Tales of Symphonia
Insanity Prevails' Tales of Symphonia Review
- Real-Time Battles with a RPG System
- Two Large Worlds to Explore
- Huge Selection of Moves and Items
- Excellent Music
- Very Long Lifespan
- Camera in Multiplayer tends to miss out other players
- Too much back and forth with some puzzles
The Gamecube isn't particularly known for drowning in RPGs, so seeing Namco bring its Tales Of series to the Cube with Symphonia is a wonderful sight. The question is whether Tales can deliver a solid gaming experience or will it fail to fill the void?
Graphically the game adopts a manga-styled look. Expert use of cel shading techniques along with a wonderful art style creates quite a unique presentation that not only looks awesome but helps it stand out from the crowd.
Character models are constructed well with clothing details and use of colour, although parts of the character models have a tendancy to pass through other parts. For example Colette's hair cuts straight through her body when she tilts her head. While not a massive issue it is slightly off-putting when viewing storyline sequences.
The effects used in the game are similarly styled in manga form and also done well. Fiery explosions, huge chunks of ice and storms of light look as you would expect them to, and yet do not overpower any of the scenes. The impact of the battle effects are suitably done according to the technique's power. Low level techs have fairly basic animations while advanced techs produce awe-inspiring effects.
Speaking of which, the game's animation is done pretty well. Movement is rather fluid, even when simply moving around the towns and world map. This is done not only for the main characters but also for enemies and NPCs. There's also some nice dialogue animation so that characters aren't simply standing still during conversations all the time, although the range of actions is rather limiting and so becomes a little repetitve.
ToS also brings in some pre-rendered FMV sequences for some of the bigger storyline parts. Unlike most of the game these more closely resemble modern "clean" anime than the slightly rough manga style used elsewhere. Honestly I think the game would do better without them. While they do indeed look nice they're completely out of place when nothing else in the game looks like them. Namco would do better sticking to one visual style everywhere.
ToS brings a whole selection of music tracks to the field, and it's quite an impressive selection. In most cases the chosen tracks are quite fitting to the settings too. Battle music is usually fast paced and dramatic, clearly designed to build tension. Peaceful villages like Iselia have slow soothing tunes while technological places like Desian bases have somewhat of a techno beat to them.
Sound effects are also used to full effect. Raging fires, piercing winds and light beams sound as expected. Weapon swings are also in full use along with the thuds associated with battle. Outside of battle you get machines whirring into action, plodding footsteps, water splashing against a ship. All are combined to create a pretty immersive world.
Voice acting also exists in this game, although it's a rather mixed affair. It generally not used in regular dialogue, like when speaking to random NPCs or examining objects. This is a slight letdown but nevertheless fairly expected. ToS isn't the first RPG to do that and the sheer size of the game would likely make providing voice clips for every instance a rather daunting task. No, Tales' problem with voice acting is that it's actually inconsistant within important story sequences. Sometimes you get voice acting and sometimes you don't, which is really odd and disruptive at times. Either Namco didn't finish the voice acting side or they had a hard time deciding what constitutes important story sequences.
That said, when it is used it is nice actually hearing the characters talking instead of having to read yet more banks of text. Character voices are also quite fitting to their characters, although delivery of the lines is sometimes a little flat. It would be good if it was more consistant on when it is used.
No medieval fantasy setting would be complete without some world at threat plot, and Tales is no different. The world of Sylvarant suffers from a lack of mana. When mana levels get exceptionally low aggressors known as the Desians appear and start causing trouble. At this point a Chosen is sent to the Tower of Salvation in order to restore the world to its former glory and chase out the Desians. Of course, simply walking straight to the tower itself would be too easy, so the Chosen must overcome trials at various seals first before ascending the stairway of the tower.
At this point it sounds a little boring and tired. Thankfully the synopsis here doesn't even begin to cover the full story involved, but any further revelations would spoil the game. It does throw some neat twists into proceedings though, so don't expect the story to follow a singular linear expected path.
The main story provides a good reason to travel around fighting enemies. Unfortunately the actual character development fails to keep up. It seems that the ToS cast aims to cover as many of the RPG character cliches as possible. Lloyd is the slow-witted altruistic young lad, complete with the traditional spiky hair. There's the smarter loyal friend who gets dismayed by the male lead's mental shortcomings but sticks by him anyway. Even the enemies don't seem to try and veer away from cliched roles.
That said, cliche by itself wouldn't be so bad if the characters had depth to them. Unfortunately most of them don't, and in fact some of them just seem absolutely stupid. Surely nobody could be as much of a dim-witted doormat as Colette is. Other characters, like the tormented souls of Presea and Regal, just seem under-developed. Doesn't Regal ever do anything other than moody? It's hard to care for such a cast of characters. As cliche as they are the game really needs more characters like Yuan, Zelos and Lloyd, all of whom have some level of depth that is needed.
So the story is strong but most of the cast just isn't up to the job of supporting it as effectively as they should be.
A game's real focus is in the gameplay though, and this is where Tales really shines.
There's generally three types of exploration types to be looking at - towns, dungeons and the world map. Dungeons are what form the core of the challenge when it comes to exploring. While dungeon layouts aren't generally to the level of games like Zelda they still provide fairly complex designs with multiple pathways. Puzzles also tend to litter these places, often revolving around the clever use of the Sorceror's Ring. The effect of this item is largely depedant on the dungeon you are in. The default function is a simple small fireball, and is what it'll do at first in every dungeon. Most dungeons also have a special pedastal that changes the function. Such effects involve shooting a blast of wind, shrinking in size or squirting water. Generally speaking the applications of these effects should be obvious when you find them although solving the actual puzzles will be a little harder.
The puzzles themselves have a fairly wide range. There's the usual push this switch and fetch that item, but Tales also includes a few more complicated puzzles. One such instance involves activating fans in specific orders, where clues are gained from writings on the walls in the previous pathways. Unfortunately some of the later stages involve puzzle elements that are generally more long-winded rather than challenging by virtue of the sheer amount of running around the exact same area excessively. There's only so much forced running around back and forth one wants to take. Fortunately such problems are kept to a minimum.
Dungeons are also populated by enemies, but not in the same sense as other games. Most RPGs have dungeons that appear to be empty but yet throw random encounters at you merely for walking around. ToS differs from this prospect by showing character models on the field that represent monster groups (the actual models used tend to depend on the area, which is a neat touch by Namco). Instead of random battles you'll only fight enemies if you touch one of these. It's also possible to stun them with some effects of the Sorceror's Ring, though some effects of it can't manage that. This is an excellent concept as it gives the player a chance to avoid enemy contact if they want to focus on exploring instead of having their treks interrupted repeatedly.
Towns appear similar to dungeons in some respects, like layout, but are quite different. For one there are no monsters so towns are usually safe havens (aside from some scripted battles). The point of towns is more to do with gathering supplies and speaking with the locals than actual exploring, although it doesn't hurt to have a look around.
There's a variety of shops that differ in items sold depending on where you are, which is the usual RPG thing. Towns later on in the game sell better items than earlier locations. Actual shops are split up according to what they sell. The weapon, armour, item and ingredient shops are pretty basic. They sell exactly those items, although you can sell anything to them that isn't a key item. What makes Tales' shopping experience different are the forging shops. Instead of charging money these merchants simply require you to gather specific materials, from which they'll use them to craft new items. More often than not these forged items are better than the items you can buy at the shops, but materials tend to be harder to get hold of. A great idea.
Other types of shops are the material and ex gems shops. Unlike normal shops these do not accept gald but rather grade. Grade is harder to get hold off (it is earned in smaller amounts from battles and cannot be gained otherwise) but those materials and gems are more valuable, expanding upon the shopping experience.
But visiting towns isn't all about shopping. There's a rather decent feeling of thriving communities in these places. There are ongoing conversations, characters walking around, shoppers, people enjoying a view and more. You can even chat with people for information that can be useful or totally random and useless. Unfortunately it can be a bit limiting (their actions are pretty much always the same) so some of the feeling dwindles over time.
Moving between different towns and dungeons involves travelling across the world map, and this is a little disappointing compared to town/dungeon travel. The thing about this is that it's fairly big and also relatively empty. There's a handful of chests and relationship circles to find and monsters roam around here too but for the most part the land is pretty empty so when you're not fighting you're unlikely to be busy with anything while travelling between locations. Coupled with a relatively slow movement speed for part of the game it's hardly exciting. The view itself is pretty bland and uninteresting as well.
Battle plays an important role in ToS too, but before a player can even think about that they first have to consider their character team set up. While you may be able to get away with the default set up early on you'll quickly find that later on things become a lot tougher until you start meddling with the options.
Equipping your characters with the right equipment is a fundamental basic to any good RPG. Every character can be equipped with a weapon, an armour, an item of headwear, a shield/arm guard and two accessories. Weapons are unique to a specific character, with the exception of long swords and daggers, which can be used by two characters. Armours, headwear and shields/arm guards aren't locked to a specific single character but do still have restrictions. Accessories can be equipped by anyone though. Players have to pay close attention to what items they're equipping. Just because a weapon has higher attack power doesn't mean it's automatically better if the other option has a special trait or boosts other stats.
Characters can also be assigned titles. Default titles tend to have no effect, but unlocked titles can effect how a character grows. Do you want to put more focus on defence or offence? Assigning titles can be the key to managing that, bu you have to unlock them first. This can be done in many ways, like performing successful combos, keeping the whole party a live up yo a certain point, using a party of certain memebers or even seemingly negative actions like repeatedly using spells that aren't very effective. This builds a wonderful sense of achievement when unlocking them, although without a guide you'll have no idea what you need to do to unlock them.
EX gems also play a part in this. Every character has 4 ex gem slots where you can set gems earned during the game. There are four different levels of gems, and each gem type offers four ex skills (depedant on the character set to). The effects bestowed tend to be minor, such as minor stat boosts, but can prove useful. However, the real joy of this aspect are compound ex skills. Certain combinations of ex skills will result in compound skills, whose effects tend to be far bigger. Examples include being able to cast without being interrupted, unleashing combos without staggering or regaining HP for all successful attacks. Unlike regular ex skills these tend to have much bigger effect on the flow of battle, making choices here much more important and fulfilling when a ex skill combo pays off in battle. This adds a whole level of strategy to setting up the team but be careful, as if you remove a set gem it disappears.
Now, unless you've always got 3 friends round whenver you play ToS then you also need to go set up team orders in an effort to direct the computer allies. You can set their targets (nearest, farthest, same as player etc), skill usage (max, retain 50%, none etc) and movement (frontlines, keep distance, don't move etc). You can set up to four order sets, which can be quickly called out in battle via the D-Pad, allowing the player to set up orders for different scenarios. Being able to charge a boss and then quickly call for everyone to back off when a powerful attack is coming is something you'll have to get used to doing. This system helps you control the flow of battle without interrupting the actual battle, so it is a great addition.
Like many things in this game battles also differ from the RPG norm. Instead of selecting actions and watching characters take turns you actively fight in a real time system, allowing you to direct attacks, item use and defensive techs when you want them. Strong controls are a must for such a system, and Tales delivers. The control scheme is pretty simple. A is your basic attacks, used for stringing together basic combo hits that don't sap TP (in fact, basic attacks restore 1 TP per hit). The more powerful techs are accessed through the B button (the actual techs are assigned by the player either beforehand or during the battle). X is used to guard against attacks and Y brings up the action menu. The Z button is used to initiate unison attacks. Everything is simple enough to understand but the applications tend to be rather complex. They're pretty fluid and responsive too so everything controls as they should.
There's a variety of attacking options open to you. Basic attack combos can be unleashed through the A button and optional use of the analogue stick. The actualy attacks vary between characters, as does the effectiveness. Lloyd is quite effective at rushing in for some swift sword strikes, Colette has some ranged if laggy ranged options and Genis just plain sucks at it. Characters can leap skyward for aerial strikes too. The system is basic but something you'll rely on a lot as it doesn't sap TP.
For those points where you need more power or special effects then you can call upon more advanced techniques. These techs can be accessed through the B button with optional analogue stick usage. Available techs are depedant on the character once again, but there's a level of complexity too. Like basic attacks you can link techs together to perform combos. The techs have to be linked in order of their level (1 -> 2 -> 3), which is done to prevent players from staggering enemies with easy infinite combos. However, each strike of a combo hit has less power than it would on its own, so players must choose between power to TP ratio or staggering the enemy for longer. Its also possible to assign two techs to the C-stick, but unlike B button techs you can assign techs from characters you're no controlling, which offers more fluid control over computer partners. THe drawback to this though is that you can't tell them where to aim, so they tend to aim exactly where you don't want them to. Unless it's a field effect tech then it tends to be more effective to do it the slow way.
Partway into the game Unison Attacks become available. Every attack builds up the unison gauge, and when full players can start a unison attack with the z button. If the initial attack hits then up to 4 more unavoidable attacks can be unleashed. Certain combinations of attacks can result in compund unison attacks, resulting in a final powerful strike. Useful for racking up even further damage, but obviously due to the length of time it takes to build up it is best used against bosses.
Items are also usable in most battles, and the system for this is quite interesting too. Pressing Y brings up the action menu, as well as freezing the combat. Many of the options here are simply inbattle variants of battle setup (tech assignment, unison assignment, equipment screen). The item menu is also accessed through here. Any character can use any item in storage, allowing you to pick the best character for the job (you don't really want to ask a character busy comboing an enemy to stop and use an item). When the item is used there's a delay of several seconds before the option is usable again. This allows for solid item use without allowing for item spammage.
Battle flow involves clever use of your available techniques and working with your allies. This can prove to be more difficult than is warranted though. Put simply, your allies are stupid. They have this tendancy to run into attacks, or your spellcaster buddies decide to begin casting right next to an enemy. It's not a total disaster but you do find yourself having to compensate for their actions.
Enemies tend to have a whole host of attacks to throw at you, and you'll find yourself setting up strategies and even changing them mid-battle to suit the situation. Do you go all out or hold some TP in reserve? Do you want a melee focused party or specialise in throwing spells from the rear? It's things like this that makes combat fun, despite AI shortcomings.
Just in case you get in a battle that you don't want to fight you also have a flee option, allowing you to run away. Select the option from the action menu and a gauge starts to fill. Escape is successful when the gauge is full, although you can cancel the command before it does if you change your mind. This system is a lot better than relying on luck to escape, like most games within this genre tend to do.
ToS also allows multiple players to participate in battles. The flow of battle is relatively the same aside from having one less idiotic AI partner on the field (whether the character being human controlled is better or worse depends on who's playing). One notable problem that doesn't exist for single player is the camera. The camera is designed to focus on player one, so in single player games this is fine as there's no real need to see what your partners are doing. However, in multiplayer games this has the effect of players disappearing offscreen. You could be getting slaughtered by an enemy while trying to cast a spell and the only indication would be seeing your HP dropping, making the experience more awkward than it should be.
Tales of Symphonia is a truely excellent game. It has enough role playing elements to appeal to fans of the genre but the combat system opens things up enough to entice even gamers outside of that group. The few flaws it has over completely overshadowed by everything the game does right. A game to add to your collection.
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