Let the good times roll! Tales is in town!
When Nintendo announced there would be a new Tales game for the GameCube, to say it was a surprise is quite the understatement. Namco and Nintendo hadn't been the best of friends, to say the least, and the GameCube's RPG fan base was questionable at best. At the time, it was an "unnamed Tales of Phantasia sequel". As news trickled in, it became known that it would be the first Tales game to be in full 3D, including the famous Linear Battle system. This caused a bit of a stir on the fans' part, especially since Tales of Destiny II for the PS2 (not to be mistaken for Tales of Eternia on PSX which was renamed to Tales of Destiny II for the English release) was also in development at the same time. Would the rechristened "Tales of Symphonia" be a true successor in the series, or a bastardization of the beloved franchise name?
Thankfully, the fears were groundless. Symphonia is a fantastic title and quite possibly the best third party game for the system, if not better than even some first party offerings. Be warned though, if you do not have good Japanese skills, you should wait until the game is released domestically.
Following the adventures of Lloyd Irving and his friends, Symphonia's world is in turmoil. From the evil plotting of the Army of Dezaian, to Collet's mystical destiny, Lloyd and his buddies have their work cut out for them.
Tales games have always had extremely high production values, and Symphonia is no exception. Opening with a stylish animé movie set to J-Pop (the song will most likely be removed for English release), Tales Studio certainly haven't taken any shortcuts with their first GC game. Symphonia features some of the best cel-shading seen since Wind Waker, looking almost like a manga come to life. Character models are detailed and animate quite smoothly for the most part. Occasionally, you'll see some slightly unnatural animations, such as strange hand movements, but these are few and far between. Battle animations and effects are fluid and quite spectacular. Enemies too have interesting models and animations. The backdrops are absolutely gorgeous, looking like hand drawn paintings, even though they are fully 3D.
Every rose has its thorns, and Tales' are all too apparent. As soon as one ventures outside the boundaries of towns or dungeons, they will be greeted with the ugliest overworld since the PSX era. Pop-up, heavy fogging, low polygon count, atrocious textures, and a framerate sent straight from hell will overwhelm any unprepared gamer. It's absolutely mind-boggling considering how beautiful and well done the rest of the game engine is. It's almost as if Tales Studio just ported one of their earlier overworld engines and let the GC hardware do all the work.
As far as the soundtrack goes, if you liked any of Motoi Sakuraba's previous works (eg: Valkyrie Profile, Star Ocean, the other Tales games), you certainly won't be disappointed with Symphonia. Once again demonstrating his incredible range, Symphonia's score is a joy to listen to. Battle themes, the most important tracks to any RPG, are fast-paced and upbeat, and don't grate on the ears with extended playtimes. Unfortunately, Tales doesn't support Dolby Pro Logic II, but sound quality is quite high. To complement the music, Symphonia also sports some of the best voice acting in the business. Almost every cut-scene is voiced (with accompanying text boxes) by some of Japan's finest voice actors.
Unfortunately for English speakers, if the other localized Tales games are anything to go by, all voice during cut-scenes will be axed, reducing the superb voice work to battle excerpts only. Hopefully Namco Hometek will dub the game entirely into English. Seeing their latest efforts with Xenosaga, it can't be entirely bad, but it couldn't be near the quality of the JPN VA. Or perhaps they can give an option to access the Japanese voice.
The heart of any RPG is its battle system. As explained in the previous impressions, Tales games use a highly unique method in fighting monster hordes. Essentially marrying 2D fighting mechanics with adventure-esque aspects, the linear battle system can almost be equated to Smash Bros.-style gameplay. The field is in total 3D, but you lock onto an enemy pressing the R trigger and selecting it. After that you can run on an invisible 2D plane forwards and backwards with the enemy in your sights. Basic physical attacks are done by pressing the A button, and magical/special moves can be mapped to the B button. The X buttons allows the character to defend, and Y will bring up a menu allowing item use, AI setting, equipment, manual spell select, and escaping. Special moves use a certain amount of TP (Tech Points) which replenish one point per physical hit. Physical attacks vary by which way you have the control stick pointing to. For example, if you hold up while pressing A, Lloyd will slash upwards while jumping, throwing the enemy into the air. If you followed this up with one of his Sword techniques, they'll fall into a rain of blindingly quick sword thrusts.
There is also the "Unite Attack" system. After a certain point in the story, this special feature becomes enabled. After the U. Attack bar fills up, the Unite Attack will be ready. Pressing Z begins this attack, and if you use compatible special moves, you'll do a Chrono Trigger style double attack. It's very fun, and quite flashy.
Much like a fighting game, Tales counts how many hits you've racked together in a combo and will award you accordingly after battle with TP replenishments. New to the series is Symphonia's grading system. Essentially, if you outclass your opponents by means of spectacular combos, minimal ally damage, and the all-out style in which you played, the grade increases. If poorly, the grade lessens. What's the point of getting high scores? Well, there are NPCs dotted across the land that will trade you special items, ExSpheres, for a certain amount of your Grade Points. ExSpheres, a central part to the storyline, essentially endow the bearer special powers that they gain while in combat. Different level ExSpheres have different abilities, anything from gaining the ability to taunt, upping your physical strength, increasing the magic damage, and so forth. ExSpheres allow characters to customize their fighting abilities, by either "Tactical" (special move gains) or “Strike” (physical attack gains), to maximize each character's innate talents.
Of course, the best part of Tales is the ability to bring your friends into the game. By plugging in extra controllers and setting corresponding characters to manual, friends can join in on the monster beat-down. Though the CPU AI isn't completely useless, as you can select which spells to use in battle, and can even map your allies' special moves to the C-Stick, the most fun is when you're playing with others. Players will be able to rack up unbelievable damage and insane combos when they have a couple of Tales veterans manning the other characters. However, there is one issue with the multiplayer. The camera will always focus on the first character in your party (usually Lloyd) during battle, and that can lead to your party members being off-screen. When playing with a partner, it can sometimes become difficult for them to see what they're doing. However, this happens less often than it would take to become truly annoying.
Not only is Tales of Symphonia an asset to anyone's library, but it refines the series' overall strengths and improves upon the already excellent formula. RPGers who have a GC could do much worse than to pick this game up, as it is probably the most polished release this year. Tales Studio has created a worthy successor to its beloved series, and anyone who enjoys RPGs should look into it. It may not be the first RPG on GameCube, but it is the first truly great one.
If you know Japanese, can't wait for a domestic release, or can't live without the Japanese voice acting, you can order Tales of Symphonia from Video Game Depot.