"Tales of Symphonia alone is worth the price of entry, and the fact that you also get a sequel that continues the game's story is merely icing on the cake."
If ever there was a game that had the potential to make me feel the merciless progression of time shaping me into an angry codger, Tales of Symphonia would be it. Released a decade ago, during my freshman year of undergraduate study, I quickly declared it the best game I'd ever played. Of course, I also said the same about the original Final Fantasy when I played that on a NES, and time has whittled that nostalgic enthusiasm from a fine blade down to a stunted handle. Tales of Symphonia stands the test of time much better, though some aspects have left it feeling slightly dated beside its mainline successors. Its sequel, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, fares much worse, but this is not due to advances made in succeeding installments. It's simply by virtue of not being as good a game as its prequel.
Symphonia tells the tale of Lloyd Irving, a swordsman with more muscles than sense, who can never score more than 25% on a test without celebrating his best score yet. He is childhood friends with Colette, a ditzy "girl next door" who also happens to be The Chosen, a savior who will one day bring prosperity and fortune to the declining world of Sylvarant. Sylvarant is currently living in a state of fear due to Desians, who are oppressing and systematically enslaving humans in Desian-operated ranches. On the day Colette leaves for her journey to regenerate the world, Lloyd and his best friend, child prodigy Genis, run afoul of one of these ranches, causing an incident that ends with them being expelled from the village. With nowhere else to go, they join Colette on her quest to save the world. Two years after the end of Symphonia, Dawn of the New World explores the repercussions of the original game's ending. Dawn of the New World follows the exploits of Emil, a shy and introverted boy who is constantly abused by his guardians and bullied by his peers. After being saved by Marta, a girl whose affection for Emil is as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, Emil gains the power of the guardian spirit Ratatosk, which grants him great strength during battle while simultaneously changing his entire personality from a meek shrinking violet to an abrasive and confident combatant. Together, the two set out to restore balance to a world thrown out of balance by the events of the previous game.
While the story and characters seem by-the-books and uninspired, the methods in which these archetypes and tropes play out are what make the story interesting. Symphonia approaches its subject matter with panache and enthusiasm, and as a result makes the underlying themes of racism and discrimination more poignant while developing characters in an immensely likable manner. That being said, the dialogue is stilted and unnatural at times, robbing some serious scenes of any impact they may have. Thankfully, such moments are relatively rare, and the game never takes itself so seriously that such lines rob it of its charm. Dawn of the New World does much worse in this regard. While Tales of Symphonia had a serviceable story, Dawn of the New World is written like fanfiction, with generally uninteresting — almost unlikable — characters, and a contrived romance subplot that I can only describe as decent by stooping to the level of comparing it to the likes of Twilight. That's not to say it's entirely a failure, it's just that the writing and character chemistry is so clumsy that the only saving grace is the fact that the ever present skits have dialed up the wacky anime romcom hijinks in a desperate bid to hold players' attention. I am ashamed to say that this strategy worked on me, though it is still telling that the best recommendation I could give for the storyline is that its best qualities reminded me of my halcyon days of watching overrated harem anime.
Symphonia's graphics received a necessary upgrade on the jump from GameCube/PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3, and while I'm not personally a fan of the super deformed cel shaded graphical style Symphonia employed, it is colorful and vibrant, fitting the game's tone while being aesthetically pleasing enough to add to the game's charm. By comparison, Dawn of the New World opts for a more refined graphical style that more closely emulates the artwork that the character models are based on, at the cost of much darker hues and saturated colors. It's an interesting experience to go from one style to the other in quick succession, and most players will most definitely have preference for one or the other. For my part, I much prefer the normal proportions and less cutesy graphical style employed by Dawn of the New World.
The soundtrack for Symphonia is one of Sakuraba's stronger works, in no small part due to the fact that he drew inspiration from Tales of Phantasia when composing Symphonia's soundtrack, resulting what is probably the best rendition of his classic "Fighting of the Spirits" battle theme. Dawn of the New World's soundtrack uses a combination of synthesized versions of the previous game's music with a handful of original compositions thrown in the mix. While the original compositions are some of the most competent contemporary Tales tunes Sakuraba has created, the synthesized remixes make me nostalgic in the same way that downloading an overly compressed MIDI file from an AOL server in 1997 would. Sakuraba really needs to dial back the Casio keyboards. The character voices are the same as they were ten years ago, though in this iteration Namco Bandai has given players the option of choosing Japanese voices, which is much appreciated. In fact, because the English voices are so incongruous across the two games (only a handful of the actors reprise their roles for Dawn of the New World) and since the Japanese voices fully voice the optional skits, whereas the English voices do not, the Japanese voice option is the more preferable of the two to maintain a consistent experience, despite my appreciation and respect for the game's dub cast.
Of course, when reviewing a Tales game, the gameplay is possibly the most important aspect. The battles are where the magic happens, and Symphonia does not disappoint. It is the first Tales game to employ the series' standard linear motion battle system on a 3D plane. However, because the free run option made its debut after the release of Symphonia, players are still running in straight lines between the controlled character and targeted enemy. This doesn't detract from the game's playability, as the encounters were designed with this in mind, but series veterans will often find themselves missing the free run function so ubiquitous in more recent Tales games. Still, the game plays extremely well, with fluid controls that lend themselves well to the fast-paced, combo-centered nature of the battle system.
Characters in Symphonia can also equip titles that modify the stats gained during leveling, allowing players to customize characters to their liking, as well as EX Gems that grant characters unique skills such as adding an extra hit to their basic combo or increasing movement speed in dungeons and towns. These EX Gems also sway a character to two different battle styles, one of which focuses on multi-hit/multi-target special attacks, while the other focuses on fewer hit, single-target attacks that do more damage per hit. Each style has obvious advantages and disadvantages — most players will opt for multi-target battle skills for their healers, for example — but each line of battle skills has a distinct playstyle that fits different kinds of players.
Dawn of the New World utilizes with the same 3D battlefield for its combat system, but the only true playable characters are the two principle protagonists, Emil and Marta. The characters of the previous games join the party at various points throughout the game, but their equipment, skills, and levels all remain static, an obvious ploy to promote use of the monster raising system in Dawn of the New World. As a knight of Ratatosk, Emil is able to contract monsters into his party to fight alongside him. These monsters evolve and learn new abilities as they grow, and can be equipped with accessories that enhance their abilities or evolve them into alternate, and often more powerful, forms. While an interesting concept, the monsters offer very little compared to the party members from previous games, battle-wise. The party members have wide array of abilities in battle that far outstrip the usefulness of the monsters. The only reason the recruited monsters outweighh party members' usefulness is the fact that party members cannot level, change their equipment, or learn new skills, thus rendering them next to useless at the endgame.
Even worse, the controls during battles are clunky, slow, and unintuitive. Emil and Marta's attacks have no natural flow to them, and following execution of some of the their attacks (most notably their Mystic Artes), they stand frozen in place for a good three or four seconds while the enemy is free to move and/or attack. Given that this game is an Action RPG where a few seconds can mean the difference between victory or a one way trip to the previous save point, it's almost unbelievable that the developers would neglect to realize these problems within the battle system would represent. Indeed, Dawn of the New World was developed by the second stringers at Namco Bandai's Tales studios while their star players worked on Tales of Vesperia back in 2008, so the lack of attention paid to its quality as a Tales "escort" title is easily explainable. Regardless, one can't help but feel that "escort title" is now Namco Bandai's shorthand for "this game is terrible, but we'll push it out anyway, because we know Tales fans will eat it up."
As far as extra content goes, both games have a sizable number of sidequests that players can sink a good deal of time into. In particular, Symphonia offers many sidequests and additions that were added into the Japan-only PS2 port, so even those who played the Gamecube version to death can find something new to enjoy in this collection. Overall, Symphonia can easily offer over 100 hours of play time, and Dawn of the New World can easily exceed 60. The discrepancy may be due to the fact that Symphonia has a fully functional world map to explore and battle in, while Dawn of the New World's world map is a point and click affair with no interactivity. One might say that Dawn of the New World saves players time at the expense of freedom; while Symphonia had the opportunity to tread off the beaten path and take alternate routes through the story, Dawn of the New World railroads players into an incredibly linear story but also cuts down on the excessive transition periods of walking from town to town. Most players will prefer one method over the other, but I have no strong opinions either way, so I enjoy both for what they are instead of what they should be.
Symphonia was the pioneer for many Tales features that have made repeat appearances today, such as relationship values and character deaths that are dependent on the player's choices, non-linear character progression, and hidden character utilities that remain unknown to all but the most hardcore of players. At the end of the day, Tales of Symphonia may be the finest and most well balanced entry the Tales franchise has ever produced, and that's no small feat. As for Dawn of the New World, all I can say is that it is lucky to have been packaged with its predecessor rather than sold as a standalone on the PS3, else I would be much less forgiving of its flaws. The pertinent question, though: is the collection worth it? Tales of Symphonia alone is worth the price of entry, and the fact that you also get a sequel that continues the game's story is merely icing on the cake.