"Tales of the Abyss isn't just an excellent game to get into the franchise with, but also one of the best reasons to pick up your 3DS again."
It's hard to believe that the 3DS is almost a year old now and has only one RPG to its name. This will likely change in the near future, but in the meantime, a gem from the last generation has been released on the handheld system, and it doesn't hurt that it's one of the Tales franchise's best entries. Tales of the Abyss was released to little fanfare from Namco Bandai, but Tales veterans and 3DS owners aching for an RPG to play on their shiny new handheld have been waiting with bated breath, and it's everything they expected it to be, for better or worse.
Tales of the Abyss takes place in the world of Auldrant, in which two countries, Malkuth and Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, adhere to a written history of the world called the Score that prophesizes prosperity to the world so long as it is upheld. To this end, the Order of Lorelei was created to keep the world moving towards the future that the Score predicted. The player assumes control of Luke, son of a noble and heir to the throne of Kimlasca. Seven years prior to the start of the game, Luke had been kidnapped by the Malkuth Empire and lost his memories due to the shock. As a result, his father has forbid him from leaving his home, placing him under permanent house arrest until he turns 20. As the game begins, Luke is in a routine training session with his teacher and friend, Van Grants, when suddenly an assassin arrives and attacks Van. Luke attempts to defend his teacher, and is rewarded for his trouble by being teleported with the would-be assassin to parts unknown. Now Luke, along with the assassin, Tear, must make their way back to Luke's hometown of Baticul.
Luke starts off as the game's most irritating character, as he has all the pertinence and manners of a seven-year-old accustomed to always getting his way. Luke is everything past Tales games heroes were not; he is selfish, arrogant, and generally acts like a tremendous imbecile toward everyone and anyone. There are glints of good in his actions, but they are often overshadowed by his self-centered nature. This subsequently ends up making Luke's character arc and development one of the best the Tales series has to offer, as his progression from selfish noble to something greater is incredibly well-written.
The other player characters, while nowhere near as well-developed as Luke, are some of the most three-dimensional characters in the series. Unfortunately, somewhere in between designing the characters and writing their dialogue, the development team forgot to make them likable. While their interactions and conversations are incredibly entertaining (some of the best offered by a Tales game), all of the major characters act like intense sociopaths. Story developments end up making even the most innocuous character into a rather unlikable clod, which is unfortunate, because Abyss features some of the best writing the series has to offer. Making the characters just a little bit more likable would have been appreciated. The only character I liked is Guy, who is consistently nice and jovial toward all his teammates and probably the most well-adjusted of the cast, outside of a few personality quirks.
More important than the main story itself is the consistent theme of the plot. Abyss' plot, much like previous games, is character-centric, but in a way that is more meaningful overall. It explores the nature of birth, nature vs. nurture, and the idea of destiny: are the circumstances of our birth all that defines us? Do our identities depend entirely upon genetics or the way we were raised? Do we really have control over our fates, or are we just cogs in a machine that promises us prosperity so long as we keep it running?
Abyss tackles these concepts with a maturity and depth that no other Tales game, or even most other JRPGs, have attempted to do so, albeit with the traditional lack of subtlety. Many of the plot twists and story developments are made incredibly obvious due to consistent hints made by major characters throughout the game's story — foreshadowing is an important literary device, but only when used correctly. Abyss basically spells out the entire storyline by winking and nudging at the player from beyond the screen. Regardless, the main plot and character development are woven together expertly, and the game's ending dodges the feelgood 'happily ever after' conclusion that plagues most JRPG narratives, with an incredibly satisfying but appropriately bittersweet final scene.
When Abyss was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2006, it was far from a graphical beast, but featured slowdowns, glitches, and technical issues, likely because Namco Bandai had to push it out the door for the series' 15th anniversary in Japan. With the port to 3DS, most of the issues are smoothed out. The load times are almost completely gone, and the glitches and technical issues never reared their ugly heads in my playthrough. Some slowdown persists, however, as does the fog effect in the overworld that masked the pop in on the PlayStation 2 version. In the end, there are still traces of graphical imperfections in the port, but it's hardly anything game-breaking.
It may be the smaller screen, but the graphics seem to have taken a small hit in the move to a handheld. The graphics seem slightly lower res, and the colors appear a little washed out, but otherwise there's nothing particularly wrong with them — they are technically impressive, but look awfully generic, with none of the stylized art direction of other games in the series. The 3D effects, as expected from a port, are rather tame, and don't contribute much; there are times — such as during battle transitions — when the 3D suddenly switches to 2D, making it disorienting and a little jarring. Considering that the 3D elements are basically superfluous, Abyss is best played with 3D turned off.
Sakuraba's work in the game isn't his best, but it isn't his worst, either. The music tracks aren't particularly memorable, but they don't grate on the nerves. Abyss' soundtrack hails from a time when Sakuraba's work wasn't quite so derivative, and as far as series soundtracks are concerned, Abyss ranks near the top. The considerable volume of voice acting is excellent; Namco assembled an incredible voice talent for the English voice overs, with some of the biggest names in anime dubbing. The actors have excellent chemistry and hit all the right notes. It's unfortunate that Namco couldn't have the skits voiced this time around, but understandable considering the amount of money that would have required. As it stands, Abyss' voice acting is top notch.
Gameplay is where Abyss truly shines. Being the last Tales game of the previous generation before Team Symphonia moved to current hardware, Abyss combined the successful battle system from Tales of Symphonia with new character progression systems and battle mechanics. Aside from leveling up normally, characters in Abyss can equip Capacity Cores that boost their attributes a certain amount when they level up. Each Capacity Core is designed to fit a specific type of fighter; while one may place focus on high physical attack and defense, another is more tuned towards a well-balanced but lower stat growth spread amongst all of the character's stats.
These extra stat growths serve a purpose far more useful than simply boosting a character's abilities; they also unlock special skills that increase battle effectiveness and efficiency when certain aggregate stat thresholds are reached. Some abilities grant an extension to the number of attacks that can be used in a basic combo, while others give characters special defenses against specific attacks. However, each character still performs a specific function in battle, such as fighter, healer, or spell-caster, so the potential for diversifying characters is not as great as it could be, but it allows for some customization without the fear of hitting an insurmountable wall later in the game because of poor character building. Hardcore players, on the other hand, can ramp up the difficulty to extreme levels and thus make intelligent use of Capacity Cores a necessity.
Combat utilizes the linear motion battle system that the series is well known for. Encounters happen when players make contact with enemies in the overworld or in dungeons, and the battles themselves are action oriented rather than turn-based. Players can link attacks and artes into combos, and artes themselves can be enhanced with FS Chambers, which grant myriad enhancements for artes. Tales games often have a new contribution to the series' battle system with each new iteration, and Abyss' addition is the Field of Fonons (FOF). When certain elemental attacks are executed on the battlefield, a small circle appears on the ground, marked with the element of said attack. Using certain attacks while standing within these circles yields altered artes that can extend a normal combo.
While Field of Fonons is a novel approach to the series' combat, and can be useful at times, it's simply not a persistent enough presence to make a difference in the game's battles. The FOF circles disappear after five seconds, and even then it's rather rare to catch an enemy in one of the altered artes since most of the time the enemies will be nowhere near the circle. It would have been a better gameplay element if the FOF circles stayed on the screen for the rest of the battle, forcing the player to adjust to a dynamic and constantly shifting battlefield. As it stands, FOFs are more of a missed potential than a meaningful addition to the combat system.
The dual screen setup is also a missed opportunity. Being a direct port with absolutely no bells and whistles, Abyss features very little touch screen integration, with the lower screen used solely for maps and occasionally to chain attacks during battle, despite being somewhat unwieldy in execution. Exploration and puzzle solving via field abilities make up a large part of Abyss' non-combat gameplay, and it would have been nice to have touch-enabled ability switching during field exploration instead of having to hold down the R button to manually switch the field ability.
Control of the game is slightly awkward to start with because the game was made with an analog stick in mind, so the 3DS's circle pad can sometimes have sensitivity issues for actions mapped to the directional pad. For example, there was more than one case in which my character jumped instead of ran forward, or used the arte assigned to the down direction instead of the forward direction. However, this problem is rather minor and quickly dissipates after a few hours of play.
The game is chock full of side content, with many sidequests to complete, extra bosses to fight, and hidden items/titles to find. The only problem, however, is that most of the sidequests can be failed if a certain point in the story is passed, and there is no journal in the game that keeps track of sidequest progression, so there's a lot of missable content if the player just blitzkriegs his way through the game's story, which itself lasts around 40 to 50 hours. Add in extra content, and the game's length increases to 60 or 70 hours easily.
Tales of the Abyss is a completely straight port to the 3DS, with limited 3D included in a haphazard manner and no additions to the base game. However, when the base game is one of the best the series has to offer minus the technical problems that bogged it down during its initial release, it's hard to make too many complaints. After over three years of radio silence, Namco has two Tales releases scheduled within a month of each other, and if Tales veterans care anything at all about the series' future stateside, they should buy both Abyss and Graces f when it releases next month. For newcomers, Tales of the Abyss isn't just an excellent game to get into the franchise with, but also one of the best reasons to pick up your 3DS again.