Review by Jerec

"The sign of victory!"

A Tales game is easily identifiable by its fast-paced, action driven battle system, a complex fantasy story, and a lovable cast of characters. Those who might criticise Tales of Vesperia for being too similar to previous games in the series, such as Symphonia, are missing the point. Why change what isn't broken? Tales of Vesperia is such a perfect balance of battles and character driven story telling, that you shouldn't care if you've played this type of game before, because it's never been done this well before.

Vesperia's characters aren't particularly original. They're all based on very familiar archetypes, but they don't seem clichéd or annoying or stupid. None of the characters are amnesiacs with forgotten pasts. There isn't much in the way of back-stories for this cast of characters. Though it's never explicitly stated in game, the characters mostly seem to be orphans of a great war that occurred ten years ago (though there's no “we're all from the same orphanage but we just forgot” revelations here). Each character may seem like a two dimensional archetype when they are first introduced, but their choices and actions shape them, flesh them out, and make their stories truly enjoyable.

The lead character, Yuri, shares his name with the leading man of Shadow Hearts. The two characters might seem much the same at first, but they are also different enough that Vesperia's Yuri manages to make the name his own. Yuri does some surprising things that you would not normally expect from the lead character in an RPG, but it would be unfair of me to spoil it for you. Yuri is chaotic good to the core. This makes for an excellent contrast and conflict with his best friend, Flynn, who happens to be lawful good to the point of stupidity. Flynn is the sort of pure, righteous hero you'd expect in a game like this, but some of the stuff he does is infuriating, and so it's refreshing that he's always an outsider to the party.

Estelle is a naïve princess, whose journeys with Yuri and the rest of the party really open her eyes to the world. Raven is the old man of the party, though he appears to only be in his thirties. He's a somewhat shady character, but he's funny and he's likable. Judith is a young woman on a mission, driven and determined, and also doubles as the game's fanservice - she wears very little and has large bouncy breasts, much to Estelle's envy. Repede is a dog, and has very little to do with the story. He doesn't speak except for the odd “woof!” but he makes an excellent addition to the party, usually by helping them track the occasional bad guy.

I almost groaned when 12 year old Karol joined the party. He's a young boy who hunts monsters, but he's also a bit of a coward. But he's not annoying, and the way he looks up to Yuri and sees him as a mentor of sorts is touching. Karol's development over the course of the game is brilliantly handled. He comes to terms with all his various issues, and in many ways becomes wiser than Yuri.

Rita is another character I didn't like much at first, but I don't think I was supposed to. She's a genius mage who cares little for anything except her own research, making her quite cold to the rest of the party. She becomes amusing and likable when she does eventually warm to her companions but tries to hide it.

None of these characters are anything we haven't seen before. They all have something familiar about them, but they've never been handled as well as this. These characters are engaging to watch due to the way they interact with each other, and how they develop over the course of the story. This is due to the characters talking with each other - a lot. There are over 500 optional skits, where they will talk about anything that's on their mind - story related or otherwise. They're funny, they're endearing, and you really get to see firsthand how the characters grow as people, and how their friendships with each other develop. The actual story is fairly dialogue heavy, too, but it works well here, because the voice acting is brilliantly done.

Because the characters are so well done, it makes it easier to overlook some of the shortcomings of the story. The story wanders a fair bit. New complications arise, often before a previous one is taken care of. There is a fairly steep learning curve with the world's mythology and mechanics, but it seems normal for a Tales game. The story seemed to also follow a formula for a while - there is so much the party does not know, and when they finally get some answers, something gets in the way and interrupts the exposition - usually a boss fight. It seemed like it was happening so much around the middle of the game that I was actually surprised when we were given a fair bit of exposition without a boss fight. One other small complaint is to do with the linearity of the game. There are side quests, but some of them are only available at certain times during the story and are easily missed, which can be annoying for completionists who are playing without a guide.

I did love how simple the story starts off - a water blastia (magic technology) has been stolen, and Yuri sets out to recover it. The complications soon become larger, and before you know it, the party is out to save the world. Vesperia manages to keep this momentum building throughout the entire game, knowing when to increase the suspense, and when to dial back and give the characters a short break.

Vesperia's battle system is almost identical to Symphonia's. Battles still take place in a 3D arena, though you generally only move left to right, unless you hold a button to move freely, which is useful for getting behind an enemy. You only take control of one character at a time, letting the surprisingly competent AI handle the others. The one notable improvement is just how much the other characters will do without your input. Characters not only heal themselves, but they will use items to cleanse their own status ailments, and they will even chuck you a life bottle if you are knocked out. I was surprised how much the characters would do without any input from me, leaving me free to beat the crap out of my enemies with swordsman Yuri. There were a few occasions, usually a tough boss fight, where I'd need to step in and help my party out with some restorative items or instructing them to cast a specific spell. Star Ocean could learn a thing or two from this game.

Because I played as Yuri most of the time, I enjoyed watching his skills develop as a character. Early in the game, he had very few techniques, and his sword work felt slow and clunky, and I have to admit it was a little off-putting, but as he levelled up, not only did he become stronger, he also learned new techniques, and he either became faster, or I became adjusted to his speed. Each character plays differently, and while you can switch character any time you like, and use them effectively, it might take some effort to master them.

Skills also had an important role to play, letting you improve and customise the characters. Each weapon carries a number of skills which take effect immediately, and are eventually learned if the weapon is equipped long enough. You can turn off the less useful skills, or equip skills to make your character strong in certain areas. There are a few skills that aren't advantageous to the player, such as “deal minimum damage”, which is only useful if you're trying to pull off some specific task, or if you want the challenge. The one disadvantage of skills is that the most recent skills your character learns are the ones that are set. At one point in the game, Yuri suddenly started dealing far less damage, and it took me a while to figure out the problem (I even struggled through two bosses severely handicapped).

There are so many weapons to purchase (and there's an extensive range of weapons you can synthesise) that only the truly dedicated player will learn them all, even though battles are so fast-paced, addictive and fun. Enemies appear on the world map, and most of the time you can avoid battles, but the battle system is so refined and fast that it really is fun. But it's the way the characters talk during battle that adds an extra dimension to each fight. I remember one character chastising me for using my skills too much and depleting my TP and my character responds with “Guess I overdid it, huh?” It's not uncommon to hear one of your mages call out “Someone protect me while I'm casting!” only to hear another character say “Okay! I'm on it!”

One of the more entertaining aspects is the victory screen. Characters will say things, and quite often there'll be more than one character saying something. Estelle, the naïve princess of the party, starts getting the hang of battling, and will start giving out high fives to other party members. The “sign of victory!” high five is a running gag, and before long all the characters are doing it. There are so many of these little scenes that it really pays to change your party line-up from time to time so you can experience more.

The soundtrack is very enjoyable to listen to. Not a single track sounds out of place, and there are a few that will stay in my mind for a long time, such as the emotionally-powered confrontation music which usually plays when Yuri and Flynn are on screen together. The music in the guild city of Dahngrest is so uplifting and catchy - I've been humming it for days. The battle themes all match that fast-paced button mashing experience, and it changes across the three chapters of the game - the regular battle theme in the third chapter really got my blood pounding for every single minor battle. It was just so epic and conveyed a deeper sense of urgency.

Stylistically, Vesperia looks similar to Symphonia, but the cartoon-style visuals are sharper, and crisper. It's not a graphically intensive game like you'd come to expect from the 360, but it really is a beautiful game to look at, and so rich in colour. There is one town you'll visit early in the game that is overshadowed by a huge blossom tree. Blossom leaves blow across the screen and the sun always shines, making the town is so tranquil.

Tales of Vesperia is an absolutely brilliant RPG, and the complaints against it are minor enough that they don't detract from the experience. Any RPG fan will find something to love about Vesperia, no matter what type of player you are. The battle system is awesome fun, and there are higher difficulty levels to satisfy the challenge junkies. There's plenty of customisation, and each character handles differently, adding plenty of variety. Those who enjoy RPGs for their stories and characters will find so much to like about Vesperia's cast and will find themselves sucked in to the well-realised and beautiful world. Whatever your preference for RPGS, you're in for a real treat.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/08/09, Updated 09/14/09

Game Release: Tales of Vesperia (AU, 07/02/09)

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