonia is simple, fun and quick. It has life, a lame plot and good storytelling. Nothing too special, but it's a nothing too special executed very well.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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