Tales of Symphonia is a JRPG developed and published by Namco for the Gamecube in 2003-2004. It received a Japan-only PS2 port in 2004, a world-wide PS3 port in 2013-2014 and a PC port in 2016. The story follows the Chosen, Colette and her allies Lloyd, Genis, Raine and Kratos who set out on a journey to regenerate the mana of the world of Sylvarant before it fully withers away.
The story of Symphonia starts simple enough, but quickly escalates in scope before finally dealing with the intermingling stories of the relatively large main cast and the aforementioned effort to save the world.
To start with, we have Colette and her relationship with our protagonist Lloyd. Colette is a bit of a doormat and very willing to throw herself at the global crisis without any regards for her well-being. Lloyd recognizes this, since he can't stand suffering in any form, which forms the basis of their interactions. I really like that Lloyd places such value on human life, no matter what, which puts him at odds with many character across the game. His student-mentor relationship with the mercenary Kratos is also quite good. Sadly, the best scenes between the two are linked to eachother, so if you miss the first, you can't access the rest, which is a shame.
But after a third or so of the story, Colette and Lloyd drop out of focus to give room to new party members as they go through their arcs. Two of these are almost standalone plotlines that I question the inclusion of. It's not bad content, but with the emotional pay-off to Raine's and her brother Genis' story being delegated to an optional encounter, I can't help but think that you could write out one party member to make more room for the half-elven siblings.
The duo's main purpose is to serve as a catalyst for one of the main themes of the game, namely racism. It's almost ridiculous just how much racism there is in Symphonia, but it serves the purpose of accentuating how dumb it is. This aligns the player's view with Lloyd's, who just wants everyone to get along.
Once the endgame kicks in and the stakes rise, Lloyd's story goes to the forefront again and the themes of acceptance and forgiveness provide some excellent pay-off during encounters with the final boss. Symphonia can be a bit meandering, but it never loses sight of its themes, which is commendable.
Even so, there are a few random things that holds it back. This is the first western Tales game with skits (Eternia's skits were sadly cut for the western release), but they aren't voiced in English. You can play with Japanese voices to hear them, but if you prefer English then you are screwed. The skits are goofy and provide a lot of good characterization, but they fall so flat without any voice acting to back them up. A real shame that Namco cheapened out on this front, but I understand the decision.
The game's sidequests are interesting, since they don't really provide much in the way of rewards. Instead, they're a collection of small stories the party partakes in alongside the main story. It's pretty decent stuff, but these quests are incredibly difficult to find and progress through. There is no quest journal present and absolutely no hints are provided to them even being available.
Then there is the game's hidden relationship system which annoys me to no end. Throughout the adventure, there are a lot of instances where you get to pick dialog choices (plus do some other stuff) that influences each party member's relationship value. Get it high enough and that character will be one of three you can choose between for a very good scene in lategame. It also influences some mostly meaningless stuff throughout the game as well.
The first problem is that to see all of those good bonding scenes, you need to play through the game once per party member and focus on them entirely. Even with NG+ cheats, that is a ridiculous proposition. Then there's the fact that the whole system is obtuse as hell. You even have to mess with your dungeon progression for one character. I understand wanting to gamify relationships, but it's a fool's errand. I much prefer the Trails of Cold Steel route of just putting up a giant neon sign asking "Who do you want to hang out with, player?" and not make it more complex than that. Hell, they could have just made it a single choice before the bonding scene and it'd be fine, since you would just be able to reload a save and see every scene without much hassle.
Building on the previous 2D titles, Symphonia uses the Multi-Line Linear Motion Battle System. This means that the game has 3D arenas to fight in. But you still fight in 2D, only, every character has a 2D path to the enemy they are targeting (hence "Multi-Line Linear").
In practicality, this eliminates the issue of party members and enemies stopping eachother from being able to move freely. While it makes it harder to protect spellcasters, it does make it easier to rush down dangerous enemies. On the whole, this makes random encounters easier, but bosses harder, since they can zero in on people you really don't want to get aggro if you get unlucky. and it doesn't help that the AI of spellcasters is pretty bad at running away from danger unless you control them yourself. As such, spamming AoE healing spells constantly and keeping bosses busy is even more important here than it is in the previous games.
The actual fighting feels slightly better than it does in Eternia, so that's a plus. I don't know exactly why I think that, it might have something to do with how the input buffer is set up. But a big minus is that I don't like playing as any character other than Lloyd. His moveset simply flows the best among the melée fighters. For a Tales game, I want at least two characters to swap between at my leisure, but that's not nearly as fun in this game.
There are a few additions to the controls, namely a backstep I rarely used aside from against a bonus boss, a dedicated defence tech stronger than regular blocking I never used and the ability to regain TP by fighting. That last addition is vital, as it is pretty easy to burn through TP in Symphonia, making cooking pretty vital if you want your melée characters to stay aggressive.
Then we have the more special mechanics, namely Overlimit and Unison attacks. The Overlimit mode raises a characters defence and makes them immune to staggering. It's usually triggered after suffering a lot of damage in quick succession, so it's basically a comeback mechanic. But bosses can activate it too, so it sort of dictates the flow of battle, shifting the aggressor of the fight back and forth. It's an ok addition, but I don't like that it's also the way you use summons as well. Simply put, you can only use summons while the summoner party member is in Overlimit. As such, I never really used her. Even during the times you're forced to use her, I think I managed to pop a summon spell like 4 times throughout the whole game. It feels like such a half-assed attempt to limit the use of summons that's basically random, even if you try to influence Overlimit by cooking the correct food.
Unison attacks aren't much better, even though they are thankfully not reliant on randomness. To use a Unison attack, you fill up the Unison Gauge, which takes forever, usually a good 4-8 random battles. This means that you only really get to use one per boss. And in its basic form, a Unison attack is really underwhelming. It simply allows you to use one tech per party member for free, overriding the attack the enemy is preparing and letting you extend a combo greatly, if you care about that sort of stuff. If the gauge filled faster and it was intended as a defensive counter mechanic, I could get behind it being weak. But it's limited like that because you can do Compund Unison attacks right afterwards if you combine the correct tech's. And this is where I have to get sour again.
Simply put, the gauge fills too slowly and there are way too many techs to experiment with to discover which ones actually lead to a Compuind attack. You'll probably discover one or two combinations on your own, but there comes a point where these combinations are first available and would be really useful to have against bosses. But if you do me and miss their existance for a good chunk of the game before finally lucking out on a combination, you're gonna suffer a bit in boss fights.
It doesn't help that the shortcuts for techs in Unison attacks are the same as the ones you set up in regular combat. So if you find a good set of techs and don't swap around often, you probably won't discover a lot of the combinations. Not to mention that if you want a certain Compound attack, you potentially have to waste a tech shortcut slot on a tech you don't like using in combat just so you can use the Comound attack it leads to. It took me forever to realize that these shortcuts were shared (since the game doesn't say so) . I was convinced that the game just randomly reset my shortcuts when people left the party. Frankly, I think the shortcuts for regular techs and Unison techs should have been separate.
Symphonia has two skill systems that are somewhat intertwined. First of all, there are the EX skills. These are support abilites influenced by what 4 types of EX gems you slot onto a character. Once slotted, a gem can't be removed, only replaced by another one, which destroys the old one. This makes it a real headache to experiment with EX skills, since the really good ones are only aquired by combining skills from different tiers of EX gems. I suggest just using a guide.
The standard EX skills come in two types, S and T. Depending on how many of one type a character has equipped, they'll move towards being an S or T character as they partake in battles. The type of character they are determines what techs they can learn. And again, it's a pain to experiment. You can't swap between types easily and there is no guarantee that you'll like the other school of techs, so you might just need to swap back to what you had previously. I much prefer what Eternia did to make you pick between spells, since you could freely swap and experiment with different setups without needing to fight as much inbetween.
While the world map feels lackluster due to how little there is to discover in it outside of the main plot, Symphonia does feature visible random encounters that can almost always be avoided if the player so chooses. This really helps the pacing, especially when puzzles are involved. While there are a few too many dungeons for my liking (a few of which share too many assets, music specifically), they get points for featuring unique puzzle mechanics.
At the start of each dungeon, there is usually a device that changes the series' standard puzzle tool, the Sorcerer's Ring, into something more interesting than a fireball spell. You then have to use your new ability to solve the local puzzles, most of which are at least interesting from a novelty standpoint.