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Tales of Symphonia

by Jonathan Metts - July 11, 2004, 3:52 pm EDT


Get ready for an epic, light-hearted adventure with one of the best RPG battle systems of all time.

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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.


Graphics Sound Control Gameplay Lastability Final
8 8 9 9 9 9

Field and battle graphics are excellent. The game uses some interesting texture techniques to give the game a pastel, hand-painted look while still being in true, polygonal 3D. The only flaw in these graphics is the depth-blur effect, which doesn’t add much to the overall look and tends to make things look very weird during cut-scenes. The overworld is another problem, looking very last-generation, but most of the game is nothing short of beautiful.


The soundtrack is made up of low-key instrumentals, similar to Square’s RPG music, but not as moody and ultimately not as memorable. But it never gets annoying, and a few new tracks start to play towards the end of the game to freshen things up. The liberal amount of voice acting is, for the most part, very well done. Most of the actors seem interested in helping to develop the characters, and of the dozens of voiced characters, only a couple of them are truly irritating. It’s not ideal voice acting, but it’s very, very good by video game standards.


For once, this isn’t a throwaway score for an RPG. The battle controls are simple enough to just pick up and figure out intuitively, but they are complex enough to allow for item management and advanced tactical maneuvers with AI-controlled teammates. It’s a near-perfect fusion of direct control and menu control.


Short of the fairly weak puzzle elements, Tales of Symphonia is a great example of the classic RPG formula…the only major twist is its battle system, which adds so much to the experience. In addition to the story and battles, there is plenty of exploration, a few mini-games, and weird extras (like cooking) that have become commonplace in modern RPGs. However, unlike many recent games of its kind, Tales of Symphonia can endear even non-RPG fans thanks to its furious, addictive battles.


The quest is at least 40 hours long, more if you want to complete some of the many optional sidequests. My completion time was 53 hours, and I had to forego some of the optional stuff in order to finish the review. The multiplayer feature doesn’t add much to the lastability, since your friends can join in at any time, but a very cool “New Game +” mode lets you play through the game with numerous enhancements after beating it the first time. (Tip: save up your Grade.)


Tales of Symphonia is an excellent RPG, a fun and very lengthy adventure that anyone should be able to enjoy. The characters are endearing and help to carry the story and the game itself. And you’ve got to love that real-time battle system! It’s so much fun that you’ll actually want to get into fights, a rare feeling in this kind of game and a significant reason for this game’s greatness.


  • Extensive character development
  • Fun battle system that never gets tedious
  • Great anime-style graphics
  • Fugly overworld
  • Weak dungeon puzzles
Review Page 2: Conclusion

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Genre RPG
Developer Namco
Players1 - 4

Worldwide Releases

na: Tales of Symphonia
Release Jul 13, 2004
jpn: Tales of Symphonia
Release Aug 29, 2003

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