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April 19, 2005

Review: Tales of Symphonia - Harmonic discourse

Tales of Symphonia is an enigma of sorts. It really doesn't excel in any of it's aspects, but what it does with them, it does fairly well. Though, the "fairly well" part of it, is simply the mean of the entire game. The game tends to teeter on the brink of crap and masterpiece quite often, which in the end, leaves the average of the game, to be fairly well done. I most certainly wouldn't call Tales of Symphonia a stellar game, but I wouldn't call it below average either. It's simply, just another RPG, that you wouldn't be any different, for having, or having not played. And no, you still won't know what a "symphonia" is. In fact, I'm still trying to grasp the bigger picture with what exactly symphonia means. I believe it's spun off from the word symphony, but even that has me puzzled. As far as I can tell, the "Symphony" of this Tales game, is the orchestration of multiple instruments, strung together to accomplish one sound. In a similar fashion, the characters of Tales, are the multiple instruments, who work together to meet at a common end. If you don't like my interpretation, make your own, because what a "Symphonia" is, is clear as mud.

For the most part, the game is gorgeous. The characters are reminiscent of anime characters, and are articulated in such a manner, most of the time. This artistic style, also goes hand in hand with what Namco boasts as "a story told through anime cut-scenes". The pluralization of "scene", though technically correct, is incredibly misleading. The story is not told through anime cut-scenes. There are a grand total of 3 animated scenes, which do nothing to drive the plot forward, except emphasize points that could otherwise, not be accomplished with the simplistic "chibi" graphics Tales of Symphonia utilizes. The first is simply the intro, which plays before the title menu, and does nothing for the game, except show you what every playable character looks like. Though beautiful, it isn't game related in anyway. The second occurs at the end of the first disc, which is actually only about 30 seconds in length. The final scene, is a few minutes in length and occurs after game completion. Are they pretty? Hell yeah, but it isn't enough, as the games run of the mill cut-scenes, aren't in any way dramatic enough give the story the life it so desperately needs. I feel like I've been lied to, and cheaped out of something that could have had so much potential. Needless to say, the story is told through in-game events, which use the same graphics engine and character models as the rest of the game.

While on the topic of being cheaped out by this game, Namco also boasts an "80 hours playtime". Needless to say, every time a developer gives an estimated playtime for their game, it goes without saying that they're overshooting by at least 10 - 15 hours. Squaresoft said FFX would take 50 hours to complete the main story arch, whereas most fans did in just under 40. The problem with Tales of Symphonia, is that Namco overshoots the game time, and keeps on shooting. The entire game, at least the main story arch, can be completed in under 40 hours. My time specifically, was 36:22. After reloading my save game before the final battle, I decided to complete all the sidequests to see if that made any significant difference in playtime. Upon completing the final quest (defeating the secret boss Abyssion...don't ask), I looked at the clock, and I was running just over 55 hours. Needless to say, there is no way you can get 80 hours out of this game, with the paltry amount of tasks and sidequests this game offers. One more lie, but then again, 55 hours is an okay time, I just wish I was expecting it.

One thing that needs to be discussed immediately however, is Tales' strange and convoluted storyline. It's a mess. To put it nicely, I've been less confused reading Clockwork Orange. Tales takes you so far away from the main storyline with redundant banter and incredibly annoying filler, that you will literally lose yourself, as you would lose your spot in a novel, were someone to walk up to you, and whack it out of your hands, upon landing, fold in and close on itself. It gets rather annoying indeed. The plot is also very.....very.....slow. Did you get that? It's....s...lo...w. It does nothing to keep the player interested. The plot twists and turns happen so frequently, and plot holes pour so vigorously out of the confusion, that you may want to bring a pen and paper along, to keep track of the absurd amount of criss-crossing plots, as some are true, some are not, and others are seemingly banished as fast as they're introduced. The very basic plot of Tales, involves Lloyd, and his best friend Genis, trying to protect their "chosen" friend Collette, who will inevitably become an Angel one day. Praying to the deity Martel, Collette, is somehow supposed to bring "world regeneration" to a world, that is by all means, no where near degenerated. It's an odd premise, and occasionally hokey, cheesy and corny, but it's not THAT bad; though as mentioned earlier, the game will distract you from this rudiment plot axis with so many side plots, filler, and crap, that you won't be able to keep track of it well enough to fully comprehend. Tales of Symphonia gets tied and caught up in it's own dialogue far too often, and the main storyline is just plain ol' average. I won't say it's bad, because I've definitely experienced worse, but it's definitely not going to wow anyone.

Frankly, I stopped caring about the plot, and started getting right into the characters. Most of them are well articulated, and some are pretty much forgotten later on in the game. Our main man Lloyd, is boring. Yep, that's right boring. So is his friend Genis, Collette and Genis' sister Raine. Not that their histories and characters aren't explored in any detail, because they are. Rather in-depth actually. On the contrary, the voice actors for these characters are so mediochre, and their allure is pretty much absent. On the other hand, the secondary characters (which are damn near forgotten in the latter half of the game), Regal, Presea, Kratos, and Zelos are extremely meritable characters. Their histories aren't explored nearly as much as the four main characters, though I wish to God they were, but their character is novel. The most prominent, is Regal. The man with the iron-cuffs. His hands are bound by unbreakable shackles, and he uses only his legs in battle. Immediately, you'll think he's as strange as they come. Later, you learn of his past, and the reasons for these bindings. His past is haunted with a self-convicted crime, and his punishment to himself, is binding his hands, never to use them again as a tool of evil. It's simple, but it goes much deeper. His hands are bound. The bindings speak metaphorically, showing how he is also bound emotionally to the crime he committed, and his victim. If he learns to forgive himself, his bindings are severed, both physically, and mentally. Though most of this is never explicitly explained in the game, it's more than implied through excellent character portrayal...at least for this uniquely crafted character. Good suff for sure, but it can't help but be spoiled by the few sour apples in the lot. On a related note, the voice actors are pretty pedestrian. Some of the voice work for the NPC's, as well as Lloyd, Genis, Collette and Raine, are down right 'blech'! However, voice actors Jennifer Hale, Tara Strong, and James Arnold Taylor from MGS2 and Final Fantasy X fame, come to aide this game in it's greatest hour of need. Though definitely not their greatest vocal achievements, they raise this game higher than it would be without them, which makes for only a passable voice cast, and nothing I'd particularly drool over.

All lies aside, the game plays really smooth. The battle system is a real time, active battle system, where you can perform ground and aerial combos, dodge, block and move at your whim. The battle system also lends itself to some serious strategy, especially since combo-ing your attacks together is what will make or break you in the end. When fighting some of the toughest boss battles, your only chance of dealing serious damage, comes at the cost of utilizing your attacks, tech skills and unison attacks in concert. Not to give much away about the game, but there is a boss later in the game, who will never stagger when hit, no matter how strong your attack is, so the best bet is to combo using magic and unison attacks. Instead of pulling off 3 or 4 hit combos, which may or may not deal just over 1000 damage, combo-ing the attacks, and using the "Unison Attack" (a special attack where the characters attack, coincidentally enough, in unison), can allow for upwards of 75 hit combos, which could deal up to 20 000 damage. It's not a simple task either. As I mentioned earlier, it takes great strategy and timing to pull off these extreme combos. It's even possible to pull off well over 200 hit's per combo, but that's something you won't be doing on your first outing in Tales.

Tales' shtick, is to place the character in disorienting dungeons, and force the character to solve vast amount of puzzles and mind games, in order to progress to the predictable boss fights (the game throws them at you like they were candy). Some of the puzzles are actually very involving, and easily solved using a little brain power, which is always welcome, since the majority of today's games remove the player's mind entirely from the experience. For the most part, the puzzles increase in difficulty as the game progresses (no brainer, huh?), although the game will throw a few curve balls, and give you some seriously cruel punishment with damn-near-unsolvable puzzles. I often found myself running to check online FAQs for the lot of final dungeons. Now, although the game throws some wicked puzzles your way, it comes at the cost of repetition. The game gets old fast, since it's forumla is never really altered at any point in the game. Visit a city, go to a dungeon, fight a boss, get a chunk of the story. The cycle momentarily stalls in order to give you your next objective, and then begins the recycle. City, Dungeon, Boss, Story. Not much to it. It's a shame really, since the puzzle solving is one of the best things this game has going for it, right next to the addictive gameplay.

Speaking of addictive, the character progression in this game, is worse than crack. Every playable character (there are 9 in total), is customizable, and has their own set of unique abilities. This is honest to goodness, plain ol' RPG fare, but it's brilliantly put together. Add this, to an already stellar battle system, where the action never stops, and the challenge always tough, but never too tough, and your fixation with this game will never end.

Needless to say, Tales has a lot going against it. Plain voice acting, with average plot, and a mediocre gameplay formula, Tales seems to be on track to being another RPG failure. Amazingly, this is not the case. The battle system and gameplay save this game from becoming deadpan, and really breathe life into what would otherwise be an empty shell of a game. Even though Tales of Symphonia by no means excels at anything, it's downright addictive, and the characters, and character articulation are some of the best this year. For 2004, Tales of Symphonia is a good addition to any GameCuber's RPG collection, and hopefully, leads to better things. Not to mention, inflating what is already a minuscule RPG lineup for Nintendo's console.




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