Tales of Phantasia (Import) review
An Old Tale


Tales of Phantasia. A name that any SNES gamer with any knowledge of import titles should know. It is effectively the starting point of the Tales Of series of games, and its original release and almost every single rerelease never saw the light of day outside of Japan (a trend Namco seem all too keen to carry on - come on, we like RPGs too!). Finally the game sees a localized version on the Gameboy Advance. While there are certainly some good stuff in here there are also numerous glaring problems that I am left to wonder if all those fans of the original were simply bonkers or if the porting job here is just terrible.

I suppose everything starts off promising enough. Ignore the boring start where we can a rather uninspired title screen and the GBA sprites do possess some level of charm to them. With the amount of time the system has been out Namco have taken advantage of the specs to produce a wonderful detailed world. The overworld has a scrolling effect similar to that of Golden Sun, in an effort to produce some form of perspective. Towns, villages, dungeons and pretty much any area that isn't the overworld wilderness has more of a static zoom. All areas have a lot of detail and bright vibrant graphics, whether you're sat in battle or travelling the lands. Animation is somewhat crappy though, as movements tend to look somewhat sluggish and sometimes even mistimed. It's a far cry from pretty much any half decent GBA title to come before, but I guess it's not too bad.

For the audio I would consider it okay. The music has a pleasant tone to it and helps fill the void in sequences but it just lacks the spark most JRPGs would invoke in their soundtracks. Sound effects aim to do their jobs but come across as underwhelming. Even the voice clips, while appreciated, don't strike with the impact you'd expect.

You take control of Cress, who in addition to being named after a plant seems to meet all the checklist requirements of a JRPG protagonist. Ignoring that him and best friend Chester go hunting in the forest, but when they return to their village they find it destroyed and the people killed. It seems that evil empire people (who else?) were really after Cress. Cue some revenge seeking and the real meat of the story is revealed, and Cress and Mint (newly acquired ally) are sent into the past.

The background story is solid enough. We're knocking on some tried-and-tested elements here but the construction works well enough. Delivery is another matter, as dialogue and pacing often has issues. It's not as if the genre is known for swift movement of sotryline set pieces, but Tales tends to move a bit too slowly, although that alone isn't too much of an issue. 'Witty' humour and smark remarks also tend to be mistimed and/or lacking in real substance. I simply wasn't interested, and that is a fatal flaw.

Exploration is split between two types of overworld. The larger one is used to connect the various areas. It lacks interactive elements and is therefore not that interesting, but it serves the purpose of passage. Random battles do occur here too, as it's a decent place to draw in the experience and goods from fights. It's also the only place that lets you save anywhere - a feature missing from other locations that rely on the seriously outdated save point system. Quite annoying as finding a save point can be a rather difficult task at times, and being on a handheld is even more unforgivable.

Other overworld areas tend to be a lot more detailed. Towns will have various buildings to explore, shops to buy stuff from and people to chat to. Dungeons will have some puzzles and obstacles to pass, although it never really reached the levels of awesomeness. Don't expect Golden Sun level puzzles here, as things are typically more basic than the more modern RPGs. The worlds are open enough to allow you to go exploring though, and sometimes it is nice to just wander off and see what the land has to offer without being tied down to a linear path.

However, ToP's world can be rather confusing. Actually finding your way around places in itself can be a challenge, which is not helped by some questionable layout decisions. The bigger issue comes with figuring out what to do. At times instruction comes once and then if you lose yourself you have next to no chance of finding out where to go. Even triggering events sometimes involves random 'let's talk to everyone multiple times', which is a little frustrating when you're trying to move the story along.

Then we have the battles, but before that we better make some preparations. Witness another element of the game fall flat on its face. Games of this genre often require extensive use of the menus, so a smart menu setup is a must. ToP fails immensely at this. Its menus are ugly, cramped and very user-unfriendly. Trying to figure out how to access commands or how to toggle options can be a total nightmare, and since you have to access these screens often it really puts a dent in things. It took a lot longer than needed just to set my party up in the first place because nothing in the menus was clear.

This also extends on to actual explanations. There is a title system much like Tales Of Symphonia, where by completing certain events you can gain titles that, when equipped, supposedly affect the growth rates of characters. Unfortunately there is no indication what titles affect what stats, and the overall result never seemed to make a difference thus rendering the whole thing pointless.

Equipping characters with the right equipment is a must. You can gain items from battles, from chests or buying them from shops. Money gains are thankfully hard to come by (one thing the older generation of RPGs do right that more modern games fail at) so you have to be careful with how you spend the cash unless you want to grind for gold. Shops stock different items outside of the standard restoritive goods that increase in usefulness as you progress but generally in line with the strength of the local baddies. The buy/sell screen is about as unfriendly as the menu screens are though, so that's something to bear with as you buy and sell stuff.

Fully equipped? Awesome, now let's set the special skills. ToP is an action RPG and every character can gain a wide range of special skills. However, assigning all of them to control input at the same time would lead to a rather messy setup. Thankfully Phantasia avoids this by allowing the player to assign skills. The B button is used to activate special skills, and in combination with the D-Pad allows for up to four skills to be assigned and then easily used. As you progress and earn more skills you can then rearrange attacks to suit your needs. Simple and it works, just as soon as you figure out how.

Once Cress is ready to go you just then need to set up your allies, and this tends to be a disaster. Their attacks can be enabled or disabled, depending on what roles you want them to perform. This is a point where the bad menu is at its worst, as it is impossible to tell whether a skill is active or not. It takes some guesswork to figure that much out. Then you get to set the behaviour of the ally AI, which honestly didn't seem to make any difference no matter what I set it too.

Oh well, after all that you're finally ready to start brawling, but it doesn't take long to see things falling apart. Control is simple enough. You're in a side-scrolling situations where you use basic attacks with A and special attacks with B, while your allies hover nearby throwing out the odd attack and generally getting themselves killed in the bigger battles. Basic attacking has its troubles because Cress has this awful habit of automatically running away after landing a combo, regardless of whether you want him to or not. Special attacks avoid this mostly but these use TP up so you have to balance the two.

Unfortunately the controls aren't that great. Blocking is awkward because you have to hold down and then R. For some reason it doesn't work the other way and doing both for this important action is not all that great in the first place. There's also quite a hint of sluggishness in the controls. Then there's the slowdown.

Oh goodness, the slowdown. Perhaps the game wasn't tailored to the capabilities of the GBA, but there are times where battles will be subject to the action slowing down as the system can't keep up. Not only does this look horrible but it makes the controls even worse as all sense of timing combos goes out the window.

A shame, because the potential is there. You have a wide range of generic enemies and a few bosses scattered in there. Whether you're taking on a pack of wolves or in a 1 on 1 duel against some ghost knight the variety holds some interest, and the bigger baddies will naturally come at you with more challenging moves than basic attacks. You can command allies to use specific attacks via the menus or use items in battle so you can combine them with interesting combos to mix your approaches up. It's just not that fun when you can't execute commands fluidly.

ToP is quite a lengthy game, even if you do stick to the main quest only. It's just doubtful it will hold interest for as long as it lasts, because the problems plague the game through to the end.

Flaws exposed by age or a terrible porting job? I really couldn't say, but one thing is certain. Tales of Phantasia has turned out to be one of the biggest disappoints I've come across. All the right ideas are there but the execution suffers in places which drags the end product down. Might be worth a try, but there are much better alternatives on the GBA already.

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