During my formative years when I was exploring what kinds of games I like, I spent a lot of time trying out loads of different JRPGs, particularly Atlus games. But while I did try out some Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest stuff, one series that felt like a giant unknown to me was Namco Bandai's Tales series.
On a whim, I picked up the PSP version of Tales of Eternia, which I loved, but I didn't pursue the series any further since I never saw any of the other games in my local game stores after that. Fast-forward to 2018 and I once again picked up a game in the series on a whim. This time it was Tales of Zestiria, which a friend sold to me for cheap.
It was then that I decided that it was time to play the rest of the games and get to the bottom of this series (as well as review most of it), with the end goal being the retrospective you're now reading. But when I went out to buy what games I could find, I was pleasantly surprised by how cheap and easily available the modern games were. Usually, JRPGs are a nightmare to find in Europe, but maybe Atlus and their hate-boner for the continent has poisoned my brain.
While it is possible that Bamco overprints the games (I wish NISA and XSEED did that for my precious Falcom games), I think it's more likely is that the series isn't as popular as I first thought it was. Each game averages less than a million sales according to a recent report and I think a large part of the series' notoriety was propped up due to Tales of Symphonia, which was the game I had heard the most about before getting into the series.
I had heard that the series specialized in deconstructive twists meant to turn the JRPG formula on its head, but after playing almost all of the games available in English (sorry, Tales of Hearts, I have no room in my heart or wallet for a Vita), I can't really agree with that assessment. Symphonia is the only game that really does it, though there are aspects of the others that kinda get into that stuff.
It makes me think that Symphonia was the only one most people played (or the one they played first) and it coloured their view of the series. But aside from the unique deconstruction shenanigans, it's a really good example of what the series offers and what elements endure from game to game.
Much like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, the Tales games usually take place in their own unique settings, but stuff from the other games carries over and gets reimagined as needed. But beyond the series' roster of summon spirits, the pirate Aifreed, the sealed weapons sidequest, the Sorcerer's Ring, poorly drawn wanted posters, the Dark Wings bandits and the incredibly inventive ways it handles "dual-world" setups, there's also a ton of fanservice in the games.
This made it really rewarding to go through the games in (mostly) chronological order after Zestiria. When I hit the postgame there and got to the cameo bosses, I had no idea who I was fighting and why I should care. Starting with Tales of Eternia (I think, unless I forgot some part of Destiny doing that), the series puts in direct nods to previous games, which I didn't get the first time through Eternia and Zestiria.
But when I played the series properly, I was privy to understanding the cameo bosses, costumes and various small references to the other games, which helped me keep my momentum through this very lenghty endeavour going. The series doesn't have the same level of multiplicative payoff as Falcom's Trails games as you go through it, but you're still rewarded quite a bit for sticking with it.
That's everything I wanted to say before we begin, so now it's time to go into every game I played.
Being the game I played first in the series and it being the one I played separate from my somewhat exhausting marathon, Tales of Eternia has a lot of positive bias to its name. It borders on being nostalgia at this point, since it's been about a decade since I first played it. I can't untangle those feelings from my current take on the game, so I'm not going to try. Instead, I'll just talk about why I love it so much as clearly as I can.
While I have a lot of affinity for the Playstation, I never got in contact with the many RPGs on the platform until much later. Which was probably for the best, since I wouldn't have been able to appreciate them at the time due to my non-existant knowledge of the English language anyway. Even so, going back to these fifth-gen RPGs has been really engaging for me, as the trappings of the era still resonate with me, even if the games themselves don't on their own.
Stuff like the audio, menus, rendering techniques, experimental gameplay systems and the like. From that perspective, I consider Tales of Eternia the greatest expression of the charm inherent in Playstation RPGs.
The spritework is great to see, especially since we didn't get a lot of highly detailed sprite-based games on the Playstation due to Sony's push for 3D at the time. But what really sells the graphical style are the gorgeous backgrounds you get to run around in. Unlike the pre-rendered backgrounds in Resident Evil, the characters and the backgrounds meld really well here. Couple the unique backgrounds with the diverse and god-tier soundtrack and it becomes hard not to love the world that has been created here.
But that's not all the game has to offer of course. I can't in good faith call the story an outstanding experience, but I still like it and the characters a lot. Everything is simple and uplifting, but executed with care...aside from parts of the voice acting. I'll concede that I have a soft spot for it due to the main character Reid being played by Kevin Miller (Sly Cooper), which won't earn the game points for most people. Still, given the track record of the console generation, I'd still say Eternia is one of the better voiced games of the era.
The party is essentially divided into two parts, with our four main characters in one section and our two tertiary party members being in the other. The main characters are the focus of the story, with the other two mostly being there to offer some unique gameplay gimmicks and help the plot along in parts. While it is a bit of a waste that Chat and Max aren't given much to do, it does leave Reid, Farah. Meredy and Keele more room to bond with eachother.
And they kinda need that screentime, as the game is a bit short by modern standards, only being a bit above 30 hours long. I think that's the perfect length for a JRPG, as the pacing remains good throughout, culminating in some good character growth from the main cast. It's a real shame that the camping skits were cut for the English release. I wouldn't say that the partymembers have big arcs, moreso that they grow together as they become better friends who trust eachother and decide to save the two worlds together.
Speaking of that, the world design on display here is probably my favourite in the series, as it provides a good amount of optional content. It reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy V (which I recently played), as there comes a point where the difficulty ramps up and you're meant to go explore the world to find optional dungeons so you can power up. When I revisited the game for my review, I went through the content I had missed and was blow away by all the fun places you can go to. They even go so far as to make the last ship upgrade optional, which was a great extra to end the game on.
Now that I have more experience with the series, I can definitely see some flaws with the combat system, but I still think it's really fun to engage with. Just like the story, it's pretty simple (outside some awesome extra moves that are really tricky to unlock and use) but solid. Before I revisited the game, I was afraid that it'd feel as janky as the previous two (more on those further down), but that wasn't the case.
Combat is pretty swift, spells don't freeze the action and there's a good back-and-forth as you block and counter-attack. But the input buffer is incredibly strict, making combos difficult to execute and outside of Reid and Farah, the playable characters are either boring to use or very gimmicky. But speaking as someone who has only played the 2D games released in the west, I consider this to be the best incarnation of the 2D Linear Motion Battle System.
Lastly, I wanna talk about some tertiary things, namely the anime and Star Ocean. The anime isn't super exciting, but compared to the clusterfuck that is the Phantasia anime, it's delightful (I haven't tried any other Tales anime). It's a filler plot that's slotted into the middle of the game, which fits into the story decently enough. But it really leans into being filler, with the almost the whole thing being a giant beach episode, since it takes place on an island.
In spite of that, I really enjoyed seeing some more party interactions, the new character Marone, the action scenes and the music being reinterpreted for anime. But it also introduces the annoying bard Corina and leans into a bunch of anime cliche's which are either downplayed or non-existant in the game itself. So it's a bit of a mixed bag mostly aimed at fans of the game.
The reason I bring up Star Ocean is because I kind of flipped when I played Second Evolution after Eternia and felt how similar the two games were as far as graphics, style and minor mechanics are concerned. Given the shared blood of the two series, this shouldn't be surprising, but I didn't know that at the time. I much prefer Tales of Eternia to both of the first Star Ocean games (and the rest of the franchise, frankly), but I'm interested in revisiting those games some day to see how they hold up.
I suppose I should consider myself lucky that I experienced Zestiria the way I did. Without the greater context of the series (not to mention ignorance of the trailer debacles and most of the sheer hatred people have for it), I managed to get quite a lot of enjoyment out of it, which is reflected in my review. I liked the presentation and the characters quite a lot.
But even as my second game in the series, it left a lot to be desired. For as much as I like the party, the plot is lacking both memorable moments and a central hook or theme beyond "Let's explore the world!". The jokes and inter-party jabs may be excellent, but without a greater context to exist in, they have limited value outside of skit compilations. It's an uplifting but aimless experience.
While there is interesting stuff to find in the world (which triggers relevant skits) I think the game didn't go far enough with the concept of exploration. As I went through the series, I came to understand its budgetary issues better, which helped contextualize the emptiness that exudes from Zestiria. It's neat that they finally managed an interconnected world of this scale (with greater variety in geometry than Xillia), but most of it is just large empty fields to walk through.
Seeing as the plot moves so slowly anyway, they should have leaned into it by creating some chunky optional areas that feel rewarding to explore. That introduces its own set of problems, but it would have been so nice for the game to say "We need to go over here, but that place seems interesting, wink wink". That would have been an avenue for some better sidequests too.
Now, one thing that was less than ideal about this being my second game is how damn complex it is compared to Eternia. A lot of its ideas are new, but it still builds on top of the other games, which made it even more of a nightmare to learn for me. I revisited it for a few hours to refresh my memory and I can definitively say with confidence that Berseria managed to scale back a lot of tertiary mechanics for the better.
There's just so much crap to keep track of and it's difficult to justify learning all of it when the game doesn't even get something as basic as the battle camera right. The uninterrupted transition from cutscenes to the field to battle is neat, but it was not worth being unable to see when fighting in cramped corridors. Still, I think the Armatization mechanic is cool for its novelty if nothing else. I always like it when games present some fresh ideas and the Tales series is full of neat ideas that may or may not be worth putting into other games.
Lastly, I wanna talk about the DLC a little bit. As highlighted in my review, I wasn't privy to the Alisha DLC (even though I had a sealed copy), only the minor "booster DLC" thing. But since Bamco hates me, I couldn't even get that, since their site was under repairs when I tried to redeem my code. That soured me on ever buying DLC from them and I wasn't in a mood to do so anyway.
As such, I haven't played the Alsiha DLC, even though I should for completeness' sake. But all I've heard about it is how much of a grindy disappointment it is, so I don't feel like engaging with it just to satisfy my curiosity. I even heard that it'd make me dislike Rose, who is like my favourite character in the game. If that's the case, then I'm content with writing the whole thing off as non-canonical.
I didn't review Phantasia or Destiny, since I felt there wasn't enough material in each game for a standalone review. But since I'm doing a series retrospective now, it's much easier to get the words down.
Looking at Phantasia from the perspective of its original release on SNES in 1995, it's amazing how far it goes both on its own terms and as a foundation for the rest of the series, in spite of how much of the original story was cut. There's so much here that's very foundational for the series, both mechanically and story-wise.
The most standout thing is the first incarnation of the Linear Motion Battle System, which remains pretty unique to this day. The only game I've seen that has used 2D fighting games as a basis for its combat system to this degree is Summon Night: Swordcraft Story on the GBA. To think that they made a co-op action RPG SNES in this style is bananas. The only similar game of the era that I can think of is Secret of Mana, which is not as technical and goes for a top-down view instead.
As alluded to in the Eternia section, one major issue with the combat is that spellcasting pauses the action, which really kills the pacing of most fights. Couple this with the fact that spells can't be dodged and a lot of battles just devolve into a DPS race where you force Mint to spam multi-target healing as much as possible. There are also some dungeons that really annoyed me.
But for as difficult as it can be to get through in parts, that doesn't undermine some of the other standout aspects of the game. It's a time-travel story, meaning that there are multiple overworld maps, even on SNES it had small amounts of voice clips (upgraded to partial voice acting in the PS1 version and full voice acting in the PSP version) and it has a really rad war sequence where you get to fight on a flying horse!
Then there's the music, the backgrounds (which are not as impressive as Eternia's, but still quite good) and just how much of a good-ol'-fashioned adventure it is. The stakes are quickly laid down, the characters are simple but easy to like and most of the plot deals directly with the problem at hand, which is the fight against Dhaos in multiple eras. I'm impressed that it all flows together so well and manages to remain so focused.
Destiny sits in an awkward spot for me. Since it preceeds the PS1 remake of Phantasia by a year, it doesn't get to enjoy the added features of that game. And since the PS2 remake wasn't localized (which I've heard good things about), you're stuck with this middle step between the SNES version of Phantasia and the PS1 version as an English-speaking fan.
What really stands out is the incredibly limiting combat. You can only attack once normally per combo before you need to use an arte to keep the combo going. That doesn't sound that much worse than the two times you can attack normally in Phantasia PS1 and Eternia, but it really grinds things to a halt, especially if you're playing in semi-auto mode and run back and forth only attacking once each time because you messed up the timing to chain into an arte.
Then there are the visuals, which are very similar, though noticably less appealing than the other two games, especially when it comes to the world map. It's this really crunched up mode-7-esque map that really stands out for how ugly it is compared to the proper 3D overword in the other PS1 games. The party screen is cute, but since the skits were cut in the English version, it serves little purpose.
But if you can get past that (and the high encounter rates in certain areas), it's a decent time. The story is a bit by-the-numbers, but it works. I found it interesting that everyone is a magical sword-wielder in this game, giving them access to both a decent melée weapon (which levels up and can be outfitted with an equipment disc for stats and extra spells) and spells.
Had the combat been more fleshed out, making everyone a sword-user would probably have been lame, but I think the game makes it work by at least giving people unique artes. While I wouldn't call the game bad, it's not a game I'm super keen to revisit, especially when the other two PS1 games exist with better presentations and mechanics.
Finally. The big one.
I was really excited about finally getting to play this seminal game. And to give this section some pizzazz, I reached out to some older fans to ask some questions and confirm some beliefs I had about the game and its legacy.
While the western releases of Destiny and Eternia garnered the series some fame in the west, it wasn't until Symphonia that Bamco struck gold. There were a couple of reasons for this, namely the voice acting, some QoL improvements over Eternia, the easily accessable 4-player co-op (no Multi-Tap or Channeling Rings required!), the anime-inspired visuals finally being brought to 3D, the strong soundtrack, plus how much Nintendo pushed it at the time. Given the GameCube's lackluster selection of JRPGs and Symphonia's quality, it makes total sense that Nintendo would do their best to get everyone to buy it.
It was this perfect storm of being a GameCube exclusive that catered to budding weebs (who may have had limited exposure to JRPGs up until that point) that provided solid replayability through the NG+ system (which lets you unlock cheats), the bonding system (which wasn't to my liking, personally) and the co-op combat that had multiple characters to mess around with.
Couple that with the rise of mainstream forums and its no wonder that people latched onto the game as hard as they did and formed a strong fanbase for Symphonia in particular over the series as a whole. Especially since the main games jumped ship to Sony and Microsoft platforms for the most part after this.
It reminds me of my own experiences with Kingdom Hearts when that was new. It was my introduction to action RPGs, the concept of leveling characters (which feels really good when you haven't built up much resistance to those sweet, sweet brain chemicals it triggers) and being encouraged to explore a massive world. Viewed through this lens, I'm sure I'd be as much of a sucker for Symphonia as everyone else.
But the game that I think holds greater value in a comparison is Final Fantasy X, which much like Symphonia and KH1 showed what a then-modern RPG could look and sound like. It's easy to forget just how much of a jump it was to go from FFIX to FFX. And it's extra interesting to compare the two, as their stories are superficially similar. Both start you on a journey across the world through various temples, which is intended to end with a sacrifice to save the world.
The key difference between the two games is that FFX plays its cards straight and slowly builds to the point where the party rejects destiny, whereas in Symphonia, the party changes their quest abruptly early on after going through a small-scale classical JRPG quest that ends in betrayal. Ultimately, both games have the same uplifting message of "Screw fate, we gotta do what's right through the power of anime!", but Symphonia hits harder by having the world itself be built on lies instead of just having some party members hide stuff.
I think that's why the story struck a chord with people. I can't think of another JRPG before this (barring a small part of Eternia) that played around with deconstructing JRPG tropes. But what's important to remember is that Symphonia reconstructs those tropes in a greater context later on and ends up being the then-modern incarnation of what early JRPGs were in their day. It doesn't reject being a JRPG, it makes a statement of declaring that JRPGs should aim higher than before.
Said height ends up looking a bit short in retrospect, as the theme of "racism bad, get along" isn't the most challenging message. But it sadly remains relevant and the game does a good job of showcasing how dumb racism is by manufacturing a setting where you easily empathize with the non-racists.
On the combat front, I like the actual fighting more than in Eternia, as it's a bit easier to chain regular attacks into artes and you automatically maintain your position in semi-auto mode after attacking. The addition of 3D battle arenas makes it easier to target specific enemies at the cost of making it harder to protect spellcasters from bosses. As such, heal-spamming is still very much the thing you need to be doing at all times.
But everything new is not to my liking, as the tertiary mechanics like Overlimit and the Exsphere system is either annoyingly random or difficult to experiment with. As such, it ends up having worse combat than Eternia, in spite of it feeling better to play, which is such an unfortunate thing.
What isn't unfortunate is the removal of random encounters, which is delightful, as you can make an effort to avoid a lot of battles, which is great for the pacing. Good thing too, as there is a larger focus on puzzles, some of which were too much for me if I remember correctly. A shame there wasn't more optional content, but I understand the increased cost inherent in developing for sixth-gen.
Lastly, I wanna briefly talk about this game's connection to Phantasia, which it's secretly a prequel to. Since I went to the effort of playing the games in order, I expected to get more out of this connection than I did. The connection is evident, but due to the timescale , the two games share a main conflict over Mana, a few areas and little else. Still, it's a cool extra thing to think about if you're into both games.
Dawn of the New World (which I will respectfully refrain from referring to as Symphonia 2, so drop the pitchforks) is a game whose existance was seemingly brought to be in the name of money over creative expression. Devs gotta eat and all games sold are done so to make money, so this isn't strange. But when you make a sequel to the best-selling game in the franchise on the successor platform of the Gamecube in spite of said game not having room for a direct sequel and there already being a distant one, one can't help but raise an eyebrow.
As such, I was hesitant to play DotNW (Wow, that's a terrible abbreviation. Let's go with Dawn instead). But seeing as I didn't have the same deep connection to the original game like the people Bamco were trying to appeal to, I managed to get a decent chunk of enjoyment out of the game in spite of its flaws. What delicious irony.
Instead of trying their damndest to make a new story for the old cast, Dawn instead opts to focus on a new pair of characters, protagonist Emil and his galpal Marta. The old cast is still there, but they're level-locked guest party members with limited use that barely matter to the plot. And if that wasn't alienating enough for old fans, the game manufactures a conflict between Emil and Lloyd by painting Lloyd as a false hero who killed Emil's parents.
With that in mind, I really don't blame people for dropping both the game and the series at this point. It's brave to make the old hero a villain, but it's also such a cheap way to create conflict that can easily backfire. I think the game would have been recieved a bit better if the old cast was used a bit more tactfully.
Still, I couldn't ignore the improvements the game offers. The presentation is naturally better, since it's a Wii game. Meaning that the models have better proportions, that the textures are more detailed and that the skits are voiced. Stuff like that really makes it easier to accept having run through the recycled areas.
Combat is pretty good overall, as the game cleans up a lot of my problems with Symphonia. Unison attacks take less time to charge, there's no annoying way to learn artes and chaining combos is slightly easier (to a fault frankly due to how easy air juggling is). Had the game only focused on Emil and Marta, it would be a great introductory Tales game, as the skill ceiling is low and it's pretty easy to understand combos and the new charge attacks.
But that's not the case, as there this whole monster catching system trying to fill the gap of there not being a proper party of characters available. Personally, I think Pokémon is flawed to begin with, but translating its design ideas poorly to an action RPG makes it hold even less water. I say that because monster catching and trying to match up strengths versus weaknesses isn't important at all. Here's my guide to playing Dawn:
Catch two bears and something else. Teach them all basic healing. Done.
Do that and you're set for the rest of the game, as leveling the bears lets them evolve to some really fast fighters. Them being able to attack quickly and stunlock everything you can't air juggle yourself is all that matters. As such, trying to actively engage with the system as intended will only sully the experience, as you'll drag down the pacing doing so.
And Dawn's story is difficult enough to enjoy without the pacing going down the crapper. Now I'll go to bat for Emil's character arc as I'm a sucker for doormat-to-hero narratives. But when I revisited the game it was evident that the first chapter needed another editing pass. You get assaulted with flashbacks to scenes that occurred 30 to 120 seconds ago, Emil's repetetive schtick of over-apologizing and the ever famous "Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality." line.
Which is a shame, since the game's singular focus on Emil's and Marta's relationship lends itself to a really good character dynamic. Marta gets enamoured with an interpretation of Emil that's not really him (its complicated), which Emil tries to live up to. But that secondary personality Marta was subjected to then starts to take over and claim to be the better Emil. At that point, Emil struggles with accepting who he is and that he deserves to exist while Marta has to realize that the real Emil is more deserving of her affection.
But gameplay polish and a good character dynamic does not a great game make when they are grouped together with a setting with little more to give and a monster catching system that feels really shoehorned in. Frankly, Emil and Marta should have had a game in a new setting, it would have worked out so much better.
Out of all of the Tales games I've played, Legendia is the one that stands out the most. Which makes sense, as it was made by a separate team from the Symphonia people. As such, it has a very different general feel and gives the impression of being much older than Symphonia, in spite of being released 2 years later. A part of that is due to the shift in platforms from GameCube to PS2, but even that doesn't excuse how much of a 2001 game it feels like, especially since Tales of the Abyss came out the same year and looks fine. But graphics do not a game make, so let's talk about the rest of it.
Having the whole game be set on a giant island ship and be themed around water is really unique. You've got fresh settlers, ancient ruins, otter people and other continents interested in the island. And to really give The Legacy its unique feel, the soundtrack is orchestral, jazzy and quite laid back compared to what we usually get. The soundtrack is the one part of the game I can recommend people checking out, even if it is a bit of an aquired taste.
But actually playing the game is mostly a chore, not helped by the plot being pretty boring for the most part. The combat is 2D, but feels worse than Eternia's and features so goddamn many HP sponge enemies that it's not even funny. For my quick revisits of these games, I've messed around with auto mode to save myself some effort (it works surprisingly well, especially as a laid-back easy mode).
Legendia is the only game where I would outright recommend people to not engage with the combat more than is necessary by using auto. The only interesting addition is Senel's throws, but even those kinda suck, since enemies are divided into multiple weight classes, making it guesswork to find out which ones you actually have the arte needed to throw around.
Couple that with some really lengthy dungeons (not helped by the re-introduction of random battles and the top-down perspective), all of which the game expects you to redo during the character quests in the postgame, and you get an ordeal of a video game.
The character quests are the most interesting parts of the game, as every party member gets the focus to either finish their character arc or start up a new one. It's pretty good stuff, but the deck is stacked against this part of the game. As I said before, you need to redo dungeons, but this is also where Bamco gave up dubbing the game (in English at least), meaning that some of the best scenes in the game aren't voiced. I quite liked Chloe and her struggle with her family, her sense of justice and her revenge, but I just do not have it in me to play the game again.
It did give my this stellar screenshot however, so it wasn't all a waste:
After going through Dawn and struggling through Legendia, Abyss was such a breath of fresh air. All I knew about it is that the main character Luke is the only instance of a terrible protagonist who goes through enough of an arc that he becomes likeable. That turned out to be the case, but that's not all the game has to offer.
I really like the theming in Abyss, as its two major themes (fate and identity) are well-represented either through the worldbuilding or the party. The world of Auldrant is governed by the Score, which is a set of tablets inscribed with details about the future. As such, people get dependant on knowing their future and certain tragedies are seen through just because it's written in the Score. But it's also a finite text and Luke manages to prove it to not be all-powerful, which both kicks off the plot and keeps it turning.
But the party is what really holds the game together. They all have layers to them, with secrets that they hide from the others either willingly or unknowingly. When these secrets get out, both the player, the party and sometimes the character themself have to reassess their perception of said character, which really helps justify the game's 70-hour runtime a lot better than the other lengthy games in the series.
The combat sands down the rough edges of Symphonia's combat system (Side thought: What with all the musical theming in Abyss, shouldn't it have been named Symphonia instead?), making things a lot more dependable. Manual Overlimit and Freerun makes such a difference for the experience. The Field of Fonon system (which alters artes with elemental properties) is neat, but there isn't much reason to engage with it unless you really want to.
The only negatives I can think of are the unvoiced skits and the Capacity Core system. Much like the FOF system, CCs aren't super vital to the game (besides getting the ability to use items on other party members). Which is good, as had CCs been super important, I would have been a lot more down on the game. As the system is now, you can't tell what support abilites you can get, nor which stats you need to raise to get them.
But that doesn't matter, since only the lategame ones are any good and those only matter for the NG+ bonus dungeon. It's such a waste of a mechanic, especially since Xillia 2 proves that it can be implemented better (though that incarnation of the system still has its faults). With a bit more tinkering to the sub-systems and combat plus a larger localization budget, it would have basically been flawless as far as PS2 JRPGs go.
Here we are at the last game in the holy Symphonia/Abyss/Vesperia trilogy. It was lucky that Bamco decided to remaster this game for people like me who never got themself an Xbox 360 just when I needed access to the game.
What stands out beyond the improved graphical presentation compared to Abyss is that we finally have voiced skits in a main game. It adds so much to be able to listen to the characters interact instead of just reading it, especially since the character portraits are so animated. Rita's slightly angry face is just the best.
All that helps you endear yourself to the characters, which are all quite good, even if they don't have much in the way of arcs. Yuri Lowell (somehow not voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) struggles less with himself and more with how to apply his beliefs that change is too slow and inefficient through official channels. It's a nice change of pace for a Tales protagonist, but I still think he should have committed more mistakes. As it is now, he kinda comes of as always being right, even though I find it unlikely that he should always pick the "best" choice when faced with a dilemma. To err is human and all that.
The other big thing with the story is the environmentalist theme, which is handled slightly more tactfully than what Symphonia did with racism. A lot of the games deal with environmentalism to some degree, but here they went a few extra miles with it. The worldbuilding is paced well and lays the groundwork for the fossil fuel allegory by showcasing how necessary Blastia are and how difficult it'd be to simply stop using them. But when the cards have been played and the game is over, I was really missing an epilogue detailing the results of the party's efforts to save the world. It's obviously not a completely happy ending and I would have really liked to see a bit more.
The combat feels better than Abyss, but it's here where I see the beginnings of the three dozen needless mechanics that brought down Zestiria. Having four levels of Overlimit, less stringent input windows and a lengthy list of differing artes to chain is great. But with how annoying it is to learn Altered Artes, all the shit involving Fatal Strikes and how difficult it is to air-juggle with Judith, I wish they reigned in their ambition. Just having the additions I praised earlier would have been enough.
The Definitive Edition brought with it many a thing (like extra scenes where Yuri is obviously not voiced by Troy Baker anymore), but what I really wanna focus on is Patty the pirate. This girl is crazy mechanically, so much so that she could carry her own game. While I was pleased to see some DMC moves in the game (Yuri has Prop Shredder and Judith has Lunar Phase), Patty has fucking style switching!
It's somewhat random and difficult to get the hang of, but she is my favourite incarnation of the gambler archetype in a JRPG, as you get just enough control over her abilities to make it not feel like you're just rolling a die. You need to adapt to your luck, learn to use her different forms and know which artes work best when. It's still a bit rough around the edges, but she's still great as a randomized mage/healer/buff machine to have in your party.
Graces was a nice surprise, as it deviates from the Symphonia lineage quite a bit and introduces a lot of fresh ideas and fixes. I get the feeling a lot of it is owed to its original home on the Wii and the limited amounts of buttons it has. I'm afraid to check if it had motion controls originally though.
The plot kinda snuck up on me with how much it ended up affecting me emotionally. Power of friendship stuff is a bit hit-or-miss for me, but here it was a hit for sure. The are a couple of reasons for this, with the first one being the childhood prologue and how well the rest of the game uses it. Some people are bound to have difficulty empathizing with the plights and wants of children, but liked what was put on the table. Adults are nothing but oversized children anyway, which is something I hope everyone figures out eventually.
I especially liked it when the game introduced its fair share of tragedies which splits the party and inspires Asbel to maintain his optimism and fight to reclaim the bonds he lost. His unending determination and optismism is the stuff of legend. While his worldview ends up being the solution to the plot, its not without a ton of struggle, which helped making it more believable. It's really heartwarming to see him somehow win out against those odds and create his own makeshift family.
Another thing I liked (which I have only ever seen in the anime Pandora Hearts) is the way power dynamics shift after the time skip. People who both Asbel and the player see as strong (which includes Asbel himself) don't seem so impressive as they once did, while those deemed as weak have done a lot to change that. It exemplifies how neither people nor relationships are stagnant and that one needs to work to maintain bonds.
It was also in this game where I realized just how much skits add to the series, especially when voiced. Since skits give the writers free reign to talk about basically anything through the characters, there's bound to be a skit or two that really hits home as long as you're willing to engage with it and pay attention to what's being said beneath the goofy veneer. I don't have a direct example (there are so many skits in one game alone), but these games do manage to get real from time to time.
The raddest thing the game does though is to throw away a ton of staple mechanics for the combat in order to reinvent it. I'm a sucker for Souls-games, so having a malleable stamina meter instead of a "mana pool" feels so right to me. This removes some of the item conservation aspect and lets the game hard-focus on the actual fighting.
When I revisited the game, everything clicked into place very quickly, as it's pretty straight-forward to get the handle on laying down combos and frantically dodging. Even with the weakness combo system in place, you can still get a lot done by simply focusing on the inherent properties of each arte. Speed, range, stunlock-potential, mobility, most artes really feel different, making it much easier to set up your favourite combinations. It's especially easy since you don't have to deal with artificial combo limitations as much, since there are only two major types of artes. Couple that with spellcasters finally being fun to use (due to combos shortening cast times), every party member feeling good to play and everyone having their own gimmicks and you get a real blast of a combat system. Also, the secret Maxwell extension finisher for the final boss of the epilogue is fucking rad.
Now we're on the portable block of the retrospective, which is the one part of this whole ordeal I fully regret. As previously mentioned, I haven't played Tales of Hearts, but I can only hope that it's better than this sorry sack of software I subjected myself to.
Tempest holds the unique "honor" of being the only mothership game in the series to retroactively be downgraded to an escort (spinoff) title. There are reasons for this, most of which I can't tell you because I barely got an hour into the game before giving up. What I can tell you is that it's slightly impressive for a DS game, but still very ugly and not very interesting. I don't know what else to say aside from that it needed better everything.
Oh yeah, Rubia scares me.
Being a fanservice crossover game, Radiant Mythology managed to hold my interest enough for me to beat it, but it was still very shallow compared to the games it plucked characters from. Instead of being a Tales game with crossover characters, it's a crossover game with Tales characters. As such, the story is bland and dotted with some neat cameos. The potential of the setup (like say having pre-development Luke collaborating with Raine for a ruin investigation) is completely wasted.
It's a mission-based RPG, which was all the rage on PSP and DS, meaning that you spend a lot of time running through the same areas under the guise of it being for a different reason each time.The combat is alright in places, but it's so hopelessly grindy. I have no idea how they intend you to have a fair chance of beating the final boss without grinding your avatar into godhood status.
At this point, my standards were lowered quite a bit, so Innocence being somewhat competent put me in a false sense of security. Combat works, but the dungeon design is as bad if not worse than Legendia, making it one hell of a journey to clear each dungeon. The final one in particular is basically a linear set of unavoidable battles and it's fucking terrible.
The only interesting thing about the plot is the cast being reincarnated gods (assuming my vague memories are trustworthy), but it does nowhere near as much with the concept as Digital Devil Saga, so I'd rather tell people to play that.
Like Graces, Xillia was a game I didn't know much about except maybe a vague memory of Milla's character design. What's immediately interesting about the game is that she and Jude share top billing, meaning that the player can pick who to play as from a story perspective.
While it's a neat idea, it's not as interesting as one would hope, since most of the story is shared between the two save from certain parts where they split up. But beyond changing the colour grading (which still confounds me, since none of the areas look better tinted blue or pink), there are at least two reasons to replay the game as the other character. The first is to check out those exclusive scenes (I vote for going Jude first, even if his contributions to the story are lacking at times) and the second is to pick up on all the foreshadowing for the good twists in the game.
All of the post-Eternia games incentivize the player to replay the game by offering NG+ bonuses, but Xillia was the only game to get me to pull the trigger on that. Well, replaying the game that is. I was an idiot and assumed you wouldn't be able use a completed Jude save for a NG+ Milla save, but I still managed to have some fun on another fresh playthrough.
In spite of the environments being the worst in the 3D games (sooooo many tunnels and cliffy fields), thanks to the shop system it's pretty easy to maintain the game's pacing if you know what you're doing. By sacrificing upgrades to the equipment shops, you can hyper focus on the food shop, which eventually gives you exp boosts, which you can then eat before every boss in order to keep up with the leveling curve without engaging with the intended amount of battles against common mooks.
That playthrough is the closest I've come to a boss rush RPG outside of Wild Arms 3, which I quite enjoyed. The combat system shines the most in bosses, as that's where you need to fight long enough for everything to come into play.
Unlike Vesperia, Xillia distributes its complexities much better, meaning that it's worth caring about every major mechanic. Linking up with with different characters for their support effects while doing co-op attacks is great fun. But you still have to reign yourself in in order to enjoy the game, as the characters' different playtstyles and gimmicks are so unique that trying to master them all in a single playthrough is a fools errand.
That maintains replayability, but me being me, I still tried to play with almost everyone to limited success. If you can accept not kitting people out optimally, there are automated systems to use, which will totally get you through the game. But it's so open to semi-complex choices that I couldn't help but try to optimize and figure out what I could do with most characters.
The biggest issue I have with the combat is how difficult it is to do the top-level combos. Said combos will only happen if you swap link partners during combat to extend how long of a link arte chain you can do during Overlimit. I find that so difficult because to do that you need a near-perfect setup of 16 artes, which you then need to internalize before you can pull off a link partner switching combo. That takes a decent amount of practice and is made harder by the addition of new artes as you progress, since artes that feel good or hit a specific element may not fit well into your link arte setup.
I would have added a "standard setup" for each character that strikes a good balance between gamefeel and utility for people to fall back on (like what Berseria has), or an option that let you automatically pair the artes of the character you're currently using to the others in the active party. But now that I think about it, that sounds like a nightmarish algorithm to design. Interestingly enough, Xillia 2 had its own solution to this problem.
In many ways, Xillia 2 and Dawn of the New World are cut from the same cloth. Both were made for less than stellar reasons (Dawn to cash in on Symphonia fans, Xillia 2 to make a game for cheap) and feature new protagonists, but Xillia 2 doesn't make the same mistakes and comes out the better game. Instead of shying away from the old party members in lieu of a half-baked Pokémon clone, it instead relishes in everything Xillia had to offer, builds on top of the story pretty well all things considered, fixes issues with the combat system and even adds more stuff to the mix without feeling as annoyingly complex as Vesperia (or god forbid, Zestiria).
While the silent Ludger isn't nearly as fleshed out as Emil, I was still interested in his relationship with Elle. They make for a fun pair. But what really sold the story for me was how it uses the old characters. Everyone gets something to do in the new world as they try to find their place in it and it feels a lot more natural than what Lloyd was up to in Dawn. Even just taken as a vector for new skits, Xillia proves its worth as a product. It's just so good to see everyone hang out and go on weird tangents.
While the game is shameless about its recycled assets, I found its laid-back presentation to really work in its faovur. The music and fourth wall-breaking UI messages really helped in that regard. It's not a game for everyone, but if you go into it with the correct mindset and accept it as a really fun expansion pack, there's a lot to like.
I have my grievances with the removal of the Allium Orbs, but the combat really shines. Ludger is the closest rival to Patty when it comes to mechanical complexity in the series. So much so that you can easily play as him exclusively and not get bored. Then you have the reintroduction of sidesteps from Graces, generic Link artes to make Overlimit combos flow better and even some new basic attacks.
I'm glad I gave the game a chance to impress me, as even with its issues it has a lot to offer, both as a sequel and as an instalment in the series.
During this 2-year journey, I heard more and more things about Berseria, painting it as a return to form after Zestiria, which was encouraging to hear. And in many ways it is, but it wasn't as good as I had hoped sadly.
The Berserk-inspired story made me feel things and the mechanics are not as brain-shatteringly complex as Zestiria's, but even so, the game has clear faults to me. As far as the story is concerned, the pacing during act 2 (when the party investigates Therions) and how needless Rokuro feels really makes me wish they had taken an axe to the script. I believe a part of those feelings may be due to series fatigue, but I still think Berseria is the game in the series that would have to most to gain by being shorter. There are just so many hours inbetween the game's most emotional moments, which makes it a bit of a slog.
And while gameplay isn't as befuddling as Zestiria's, it features a bunch of half-steps that seem caught between series tradition and wanting to reinvent things even more than Graces did. With the removal of directional input (for the most part, 4 artes can still be assigned to directional input), a really shoddy sidestep, a debilitating stamina system during boss fights and a customizable arte tree I found it hard to engage with the game on an immediate level. Comparatively, the basics of Zestiria are easier to grasp, it's just all the extra bullshit on top of that and the bad camera that drags it down.
Beyond the Soul system, what really got me down is the intersection of the power combo system and the customizable arte tree. When I revisited Zestiria, I was shocked to see that the arte tree there was unchangeable, putting it closer to Graces than I had realized. But in Berseria, you can either use the pre-made tree or try to figure out your own setup. But with enemy weaknesses being so modular, you can never have a comfortable setup for a character. Instead of it being "Oh, I need to use these two abilities on this enemy, lemme switch my approach a bit." it's "Ok, if I wanna hit those three weaknesses I need use one of these two characters and fiddle with the arte tree for a couple of minutes so I can figure out a combo that chains well and doesn't hit a resistance."
Now, I realize that there are mechanics in play to give you more freedom for combos. There are derivative artes which you can access from other artes, plus the aforementioned directional shortcuts, but that just adds another dimension of complexity to the whole thing. The default tree doesn't cover things as well as the static tree in Graces or Zestiria, while trying to figure out a good custom setup takes forever since you won't have access to all artes until level 60 and there's no practice mode. After a while, I just went for the braindead approach of ignoring weaknesses and spamming things with Velvet, which expressly undoes a lot of the gameplay depth due to how strong she is.
The four-button attack buttons and the free movement are valid ideas, but for them to work, the game needs to let up even more and go even further into Musou. If you could simply focus on designing combos that felt good to use with intrinsic properties (like the Burst artes in Graces) with an omnidirectional dodge without having to think about hitting multiple weaknesses I think the game would be in a better place. If the series wants to be more involved Musou, then that's fine. But this half-step there isn't the way to go.
I'm glad you're still with me, that was quite the journey. Stay tuned for the end of the retrospective where I'll dole out awards, rank the games and give my final thoughts on the series. Until then, Imma get some rest.