Review by Aganar

Reviewed: 06/06/05

An essential for all RPG lovers

The Playstation 2, forever a popular system in Japan due to its strong connection to Square-Enix, can proudly boast its huge library of Eastern RPG's, and take pride in the fact that it will always have a steady supply of them. The XBOX, on the other hand, while not carrying a pool of Japanese RPG's, can just as easily gets its RPG fix from the gargantuan number of PC developers seeking to break into the console business by throwing the Western-style D&D PC RPGs onto the XBOX. The Gamecube, on the other hand, lies somewhere in the middle, periodically shunned by developers on both sides. With a general lack of support from many RPG developers, the Gamecube's RPG library remains mediocre (bless the little cube's heart for trying). From the failed Lost Kingdoms series to the shunned Skies of Arcadia port to the passable Phantasy Star Online port, the Gamecube struggles to pull together a lineup capable of satisfying the RPG gamer. But fear not, for in the midst of the drought comes a brand new chapter in the Tales series from Namco. A game that not only manages to give Gamecube owners the fix they have been so desperately craving, but deliver an epic masterpiece that is easily one of the best RPGs in years.

Tales of Symphonia starts out with a typical enough opening: Lloyd, a teenage boy (read: The main character 99% of the time), sets out to accompany his friend Collette, the Chosen One, to a ritual that will rejuvenate the dying world of Sylvarant. Also typically, the original process previously thought to have taken fifteen minutes is sabotaged, and Lloyd and his friends must accompany Collette on a long and arduous mission to save the world. The story takes a little while to pick up, but once it gets going, you'll soon find yourself completely immersed within the game.

In an odd cross between traditional cel-shading and Wind Waker's ultra-detailed cel-shading, Tales of Symphonia carries a unique, stylish look. Tales of Symphonia's graphics give the characters a very high-quality anime look, and yet they don't quite look perfect. Rather, somewhat akin to Viewtiful Joe, the characters are in a semi-deformed state, not looking quite as bad as something where the characters are completely horrid, but still not completely proportional either. That combined with the large backdrop of lush, colorful settings gives the game a rather light-hearted look. However, playing the game with that tone in mind only makes the game all the more surprising when serious, dark (and often incredibly morbid) scenes arise. It would have been nice if the scenes were more consistent, since there are so many scenes trying to establish a light mood that some of the darker scenes feel out of place; however, it is not enough to harm the game. There are also a number of well-done Anime FMVs, though they are more Spartan than I would have liked (but fear not, those who have played Suikoden 3; just because the opening is also an anime collage of various scenes throughout the game does not mean that it is the only FMV in the game).

What sets the Tales series apart from most other RPG's out there (more specifically, what sets this game apart from the rest) is their unique brand of combat system, which crosses traditional RPG elements with an active battle system that takes place in real time. Characters are not required to wait until their battle meter fills up before they are allowed to execute an attack, nor are they required to be lined up with the rest of their party and remain a statue while they are pummeled by the enemies; slashing a beast requires physically walking your character up to the beast and digging your sword into its gut.

The system has reached its peak with Tales of Symphonia, achieving such a state of frantic movement and strategic combat that it is more suited to being used in an Action/Beat'em'up than an RPG. Battles take place in a closed off area, whereupon the party and enemies are free to move about. The battles remain in 3d, although the characters are reduced to moving in a two-dimensional line aimed about the locked on monster. This equates to characters always moving either towards or away their locked enemy. However, characters can easily switch targets, so it never impedes your character's ability to fight.

In terms of basic attacks, characters are able to perform directional swipes, as well as being able to block, evade, and link swipes together to perform combos. While this would certainly be sufficient (though boring after some time, Phantasy Star Online!), characters are also capable of learning special moves to use during combat. These moves range from physical to elemental attacks, to medicinal enchantments. Besides being linkable to regular attacks in battle (for at least a fair amount of characters), the special moves can also be learned differently depending on how the character is raised, meaning that almost all of the latter moves a character learns has a slight variation that could be learned had you trained your character slightly differently.

Perhaps what makes the gameplay so amazing is the sheer amount of work Namco put into it. The party AI is quite intelligent, and has a large number of settings that can be set to the characters to best complement your style of play. But, if you happen to have some friends of your own, you can plug their controllers in and actually let them control the rest of your party! Lloyd is your main character, and thus must be in control of the party at least some of the time. However, he is not always required to be; you can resume control of the party through any member of the party you like. And, as a testament to the polish Namco put on the game, each one controls completely differently. Characters like Lloyd and Kratos fight with a fast-and-furious sword-wielding style that mostly rely on close-range special moves (called "Techs"), while the spellcasters have relatively weak physical moves and prefer to hang around in the back to unleash sorcery. The variety of combat styles varies from dual-sword-wielding to ring slashing to card throwing. The end result is an amazing combat system containing some characters with such complex attack strategies that they could pass for characters in a fighting game.

Had the rest of the game been mediocre, the gameplay would have been suitable enough to still make the game worth trying (I didn't even touch on the EX gems or the group attacks). What makes Tales of Symphonia so amazing, however, is that the game wasn't thrown together fifteen minutes after the combat engine was finished. The story is a well written, compelling adventure with many plot-twists and revelations that keep you going. Characters have a Lunar-esque appeal to them, in that many are somewhat clichéd, but manage to still feel very round and come across as likeable or interesting. Yes, there are some characters who are more interesting than others, but that doesn't stop the game from having a very solid cast. The characters have authentic motives and feelings; so when they throw a sympathetic villain at you, it doesn't feel forced or hastily done.

Accompanying the great story and characters is Nintendo's heavily funded localization in the sound department. In the hopes of attracting audiences towards the game, Nintendo paid to have famous, high-quality voice actors voice several of the main characters. Their recruits included the actors for Robin and Raven from Teen Titans, as well as the infamous Cam Clarke of Metal Gear Solid fame. For the most part, the professional actors really pay off, and many give stellar performances. There are a few awkward moments here and there (mostly due to bad scripting), but the majority of the acting is top-notch, and is definitely worth listening to (even if the temptation to skip past it may be great, given many recent RPG's attempts at voice acting).

The score was a solid soundtrack, carrying its share of goods and adequates. I often found the best themes pop up in unlikely places, such as a dungeon that had a particularly memorable track, but the entire soundtrack was good enough to get the job done. American and PAL gamers sadly have been denied the Japanese song that was played over the opening FMV without being given much of a reason, but the song is not something so amazing as to warrant any huge complaint. As for the rest of the soundtrack, it's good enough to give a listen. It has a surprising variety of well-composed cheerful, intense, and melancholy tunes.

As if the amazing battle system, great story, great voice acting, and solid characters/soundtrack wouldn't be enough to keep you coming back to the game, there are a ton of extra things to do. The game is filled with dozens of sidequests to do, ranging from ones that span only one town to ones that span the entire world. Rewards for these sidequests can include special weapons, alternate weapons, new character Titles (a label for a character that can control what type of stats increase for a character as they level up), and an assortment of other goodies. Also, thanks to a relationship system within the game in which Lloyd can have various affinities for his party members depending on how much he likes them, there are even different endings to the game! A number of things in Tales of Symphonia cannot be unlocked on one's first playthrough, so hardcore fans will have to play through the game more than once to get everything; Namco has thrown in several things to encourage it such as a currency collected throughout the game that, if saved, can allow players on a new game to gain experience more quickly, earn money more quickly, or any number of other things. There's plenty of stuff to do in Tales of Symphonia, and plenty of stuff to keep you busy even after you've beaten it.

If the game has any problems, it's the occasionally inconsistent pacing with the game. The game is very linear, so one would expect the story to move quickly. And while most of what is done directly moves the story forward, there are instances in which problems seem to arise for no other reason than to give you something to do before the designers feel you're ready to move on to the next main event. It doesn't happen often enough to add on any more than four or five hours on the game overall, but sometimes the needless backtracking can hinder at the story's focus (and the fifth time I have to go on a forty-five minute subquest because Collette stubbed her toe, it begins to become a bit tedious). There's also some scripting problems within the game that additionally downgrade the game's image as childish; I'm fine with the game having discrimination be one of its themes, but it is often pushed into your face so much that I'm half-expecting a rainbow to eventually fly over the screen. The game is still quite serious, and moments like that cut-down the tone of the game.

If you are able to overlook those problems, however (and they are minor), Tales of Symphonia is simply amazing. It takes all the elements of a typical, plot-driven RPG and incorporates a revolutionary battle system that can only be matched by its fellow chapters in the series. Finally, it is sprinkled with a level of polish that rivals that of Square, and topped off with some gorgeous eye candy in the form of Anime FMVs. This game is not only a must for any Gamecube owner, but also a must for any RPG owner.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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