(GameCube Review) Tales of Symphonia

Developer: Namco
Publisher: Role-Playing Game
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Matt Warner

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

(Originally published on August 06, 2004)

Role-playing games are a strange beast. Back in the day, they were a dime a dozen, and it was good. Your oddly hair-colored character would take up adventuring at the ripe old age of maybe 15, learn proficiency with various combat weapons and spells almost instantly, fight dragons and world-destroying evil demons in the course of a few months of game time, get an airship, amass a huge fortune in money and gear, fall in love with whichever girl in the party used a staff and had healing magic, and be well done with saving the world before they were old enough to drink.

Skip ahead post-Final Fantasy VII and we see the genre spiraling off into directions that would have rocked our world back in 1993. For people like me, it seems weird to think that someone could have played a good-sized crop of RPGs and remain completely unfamiliar with the “classic” Japanese Console style of storytelling, but that’s been the case for seven years and counting. Sure, with modern games, it’s still all basically the same thing deep down, but now it’s usually wrapped in some kind of ultra-serious religiously driven multi-part epic plot arc (see: Xenosaga), or conversely, something that goes in the complete opposite direction and tries to be as cute and irreverent as possible (see: Okage: Shadow King). Sometimes it even manages to reach both extremes in the same game (yep, see: Final Fantasy X-2).

Not, mind you, that I think any of this is a bad thing—far from it. I’m just saying, if your role-playing experience started with a certain spiky-haired gigantic-sword-wielding blonde pretty-boy overcoming several protracted personal crises to save the world from a giant meteor by using a vague all-ruling magical wave of consciousness that acts as the manifestation of the power of earth vs. man’s eternal hubris, then you’re missing out on all the games that got us to that point in the first place, and that’s a shame. RPGs were a lot more simple back then, and there’s certainly something to be said for that.

Luckily, Nintendo and Namco have seen fit to send one of the most archetypal Japanese RPGs in recent memory stateside, complete with a fantastic translation and a metric ton of production polish, something unheard of in the “golden years” of console RPGs. In my opinion, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Tales series is probably unfamiliar to all but the hardcore Japanese role-play nuts out there. Like the Fire Emblem games, the Tales games were a huge hit in Japan that, until recently, were never deemed marketable in the West. We got one of them in Tales of Destiny, but it was never on the A-list and quietly sank out of view before it ever got a fighting chance in the market. Luckily, there is no previous experience necessary with the series to be able to pick up the most recent installment, as Tales of Symphonia stands on its own and offers a lengthy, beautiful quest that will hit every touchstone any fan of the genre could ever dream of. For RPG-starved ‘Cube owners, this is like getting candy from the gaming gods.

There is one caveat with Symphonia, however: if you’ve played more than two old-style RPGs prior to this, then you can probably guess about 75% of the plot from reading the back of the box on your way home from the store. That’s not an exaggeration; the game’s approach is almost painfully traditional if you look at it from a distance. My roommate sat in for literally two minutes’ worth of dialogue between the hero and heroine at the beginning of the game, and then turned to me and said, “Wow! I can’t wait until she rejects God in a few hours.” He’s right; the story centers around a young girl’s quest to become the next “Chosen of Regeneration” to restore the flow of mana in the world and revive its dying wildlife by making a pilgrimage to various points and invoking the name of a holy goddess. You get one guess as to whether the whole thing turns out to be a scam or not.

Don’t think that being predictable makes the game bad, though. Think of it like a Hong Kong martial arts movie: you already know what’s going to happen, but in a way, that’s the whole point. Foreknowledge of the fact that one guy is going to kick another guy doesn’t make it any less cool when he does.

It does take a bit for everyone to show up, but by the time you have your whole party in gear and the plot is kicking in all its ultra-stereotypical glory, it’s an absolute blast. Extra kudos has to go to Namco for what is easily the most transparent localization I’ve seen yet in a Japanese RPG, and it lets all the clockwork of interactions that develop come through without the usual layer of odd phrasing and bizarre emotional logic that was so commonplace in earlier games. All the main characters have voice-overs for every important line of dialogue, and each has several side quests and little bits of info that can be uncovered to further cement their personalities. Often times, characters simply chat among themselves for no other reason than to further their relationships with each other. These frequent little skits, while sometimes pointless, go a long way towards getting you attached to everyone. Weird as it might sound, you’re sure to become really fond of all your party members as all their personal quirks play out, and it makes you want to invest in them more than you might otherwise.

Now, sure, they’re all just staples of the genre: you’ve got the lone tortured swordsman, the chipper young hero, the tiny little pink-haired girl with the strength of a bear, and that cute redheaded chick you saw in the intro movie? Yep, that’s a guy.

All that aside, it’s telling that nobody stands out as being underdeveloped or pointless. Every character is given a chance to grow on their own, and they do. It helps that the cast size is kept to a manageable eight characters, but there was also an obvious amount of work put into fleshing out each of their backstories, and rather than slap then on as optional sidequests, they’re tightly interwoven with the main plot.

The game also takes a cue from a title previously developed by the same team: Star Ocean: The Second Story. Like Star Ocean, there are literally hundreds of different things for your characters to do on the side. I’m not talking about the usual “we’ve got time to kill before the final battle, so let’s go to that secret dungeon and level up” nonsense, but wholesale game elements, like an extended cooking system, a hefty amount of armor and weapon customization, several hidden (though still plot-relevant) boss battles, and even an affinity attribute that gauges how much certain characters like each other and has them act accordingly in certain cutscenes. Best of all, this stuff goes on during the game proper instead of shoveling it all in at the end, which is easily my biggest genre pet peeve (Final Fantasy X, I’m looking in your direction).

In between the big events and the smaller side quests, there’s the usual amount of running around between towns and getting into random battles. Symphonia scores well in that regard too, since the battles themselves are far more fun than they’d seem to be at first. They play out in real time, with the player controlling one character and a quite competent (and fully customizable) AI handling the other three. The system is an odd hybrid of action gaming and some of the more typical battle–command-based combat found in other titles, and although it takes a little getting used to, it ultimately winds up being a lot more fun that just picking “Fight” from a menu constantly.

Also, in a nice touch, the random battles aren’t quite random. Enemies are visible onscreen prior to attacking and can be fairly easily avoided if you don’t feel like picking a fight. You’re going to want to fight a reasonable amount of battles in order to stay powerful enough for the challenging boss fights, but it’s helpful for when you need to backtrack through areas with weaker monsters and don’t want to waste time. As your characters get stronger, their attacks also get flashier, bigger, and far more frequent. A cool side effect of this is that, by the end of the game, the battles wind up looking ridiculously complicated, even though you’re well used to them by that point. What starts out as two characters making some basic attacks while one heals and one casts some simple spells eventually mutates into gigantic laser-show melees with everyone tossing screen-filling fireballs and weapon combos all over the place in an absolute bedlam of violence and explosions. Good stuff!

As much as the game puts on its plate at once, the visuals and audio remain up to the task. Cel shading is used on everyone in the game for a universal anime-ish, slight super-deformed look, and while I’m normally not a big fan of it, the look works beautifully here. A lot of it is because there isn’t the usual super-thick black outline that mars most other games that use the technique, but it also has to do with the fact that the characters still have a large amount of detail despite their toony appearance. Backgrounds, particularly the nature scenes, are breathtakingly beautiful in places, bearing a watercolor look that’s far more colorful and organic looking than anything I’ve seen in quite a while.

The only spot where the game stumbles in the graphics department is when it tries to have the characters perform some kind of scripted physical task like pushing each other or climbing around on things. There are a few (insanely gorgeous) anime cut scenes for the really huge plot events, but most of the time, everything is acted out using the game engine, and it doesn’t really work like it should and tends to be underwhelming, especially when it tries to be impressive. A scene that’s already gained some notoriety is after a boss fight, when the enemy’s headquarters is set to self-destruct. After all the fanfare, the camera cuts back and there’s a single, tiny explosion and some poorly rendered smoke superimposed over the base… and that’s it. It’s easy to ignore, but it’s still a quirky blemish on what is otherwise a stellar graphical presentation.

On the audio side, the first notable thing is the English voice acting, which as mentioned, is top-notch. Some of the writing is a little goofy at times, but this is less due to the translation or the voice cast and more due to, well, the writing just being goofy at times. Those who follow this sort of thing will quickly pick up on some of the voice talent: Scott Menville (aka Robin from Teen Titans) lands the leading role as Lloyd Irving, Cam Clarke (Liquid Snake in Metal Gear Solid) is perfect as the craft mercenary Kratos Aurion, and the well-known Jennifer Hale and Tara Strong (Naomi Hunter of MGS and Rikku from FFX, respectively) turn in fantastic performances in supporting roles as main characters and various other non-playable characters. This is great stuff all around, with the only oddity being that the cast has a tendency to change their pronunciations of certain things from time to time. Lloyd’s pet dog-thing is named Noshie, which starts out being pronounced “no-shee” but then turns into “nosh” and then “noi-shh.” Same with some of the recurring summon creatures in the game. Undine goes from being pronounced “un-dyne” to “oo-deeny”. It’s weird, but not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

What sets the game’s voice talent truly apart is that nobody chokes when they have to go from funny to serious, especially impressive given that Symphonia isn’t exactly a comedy game. The plot nosedives into some serious navel-gazing towards the end, which isn’t surprising—high melodrama and Japanese RPGs were practically spawned from each other—but a good amount of it remains lighthearted, and since the English cast manages to keep up with the ebb and flow of humor, there’s surprisingly few eye-rolling moments. That’s a break from tradition I hope is kept.

The music and sound effects are pretty standard stuff, though if you were a fan of the music from any of the Tri-Ace games, you’re in luck—same composer here. It’s all fitting and quite pretty, and while I won’t be rushing out to buy the soundtrack, there are a few tunes that you’ll find yourself humming without realizing it. Sound effects are what you’d expect, with the usual assortment of clangs, booms, and incoherent screaming on the part of the enemies. There’s actually quite a bit of dialogue that goes on during the fights, which is cool and sort of unsettling at the same time, particularly when the English-speaking enemies decide chime in. At some point, you’ll probably wonder aloud “who the hell was that!?” before you realize that the man-eating tree you’ve been wailing on can talk.

Once you’ve seen and heard everything the game has to offer, it’s time to plunge through the final dungeon until the end credits roll. That will probably do it for most people, but for those who really want to squeeze the most of the game, there’s ample evidence that Namco was thinking of you. A finished game save will open up a “new game shop” that lets you tweak some of the rules for a repeat quest by spending “grade points” that were accumulated in the previous game. It lets you do practical things, such as carry over a completed world map and retain all your collection data to allowing some fairly extreme bonuses like 10(!) times the normal experience amount per battle. Even so, unless you’re a diehard fan of the genre, you’re probably not going to want to instantly launch into another game the moment you finish a first. Tales took me a little under 70 hours to finish with almost everything obtained, so completionists take note: you may want to invest in a guide if you want to catch everything the first time through. A lot of the funnier hidden elements really are quite hidden, but they’re worth tracking down if you’re into that sort of thing. The best are the alternate costumes for some of the characters, which are a royal hoot and are usually packed with in-jokes.

And that’s really all there is to it. Taken as a whole, nothing in Tales of Symphonia is going to blow anyone away, but conversely, there’s absolutely nothing here not to like, and you get a lot of RPG loving for your money. The plot is predictable but interesting nonetheless, the characters are extremely likeable, the voices and graphics are top notch, and the whole thing leaves you feeling satisfied in that meat-and-potatoes kind of way. It’s very nearly a checklist of genre clichés, but in a weird way, that almost makes it unique in today’s market.

Tales of Symphonia is exactly what the GameCube needs. It’s a solid, polished title that holds up in every aspect and looks great in any RPG fan’s library. It’s not going to win any suspense awards, but the plot has enough twists to keep things interesting, and the game has character and charm to spare. Definitely worth getting.

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