Tales of Symphonia GameCube Review

The RPG genre was a bit like a desert wasteland on the Gamecube; dusty and full of rocks and spiky green plants. Now, that’s all changed. Namco are in town, and they brought enough fertiliser and watering cans for everyone. RPG fans – its party time, and boy was it worth the wait.

Graphics

When I showed this game to a colleague, he looked at it for a while before exclaiming; “Hang on a sec – is that in game?!” I think that pretty much summarises how this game looks. If you thought you had seen the best that cel-shading could be then you might as well have been blind; everything from capes to limbs move exquisitely, boldly outlined in an anime style and subtly shaded with incomparable flair. Don’t go by screenshots alone – you have to see this game in motion.

There is no CGI in this game – the cut scenes, which are few and far between, are hand-drawn anime, and look beautiful alongside the fantastic character models. Everything gels perfectly together to form a package that is sure to enthral RPG fans unlike any other title this generation.

Gameplay

Be warned; if its original story full of intricate details and subtle plot twists that you’re after then you wont find it here. Tales cheerfully exploits every major cliché that has ever graced an RPG title – and you will love it for it.

The game follows the adventures of a young man of unknown birth called Lloyd, on a quest with his companions on a quest to visit several temples and release the seals that bind them in order to complete a ritual of regeneration for the planet. He is accompanied by a rag-tag bunch of misfits that include a cheerful magic-using elf, a surly and mysterious man and a gentle girl whose job it is to contact the summons of the seals. Recognising any of this yet? As I said before, the game doesn’t rank highly on originality, yet everything from the seemingly hideously hackneyed story to the stereotypical characters manage to make themselves endearing in a way that seemed to have been lost to the genre forever.

Gameplay takes place from a largely isometric view, both in towns and on the world map. The game world is huge, with several huge and highly varied cities and many small townships and villages. To aid movement around this massive gaming area, several vehicles become accessible as you progress through the game. Villages are packed with all the works – shops for weapons and items, people to talk to and quests to carry out. Sadly, sometimes the game falls into the trap of sending you back and forth between locations a bit too liberally, but the story manages to keep everything together in spite of its relative lack of surprises.

Now onto the game’s real gem – the battle system. Let me get two things straight here in case any non-RPG fans are beginning to lose interest – there are no random battles, and battles are not turn-based. Yup. Not only do Namco deliver on a story and a group of beautiful characters that don’t actually make you want to beat your brains out with a stick, but they take out two of the biggest problems that players have had with the genre for years. The result? One of the most enjoyable battle systems in a game to date.

As you explore dungeons and the world map, monsters will become visible in the gaming area. You simply have to bump into one of these to initiate battle, meaning that if your characters are weak and need healing, you can avoid confrontation and live to fight another day. Be wary though – the creatures are often aggressive, and will chase your character as you move close by them. Battle takes place on a side-scrolling view, with each of the buttons representing a different move that a character can perform. Initially, all that is accessible to Lloyd are basic slash attacks that can be linked together to form a basic combo; however, the more experience he gains, the more impressive moves become added to his arsenal. These can be assigned to the B, X and Y buttons, offering handy shortcuts to the attacks; similarly, moves can be added to button combos, such as Left+B, meaning that several devastating attacks can be at your fingertips at any time. These can be sifted into your attacks, making impressive combos over 100 hits possible – and the great part is is that its all down to your personal preference. Don’t like using a particular move? Scrap it and assign a different one. The customisation goes even further – the moves that you use most in battle will affect the different attacks that are learned through the gathering of EXP, so if you use Beast and Sword Rain the most, you will learn a move that incorporates the two. This is awesome, and makes the replay even more interesting as your character may develop in a completely different way the second time through.

Different skills can also be given to your characters using EX Gems, which bring out their innate abilities; these vary depending on the power of the gem used, and make for some great customisation. While the majority of these affect battle, such as max HP or Combos, some affect movement in dungeons or even the way that people respond to your character – one in particular can charm women into rewarding him with items if you use his as your main character, which is particularly useful.

As well as your chosen character battling away (you can switch characters during gameplay, as Ill explain shortly), your other three team-mates will be helping. You can assign attack patterns to them both in and out of battle, which is useful if one enemy requires a different strategy to another. As well as this, you can pause the battle at any time and enter a command screen; here you can give either your character or your team-mates orders that they will carry out immediately before returning to their former tactics. This means that, if a character is on the brink of death, you can quickly order your healer to focus on them before returning to the attack. This is a fantastic feature, and adds an element of strategy to battle that actually leads to you appreciating each characters strengths and weaknesses more. There is nothing better than commanding a character to use items on you so you can concentrate on pummelling away uninterrupted – it all makes for a wonderfully enjoyable experience.

While individual attacks make up the most of the battle, you can also join together with your team-mates to deliver a unified attack that uses all of your skills in a short period of time. This devastating blow can be fully customised, with the individual moves that make it up being chosen by the player – having all of your characters use their most powerful hits all at once can have but one consequence on the enemy. The different combos may also allow for extra attacks to be learned depending on the order they are used – experimentation is the key.

Another interesting feature is the ability to “cook”. You can learn recipes by finding the Wonder Chef in various towns where he is generally disguised as some strange piece of furniture. Learning recipes allows you to cook meals for your characters after battle, which restores some of their health without using expensive healing items; however, some characters are better cooks than others, which should be borne in mind before attempting any culinary experimentation – bad cooks spoil the broth after all (or rice balls, or noodles, or whatever).

All-in-all, the gameplay of this title really manages to succeed on all levels; its enjoyable simply because it isn’t frustrating, and this is a real area that most other games fail in. The player is never left to wander around, trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing; if the story itself doesn’t gently poke them in the right direction, neat “talkie” sections that can be accessed by the player offer more information on what the characters are thinking about their adventure. If this STILL isn’t enough, all of your exploits are recorded in a history book under the status menu. This is a game that really keeps the player at its heart, and it comes out on top because of it.

Sound

I’ll say it again – even though their characters possess all the clichés possible for an RPG game, they never manage to grind on the players enjoyment – and one prime reason for this is the voice acting. Most of the voices are superb, particularly that of Lloyd who has been cast particularly well.

Music in the game is equally impressive, though sadly not as memorable as some of the Final Fantasy series’ tunes. A few of the environment themes get a bit repetitive after a while, but most of them are catchy enough to have the player humming along.

Lifespan

While the game didn’t last as long as the box’s claim of 40 hours, it was a truly meaty RPG that will keep the player going for some time; as well as the story, there are plenty of side quests, such as costume collecting, mini-games and hidden monsters and items that offer more dedication. Not only that, but the end sections of the game are affected by your actions throughout the story, so replaying can give a different outcome. These features are made all the more accessible by the fact that you can chose various things to take to the replay depending on how well you played the game, which offer greater incentive to take this title on again.

Overall

Every once in a blue moon a game comes along that just doesn’t seem to promise too much, and yet ends up blowing everything else out of the water. This is that game. If you don’t buy it, you will never know what you missed. Get it. Now.

9 out of 10
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