|Tales of Uninspiria: Or, Alphabet Soup
I'd like to take time to publicize some musings I've had about Namco Bandai's immensely popular Tales series. Namely, why is it so popular, even after critics continue to make the same comments about the series' lack of progress? How does the series stay so strong?
Think about it: it's almost always the same composers (Sakuraba/Tamura), the same cookie-cutter anime characters, the same combat system, and generally the same plot–a variation on "save the world(s)," with emphasis on one or two people whom you are taught to like that are in danger through the whole adventure. Why do people keep coming back for more? Why do we come back for more?
I realized the answer while having a conversation with friend and co-editor Damian Thomas. We were back on the whole "games as art" discussion, and I was defending the uses of aesthetics and plot to drive an RPG. Then Damian pulled out the trump card. "It's a game!" he said. "Books are for reading, films are for watching, music is for listening, and games are for playing!" You can forgive a game for poor graphics or plot as long as it is a lot of fun. The opposite, however, is rarely true. And this is what keeps the Tales series going.
Since Tales of Phantasia, the first entry in the series, little has changed in the patented "linear motion battle system." Each subsequent game offers some little tweaks, changes, or additional features, but for the most part, what makes this game great is that it's an RPG where each battle encounter turns into a 2D fighter! And, because it's an RPG, it's a fairly complex 2D fighter–complete with magic, abilities, status effects, consumable items, and multiple allies and enemies on the screen.
So if the plot and characters aren't exactly "inspired," that's okay! It's still a fun game. The sales figures confirm this, especially in Japan. By my calculation, I'm fairly certain Namco Bandai can get away with making these games indefinitely, unless there's a major change in the market. All of this isn't to say that the plot and character progression to each and every game in the series is stale. Some fare better than others, but even the worse ones continue to sell well as long as that combat system is still in place.
This leads us to another question, one I love to speculate on: how do they pick these names? I've had a theory since the year Symphonia was released (Symphonia being a distant prequel to Phantasia) that they're trying to do one Tales game (or sub-series) for each letter of the modern Roman alphabet. So far, taking exception to direct sequels, there hasn't been any overlap. Observe...
Tales of (the)...
Destiny (and Destiny 2)
Symphonia (and sequel)
Now, this list doesn't include the games for mobile phone, such as "Tales of Tactics," "Tales of Breaker," "Tales of Commons," or "Tales of Wahrheit." Nor does the list include the fan discs "Tales of Fandom." But even if it did include them, the only overlaps would be on "T" and "W," as "B" and "C" are open spots.
Once, Namco Bandai trademarked the name "Tales of Doom Sign." Fortunately, this never came about, because 1) it's a stupid name and 2) forcing your titles to abbreviate to "DS" so it fits better as a Nintendo DS title is another stupid thing to do. Also, this would overlap with Destiny, which is no good. Thus far, my theory continues to hold true.
Something fun you can do in your spare time is make up names for Tales games. Try to fill in all the remaining letters of the alphabet. It's okay if they're redundant, or silly, because that's par for the course. Seriously, "Tales of Legendia" may as well be called "Legends of Tales." It's bordering on absurd.
For example, to fill in the letter Z, let's do "Tales of Zenithia." This is based on my absurd prediction that the two big-name merged companies (Namco Bandai and Square Enix) do ANOTHER merger to create the almighty NBSE, a true giant in Japanese gaming. NBSE would then take characters from Dragon Quest IV, V and VI (the "Zenithia" trilogy) and mix them in with original Tales characters. Voila! A new hit for millions of gamers to obsess over and criticize almost simultaneously!
I know it's probably not very becoming of me, as a game critic, to say this, but I think I'm okay with Namco Bandai going ahead with my predicted path for them. The Tales series is like the RPG equivalent of an EA sports title. You're going to get at least one per year, with a few changes each time around. Thanks to it being an RPG series, however, the setting and characters can be changed up entirely, so you get new (and possibly better) character development each time around. So, with enough effort, the Tales series could outlast an EA sports series. There's an amusing thought.
- Patrick Gann