Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
Tales of Symphonia was the only release in the Tales of series to make its way to the GameCube, but it made a lasting impression and remained one of the best role-playing titles for the system. Over the years, the price of a used copy has slowly increased as console generations came and went and, more importantly, as the series found considerable traction in North America. After the success of Tales of Xillia, Namco Bandai (now Bandai Namco) decided to collect and update both Tales of Symphonia and its Wii sequel Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World in a new, low-priced set for the PlayStation 3: the excellent Tales of Symphonia Chronicles.
This twilight period for the PS3 has rather unexpectedly turned into a great time for fans of role-playing games. Whether it’s HD updates, new entries in ongoing series, or the start of something entirely new, the genre is sending the PS3 out with a bang. Just in terms of the Tales of series, fans are not only getting Tales of Xillia 2 relatively quickly after Tales of Xillia, but they are also being treated to the adventures of Lloyd, Charlotte, and Emil in the meantime. It’s a good time for fans of Japanese RPGs.
Tales of Symphonia is where the adventure begins and is undoubtedly the stronger of the two games. Players are introduced to Sylvarant, a once-prosperous world that is slowly dying as the remaining mana supply nears its end. In the midst of this turmoil, the Desians, a half-elven race, begin to persecute the remaining humans by collecting them in camps for mysterious, nefarious purposes. Those that dare resist the Desians are met with swift, harsh reprisals that involve towns being razed and its citizens carried off or killed.
The world’s only hope appears to be the survival of a young girl named Colette, who has been selected as the Chosen. If she is able to release guarded seals at temples scattered around the world, the mana will flow once again. In this quest, she is accompanied by several characters, including her childhood friend Lloyd, the mercenary Kratos, her teacher Raine, and Raine’s younger brother and Lloyd’s friend Genis. It’s the friendship between Lloyd and Genis, and their impetuous reaction to the injustices inflicted on enslaved humans, which set the Desians on their hometown and in pursuit of the party. In addition to the enraged Desians, the group must also only contend with a host of wildlife and monsters that roam the lands between the temples. Fortunately for the people of Sylvarant, the party is well equipped to handle such dangers.
Enemies are represented on the world map and in the temples as single units roaming about, until they notice the player’s party, at which point they jump in excitement, rush forward, or run away. They are fairly numerous and provide great opportunities to grind, but the over-eagerness of lower-level enemies to engage can become tedious, as their constant assaults can bog down even short jaunts; fortunately, the resulting hassle is offset somewhat by an escape ability. After the enemy and player make contact, the game shifts to a side view that offers considerable freedom of movement within a sizable combat area. Character behavior can be set to auto (AI controlled), semi-auto (AI will block when possible and close with the enemy when the player attacks), and manual (complete player control). They can be further customized with strategies that limit the freedom the AI takes when it has control, such as what spells to use, general aggressiveness, the distance they need to keep from enemies, and so on. For full control, other players can be assigned as the three other party members for a true role-playing experience. Cooperation is emphasized by tallying linked moves as combos, which are rewarded with Grade points based on performance—a poor showing can actually result in a loss. These can be used to purchase ingredients to synthesize weapons and armor, or traded for Gems to permanently improve a character’s base stats. Players can also switch between characters during combat. Unfortunately, due to a lack of either a physical or digital manual, how to switch characters isn’t explained, and it’s this lack of documentation that is the game’s only real sore spot.
All of these options are part of a robust and addictive combat system. By using a control scheme that utilizes hotkeys that links moves to the directional pad and two of the shoulder buttons, players have quick access to a wide range of special attacks and abilities. These moves do more than just damage enemies, as their use also determines whether characters specialize in Strike or Tech skills. This seesawing-type progression system isn’t fully explain in the game, but it can also be largely ignored, as it is primarily geared towards those looking at maximizing combos rather than a more casual experience; the single hard blow from a striker seems about the same as the several lighter blows from a techer, but knowing who is what will mean being able to pull off high-count hit strings. A character’s position on the spectrum is malleable and can be changed by deselecting (“forgetting”) moves of the undesired type, offering even more control. Additionally, characters’ play styles can be further customized by utilizing stat-changing titles that are earned throughout play, such as by reaching a set number of hits in a combo or fighting enemies a number of times. After a hard-fought battle, or while exploring, characters can replenish their health and mana by cooking meals with the required ingredients; the party members vary in skill and the food varies in benefits, so it’s helpful to keep this in mind when potions and gels run low. What’s especially nice about all of this is that it’s not necessary to keep many of these elements in mind in order to complete the game. Players can give the AI as much control as possible and focus on the story with one character, or heavily modify to maximize damage output and get the most items and kit. Either play style is viable, and the ability to swap on the fly keeps the game fresh with possibility.
This approach of minimization with optional depth is at the heart of Tales of Symphonia, and it’s a tenet that holds up well throughout the game’s 50-plus hours. Everything benefits from this type of design, not just the combat. The story is a simple one at its heart, about saving the world, battling an evil empire, and serving the greater good. But dig deeper and the themes of sacrifice, slavery, the tendency to value property over people, and religious manipulation of the vulnerable all appear as prominent strands throughout the narrative. The plot has enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, but those wanting more can opt to engage in scripted dialogue events whenever an on-screen indicator appears. These are well known in the series, as they not only flesh out each character’s motivations and personalities—often with surprisingly funny exchanges—but they also show the members interacting with one another on a level barely touched upon in the main in-game cutscenes. Of note is the new ability to select the original Japanese voice overs, which are not only superior to the uneven English track that can seem disconnected from the game world and occasionally suffers from static, but they are also present in the event dialogs, which the English track doesn’t cover.
The game also has a comfortable flow, with visits to Desian human ranches helping to break up the visits to the temples in the first half of the game, and a natural progression on through to the final act. A synopsis also helps to keep the quests manageable, with updates not only reminding players about what needs to be done but where they need to go and how to get there; this is incredibly helpful, especially since the map lacks town names. Unlike many other games in the genre, it is rare to be held up through confusion about what to do, and the game maintains a steady pace as a result. At every turn, the game is able to reap massive dividends from the smallest touches.
Transitioning from Tales of Symphonia to Dawn of the New World is easy at first, especially as the story picks up a few years after the events of Lloyd and Colette. Many of the series elements return, including scripted events, which are now also voiced in English; also back is the fast-paced encounter-based combat, weapon and armor synthesis, a helpful journal, multiplayer support, titles, and cooking. These are all well implemented, and the only real significant change is that traveling on the world map is done by selecting a destination rather than by running there. This is something of a difficult subject because it manages to make travel much more convenient, but it also waters down the explorative element so prominent in the genre and limits the ability to grind between areas. There is a larger change, though, and that’s a general shift in approach. Whereas the first game built upon a small core, allowing players to tailor the experience to fit their preference, Dawn of the New World throws a lot at the player from the outset, with a story that quickly becomes convoluted before settling down and a revamped combat system that relies largely on tamed monsters rather than actual characters.
Not all of the changes are bad; in fact, many of them are pretty good. Despite returning characters being brushed aside (they do not gain experience nor can their equipment be changed) and the added Pokemon element, the action is even more fluid than before, and the new moves are great. Another big bonus is that positioning now matters. Before, an enemy could be engaged from any position, but here, attacking an enemy from the rear will result in them being stunned for the first few seconds of combat. It’s also necessary to plan moves in advance as characters are no longer invulnerable when quaffing or helping others with potions. Moves are still tied to directions and shoulder buttons, but for some reason, moves can now only be engaged with the analog stick rather than with the directional pad. Unity attacks, which can be engaged after enough successive hits have been landed, are now automatically done when initiated, unlike in the original, where players could choose who attacked when. Fortunately, the ability to tailor the AI returns and is as useful as before, with the same options for auto, semi-auto, and manual. Despite the switch to recruitable monsters, combat remains a lot of fun, though just not as personable.
The main area in which I found Dawn of the New World lacking is the story and character development, and the protagonist in particular. Conceptually, the idea of the player doing little good despite their best efforts is intriguing, and had the writing at least been on par with the original, this could have been a genuinely unique approach to the genre. However, the switch from Lloyd, who was a fairly typical over-eager and slightly goofy but loyal would-be warrior, to Emil, a whiney, apologetic wimp, is rough. It isn’t that Lloyd was a standout character or even all that memorable, but he was likable and implemented within the storyline in such a way that the underlying political and societal themes were highlighted in an unobtrusive and engaging manner. Emil is just annoying. Even when going through the first few hours with the understanding that he will grow as a character, I still had a very hard time sitting through his whimpering. He apologizes three or four times within the first 15 minutes of play, and then does so another three or four more times during the following 15; there’s character building, and then there’s overkill. The English voice actor is so grating that I switched to the Japanese track almost immediately, which was of some help, but there’s just no getting around bad characterization.
Even after forming a bond with a Centurion Spirit and finding himself losing control to a more violent personality, Emil is still tiresome. Everything about him is off-putting, from the fact that he always seems confused about everything around him (“’Be careful’? What does that mean?”) to the bizarre ballroom-gown-style outfit he wears, which looks to offer approximately zero protection in combat; he’s just a poorly developed protagonist. He improves as the story unfolds, but not nearly as fast as he should, and the result is that the opening stages are a real slog. While I couldn’t ever see myself skipping a scripted event in Tales of Symphonia, I was glad to have a break from the chatter in Dawn of the New World, and that says a lot.
Tales of Symphonia Chronicles collects updated versions of the fantastic Tales of Symphonia and the decent Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World into a low-priced set that is hard to resist. Despite being over a decade old, the original still holds up very well, and the inclusion of the Japanese voice track clears up the technical hiccups of the English version while adding even more personality to the scripted events. Dawn of the New World isn’t as good, largely due to an unlikeable protagonist and a more cumbersome design, but it still offers a decent combat system and a chance to catch up with the old gang and see their own impact on the world. Its more robust help menu also largely offsets the lack of a manual, which is something that unfortunately cannot be said about its predecessor. And as an especially nice bonus, the developers reward those who have a Tales of Xillia or Tales of Graces F save file with a bevy of costume unlocks along with a thank-you message for supporting the series.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)