Tales of Vesperia is an action RPG developed by Namco's Tales Studio for the Xbox 360 and published by Namco Bandai Games and Atari in 2008-2009. It received an enhanced port on the PS3 as well that was only available in Japan until the Definitive Edition came out on Switch, PC, Xbox One and PS4 in 2019. In the imperial capital of Zaphias, former imperial knight Yuri Lowell goes after a thief who has taken a water Blastia Core from a local fountain, thus throwing his home district into chaos. On the way, Yuri runs into the noblewoman Estelle who is determined to find Yuri's friend Flynn and warn him of the danger he's in. Together, they venture out to find the Blastia Core thief and warn Flynn.
Vesperia has two major themes at work: The interplay between lawful justice and personal justice, as well as environmentalism. Our protagonist Yuri and his friend Flynn embody the first theme, while a majority of the cast and setting embody the second.
As Yuri follows the thief's trails and discover the circumstances behind the Blastia Core theft (Blastia are magic stones that power Blastia machines essential to people everywhere), he comes to question the effectiveness of the imperial knights he once served, which puts him at odds with Flynn, who has remained in the order.
It's nice to have a somewhat adult protagonist in a Tales game (He's an astonishing 21 years old!) who is willing to be so critical of the current world order. But even so, his internal struggle wasn't as engaging as I wanted it to be. I think the issue is that for being someone who dips into defining his own code of justice, he somehow manages to not screw things up in the process, making his clashes with Flynn over what is right ring a bit hollow, since everything Yuri does is basically justified. Personal justice is one heck of a slippery slope and in an effort to maintain Yuri's likeability, he wasn't allowed to make mistakes of the same level as Luke in Tales of Abyss.
I wouldn't say Yuri goes through much of an arc, it's more that he has to confirm what he already believes by facing the world. The rest of the party doesn't really have major arcs either. They're noticeable enough (Karol becomes less of a coward, Rita becomes less Tsun and more Dere, for example), but I can't really pinpoint the key scenes that move characters forward, save for some scenes involving Yuri and Flynn. There just comes a point where a party member realizes that they've become slightly different people and then move on to the matter at hand.
It's certainly very believable developments, as people are slow to change, but you could have put the party at the end of their development at the start of the game and not much would change in my opinion, save for how buddy-buddy everyone would be. It's still a nice cast, but I think the worth of the game's story is found in the exploration of the environmentalist theme, especially through the party's discussions on the matter.
It eventually becomes clear that Blastia machines are an allegory for combustion engines, as continued use of them puts strain on a delicate balance in nature. While this can feel heavy-handed at times, I appreciate the lengths the game goes to explain how dependant the world is on Blastia (it's how towns stay safe from monster attacks and how party members use their combat abilities, for example) and how difficult it would be to simply stop using them. This back-and-forth between what people should do versus what they want to do drives most of the story.
That's all well and good, but one key thing I was missing come the ending was an epilogue of some sort, as the game abruptly ends after the final boss. There are a few loose threads I was really disappointed to see unadressed.
As part of the first theme, the party eventually forms its own guild. It's not uncommon for guilds to be featured in RPGs, but I've never seen a party start their own. So I was sad to see that it was mostly an excuse to do a series of side quests instead of a springboard to discuss and codify the party's views into a guild and figuratively butt heads with other guilds instead of doing so literally. Jumping forward a bit in time to show what the guild turns into would have been great. As is, their code of conduct begins and ends with "Do the right thing", which is pretty simplistic and juvenile.
That sort of leads into another issue I have with the story, which is how small the world can feel at times. Now, Vesperia isn't really smaller than the other games in the series in a literal sense, but with the game only having two major active factions (The Empire and a collection of guilds centered in a single town), it can feel like the story would be better suited to a single continent instead of a whole world. Add to that the fact that I never felt like I got a good understanding of how the Empire operates without an emperor on the throne and I can't help but think that some key parts of the setting were underdeveloped.
Keeping things centered on the party as they learn more about the world isn't wrong (hell, it's a well-used narrative device for a reason), but a bit more information about the Empire and the guilds would have been welcome. Of course, one of the reasons I say this is because I wanted more out of the enjoyable narrative, which remains engaging throughout its lengthy runtime.
Being the follow-up to Abyss, it should come as no surprise that Vesperia further builds on the foundation left by Symphonia. This game's mouth-full of a combat system is named the "Evolved Flex-Range Linear Motion Battle System", which amounts to taking Abyss' "Flex-Range Linear Motion Battle System", removing the Field of Fonon system and then stapling on as many extra mechanics as you can get away with without having the game collapse on itself entirely like Zestiria does.
The basics are very familiar, as each character has a combo that can be modified slightly using directional inputs and a collection of combat Artes that cost TP to use. Only now, you can attack out of free-running with 3D movement as well, making it easier to hit-and-run when the situation demands it.
Basic attacks and Artes now have a direction associated with them (Up, Down or Forward). In turn, each enemy class has a weakness to one of these directions. If you hit them with enough of the same sort of attack, you can then initiate a Fatal Strike, which will kill any normal enemy and deal decent damage to bosses. While you can figure out and remember what attacks to use on what enemy, I found it better to treat it as a QTE that aligns with your character and playstyle every once in a while. It's really satisfying to land and not that hard to set up on recurring enemies in a dungeon.
But I have no idea about how you're supposed to chain multiplies FS attacks and what that's supposed to accomplish. I think the game expects you to trigger one, not jump on the opportunity to activate it and then not take damage until you trigger another using a different class of attacks. In the chaos of battle, that's a lot to demand out of the player in my opinion.
The Overlimit ability now has multiple levels to it, lasting longer and having more effects the more meter you decide to spend. Its most basic buff is the ability to spam Artes to your heart's content for a few seconds, which is really handy in a pinch. It also activates a character's Skill Symbol, granting buffs depending on what skills (I'll explain later) they have equipped, but I never bothered thinking about those at all, so it's probably a superflous part of the mechanic.
At the first level, it allows one to chain Burst Artes into a combo and at level 3 it allows one to chain a character's special Mystic Arte as well. So a proper in Overlimit combo goes: Standard Attacks -> Basic Arte -> Altered Arte (I'll also explain later) -> Arcane Arte -> Burst Arte -> Mystic Arte. If you can internalize all that and pick out some favorite Artes, then you shouldn't run into any major problems outside of a few select bosses. And to make things even easier on the player, you can now assign 4 extra Artes to the right stick, making for a total of 8. And the ones on the stick can even be Artes used by other party members which I'm sure is intended for high-level play.
And on that note, with how much complexity this combat system has now accrued, I have to be a bit critical of how it all works together. As I've alluded to already, there are mechanics here (just like in Zestiria) that are too complex to bother mastering in my eyes. It's nice to have a high skill ceiling, but when the game doesn't require you to reach it nor provide a clear path to complete mastery, I fail to see the point of it all beyond innovation for the sake of innovation.
Judith is a good micro-scale example of this, as her gimmick of air-juggling enemies is very hard to make use of properly, due to the aforementioned chain of Artes you have to follow and how difficult it is to predict how enemies of different sizes will behave mid-air. I tried my damndest, but I just couldn't get the hang of it. I feel like the effort required to air-juggle with Judith reliably is on the level of the somewhat complex combos in Devil May Cry 4, which really shouldn't be the case in my opinion.
Still, I found myself rotating between her, Yuri and Patty, so I'd say the game has a decent selection of fun characters to use. Sadly, the magic users are still best left to the AI as usual. I wanna give Patty special attention though, since she's the most bonkers character I've ever seen in a Tales game.
Being an addition to the enhanced PS3 port, it shouldn't surprise anyone that a lot of care went into Patty's moveset to make her feel unique. What is surprising is just how far they went with her, as she's basically a gambler character infused with Dante's Style-switching!
I've had fun picking out moves in the series that might be cribbed from DMC (Judith has Vergil's Lunar Phase spin attack, for example), but I never expected to see a character with 4 combat styles at her disposal. Now, they're not entirely unique when compaired against eachother, but they are really cool nonetheless.
Patty's 4 forms are Normal, Advance (Melée), Brainiac (Ranged & Magic) and Critical (Strong combination of the other forms). The basis of her character then is that you can't control her abilities fully, only roll the dice and hope for the best. Later on, you get ways to control her forms a little, but you're still expected to know how to use each one.
While the rare Critical Form is generally the best, I'm glad that Artes change depending on form, so some Artes only shine in certain forms, so it's really exciting to mess around with her abilities in different forms to figure out what combinations to use when. The 8 Arte slots really shine when using her. But even then, most of her abilities are random and come with negative effects, so you always have to be ready for things to go south. So yeah, really fun character to master. She's even great as a mage controlled by the AI to boot. I'm kind of scared what a game full of party members like her would be like.
Lastly, before finally finishing this section, I wanna talk about the secret missions available during boss fights and how much I don't like them. Most bosses have a secret objective that when cleared awards you with an additional item that isn't very exciting most of the time, so they are very much optional endeavours. Still, they were put in the game to be beaten (which I don't recommend trying), so I think it's fair to criticize them.
None of these missions are ever hinted at, save for if the boss arena features something you can interact with besides the boss. I'd class them into 3 types: Missions that are clear and simple, missions that are obtuse and simple and missions that are obtuse and difficult. Suffice to say, there aren't enough of the first type in the game. Hell, even when you know exactly what you need to do, some can be absurdly hard to clear unless your AI party members do exactly what you need them to do for a few seconds. They really push the combat system towards a level of precision it really isn't fit for, so they should have either simplified them or cut them alltogether.
Instead of the Capacity Core system from Abyss, equippable skills are aquired by equipping and mastering new weapons you either find or craft. As such, getting the skills you want isn't as difficult as it was in Abyss. But in exchange, some new complications have arisen, namely the fact that there's just so many skills per character!
Not only are they numerous, actually picking which ones to use can be a real pain, as they're only filtered into broad categories with no way to select favorites or save specific setups. Come lategame, switching up someone's setup took me so long that I was less motivated to mess with what already worked. Doesn't help that a fair few skills are quite situational, making the ones that aren't situational all the more worthwhile.
The previously mentioned Altered Artes are exactly what they sound like, alternate versions of Artes you already have with different properties, the most important being that they can be chained from a regular Arte into an Arcane one, furthering your combo potential. But actually getting them is a bit of a pain without foreknowledge, as you need to equip Arte altering skills (either one or many) and then use the appropriate Arte a lot before you learn the altered version and can use it without the base Arte and the appropriate skills.
Now, you can equip your AI party members with all the altering skills and have them test for you, but unless you're willing to limit their effectiveness by wasting SP and potentially minimize their moveset so they use the correct Arte multiple times, it's gonna take forever. The end result is neat, but I think the game would be better off if you just got the Altered Arte by using a base Arte multiple times.
And to even get a decent amount of skills to begin with, you're gonna have to dig into the crafting system, which is one of the more humane incarnation of a crafting system I've seen in a JRPG. I cruised along fine barely trying to grind for material, just relying on what I got playing normally, so that's a plus right there.
And if you're actually trying to farm for specific things, then the game offers a few tools to help you along. Most towns have a person offering tips on what you should try to make next, depending on where you are in the story. While they won't explain the skills of the weapons they suggest, they are nice enough to tell you where to get the drops needed! Hell, you can even trace the origin of an item in your inventory, where it says what monster drops it and where they can be found if you need to get more.
The only time you're out of luck is if you see a weapon in the crafting menu requiring a material you don't have that isn't being suggested by the tip guy. You also can't save tips, so in order to make use of them fully, you have to put the plot on pause and go grind to make sure you don't miss out. But as I said before, the game doesn't require that, so it's mostly there for completionists who are already trying to fill out their monster book.