Review by Lutecia

"A worthy installment in the Tales franchise and an excellent game in its own right."

Tales of Vesperia represents the first high-definition title in the Tales franchise, a series that has sold over ten million copies worldwide, and is developed by the creators of Tales of Symphonia, a sleeper hit for the Gamecube that was later ported to the Playstation 2 in Japan, and Tales of the Abyss.

The story takes place in the world of Terca Lumireis, in which civilisation is supported by the ancient technology known as 'Blastia'. Blastia fulfill countless vital roles in the lives of the world's inhabitants, from forming barriers to protect the towns from aggressive monsters and assisting in combat to more mundane tasks such as regulating water supplies. You take on the role of Yuri Lowell, an ex-knight from the lower quarter of the imperial capital in a journey that will eventually determine the fate of the world. The plot itself is not hugely original or innovative, yet manages to remain interesting throughout, with a satisfying number of plot twists that vary from somewhat predictable to wholly unexpected. The pacing feels somewhat slower than previous titles from the same development team, yet rarely feels boring, and it is easy to become drawn in by the world of Terca Lumireis and the elements that compose it.

Character development has always been strong in the Tales series, thanks in part due to the prominence of 'skits', short extra conversations that can be activated frequently throughout the game by pressing the 'back' button when the icon is displayed. These vary from simple humourous dialogue and interesting non-essential information to foreshadowing of later events, and are generally worth reading, although some are more interesting than others. In terms of the characters themselves, the protagonist, Yuri, is of particular note. Confident and charismatic, players can easily see why he assumes the role of party leader, standing in stark contrast to the many reluctant, naive teenage protagonists in many RPGs, who take on the role because they have a special power or happen to be marked as the main character on the official website. Yuri's motivations and character are explored a good amount, however he also serves to spur on character development for the other members of the party, such as Karol, a young boy from the guild-operated city of Dahngrest, Rita, a reclusive scientist who only truly trusts the Blastia she researches and Estelle, a noble girl who has never left the imperial palace. All of the cast are memorable, with quirky characters like Raven likely to become fan favourites.

Regrettably, the villains do not in general fare as well. While there are a number of humourous characters on the villains side also, such as the unfortunately named Cumore and the language-mixing Jaeger, most of the villains have relatively simple motivations and are not as memorable as the main cast. They serve their purpose during the game sufficiently, but are unlikely to come to mind when considering your favourite videogame villains several years after completing the game.

Those who have played another 3D Tales game will be familiar with the general gameplay systems in place. Gameplay is split between wandering towns, talking to townsfolk and buying equipment, completing dungeons, solving relatively simple puzzles and engaging in combat with a variety of different foes using a battle system that is conducted in real-time once a group of monsters has been encountered. Surprise Encounters, where an enemy approaches from behind and forces your reserve party members to enter combat, have been retained from Tales of the Abyss, and two new systems have been added - Encounter Links, which allow multiple groups of nearby foes to be engaged at the same time, and Advantage Encounters, which result in the enemy being stunned at the start of battle if you successfully manage to stun them with the sorcerer's ring prior to combat. You can control any one of your party members in battle, and attack the enemy with a variety of attacks and artes, special attacks which drain TP and can be chained in various ways, which can be set to the A button and a direction on the analogue stick. A wide variety of artes are gained through leveling, with optional extra artes available through the variety of sidequests in the game.

Skills consist of passive or active abilities that can influence battle in many ways, such as increasing statistics, allowing the use of new battle moves such as backstepping and even changing existing artes into different ones. These are acquired from weapons - when a weapon is equipped the skill can be used freely, and once sufficient Learning Points have been acquired from battle it can be set permanently. This requires skill points, however, the maximum of which is raised with every level up. Reactions to this system, as opposed to the system where all skills were active at all times used in Tales of the Abyss, are likely to vary, as constant management of the skills menu is necessary to be most effective in battle, sacrificing less necessary skills for vital ones. Some players will likely enjoy this, while others will see it as tedious and resent the high skill point costs for essential skills such as the ability to use items on other party members. Many of the more useful skills are gained via item synthesis, a system in which you can collect necessary materials to create an entirely new item, weapon or armour at one of the equipment shops across the world.

Vesperia also adds a number of other new features not present in previous Tales games, such as burst artes, which can be chained from arcane artes while in overlimit mode, a time period in which all attacks and artes can be chained into one another freely and spells have no casting time. This can be activated when the bar on the left of the screen is fully charged by pressing one of the D-Pad buttons depending on the level you require, but is not available at the start of the game and gains extra levels throughout, levels 3 and 4 being gained exclusively via item synthesis. Fatal strikes, another new feature, allow you to use moments in which the enemy is most open for an attack to kill them in one hit, and is more well balanced than it sounds. Frequently you will kill enemies before getting the chance to use it, but executing it feels as satisfying near the end of the game as it does at the beginning, and increased battle rewards are given for executing one successfully. All of these elements combined make for fun and frantic battles that are reasonably challenging, particularly on the initially available 'hard' and unlockable 'unknown' difficulties. Those who have trouble with any of the above difficulties will be able to select an 'easy' difficulty mode instead, which does not give any grade but eliminates the concern potential new players may have about being forced to do significant levelling to survive.

Making excellent use of the Xbox 360's hardware, the game runs beautifully in 720p resolution. Although battle environments in particular can sometimes be slightly lacking in detail, the overall impression of the highly colourful environments makes overlooking this relatively simple. Characters show a good amount of expression and are well animated, and the large number of animated cutscenes interspersed throughout the game are well animated on the whole, though noticeably more attention seems to have been given to the backgrounds and effects than the character designs themselves, which can be slightly poorly drawn at times. Loading times, particularly with a hard drive, are kept to a bare minimum and never become annoying, and while occasional slowdown in battle is present, it is extremely rare and only really happens near the end of the game.

The game's music was handled by two composers - series veteran Motoi Sakuraba and newcomer Hibiki Aoyama. The soundtrack is something of a mix in terms of quality, with some thoroughly enjoyable synthesiser and guitar driven battle themes that are typical of the series and a variety of fitting, if somewhat simplistic and ambient, town and event themes. While unlikely to make you eager to purchase the soundtrack the town and event themes are sufficient to develop the necessary atmosphere for the many locations and scenes in the game. Thanks to the variety of tracks you're unlikely to get bored of any one of them, with no less than five regular battle themes and a number of different boss themes. The game has a significant amount of voice acting, with most event scenes and all skits voiced, which on the whole is excellent and fits the characters perfectly. Those who would prefer not to hear them, however, can turn event and battle voices off in the options menu. The game supports both typical stereo and 5.1 channel surround sound audio for those with sound systems capable of it.

Play Time/Replayability:
Without rushing or doing any optional sidequests the game will take roughly 60 hours to complete, and with all sidequests completed will take even longer. Multiple plays of the game are encouraged via the Grade Shop, in which 'grade' gained for skill during the game's battles can be used to purchase optional extras for the next playthrough, including inheriting skills and artes, increasing the experience points gained to ten times the usual amount, and making all skills cost a single skill point. Those who only intend to play once will get their money's worth out of the initial playthrough, while those who enjoy completing everything on offer may complete the game two or even three times.

Final Recommendation:
Tales of Vesperia is a worthy installment in the Tales franchise, and a excellent game in its own right that stands at the top of what the current generation has to offer. Its memorable characters, beautiful graphics, distinctive art style and thoroughly enjoyable combat system make it easy to recommend to both series fans and potential new fans alike who want a quality, satisfyingly lengthy, high definition RPG.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/29/08

Game Release: Tales of Vesperia (JP, 08/07/08)

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