Tales of Graces is an action-RPG developed by Namco's Tales Studio and published by Namco Bandai for the Wii in 2009 in Japan. Later the next year, it received an enhanced port on PS3, Tales of Graces f, which made its way west in 2012. In the world of Ephinea, the son of a Windor lord, Asbel Lhant, stumbles upon a strange amnesiac girl alongside his brother Hubert and their friend Cheria. Together, they name the girl Sophie and even manage to befriend the prince of Windor, Richard, soon afterwards. But tragedy strikes, and the friends go their separate ways. 7 years later, political turmoil brings them back together, though under less than friendly circumstances.
The story of Graces is a childish affair, though in the best possible way. Instead of being "kiddie", what I mean is that the game uses a lengthy prequel chapter with most of the main characters as kids to anchor the whole story going forward. The time the party spends together during that chapter is very short, but from their perspective, the've sworn a pact of eternal friendship. That idyllic status quo and the pursuit of it is what defines Asbel as a character.
He loses a lot of things dear to him during the game, which is what motivates him to become a knight during the timeskip, to try and bring his friends back together and make sure nobody suffers afterwards. He held on to his optimistic childishness (without becoming cartoonishly preachy, thankfully), while the others sort of forced themselves to grow up, or at least pretended to by closing themselves off.
I found it really engrossing to empathize with Asbel's plight as the world shits on him, since he never loses hope of repairing his broken bonds. The game jokes about the party being a family at times, but come the end of the game, they've really become a self-made family full of people who've had issues with their previous relationships. This is reinforced by some really good side stories present in the side quests.
Alas, beyond the core story of the party, plot isn't the most engaging, as it drags in parts, only picking up at the end. There's a large chunk in the middle dedicated to running around the game's other two major kingdoms, Strahta and Fendel, where the game sets up its major antagonist in a very monotonous fashion. These excursions do serve as a way to explore the backstories of a few party members, but for as long as you spend running around, I was disappointed to see that these countries weren't more important to the overall plot.
The politics between the three countries is serviceable, but not as interesting as it could be. Fendel is basically Russia (complete with a bearded leader in a furry hat) and suffers an energy crisis, but the game goes out its way to neglect details about the nature of the regime and the rebel movement opposing them. It's like they became afraid of actually putting the iconography they borrowed when creating Fendel to full use. I suppose that part of the story is one I'd like to have been more adult, since the relationships of the characters seem so mature in comparison. I could have forgiven this basic world-building if Strahta and Fendel played a bigger part in fighting the looming threat that eventually becomes the final boss.
Said looming threat being yet another flavour of a "end all suffering by killing everyone" final boss, which I am tired of. The game does justify it pretty well however and uses it to cap off Asbel's arc and reinforce the theme of pursuing understanding, so I can forgive it.
The PS3 version also added an epilogue, which furthers the theme, shows what the party gets up to after the ending and gives the story a bit more punch. All in all, it's a great addition, but it works with the strengths of the game (the cast) and doesn't try to give pay-off to the world-building I criticized earlier. So it's really just more of the story, and not a better story. But if you like the cast like I do, you'll still be content.
Graces' combat system is a pretty huge departure following Vesparia, but it manages to solve some of the series long-standing issues. But before I get to that, let's talk about the basics. Instead of having a left-to-right view, Graces camera is positioned to give you a front-to-back view. As a result of this, you now have access to a sidestep, meaning that you can evade attacks while staying in attack range.
This plays into the game's new arte resource, Chain Capacity, which can be restored quicker by dodging. Instead of having a large supply of TP for artes that slowly runs out and requires items to restore, CC is very limited stamina (especially at the start) that determines how long of a combo you're allowed to do before needing to back down for a few seconds. Landing combos increases your CC from its minimum value towards your current maximum. And playing poorly naturally decreases it.
The whole combat system is full of mechanics that reinforce a clear back-and-forth between the player and the enemies that I quite like. Blocking long enough gives you better CC recovery, a bit of hyper armor and a free stun-inducing critical hit, making it easy to start a new combo. But blocking beyond that third level of charge decreases CC, so you really need to jump between attacking and defending constantly.
Another change I like is that the characters don't have a free and basic combo anymore. Instead, they have Assault Artes, which act as your basic combos, but are much stronger and cost CC to use. They branch out from eachother depending on your input and end in some really strong attacks, assuming you have the CC to go through the whole combo tree. As such, no matter what attack you use, you never feel limited because you want to save resources for later. You can always do something exciting in every battle.
And nothing is more exciting than Burst Artes, which are equivalent to regular TP artes in the other games. These must be equipped beforehand and have limited combo potential depending on the character. They also cost a lot of CC, but because of that, they are very strong, particularly when it comes to attacking multiple characters at the same time.
Everyone has their own combat gimmicks, making them unique. Asbel, for example, must transition between A & B-artes by drawing/sheathing his sword, making it impossible for him to combo between the two properly. But to balance this, he can do combos with his B-artes, making him really strong when you need his particular elements (enemies have weaknesses to certain attacks that make them easier to stun) or are faced with a lot of smaller enemies.
The game's way of handling spellcasters is also exciting, so much so that I actually played as them for once! The issue I've had before in the series is that backing off and charging spells is really boring and not in tune with the series' combo-focused gameplay. But here in Graces, most spell casters have ranged non-spell attacks and more importantly, casting a spell in the middle of a combo reduces the casting time! So doing two A-artes and then chaining in a B-arte spell actually makes it possible to land the spell without getting interrupted in medium range. Now, the high-tier spells still take a long time to cast and are difficult to chain due to their high CC cost, but spells that are mid-tier and below are perfectly viable in mid-range.
Then we have this game's super meter, which puts you into an Eleth burst. Once in an Eleth Burst, the party gains a lot of buffs, the most important being infinite CC and hyper armor. And during an Eleth Burst, you get access to another meter, which dictates the level of Mystic Artes you have access to. But since you can only increase your Mystic gauge during an Eleth Burst and not control when an Eleth Burst triggers, it can be difficult to save your Mystic Arte for when you truly need it, especially since your party members love using their Mystic Artes unless you turn them off. Enemies can get Eleth Bursts as well, furthering the back-and-forth combat I mentioned before.
All of this gets us a combat system where it's easy to chain attacks exactly like you want (though mostly on the ground, since air juggling is limited) and the difficulty lies in reading enemies so you can weave between them and counter-attack constantly in a very satisfying manner until you need to defend for a bit. It almost gets too fast in places, but I still found it all manageable and fun throughout, save for some really tanky random encounters during the epilogue.
Another rad thing the game does is make the series' title system worth a damn for once. Instead of doing nothing, doing next to nothing or doing something useful in secret, titles are used to grant the party support skills, A-artes, B-artes and just general upgrades to all sorts of things.
As you play, you unlock new titles for every character by fighting, cooking, exploring and such. Then, you pick the title with the upgrades you want, equip it and then earn SP through fighting or fulfilling requests at inns to get the upgrades and skills. Every title has 5 levels of skills, plus a bonus sixth that buffs the ability you get for having that particular title equipped.
Depending on your preferences, you can change how much of a title's skills should be learned before going to the next one. As such, you can just leave it be and focus on earning as much SP as possible. But if you're like me, and want new moves and buffs to CC as soon as possible, you're gonna scour your list of titles every few battles for the optimal next pick. Doing this can get pretty grating since there are just so many titles to keep track of, even for a single character. I was really missing an option to prioritize new artes over everything else when the game automatically switches titles for you.
The world you get to explore is also a bit different than the usual. Instead of having a zoomed out overworld map like a classical JRPG or having a huge zoomed in overworld like the later Tales games, Graces is a bit inbetween. I'd compare it to Pokémon more than anything else, since the towns and dungeons are connected by linear routes, with little to find that's not immediately obvious.
It works, but isn't the most exciting of designs, especially when you get railroaded to the next route. The actual dungeons are better, featuring more exploration, actual puzzles and hidden goodies, but they are still mostly sets of linear corridors as well, though less obviously so.
One thing that keeps exploration from feeling stagnant are the various discoveries in the game. These are weird things of note that trigger skits that provide you with weird pieces of world-building or just straight up comedy bits. Many of them can also be used to gather the various resources you'll need to dualize (combine) various things through merchants. Many of these things are sellable valuables, which are your best sources of money and SP through the aforementioned inn requests.
These requests are numerous and provide a solid supply of SP throughout most of the game. But come endgame, they get a bit ridiculous. Not only are there an insane amount of items to craft, the game is also very tedious with doling out new requests. Instead of having them be based on story progress (like they are for most of the game as you discover more inns), they instead increment slowly as you complete requests. There came a point where I just went between inns in a cycle, clearing single requests in sequence, since by the time I came back to an inn, a new request had been unlocked.
But I eventually gave up on it, since it became so tedious. I just knew that I had tons of items to trade in, but because that specific request hadn't unlocked yet, I couldn't do so. I'd have much preferred if the game just unlocked more requests after major bosses and then dumped all of the remaining ones on you near the final dungeon. The availability of the required material is what should be the limiting factor here, not whether the request is open or not.
There's also a rather involved weapon upgrading system, which is a bit more complicated than I think it should be. The basics involve using enemy drops to boost damage and add secondary effects, which can then be converted into stat-boosting gems. The whole thing is very time-consuming and with how pricey it eventually gets, you can only experiment so much before needing to pick what upgrades to really invest in. Frankly, I feel like I just got lucky with the gems I ended up with.
The last system of note in the game is the Eleth Mixer, which is key to both combat and dualizing. By slotting items into it and spending Eleth refillable in shops, you can duplicate items and gain vital support abilities in or outside of battle. The more Eleth you burn through, the more your max capacity increases and the more slots you get.
It's a really interesting thing to fiddle with inbetween fights. Normal items are simple enough, you just slot it in (assuming you've found it once) and walk around for a minute or so for a chance to get it duplicated. Rare items are of course more difficult and more expensive to duplicate, so it's more there as a way to get a few of the things you currently want while playing normally.
You can also slot in food you've cooked by dualizing in order to have their effects trigger once per battle for an Eleth cost instead of the normal material one, assuming you meet their particular requirements. Common triggers include time spent in battle, damage sustained, combo achieved, that sort of thing.
And lastly, there are various books that provide support effects in exchange for a steady supply of Eleth either during combat, after winning a battle or when just walking around normally. Mixing and matching all of this to balance immediate payout versus greater payout later is pretty fun.