Malik  (7/21/04)

Tales of Symphonia (GCN)

From Namco


When Namco first brought some of their long running Tales series to the US, no one paid attention (well a few die hard geeks stopped and took notice, but not too many people in the big picture of things). However, considering Tales of Symphonia is one of the only original RPGs for the GCN, people took a lot more notice with this fact I believe this game is selling a few times better in the first day than Namco expected for it's entire run. 


There have been some reports in reviews (from supposedly more credible sources) that have said that the plot for this game is 100% cookie-cutter...well, to put your fears aside, I will simply say that the plot is a breath of fresh air on the normally stale environment of console RPGs. 

When you start the game, you get introduced to Lloyd, our protagonist. He's a student at a school in a small rural village along with his friends Genis (an Elvin mage) and Colette. It seems that Colette is the "Chosen of Regeneration" and is about to begin he journey of bringing balance back to the world. For the world you live in is split into two main factions; one one hand you have those who desire a normal medieval life (Lloyd would be part of this group) who simply want to live in peace and develop naturally. The other side are the Desians; a group of mainly half-elfs who, for some unknown reason, desire to enslave and terrorize the world as you know it. The Chose fits into this by having a quest to seal away the Desians. 

The village you live in is located by a Desian Human Ranch. These ranches are basically interment caps for the Desians to enslave humans for some unknown reason. You village has a non-aggression treaty with the Desians, so unlike the other towns and villages of the world, you are guaranteed a peaceful existence next to the Desians as long as your fellow townsfolk leave the human ranch alone. 

On the day that ToS begins, Colette is about to begin her journey of regeneration when a strange Desian attack commences. As you, along with Genis and Colette, sit in class, your teach Raine (who is also Genis's older sister) goes off to investigate the invasion. At this point, you decide to do something more functional than just sitting in study hall. You grab Genis and Colette and decide to help Colette get to the church where her mission is set to begin from. 

Long story short, you come across some Desians, who your promptly whomp upon, and along the way you meet a mysterious mercenary named Kratos. Kratos serves as the insightful yin to Lloyd's impulsive yang. After joining with him, you help Colette solve an initiation right and begin her journey. 

From there, you and Genis are dumped as Colette starts her journey with Raine and Kratos as her guardians. Well, being impulsive, Lloyd and Genis get into some trouble and before long they get thrown into the adventure (I'll be vague since some may see this as a spoiler). From there you meet many people, travel to many places, and solve many problems as you help Colette solve the puzzle of being the Chosen. 

Despite how many people have said that ToS is a cheap rip-off of FF games, it is quite the opposite. If anything, ToS is a good mixture of older RPGs ranging from Lufia to previous Tales games (obviously it would have some elements of them since it's the same series) with almost no FF influences to be seen (thankfully). While some of the characters have traits of people seen in previous RPGs, the traits are a unique blend forming unique characters...I mean when have you seen a game before in which the wise teacher of the party, who is a healer, is excited by ancient ruins to the point of almost sexual bliss? I know I haven't. 

The world is vivid, with each town standing out as a separate kingdom with it's own rules and customs. Also, the ways in which each area copes with the Desian threat is unique to each area (while Isaylea, your misspelled, by me, home town has a non-aggression treat, some towns live in fear, while other have secret dealings, and yet other have strong resistance forces). 

In a nut-shell, the plot is refreshing and unique with enough use of older (and I mean classic, not FF old) concepts to bring a ideal mixture of something new and something comforting in it's familiarity, in which you can't help but strive to play on just to know what will happen next. 

Game Play 

Tales games have always had a unique (until recently) approach to combat. And this approach is what you will notice the most about the overall game play experience. Combat has always been in real time in which you give strategies to all of your party, while you control the character of choice in fast and furious combat. However, ToS reinvents this by changing the battles from the previous 2D-ish combat to an almost full on 3D experience. 

In combat, you can issue commands at will to any party member not under your control (or the control of another player...did I mention that you have up to four people in combat and if you have four controllers that can be used, your friends can join in controlling the other party members? Because you can!) or leave a preset strategy for them to follow while you personally control your character of choice (or you could leave it all to the computer to control using your strategies if you feel like being a lzy whore). The controls are simple and quite responsive. 

You are given the ability to move with the analogue stick, jumps, block, attack (which can be linked to form a combo), use special moves, and slide away from combat. The attacks are determined by what direction you hit on the control stick as you press attack. If you press up and A (attack button) you'll swing upwards, down and A will swing you sword low, etc. On the same note, you can program up to four special attacks at a time to be used with the B button. The attacks are determined like how you would use specials in Smash Melee. If you press B, forward and B, up and B, or down and B, you will get a different pre-set special from each button. On top of that, you can set two specials on your C stick that are specials abilities for any party member (like if you want Genis to let lose a fireball but you're controlling Lloyd, then you can program fireball on your C stick and still control Lloyd flawlessly, or you can use it to set an extra one or two specials for your character that you're controlling). 

After combat, you earn your standard experience (which goes towards gaining levels), bonus experience (for doing really good in combat), gald ( gold, but more gald-ish), and grade. Grade is a special type of money that can be used for purchasing EX-spheres (more on that later) or you can use it after you finish the game to unlock new abilities for a second playing of ToS (like multiplying your experience, carrying more items at a time, keeping your items from one game on the second play-through, etc). 

By the way, levels are treated like a good old classic RPG. You gain a little of almost everything (strength, defense, evasion, intelligence, TP, HP, etc) when you level. Also, what you gain is based on your character's class (title) and who the character is (Lloyd will always get a good deal of strength, etc). Your title can be gained through various means of either reaching set levels, completing story objectives, or by doing special things in combat (like getting uber-long combos in combat). These titles will affect your stats gained at level up in different ways (some will boost your strength, some will boost intelligence, etc). Usually two or three stats will be boosted by a single title...the question is determining which stats to boost and which ones to neglect. 

Also, since battles are real time, you may get caught up in going crazy with special abilities, and thus you TP might run short a little quickly. This has been addressed by how you regain about 10 TP after each battle. You also gain a single TP for every attack you can connect with that is not blocked by an enemy. Plus, after a battle, you can cook some food (from ingredients you find/buy along the way) to regain HP, TP, status, etc. You acquire new recipes along the way in each town by finding a hidden character known as the Mysterious Wonder Chef...or something like that. 

So, what is this Ex-Sphere thing that I mentioned before? That would be the "innovative" requirement for this game (all RPGs need something that sets them apart from the competition and real time combat doesn't cut it anymore). Basically, each character has four Ex-Sphere equipment slots. Each Ex-Sphere requires one slot and they come in a range of level 1 through level 4 (1 being weakest and most easy to fact every character starts with a single level 1). You can equip any combination of levels (want 4 level 1? Go for it. Find four level 4 Ex-Spheres and want them all on one character? That's cool) on each character, but once one is equipped, it can only be replaced with a new sphere, and the old one will be lost other words, you must think things through if you have a level four don't want to waste it now, do you? Each sphere of a given level has 4 special abilities it can grant to each character (for the most part, each character has a unique set of abilities unlocked by a given level of Ex-sphere), and upon equipping a sphere, you select which one of these abilities you want in affect. You can then switch abilities whenever you want (not in battle, however), but you cannot switch Ex-spheres on the fly without losing the old ones. Also, if you have a certain pairing of Ex-sphere abilities equipped (which can be anything from 2 specific level on abilities, a level 1 and a level 3, two level 3s and a level 4, etc), you will unlock a special skill that will remain in effect only as long as the required skills are still in effect. So, the skills include things from running faster in towns/dungeons, boosting defense, boosting strength, adding another attack to a combo, regaining HP when you sit still in battle, etc. You can also use your grade points to purchase an Ex-sphere from specific vendors, but you can only buy a sphere of a level you have previously acquired (if you take the time to gain enough grade to buy a level 4 Ex-sphere at the beginning of the game, you still cannot buy one until you've found, not purchased, one). 

Towns and dungeons offer the usual RPG fair. You have people to talk to, shops to buy from, inns to get healed at, puzzles to solve (in dungeons), mini-games to play, etc. It's been done before, but that is nothing to complain about. Sometimes the best thought with an RPG is that if something works, don't mess with it. 

I should mention that ToS is one of those games that allows you to see enemies before you fight them. You can see all enemies on the map, and thus you can try to avoid most conflicts before they occur. Also, in dungeons, you will gain (not long after you first enter the first dungeon) a special item that will let you stun an enemy on the map so you won't have to fight it (only works in towns/dungeons). 

Last of all, for the game play part of things is the "skit". This is an optional dialogue that occurs after certain events to help explain the story more from the involved characters' perspectives. These are rather nifty, yet frustrating, ways to get a better insight into how the plot actually is seen from the eyes of those who matter. However, while these are great fun to help further pull the player into the plot, they are some of the most annoying things I've seen in any game. The reason I say this is because of the lack of voice acting (there is plenty of voice acting in ToS...just keep reading down to the "Audio" portion of this thing). The skits were programmed to have the characters involved displayed with a simplistic portrait (1 per character involved) and some mouth movement timed with the voice actors reading of the lines. The text, which is sometimes a bit hard to read, automatically scrolls along with the speed of the voice actors...however, the game was rushed to completion (to avoid a lengthy delay), and the voice acting for the skits was one of the omitted elements to avoid such a delay. This means that the hard to read text just keeps coming (you cannot slow down the dialogue in a skit...there's no way to do it) at a break-neck speed and unless you are good at reading quick and distorted text, you will miss a good deal of what was said. Also, you will never see the facial expressions of the characters involved (which help to convey the proper emotions) since you're stuck reading the text. This is a really lame way to degrade what could have...nay...should have been a great add on to the game. 

In a nut-shell, the game play is really well defined and the learning curve is only about an hour. Considering all the methods you can use to develop a character (with Ex-spheres and with new titles), there is plenty in the game play for anyone. However, the skits, sadly, do take away from the experience... 


The graphics of ToS are a throwback, in some ways, to the cell-shaded visuals of 2 years ago. The graphics, if anything, are most similar to those seen on Wild ARMs 3rd Ignition. All of the characters are strongly contrasted with bold dark lines and bright, vivid colors. In a way this is a step backwards, but like with the game play of ToS, this is a welcome step backwards. Sometimes you need to look back at previous hits in order to achieve something good (newer is not always better). 

Unfortunately, the graphics do suffer at one specific point; the skits. During a skit, the faces of the involved party members are displayed with really low res graphics and very simplistic movements (as in the mouth will move, but nothing else). Of course you can't see the faces while you're trying to read too much text in too little time, so this isn't too important (one mistake canceled another). 

Overall, the graphics are crisp and clear enough to easily determine what is on screen, where all involved people are, where the exits to your current screen are, etc. So, once again, ToS has proven that a throwback to older conventions can be a good thing. 

Most importantly about the visuals, even in the heat of battle when countless explosive spells, special attacks, etc, are firing off, you can still tell where everything is and there's no loss of quality in the visuals to keep up this frantic pace. In fact, some of the spells have some really detailed effects (like Thunder Sword, a mid level lightning spell, which has a giant blade of energy strike the target as a flurry of smaller lightning strikes hit all around). 

So, long story short, the visuals do everything they need to and even throw in a few nifty extras. Sadly, the opening cinematic (an anime inspired video) is not something to get used to...almost all of the cut scenes are played out with the standard ToS engine (I could've used some more anime cut-scenes, personally). 


Let's start where I'd like to; the sound effects. These are superbly done. All effects sound like you'd expect them to (wind howls, thunder explodes, swords sound metallic, etc) and time nicely to the on screen visuals. One of my favorites is the effect of wind in some of the windier towns (like towns located by the ocean or by a cliff), as it softly whistles through the background music. 

The music is also nicely done. The theme of the music is along the lines of the Shire music from the LotR movies crossed with a technological remake of the Lufia 1&2 (SNES) sound track. Instead of giving something along the lines of J-pop or techno, the music is set for the world of ToS (medieval world with medieval/fantasy sounding music). There aren't too many memorable songs (there are a couple, not not too many), but there are none of the all-too-familiar crappy annoying songs that just keep pounding away at you until you think you're about to lose it. 

Ok, the good part is done, so now to the mediocre; Voice acting. The voices are all of the worst voices we know and can barely stand from current cartoons. You have Robin (from Teen Titans) pulling duty as Lloyd, mature sounding Yugi (from Yu-Gi-Oh!) as the brooding Kratos, and a wide selection of other miscellaneous cartoon voice actors. Luckily the voices start to grow on you as you play, but the voices in no way fit the characters they are matched up to. At least it could be worse... 

So, what could be worse than the voice acting? The technical aspect of the sound. Most games now-a-days have the option of mono, stereo, and surround (and some even have DTS). However, as a proud owner of a surround sound receiver that my GCN is hooked up to, I was strongly disappointed with the options of mono and stereo...and nothing else. At least a good surround sound system can compensate for most of this, but it's just not the same as popping in SSX3 and getting some full on DTS sound.


Well, when you take all the parts together, ToS is a outstanding game that brings the player in with a smooth and fast game engine and keeps the player drawn in with the outstanding plot (that while some would want you to believe it's recycled material from FFX and FFX-2...of course those people are idiots...for some reason all games now look like FFX ripoffs to the fanboys). While some aspects of the visuals and audio could be enhanced, it is safe to say that the overall presentation is nothing short of refreshing to us geeks who long for our RPGs of old. So, I would give Tales of Symphonia a 9.0/10 (it would get higher, but the combat system will wear on you after around 20 hours into the game).