Namco Tales Studio
Nintendo GameCube, Playstation 2
July 13, 2004
RPG/ Action RPG
The ‘Tales of’ Franchise is an often unnoticed strand of RPG’s. Whilst
certainly proprietor to a rather vigorous brand of militant fan, its various installments have not entered the public consciousness in quite the same way as the likes of Final Fantasy (even my mother, whose game knowledge extends to “that yellow munchy fella”, recognizes an image of Cloud, even if she has no idea who or what he is). Whilst there can be a million and one reasons for this, one to me is their fluctuating quality. Whilst this same negative could be equally applied to the aforementioned alternative, it is arguable Final Fantasy has taken more of a negative tale spin- whilst the “Tales of” franchise has had a rather sporadic history of bounding between high caliber genre benders to derivative rubbish since its inception. Yet at the epicenter of its legacy rests one truly fine game that ranks as a personal all-time favourite: Tales of Symphonia.
The game was recommended to me by a friend and given the multiplayer nature of the battle scenarios- we proceeded to play it together whenever both were available. Where this game really sings is its narrative. A ducking and diving exploration of story twists, you are never on quite the same quest for all too long at all. It’s safe to say all the RPG plot cliches are here (good guys are bad guys, bad guys are good guys, people betray you yadda yadda yadda) but when delivered with such conviction and alongside much more original twists (albeit much less often) it really doesn’t matter and the story rockets. But what is a good story without fantastic and loveable characters to relate to? (hint, hint the majority of Hollywood blockbusters) Symphonia brings them in spades. To start with your party is a vast pantheon of delights. There are a handful of RPG
here, but every now and again a
is a cliche for a reason: Because it works. There are also, acquired later to be fair, more original characters to be welcomed into your world saving collective. Each character comes with a delightful backstory to flesh them out and possible side quests to push them further, and this detailed range stretches far beyond the reach of just the characters in your immediate group. Bosses’, families, friends even just the occasional ’so and so’ you bump into is rich and dynamic.
Touched upon above with “possible side quests’ it is true that in typical RPG fashion atop the vastly scrawling and complex narrative (and it is sprawling in the best sense of the word; like a fine Dickensian novel) there are more optional side quests than you can shake a stick at, not that stick shaking is an advisable way to approach game play. Button mashing yes. Stick shaking no. What’s fantastic about a lot of these side quests is they are not just there to taunt the obsessives, many throw up new story beats or character flourishes to further expand the world and offer some kind of reward to the player for daring to go into realms they didn’t need to in order to see the credits roll.
All of this, but what of the game play itself? Well Symphonia’s game play matches up with its narrative and characters tenfold. The controls are fluid and easy and the mechanics smooth. Predominantly a 1 player game, up to 4 can drop in to aid in battle scenarios if desired allowing fantastic opportunity for team work and tactic. Your party can be adapted and molded in any way you see fit with a wide range of costumes and apparatus to apply to whomever you please and even the function to strengthen the friendships between whichever pairings you like. You may begin with a handful of RPG archetypes but you end with a gang unique to you.
Is it all glistening rainbows though? Well no, no it is not. When you do not have friends to control your party for you AI takes over and this is AI with the IQ of a spoon. Sometimes you’ll be waiting for your party to back you up but find they’re so inactive you genuinely start to suspect they’ve popped off to the shops mid battle. When they do decide to intervene it is such an utterly useless fashion you will find yourself craving for the days when they did nothing and wondering if there is a hotline you can call that offers medical help for “Insanely Idiotic Fictional Characters”. The graphics have not dated well, we’re talking GameCube era here, and whilst this doesn’t bother myself in the slightest- for a lot of people graphics are important. If you are one of those people, you may have to swallow your pride and deal with a few rather badly rendered polygons. The game is also home to a wee intrusion it refers to as skits. These are comic book styled conversations that pop up when map exploring to delve further into character dynamics. Now for me, a geek for narrative and character development, these were mostly a delight; yet at the times tested my limits when I just wanted to get into game play. Whilst the majority can be skipped with the press of Z if you get yourself into a bad mood, when they pop up it can be infuriating and intrusive.
Making matters worse if you do choose to indulge them to experience the character additions, you cannot press A or any there button to keep the next line of dialogue and must go with the pace the developers have settled on. I don’t want to make the obvious joke so I’ll merely give you the ingredients: Skit speed. Snail. Slower than. Whilst I am an admirer of a good cut scene on most days I feel it is safe to say that the best game developers are learning to tell their stories within action because action is what games do best. Symphonia is certainly behind the curve in this regard and anyone desperate to dive in guns blazing may want to just skip them as the time it takes may not be worth the information you get. (Read may not as: definitely isn’t).
Overall though this is a strong if criminally underrated game with plenty to offer and a vast scope. If you’re willing to look past a couple minor foibles and horribly outdated graphics, sacrificing visuals for storytelling, you may just have found a great old RPG to give a crack if you can’t quite afford the newest title. Or if you can afford the newest title, grab “Tales of Symphonia” anyway as whatever it is will be hard pressed to muster up a story that rivals.
Tales of Symphonia has a cult audience in North America, but not everybody had a GameCube. Where you lucky enough to get it when it came out?