Welcome back to my Tales retrospective! In case you wandered your way here without reading the first half of the retrospective, you can find that here. There you can read about how I got into the series and my thoughts on the 16 games I've played. But that's in the past. Now it's time for me to zero in on particular standout aspects of the series and discuss the games that handles that singular aspect the best in my opinion. After that, I'll rank the games, give my final thoughts on the series and postulate about Tales of Arise.
Best Opening Animation: Tales of the Abyss
When it comes to judging an opening animation, there are a lot of factors to consider. There's the animation quality, the scenes depicted, the music, the vocals (if they survived the localization process or were translated), how well it represents the feel of the game and how likely I am to rewatch it when booting the game up to get myself in the mood to play.
As such, picking Abyss over the others isn't as clear-cut as some of the other awards I'm doling out below. Most OPs are pretty good and have standout parts of the music and the vocals. Phantasia is really upbeat, Symphonia (GameCube) has strong Japanese vocals, Vesperia has nice English vocals, Innocence starts off with some cool chanting, Graces' is really cutesy (as befitting the game), Xillia has gorgeous visuals coupled with strong vocals and music, Zestiria and it's repetitive chords speaks to my inner metalhead and Berseria has a killer guitar that hits you right in the face after the soft opening, which really fits the game.
But Karma, the Abyss OP has this elegance to it as it weaves between the harder and softer moments of the song. Then there's a distinct lack of off-putting CGI, the solid party member showcase and how it incorporates some of the game's key scenes. It's just really great all around.
Best Story: Tales of the Abyss
JRPGs are wordy things and not all of them manage to justify their word counts. I'm not one to simply call a game cliché and be on my way (as I hope all those reviews up there prove), as there are usually deeper issues present that the clichés merely reflect. At its core, all the story has to do to be effective is to resonate with the player on some level and preferably not waste their time doing so. To do so, it should cover heartfelt (or interesting) topics, resonate a theme or two properly and make sure that enough of the characters are enjoyable to be around.
So, what makes Abyss stand apart from the rest of the series on this front? Well, the main character Luke is a big part of it. Not only does his design stand out from most of the other brown/black-haired prettyboys that usually lead the games, but his arc is simply impossible to ignore and respect. Him going from a bratty moron to a self-realized hero is great. But then you also have his self-hatred and spout of martyrdom to help give him depth, which I think ties into his relationship with Tear. I'll admit that I'm a bit fuzzy on the details of their relationship by now, but I know I enjoyed it.
But beyond that, you have the theming which I mentioned before, which is rock solid. Destiny being somewhat of an active force in the narrative that can be opposed reminds me of Legacy of Kain, which is always a good sign. And then you have the rest of the party and all of the secrets they harbor. I really love that basically every character (except maybe Tear?) puts on a partially false personality or identity that then gets challenged throughout the story. Definitely one of the stand-out stories in JRPGs that I wish people would learn from.
Best Music: Tales of Eternia
OPs are hard enough to pick between, but I can't claim to have made a well-researched choice here, as comparing each soundtrack properly represents way more work than I'm willing to put down. I'm also not musically adept, so I can only go by gut feeling anyway. And that gut tells me that Eternia's music is the best.
I wanna give shoutouts to the music in Symphonia, Abyss and Vesperia, as I think those soundtracks are solid overall. Legendia's soundtrack gets points for being unique, but the songs aren't exactly to my taste. As far as individual songs go, Magilou's theme from Berseria and the final boss theme of Xillia 2 deserve mention.
I'll try to explain why I favour the Eternia soundtrack so much over the others. The soundtrack uses a lot of synthetic instruments for what are usually some very upbeat songs with clear melodies. I'm usually not a fan of heavily orchestrated tracks with no clear melodies (like Sakuraba's later work on the Dark Souls series) since I like songs that I can hum along to. And the most common songs in Eternia manage to maintain their candor in spite of being so heavily used. Stuff like the overworld themes and battle music really stand the test of time.
Even the simplest of songs with very short loops like the Hurry song, Minigame 1 or Battle End do so much with so little. Then you have the fact that there are just so many songs in the soundtrack, giving most areas their own feel. Since they game is relatively short, I assume there wasn't much need to recycle music between areas, which really helps making progress through the story feel extra rewarding.
I think that's about as coherent I can be without trying to discuss how the music of the two worlds differ and how key songs elevate certain moments. Just go listen to the entire thing. Or at least this fancy orchestral version of Eternal Mind that I stumbled upon:
Best Combat: Tales of Graces f
For as much as I like the combat systems in the Tales series, their fighting game DNA has always been a little black mark against them, since I'm apparently predisposed to not being able to fully wrap my head around 2D fighting games. Tales games fair better than actual fighting games, but there's always this extra half-second of thought I need to undertake in order to plan out combos. And that holds true for every game I played, except for Tales of Graces f, which is why it's winning the best combat prize.
The camera shift, the transformation of basic attacks into the more distinct Assault Artes, the polished input buffer and the removal of some artificial combo limitations, plus the introduction of a stamina system to replace TP just made everything click for me. Combat flows back and forth, making it so you have to engage in both offensive and defensive play. But the shift is still very quick, as the game is faster than Xillia and it's easier to recover your stamina than in Berseria.
Add in the character gimmicks (including the fun Accel Gauge during the epilogue), the introduction of combo-casting which cuts down cast time, easy character switching, every character being good to play as and I'm almost bereft of complaints. Being really critical, I'd say the high-tier spells are too hard to use in combos (unless you craft ultimate weapons) and that the Eleth Burst is somewhat unreliable.
But it feels so good to fight and mess around with everything at your disposal that I can easily ignore those flaws. It's as close as the series gets to the action games I adore where each attack has its own feel that you can then combine with other ones to your leisure.
Best Leveling System: Tales of Xillia
One thing I repsect about the series is how willing it is to experiment with mechanics, both for puzzles and standard gameplay. As such, there are a ton of weird ideas present in most games leveling system. Sadly, a lot of those leveling/crafting systems fall short due to being too random, grindy or just simply obtuse.
But Tales of Xillia has no such system, as the Allium Orb is just a FFX Sphere Grid with less limitations and more freedom to make sacrifices in order to get what you want earlier. It forces you to get a few things, but beyond those three required nodes per layer, you're free to ignore abilities you do not need in order to get what you really want. And if you don't care for min-maxing, there's an auto-leveling system to opt in for as many characters as you want. It really delivers on the promised depth so many leveling/customization/equipment systems fail to provide without also being grindy and annoying.
Best Waifu: Rose (Tales of Zestiria)
This being an anime-adjacent series, I thought it prudent to pick out a waifu among the tidal wave of female characters across the series. This isn't necessarily my favourite female character on all fronts, or the one I'd want to date. Moreso, it's the one that just makes me happy when she's onscreen doing her thing.
Looking over the characters, the runners up were Farah "No problem!" Oersted, Cloe, Rita, Judith (her flirtiness with Yuri is great) and Magilou (no idea how that bitch wormed her way into my heart, but here we are). The reason I picked Rose over the others is because she is a delightful goofball, like the rest of Zestiria's cast. She may not be the most competent, but her sunny disposition is everlasting and that's an important trait for any person and one I find quite attractive.
Best Husbando: Rowen (Tales of Xillia)
Keeping things fair, I gotta pick a best boy too. The competition isn't as fierce, but the winner is just as clear. Unlike a lot of old people (both fictional and non-fictional) Rowen never lost track of himself as he aged. He is cunning, considerate and quite funny. He is as likely to treat you to a delightful dinner as he is to make fun of you in a clever way for not being honest with yourself. I can only hope I manage to become like him when I'm that age myself.
Best Food System: Tales of Xillia
I'll admit that I'm just including this award as an excuse to link the amazing Tales of Cooking blog, which showcases how one can cook the recipes of Tales of Symphonia.
For a lot of the games, the cooking devolves into making whatever recovers the most TP, which is why I'm singling out Xillia's way of handling food. You don't cook it yourself, you just buy whatever you've unlocked through the shop upgrade system and apply it before battles for buffs to either stats, exp or gald. It's useful, simple and quite versatile.
Best Mascot: Teepo (Tales of Xillia)
The various mascots of the franchise come in two distinct flavours. Silent animal companions and obnoxious loudmouths. The first set add very little to their games (though Repede gets to be playable at least) and the second set usally detract from the experience actively, like Bienfu.
But for as loud as Teepo can be, he still adds a lot to Xillia, especially when viewed from the perspective of being a vector for Elise's hidden thoughts and doubts. He completes Elise as a character, since he reveals that she isn't as demure as she first appears and still has a lot of things about herself to puzzle out. Given his affection for Milla's boobs, I wouldn't be surprised if she's gay as well, which is something the series never explores. No matter what Sorey/Mikleo, Rita/Estelle and Eizen/Zaveid shippers will tell you.
Best Exploration: Tales of Eternia
While exploration is part of most of the games, I only ever found it an exciting prospect in Eternia (even if I resorted to a guide for the stuff I missed on my first playthrough). A lot of the content in these games isn't optional and what you can find beyond that usually isn't very exciting. There are the monuments in Symphonia, which only exist as proof that you've bumbled around the world map enough for the game to let you speed up the process in that particular area. It's a really artificial limitation to begin with, so having it lifted doesn't feel very rewarding.
Graces and Zestiria feature discoveries to find, which does trigger fun skits, but most of those are on the critical path, so they don't feel very special to discover most of the time. I suppose the expeditions in Berseria count as exploration too, but that's just an idle game that randomly gives you stuff. I liked the fanservice present there, but again, pretty boring.
For comparison, there is a part of Eternia where you're just meant to explore the world using some vague clues to continue and another one where there are hidden areas meant to help you power up for a difficult boss. There's just no competion, especially with all of the fun secrets there are to discover like the S.D summon, the secret ship upgrade and a pair of hidden towns. Looking over some guides, it looks like there are even more things in the game I haven't checked out yet.
Best Worldbuilding: Tales of the Abyss
It's commendable in just how many ways the series has managed to explain the various magic systems and the way the "dual world" setups work. But there are times where the jargon gets to be too much for me, like in Xillia and Vesperia.
Comparitively, the way fonons work in Abyss feels pretty believable, as they're basically magical particles with distinct rules on how they interact. I quite liked how the party puzzles out ways to use them to solve some problems in the endgame. Couple that with the Score and the titular Abyss and you have a really interesting world to learn about.
Best Party: Tales of Xillia
The series is full of strong characters and while there are some similar ones (most of the protagonists, Farah/Cheeria for example) there is enough variety that everyone should find some distinct favourites. While I really like the casts of Eternia, Abyss, Graces and Zestiria, Xillia's party wins out for how fun they are.
The skits of the game are to thank for that, as they are expertly written to be entertaining. You've got Alvin and Rowen making fun of the others, Milla accidentally messing up human customs and Teepo chomping on people's heads (mostly Jude's) for example. Add in the extra people from Xillia 2 and there's no competition, they're all so much fun.
Best Final Boss: Tales of Xillia 2
Unlike the standard selection of floating semi-demonic or semi-angelic final bosses, Xillia 2 goes the Metal Gear Rising route of just having the final boss be a dude who catches you off-guard with how hard he can punch you in the face. Minimal magic bullshit, maximum amount of unapologetic explosive brawn. His Mystic Arte is just a single punch!
It also counts as a rival battle, since he has the same power as Ludger does (with his own magical girl transformation to boot), which proves to be too strong for Ludger. But then you get the jawdropping moment where Elle grants Ludger the power he needs to unlock the true form of the Chromatus, which triggers this asskicker of a tune:
The fight then continues as before, only the music makes it like 3 times better. And then the game makes the correct decision of forcing you into Chromatus for the finisher as you get to end the fight with Ludger's newly unlocked tier 2 Mystic Arte. All the circumstances surrounding the fight are a bit contrived and difficult to wrap your head around, but when the end reulst is this awesome, I can't help but feel that it was all justified.
Best Postgame: Tales of Xillia 2
And once you're done with that boss, you have the postgame waiting for you, which is my favourite in the series. Usually, all you get for the postgame is one or two grindy extra dungeons (that may be locked to NG+) with annoying gimmicks, not unlike the final dungeon in Xillia 2, which is a travesty.
What makes the postgame here stand apart from the rest is that it's so easy to get into, as it just builds on the game's strengths and previously established ideas. The extra dungeon is there, but the gimmicks aren't very annoying and the main conceit of it depends on how much you've engaged with the affection system for the various party members. In order to use a full party, you need enough affection with everyone you like, which will also unlock a destructive dual Mystic Arte for each character.
Making headway in the dungeon is difficult, but enemies give good exp and failure is both expected and rewarded, meaning you claw your way closer with every attempt. And if you feel underequipped, there are a ton of other activities to engage in. The dungeon gives cheat items for the cardgame, which you can play to get friendship potions and raise affection. But you can also hunt EX monsters to raise money for the debt and get potions that way.
Or you can do random quests for a bit of cash, check out the postgame shops (which finally lets you buy exp food), fill out the Kitty Dispatch list in order to hunt down material for crafting, hunt down Bacuras to max out everyone's Lillium Orbs, try your hand at the arena to unlock a joke ending or simply mess around with characters you haven't tried yet.
There's a ton of stuff to do, meaning it's hard to burn yourself out compared to the other games and that you're always making progress in some fashion no matter what you're doing. It really invites you to master the game if you feel like you didn't get enough out of it by just beating it, which is what I think every game should do with its postgame content.
Now for the juicy part of the retrospective, ranking the games against eachother. This is something I've been both dreading and looking forward to as I've made my way through the series. I've seen a lot of opinions thrown around about the best/worst games in the series and I'm curious about how many of those people have gone through the "whole" franchise like I have. You may not agree with me, but I hope I've proven my mettle as a freshly-forged fan of the series.
16. Tales of the Tempest
Rubia may kill me in my sleep, but justice must be done. Enough said!
15. Tales of Innocence
I respect Innocence on a technical level, but that's about it. If the dungeon designer was less evil and the writer had better ideas, maybe there would have been more to like here.
14. Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology
While neither the plot, nor the general gameplay is anything special, the fanservice represents a tiny bit of value. It could be a lot better (and the sequels may well be), but it was still neat to see characters from Abyss and before hang out.
13. Tales of Legendia
Starting the ranking for real, we have our first mothership title. It has some neat pieces of writing (Moses' character quest, Cloe's struggle with revenge) and the music is nifty. But actually playing the game is such a chore. Dungeons are terrible to begin with, but then you have random encounters, the lame combat against HP sponges and the fact that dungeons get recycled (and that you have to backtrack through some of them!). If you are particularly patient (and it's a big if), it's an experience that's just barely worth undertaking in my opinion.
12. Tales of Destiny
All right, toe-stepping time. While I'd recommend all of the games in spot 12 and above to some degree, something has to be the worst of the best. What drags Destiny down is the presentation, the story (which doesn't have any standout moments according to my brain) and the very basic combat. If I had access to the remake, perhaps I'd it rank higher.
Upon reflection, the soundtrack is pretty close to Eternia's in style (as one would expect) and that's neat, but I still didn't think it was very special. Music taste be like that, I can't explain it.
11. Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World
To place Dawn, I've had to do some very careful consideration on it what it does and does not do well. Emil's arc is good (helped by JYB's performance), he and Marta are cute together, the presentation was a nice upgrade over Symphonia and the combat is simplistic and fun. But it's poorly directed in parts, it alienates fans of the original in an almost trollish fashion and the monster catching and random sidequests add so little.
10. Tales of Zestiria
I managed to have a lot of fun with the black sheep of the series, which is why it almost tops the lower half of my rankings. While it lacks depth and punch in the story department, the characters and their antics spark joy in me. I'm not sure if I'd have liked it as much if I had played it after the games that came before it, but there's no point in speculating about something we can never find out.
The combat and upgrade systems are obviously distinct messes, but I still think the Armatization concept holds water. Though it might be better suited for a turn-based game, I'll need to ponder that later. If the camera wasn't a nightmare and the combat was half as complex, it could probably jump up a spot or two. And if it had a plot worth remembering, then it could go even higher.
9. Tales of Phantasia
It's a real testament to Phantasia's prowess that it managed to climb this high despite being the series' first installment. Now obviously, the PS1 version cleans up a lot of stuff, but it's still impressive how much stuff it got right. The journey to fight Dhaos is focused and the whole game has this fun atmosphere to it. It's still a bit janky, but well worth a try.
8. Tales of Berseria
I didn't expect to go against public perception with Berseria, but here we are. While it is a breath of fresh air since it's headed by a female protagonist and features some heavy stuff, that wasn't enough to win me over fully. The party feels a bit disjointed (I still question Rokuro's inclusion) and it really drags in act 2. And for being touted as a game where you play as a bunch of villains, there wasn't as many moral quandaries as I was expecting. Still, it has some really good moments inbetween all the filler.
While the combat is less of a mess than Zestiria's, it's still a very confused mix of old and new which I got tired of by the end. Having the stamina system be so debilitating if you screw up while also having the most complex arte setup system in the franchise really wore me out after a while. I get the feeling that the game would be better if they just leaned into being a more advanced Musou game.
7. Tales of Symphonia
One thing I found interesting while making my way through the series was noticing how Symphonia got kicked down the rankings as I went along. This was meant to be THE GAME, you know? And in many ways it is, since it, alongside Phantasia codifies so much of the series' identity.
But it still has some ill-advised mechanics dragging it down, particularly the Ex Gems, random Overlimit and Unison attacks. But ignoring that, it's solid justabout everywhere else. The plot sticks to its themes, everyone gets to do something and Lloyd carries the role of protagonist well.
6. Tales of Xillia 2
For as many improvements as Xillia 2 has over the original, one cannot simply ignore what a cheap-ass title it is. Xillia already recycled its lame environments (twice!), so to having the sequel do the same thing again (also twice!) really kicks it down a notch in the rankings.
But treated as a chill expansion pack with good combat and a solid postgame where you get to hang out with the cast some more it's really good. You have to meet the game half-way and enjoy it on its own terms, but if you manage that, it's pretty nice. Would be better if Ludger was a fully realized character instead of a self-insert character though. So many games go for that, but I rarely find it to be the correct approach for a main character.
5. Tales of Vesperia
Vesperia was good, only brought down by some of the lategame pacing, how right Yuri always is and the more complicated and needless mechanics. But the cast is solid fun, the presentation is good and I like the music and what it does to the Symphonia combat. I don't have much else to say, which is probably why it's not higher on the list.
4. Tales of Xillia
I was surprised by how many awards I ended up giving to Xillia, so it seems like I liked it more than I first realized. The environments stink, high-level combat is a bit awkward to learn and it doesn't fully justify the dual protagonists, but everything else works really well. The story has some killer moments, the party is excellent, the mascot is good, all of the tertiary systems are good and there's a lot of fun characters to try and master through the solid combat system.
3. Tales of the Abyss
Having the best story in a JRPG series obviously earns Abyss a ton of points, hence why it got all the way up here. But not having the skits be voiced works against it compared to the more modern titles. And the combat isn't anything special, though I appreciate it as a cleaner version of Symphonia's combat. If combat was a bit more exciting and the Capacity Core system didn't necessitate a guide it might have just jumped up a bit more.
2. Tales of Graces f
I'm an action game guy, so having a combat system this fun gives Graces a lot of leeway in the rankings. But beyond that, the story really resonated with me. It's simplistic and childish, but in a good way. Being a kid is part of the human experience and for as often as JRPGs go for a coming of age story, I can't think of another game that handles the ideas of people changing and growing apart as they age and how you can reconnect if you really put your mind to it. It's encouraging stuff and I think a lot of people would be better of taking its lessons to heart. Except for the Natto propaganda. I don't trust that one bit.
1. Tales of Eternia
I didn't want it to end up like this, but here we are, the first game wins. Aside from that bias, what really sets this game apart from the others is the pacing and the lack of any major flaws. Compared to modern JRPGs, it's a hyper-condensed 30-hour experience filled to the brim with uniqe visuals and music. As much as I like the story in Abyss and the combat in Graces, I'm fine with getting something lesser in those departments if it means I'm more willing to engage with the game as a whole.
It's just such a lovely world to learn about and explore. I'm kinda burned out on the series now (go figure), so I'm not keen on replaying it for a while, but this is certainly the game I'm the most willing to play again to see what else I can discover about it.
I'm just going to ignore how many words this whole thing ended being and get on with the final section so I can finally call this 2-year-long chapter of my life complete.
So yeah, Namco Bandai's Tales of series has been "completed"! What a ride. It wasn't exactly what I imagined it to be (I expected something a bit closer to Final Fantasy money, which was silly of me in retrospect), but there's still a lot to love. I'm under the impression that a lot of people haven't played through as much of the series as I now have, probably due to how much of the series is stuck on PS3.
Which is a shame, since so many of these games could be getting more love on modern platforms. If only Bamco had the will and means to just port and localize everyting in some collections. I love my Xillia double pack and my Symphonia Chronicles & Graces f triple pack, so I'm sure others would too if they were ported forward. It's such a delightful series with good characters, interesting (if sometimes misguided) mechanics and kooky worlds to explore.
Out of all of the big JRPG franchises, it's certainly the most "anime" of the bunch, but it still abstains from a lot of annoying clichés plaguing modern anime in favour of some fun character gimmicks, which was nice to see. They can't resist the hotsprings cliché though, but I suppose the devs need some sort of outlet for clichés, so I'll let it slide.
While writing all this I haven't been as in-depth as I could have been, which is of course due to me wanting to keep spoilers somewhat light and make sure this doesn't turn into a novel. But it's also due to my hurried pace through the series' long history, as I haven't given each game enough time to really settle in my brain. As such, what I remember now is what I'll carry with me going forward. But if I've been vague or said something contradictory, that's probably why and you're free to ask me for details on stuff.
But what does stick out in my mind is what's most interesting about the series, both good and bad. I'm glad over how many of the games turned out to be enjoyable, as Final Fantasy hasn't been as kind whenever I've poked at that franchise. The quality is generally high in Tales despite the low budgets, which is commendable. It would have been so disheartening if only a few of the games turned out to be good.
And that brings me to the future of the series with the upcoming Arise, which will hopefully turn out good as well. With the series having been dormant for 5 years, it's high time for it to return and it's exciting that they're finally making a proper eight-gen game, but I wouldn't trust it to run well outside of a ninth-gen machine. And who knows, maybe they'll catch up to ninth-gen with the help of the Unreal Engine some day.
With Berseria being the latest game, what I hope they do with Arise is cut back on anything non-essential so it doesn't end up feeling as bloated. I'm not expecting as focused of an experience as Eternia, but having something good to listen to, look at, fight or explore every 1-2 hours would be nice.
I'm not too hung-up on how much better than Berseria it'll look, since that was fine aside from some inexcusable ground textures. What I am interested in is how the world will be designed and how the tertiary mechanics will turn out. Since distinct combat arenas are back, the areas won't need to be giant fields and rooms anymore, which gives them more freedom when designing the environments and will hopefully help make the pacing good.
While I obviously want something Graces-esque for the combat, I'd be fine with a touch-up of Berseria's combat as long as they fix the issues I talked about here and in my review. If they just scaled back on the complexity, changed the controls a bit and focused on making it easier to experiment then it could easily become something more engaging.
For the story, I want two things. I want a solid protagonist that undergoes some emotional strife (like Velvet or Asbel) and a diverse party that can both back them up and challenge their views. The series is at its best when everyone feel like they belong and have something worthwhile to say while they figure out how to save the world. Some darker scenes like those in Xillia or Berseria would be nice, but I'd be fine with an uplifting adventure too. As long as it makes me feel things without wasting my time!
I'm not sure if I'll be there for Arise at launch with the rest of the fanbase, but I'll pick it up eventually and give it a fair shake like I've done with the rest of the series. These games have earned a place in my heart, but for now I'm out of things to say and I have some Final Fantasy, Wild Arms, Valkyria Chronicles and dot Hack games to poke at, so I'm gonna sign off here. I hope you 've enjoyed reading my Tales retrospective. See ya around next time!