"Japanese RPGs might not be dead after all."

"We are in contradiction."

Let's be honest here. Japanese RPGs as a genre have been in a massive tail spin since about the time Squaresoft and Enix merged. Square-Enix themselves mostly being awful was a huge part of this, but the biggest reason was the genre being stale. It's not like there's less JRPGs now, but all the games are symbolic carbon copies of one another and very little new ground is breached anymore. The rise of Western RPGs also hasn't helped its contrarian genre much.

Then you play something like Tales of Vesperia and realize very few genres can match a JRPG when it's done well.

"We each decide our own sense of right and wrong. The rest, I leave to my sword."

The characters and plot are where Tales of Vesperia truly shines. The plot isn't particularly original and will probably annoy those who don't believe in the current state of global warming debates (seriously), but the magic comes in characterization, character relationships and some outstanding voice acting, even from people not in the main party. It's no exaggeration to say Tales of Vesperia has the best cast of characters of any RPG. Almost all the playable characters are among the best characters you'll come across, and this plus good gameplay is all you really need for a great RPG.

It all starts with Yuri Lowell, arguably the best character in any RPG and maybe the best character in video games period. Take everything you know about JRPG stereotypes for the leading man and throw it all out the window with this dude. Yuri is cocky and confident to almost an alarming degree, but the thing is he has every reason to be. Every single thing Yuri sets out to do gets done, and though he never shows it to people he's a gigantic softie with a huge pension for doing the right thing. He isn't some brooding loser with a big sword, and he doesn't hold on to a bunch of past baggage. He does have the female-looking metrosexual thing about him, but it's not a huge loss. He's just a normal guy with a normal sword who would love to change how the world works, and he does a lot of things this game you wouldn't expect a JRPG lead to do.

In the beginning of the game, Yuri is getting into random trouble in the slums of the world's capital city. Before long, we realize he's a formal imperial knight who quit because he hated their method of doing things. If you've played even one JRPG, you already know where this is going. And like nearly every other JRPG, the lead character is stuck solving one small problem after another until it progressively grows into saving the world.

Being cliche is not something Tales of Vesperia tries to avoid, but cliche is fine if it's done correctly; the entire reason things become overdone is because the ideas were great to begin with. Other than Yuri himself, most of the party will be stuff any fan of JRPGs has seen before in one form or another. You've got Repede, the animal sidekick who can somehow communicate with the lead character; there's Estellise, the quintessential "sheltered princess who wants to travel the world instead of being a princess" who will totally not get kidnapped at some point; Rita Mordio is basically Lucca from Chrono Trigger in 3D, only somehow she's even more of a genius, more of a brat and she doesn't make any effort to hide being a lesbian like Lucca did; Karol begins traveling with the party as the "annoying kid who won't shut up", but unlike Hope from Final Fantasy 13 Karol undergoes some major character development and because damn awesome by the time the game is over; Raven more or less announces "I'm a shady bastard" right from the start, and even then he'll have a plot twist that'll surprise some people; lastly is Judith, who combines two archetypes at once by being cold-hearted badass femme fatale who knows way too much but won't actually say anything until she softens up a bit. There's also a childhood friend of Yuri's named Flynn who never joins the party and manages to stay in the ranks of the imperial knights, and the implications of this are obvious enough. These archetypes have all been done before, but the way they're acted out by the characters and voice actors makes them all great despite almost none of them being truly original.

The characters interact with each other very well, through various side skits that pop up while you're going through the game. It's a great way to see the personalities of everyone, and by game's end they practically feel like real people. Part of it is some really good writing, but most of it is in the voice acting. Almost every single character in this game has an outstanding voice actor that fits the character perfectly, and you may even recognize a few voices here and there. One major character is voiced by the same guy who was the announcer in Super Street Fighter 4, for instance. You've also heard him yelling out GENESIC EMERALD TAGER BUSTAAAAAH!, which is only one of the most satisfying fighting moves to ever land on someone.

It's a great cast with a lot of great character interaction. There isn't much that I could expand on without spoiling major sections of the game, so just play and see for yourself. The overall plot will be considered a bit weak by some players -- it's your standard "group of heroes bands together and saves the world from some giant threat" fare -- but the characters carry the plot so well that it doesn't really matter if it's weak in spots. You know how in a really good book, great characters can carry the book even if the overall plot is kind of bad or weird? Tales of Vesperia is very much the same way.

"I prefer eye candy over scary armor any day."

The gameplay in Tales of Vesperia is just as good as the characters, in that it's among the best in the JRPG genre. You know how in most JRPGs, you pick an action and your characters run off and do everything themselves in a fight? Some flashy things happen, some numbers fly around and things die, but you're never really in the action yourself.

In Vesperia, you actively run up to the enemies and hit them. No picking a command and watching your character have all the fun. You are the one stabbing everything, and Vesperia's gameplay is beyond deep. There's so many levels and so many different things to do and play around with that it would be impossible to cover it all in review without turning this into a walkthrough.

Here's the gist of it. Your characters can all equip the usual gamut, and eventually you'll have a full party of four people. You only control one character, while AI controls everyone else. Don't worry, the computer does more than a good enough job and you can change every facet of their behavior to your liking. The bare bones of battle is running up and attacking things, and you get HP/TP bars. If you run out of HP, you die. If you get low on TP, you can't use any artes or spells.

As you progress in the game and learn more skills, you'll be able to chain together artes on top of one another for some really cool combos. So for example with Yuri, you can stab something a few times, then do Shining Fang right into Dragon Swarm for something like a 25 hit combo that does thousands of damage. There are also some passive skills that everyone can learn from weapons, which will affect them in battle. There's hundreds and hundreds of skills and weapons to play around with, and the game gives you enough freedom to fool around with all of it on any character you want until you get something that works for you. There isn't one set way to play this, in other words.

There's also tons of other things to fool around with, like Over Limits that make your characters go nuts in a fight, Burst and Mystic Artes, fatal strikes, stealing, linked encounters, surprise encounters, multiple characters going into Over Limit at the same time, cooking, secret missions in boss fights, in-battle dialogue, cool spell quotes, elemental effects, elemental weapon effects, hidden weapons, and on and on and on. Vesperia has a ton of content, but it never really feels like a chore to play.

Let's take Dissidia as a random example of lots of content gone wrong. That game had eons' worth of items to get, but the game was terrible and the collect-a-thon was boring. It was a massive chore. That isn't the case in Tales of Vesperia. My save file was close to 190 hours when I finally finished the game, but the it didn't feel like I put 190 hours into the game because of how much fun it was. You're always doing something in this game, and it's almost always fun.

But no game is truly perfect, and there are some things Vesperia does that are questionable. This game is loaded with missable items and side quests that need to be activated at very specific spots with no hints whatsoever of what to do or where to go, and it's impossible to get everything without using a very specific guide. Games that do stuff this can easily be considered unethical, since it's a blatant way of selling the strategy guide along with the game. But here's the thing: The game's official strategy guide misses most of the side quests a blind player would miss as well, so it's basically useless. You have to go on the internet and find a perfect walkthrough to help you out as you're playing if you want to find everything there is, which isn't the best of ideas. However it would be unfair to mark something down for what is ultimately optional content, so Vesperia gets a pass here.

Where Vesperia does not get a pass however are the dungeons, especially the ones near the end of the game. Tales games routinely have bad dungeons but get bailed out by fun gameplay, and this game is no different. If battles weren't so damn fun, these late-game dungeons would be ruinous. The final dungeon is obviously the biggest offender, but it's hardly alone in being cumbersome and not fun to navigate. The worst is when you have to actively solve puzzles, which often turns into firing the Sorcerer's Ring at random objects until you find something it'll blow up.

Another big problem this game has is the system it's been released on in North America. Namco never localized the Playstation 3 release -- Which of course has more content, because what's a staggered JRPG release these days without screwing over the people who buy the first copies? -- so unless you import you're stuck playing this game on a subpar system. The 360's massive failure rate and red rings of death are well-known enough at this point, and make sure not to move the system while it's on or you risk getting your game eaten. Then of course is that terrible d-pad, or what would more accurately be called "that awful analog nub that pretends to be a d-pad". You'll either have to navigate menus and switch battle targets with the analog stick or risk always selecting the wrong option and going into Over Limit by accident. It doesn't make Vesperia a bad game by any stretch, but the system it saw its main release on has some legitimate issues that need to be considered when playing or considering a purchase.

"Guess you're stuck doin' a job nobody much wants."

Something that often gets overlooked when evaluating a game these days is atmosphere. Not graphics, since almost every game on next-gen systems has good graphics, but atmosphere. The mood, the setting, the lighting, the way a game can make you feel like a part of its universe. Tales of Vesperia does this fairly well, and it does this without using a bunch of gloomy colors or moody songs.

"Vivid" would be a great word to describe this game's setting. Everything is really bright, including even parts of the game that are supposed to be darker. For example, there's some ruins you go into in the middle of the game where you're supposed to miss holes in the floor and fall through it to the floor below. This doesn't really happen unless you want it to, because the room is illuminated well enough even with the lights off. For a game that basically amounts to a gigantic cartoon, the graphics are astoundingly well-done. The anime cutscenes are of course lame and would make anyone other than the biggest Japanophile weaboo cringe, but those are so few and far between that they barely even matter. The main game is gorgeous to look at, and HD doesn't hurt it.

The soundtrack isn't the best, but it does its job well enough insofar as proving the right mood. If you're in a huge city, the music makes you feel like you'll never see everything. If you're in a happy place, the song is going to follow suit. And if you go into a town and you hear something entitled "Full of Unrest", you'll practically want to watch your back inside your own house. There aren't many standalone songs on the soundtrack, but they all collectively do what they set out to do. Can't ask for much else.

"Farewell, all my dear fans the world over."

Tales of Vesperia is an amazing game, and one that shows Japanese RPGs may not need to evolve their plots; just their characterizations and gameplay mechanics. Great characters and gameplay can almost always carry a game, and the characters and gameplay in this game do that just as well as any other RPG you'll play.

In conclusion, play this. Especially if you're a big fan of JRPGs. Yeah the 360 is mostly subpar and yeah Namco not localizing the PS3 version is stupid, but find a way to play this anyway. It's worth the effort.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 03/29/11, Updated 03/30/11

Game Release: Tales of Vesperia (US, 08/26/08)

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