Review by Aagon

Reviewed: 07/20/04

Simply put: this game is the best 'traditional' RPG that we have seen in years.

The Nintendo Gamecube is lacking in good role playing games. In fact the since the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo has not been considered an RPGer’s console, but Tales of Symphonia should make every PS2 and Xbox owner salivate with hungry desire for this game. Looking back at the other Tales titles it should come as no surprise that this game is beautiful graphically, and solid in the gameplay market. What sets ToS apart is the radical embracing of the classic RPG formula and a departure form the ‘next-gen’ RPG obsession with full-motion video. ToS is not driven by long FMV sequences, that happen every hour or so, instead this game is driven by excellent dialogue that, yes, you have to read. It’s really a novel concept that an RPG in this generation assumes that you, the gamer, can actually read, but Namco does make this leap, and by doing so creates a gaming experience that is reminiscent of Chrono Trigger and the Secret of Mana. I went into this game having played all the other Tales titles and had extraordinarily high expectations for Namco’s Tales Studio. I was not disappointed. Simply put: this game is the best ‘traditional’ RPG that we have seen in years.

Story 10/10

So the basic story is one that any RPGer has heard a thousand times before. Somewhere, long ago, there was this really big tree that provided mana for everything, and sooner or later something bad happened and that mana dried up. And your party must quest from one end of the earth to the other to “regenerate” the planet. Okay that’s really just the umbrella of this ToS’s story. Where ToS excels is in it’s implementation of subplots, complex philosophical issues, and amazing character development which all weave into a rich world. About a thousand years ago there was a great war between Desians (the evil half elves), and the humans, which culminated in the goddess Martel siding with Mithos who gave his life to end the war between the Desians and everybody else. Throughout the past thousand years there has been a “Chosen” who will fulfill this ritual and “Regenerate” the world.

The story begins in a school where Colette Brunel, the Chosen, her friend Lloyd Irving (your player character), and his friend Genis Sage, are in class learning about the Chosen’s place in the regeneration of the world. As the game progresses you are thrust into a world that is replete with evil, intrigue, good, and virtue. The concepts are dealt with in a fair manner which makes no character completely good or completely evil. It was refreshing to see an RPG that actually had some semblance of reality in its script. I was amazed at the depth of the character development within ToS. You can choose to activate small dialogue ‘skits’ by pressing the ‘z’ button on your controller. This option helps to develop the plot, and the characters if you choose to read them all, but the story is not dependent on these to drive the plot. It’s great. For people like me who will obsessively play to find every item, explore every crevice of ever level it helps to flesh out a deep gaming experience, and for those of you who want a light play in the afternoon, you can have that too. It is nice to see a game in which every character has a flaw, and is working to overcome said flaw. We see Lloyd with this lack of education and instinctual responses to all situations make several decisions that are not the smartest simply because he wouldn’t plan ahead. However this same slightly arrogant behavior is one of his biggest assets, so in this way ToS mirrors life.

As the game continues you’ll find several well designed plot twists that are not predictable, but are not unexpected either. The game rewards players who explore the inner depths of the ‘skit’ system by making the characters well rounded, so that the plot subtleties are really more like adding two gigs of ram to your compute; you don’t really need that much, but damn it’s nice to have. ToS provides you with so many of those little features that it is like you get to ‘mod’ your favorite RPG.

Gameplay 10/10

I do not think that I can remember playing a game with this much fun in the basic gameplay elements. The world map is a little lacking on the graphic complexity that a game like Final Fantasy X had, but it’s not really a complaint. Like most RPGs the game is divided into 4 distinct gameplay elements. There’s the city play, world navigation, battle system, and party customization. The city play in ToS is great. The NPCs are well modeled, and they all say things of varying interest. As you’d expect there are inns where you can sleep and save, there are item shops where you can buy things from groceries to make various food items to weapons and armor. There is a ‘Customizer’ who will upgrade your weapons (for free) from raw materials that you’ll find along your journey. And finally there are significant portions of the plot that takes place in the cities. ToS’s cities are all well designed, and don’t suffer from ‘urban sprawl’ or gentrification…sure, the occasional city is ‘laid to waste’ but that serves to push plot anyway.

The world navigation in this game is excellent. Like many traditional RPGs there is an overworld map that you get from one city/area of significance to another. There are 2 main modes of travel in this overworld. The first is the normal mode. Whichever character model you choose wanders over the world map, occasionally running into one of the wandering monsters on the map. This triggers one of the battle sequences (more on this later). In this normal walking mode you’ll be able to find treasure chests scattered throughout the map, and the wandering monsters will move freely (and sometimes even charge right into you). The other form of travel is the long range travel. In this mode the map perspective pulls out to a longer view, and the monsters will only move when you move. The draw back is that you won’t be able to find treasure chests in this view. So if you need to go somewhere quick, this mode is best, but if you want to level build or actually find items etc. use the normal walking mode.

I rarely used the long range travel mode, in part, because the battle system is just too damn fun. The battle system is like a cross between Seiken Densetsu 3, and Dynasty Warriors 2-4 in that it is equal parts ‘beat ‘em up’ and equal parts strategy. Sure you get to mash the ‘A’ button over and over, throwing various combinations of your “Tech” attacks to chain massive combos together. But combined with this gameplay there is a significant amount of strategy involved in choosing who will attack whom, how they will attack, etc. The possibilities are nearly limitless. I loved battles in this game. They never felt tedious, and never got boring—which is really saying something for an RPG considering most of the battles in most RPG can get to be sooooooooooo repetitive that it makes you want to rip our your hair and gouge the eye out of your nearest pet. I could not think of a time when I wished that I hadn’t gotten into a battle in ToS.

The last gameplay element is the party customization. As always there’s the equipment that you can assign to your characters. The one thing that I would have liked to see implemented is to see a change in the player model when different armor, hats, or accessories are given. The weapons do change but it would have been a nice perk to see more. All in all this is not a big complaint. Throughout the game you’ll earn titles by achieving certain requirements. For instance when Lloyd achieves a 30+ hit combo he’ll gain the title of “Comboist,” which you can ‘equip’ from the status screen. These titles will effect the stats that your character gets as they level up. It is a neat feature with can really be exploited to make ridiculously powerful characters. Also you’ll be able to give characters special “Ex-Skills” which will further adjust how your character’s stats will level, and/or provide special skills that can be used in game. There could always be more customization for my tastes, but there was definitely enough in ToS to keep the game interesting.

Overall the gameplay works together beautifully. Nothing about the gameplay mechanics drew away from the overall enjoyment of the game. The controls are extremely responsive, and intuitive. This game simply excels as an RPG. It draws on the roots of the genera to produce one of the best games we’ve seen in years.

Graphics 8/10

I have grown to love cell-shading over the last few years. ToS is no exception. The player models are well rendered, and look amazing. The game’s graphics are fluid, colourful, and vibrantly full of life. The first of 2 criticisms that I have with the graphics is that it can get blurry around the corners of my HD TV; it is really a shame that this game was not developed to take advantage of progressive scan technology. I would like to have seen what this game would have looked at 720p and in widescreen, and considering how great this game looks normally, but I am guessing that it would have been breathtaking. The other complaint that I have is the relatively low quality of the ‘bloby’ monsters on the world map, and you only get 2 of them to boot. They’re both blackish-purplish, and look like a kid designed them. The first is a flat stingray looking thing, and the second is a tyrannosaurus without any arms—suffice it to say they look out of place in the lush game environment. These two complaints are really minor in the grand scheme that is Tales of Symphonia.

The graphics in every other area of this game are second to none. There is very little pixilation that happens in the battle sequences, on anywhere for that matter, and when there is a close up the game doesn’t look grainy. There are no framerate issues either—even when there are several spell graphics, and a couple of tech combos going on at once. It is really refreshingly fun to play an RPG that doesn’t get bogged down when a creature is summoned etc. The background screens are very colourful, and crisp, they don’t simply fade away as filler. And more importantly they don’t detract from the overall game experience. From the moment that you pop disc 1 into the Gamecube you are thrust into a gaming world that is replete with colour, and with life. You simply get lost in the game.

Sound 9/10

The sound in this game is magnificent. From the ambient sounds, to the game music ToS pushes the gamer into a pleasant experience. The only sound that may get old is the sound that announces a battle. If you’re like me you have spent hours level building so that by the time disc 2 rolls around you’ve dropped 40+ hours into level building alone. I didn’t get sick of the sound, but I can see how someone might. Everything else is great. The opening orchestrated them is memorable, as is the music throughout the rest of this game. The music adds to the game by helping your blood to race at the right moments, and providing soothing music at the right places. The ambient sounds enhance the overall feel, and don’t feel like they were made on an 80’s synthesizer. Everything works together to make the gamer feel like they are really a part of this game.

Overall 10/10

Tales of Symphonia is about a total experience. Everything works together to make this one of the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I loved the characters, and the graphics and sound drew me in. The story is brilliantly simple, yet deceptively intricate, and weaves you into the ToS experience. I have not seen a game that has provided such a delightful total package. This game is really like the perfect woman, once you find her you never want to let her go. Ever. Sure I called in sick from work several days to play ToS, sure I didn’t sleep for those days, and yeah I didn’t eat either…but it was worth it. Seldom have I played a game that has inspired such feats of masochism in me—but it’s about time. I know that I have been waiting for years to see an RPG that allowed me to play the game, and not have to watch it (ala Xenosaga and Final Fantasy X), I longed for a game like Chrono Trigger or Sword of Mana—and now I have it. This is the game that both the Gamecube and RPG communities have been waiting for, and I salute Namco’s Tales Studio for this masterpiece.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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