Get ready for an epic, light-hearted adventure with one of the best RPG battle systems of all time.
Here’s the most important thing to know about Tales of Symphonia: yes, it is the great GameCube RPG that you’ve been waiting for. If you are an RPG fan, and probably even if you’re not, you will have a great time with this game. It’s fun, lengthy, and beautiful…hard to beat a combination like that.
The story’s setup is unusually blunt, in that you are told the implications of the quest right upfront. Otherwise, the plot is fairly standard, though it is interesting enough to keep things moving at a good pace most of the time. You might think that this long-popular RPG series would have a fresh approach to its storyline, but the sequence of events and game world itself are heavily based on fantasy lore and other RPGs, including many strong similarities to the Final Fantasy series. For GameCube owners starved of this kind of traditional RPG, this kind of story might be just right to fill in that hole.
Where Tales of Symphonia excels in storytelling is with its cast of characters: an odd assortment of children, teenagers, and adults, not to mention the human/elf/half-elf racial element and strong alliances among the sexes. There is a strong ensemble interplay from the very beginning; you have five characters in your party within the first couple hours. Much of the plot advancement takes place during conversations and group discussions among the characters. The characters themselves, though not as intricately detailed as you would find in literature, are developed intensively throughout the game, with one event after another (not to mention hundreds of “skits”) reinforcing personality traits and adding little touches and revelations which help to further flesh out the personas. I would compare the cast to that of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; the characters initially seem simple and stereotypical but almost feel like real people by the end of the story. And, for whatever sins of excessive twistiness the plot may commit, the final ending sequence is beautiful and powerful, a memorable way to end this 50-hour quest.
However, what the game will really be remembered for is its battle system. It strikes a perfect balance between the strategy of traditional menu-based RPG battles and the fast, skill-based action found in a weapons-based fighting game like Soul Calibur. Most battles involve four members of your party and at least that many enemies, which can make things pretty hectic. The game keeps you focused in the 3D battlefield by always keeping you targeted on one enemy at a time (you can easily switch targets for tactical advantage). Most battles are over in less than a minute and require constant input from the player, so tedium never gets a chance to settle in. Fighting in Tales of Symphonia is actually a lot of fun, and you may not ever feel the desire to avoid a battle…but if you are impatient or in need of an inn, it’s quite easy to avoid most battles. As if the battle system weren’t cool enough already, you can actually fight with up to three other players, each one of you controlling a different character. The feature isn’t very rich or polished, but it can be fun, and experienced friends could be more proficient in battle than the AI (though even the latter is quite good and generally knows the best tactics without your input).
Except for the unique battle system, Tales of Symphonia clings to many of the well-worn RPG elements. It can easily be compared to, and stack up with, the recent Final Fantasy games, although the story and graphical style exist in their own style. If there is any one weakness that stands out, it’s in the dungeon puzzles, which are more annoying than challenging and often feel out of place. The overworld is also quite disappointing; it’s serviceable but doesn’t come close to the presentational excellence of the rest of the game. With bland textures, tons of fogging, and even pop-up in the distance, the overworld looks like a leftover from one of the PSone Tales games.
The rest of the game looks pretty awesome.
It would be easy to overstate the importance of Tales of Symphonia, it being the first traditional RPG on GameCube (the Skies of Arcadia port notwithstanding). But this is a great game whether you’re an RPG-starved GameCube-only owner or you’ve played 300 hours of Final Fantasy XI or you’re new to the genre but are attracted by the graphics and battle system. This is a great game that can stand up with the best RPGs on any system, and the fact that it’s on GameCube is just icing on the cake for us Nintendo fans.