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.
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 were never deemed marketable in the West until recently. 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; 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
With this new game, however, there is one caveat: 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; Symphonia'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 it's 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.
The game 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 characters. Often times
they'll 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 in to 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's literally hundreds of different things
for your characters to do on the side if you want to. 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
cut-scenes. Best of all, this stuff goes on during the game proper instead of
shoveling it all in at the end, easily my biggest RPG 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) A.I. handling the other three. The system is
an odd hybrid of action gaming and some of the more typical RPG battle commands,
and it takes a little getting used to but 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 them 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 the battles
by the end of the game 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.
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 superdeformed 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 can think playing in quite
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 thing. 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 under whelming, 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
NPCs. 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".
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; 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 we keep.
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 wouldn't be rushing out to buy the soundtrack or anything,
there's 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 and keep going until you hit the end credits. 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 loves 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 game before. It
lets you do practical things like carry over a completed world map and retain
all your collection data to allowing some fairly extreme bonuses like ten(!) times
the normal experience amount per battle. Even so, unless you're a diehard RPG
fan, 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 seventy hours to finish
with almost everything obtained, so completists take note; you may want to invest
in a guide for the game if they 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
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 that's 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 RPG clichés, but in a weird way, that almost makes it unique in today's
of Symphonia is exactly what the GameCube needed. 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.