"The reason you started playing RPGs in the first place." This was the tagline Namco used in their print ads for Tales of Destiny (hereby referred to as ToD). An interesting line, and quite fitting for this game. ToD faithfully recaptures the look and feel of those classic "old-school" SNES RPGs of yore and thus serves as a reminder of why you (read: those of you who were weaned on SNES RPGs) started playing these great games in the first place.
Your alter ego in ToD is one Stahn Aileron- a plucky, adventurous lad with a penchant for getting into trouble. The story even begins with our hero in a sticky situation. A stowaway, sleeping in a storeroom of the Draconis airship, Stahn is discovered by the crew, beaten up in front of the captain, and ordered to swab the deck. While Stahn is busy swabbing, monsters storm the ship. With the help of Dymlos, a talking sword he finds on board, Stahn escapes the Draconis and through a chain of events, finds the fate of the world in his hands.
The plot itself is nothing you haven't seen before, and won't win any points for originality. However, the storytelling is marvelously done. Namco did a superb job on the translation/ localization. The dialogue is very humorous, cleverly written, flows well, and is free of any spelling or grammatical errors. There were two minor errors in a set of puzzle clues late in the game, but that's being really nitpicky. Another thing I really liked about the storytelling was this: In the beginning, the dialogue was fun and humorous, but as the world got closer and closer to doom, the townspeople's comments became more morose. Nice job, Namco. This is how RPG translations should be done. The characters are likeable, if a bit one-dimensional. If all of them were given the same level of depth and backstory as Mary, I would have been happier.
What isn't one-dimensional are the beautiful hand-drawn two-dimensional (2D) graphics. I vastly prefer well-drawn sprites and tiles like this over clunky polygons (like in Alundra 2). The towns in particular have an impressive amount of detail. Where most RPGs have two or three-room, abbreviated houses, ToD gives us full houses complete with kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, and even full bathrooms with bathtubs, sinks, and toilets! Now this is an RPG world I can live in. And with food stores in every town, I'm set.
The characters are represented by expressive, super-deformed sprites that are… well… cute! Both in and out of battle the characters retain that SD look we all love. The battle graphics themselves are reminiscent of Capcom's Pocket Fighter. The only drawback to SD sprites is that their cuteness doesn't lend itself well to serious subject matter. But since ToD is more about fun, the SD works perfectly.
There are two flaws with the graphics, however. The bigger flaw is the polygon overworld. It simply looks horrible- like bad patchwork. I know Namco was going for the classic Mode-7 look, but I think they should have made a full 3D rotatable polygon overland or a 2D tiled one. The other flaw is that the town and dungeon graphics look a bit drab. Namco could have made better use of the PlayStation's color palette and made everything look brighter and more colorful. Basically, what Namco did on the Tales of Phantasia remake for PlayStation is what I wished they had done for Tales of Destiny.
The music, while generally good, could also have been improved upon. It sounds like primitive MIDI. Again, Namco was going for the "old-school" feel, but sound production is one area that shouldn't have been skimped on. I dug the upbeat rock feel of many of the compositions. Rock is a style of music not often used in RPGs, so I was glad to see some rock in ToD. It was also nice that there were 90 tracks and multiple boss themes. This added a lot of variety to the soundtrack. I also have to give kudos to Namco for including a full sound test in the game.
Sound effects aren't much to write home about. They're not very noticeable. During battles, I was paying more attention to the voices. Battle cries always sound better in Japanese than in English, so I'm glad Namco decided to keep the voices in Japanese. I like my anime people to speak Japanese, since that's their country of origin. The voices got me really into the battles, and Philia's seiyuu in particular had a very cute voice. The only negative was that there was a haphazard voiced conversation outside of battle. This was awkwardly placed and should have been cut out, thus avoiding an unfinished feel.
ToD's gameplay is its strongest suit. To put it bluntly, this game is fun. From start to finish, I couldn't put my controller down. There are no needlessly complicated systems to fuss with. Everything is very intuitive. If you've played an RPG before, this game's clean layout will fit like a glove.
There is also a lot of mileage to be gotten out of this game as well. It took me about 48 hours to complete, and this was without really looking for secrets. If you took the time out to discover the game's myriad secrets, you'd be at it for about 70+ hours. The pacing helps these 45+ hours go by very quickly. Stahn moves at a very nice clip. His walking speed is so fast, you don't even have to press the dash button (which makes him run so fast, you lose precision). Battles also occur at more spaced out intervals while Stahn is walking, which is good since the encounter rate is quite high. Monsters are very generous about doling out gald (money) and EXP, so you never have to go out of your way to build levels. In fact, if you don't run from a single battle, your party will always overpower any boss that comes along. This makes the fights rather easy, but is good because it takes out the frustration of a difficult boss battle at a point when you just want to progress the story. If only Namco had chosen either just random battles or see-your-enemy-beforehand battles. Haphazardly interchanging the two makes the game seem unfinished.
The battle system itself is a blast to use. Dubbed the "Enhanced Linear Motion" battle system, this real time battle system has you controlling Stahn and computer AI controlling the others based on your commands and pre-battle strategy set-up. The computer AI is quite intelligent and always fights well. Unfortunately, the control isn't as fluid as, say, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It's a tad sluggish, but becomes intuitive rather quickly. The more I used this battle system, the more I liked it.
Like Wild Arms, ToD features a bevy of action-RPG style puzzles. These puzzles are fun and sometimes challenging, but are not overly frustrating (like those in Alundra). Some of them do require you to break out a pen and paper to write down clues, so be sure to keep one handy.
Even with all this, the true fun of ToD comes with exploration. You can examine every bookshelf, plant, mirror, or other sundry items in the towns and dungeons. You had best examine everything you can, as many of these sundry items clue you in on secrets hidden in the game. Instead of inserting ridiculously obscure secrets only there to sell strategy guides, ToD has all its hints in the game proper, and boy, are there a LOT of secrets. Hidden cutscenes, hidden mini-games (ToD has a ton of mini-games; my favorite is playing tag with some neighborhood kids), hidden sidequests, hidden items, and more are there for the perseverant explorer. There is even a 60-level bonus dungeon. There is so much to see and do in ToD, I'm simply amazed that it all fits on one disc. Oh, and did I mention that there are no load times? It feels like you're playing a cartridge. You press triangle, and the menu instantly pops up. Smooth.
So is Tales of Destiny a good reminder of why you started playing RPGs in the first place? I sure think so. Those of you looking for a good ole' fashioned 2D RPG like the SNES ones you grew up with need not look further. Or, if you're like me and never owned a SNES, ToD is a wonderful game that captures that golden SNES feel. While other RPGs may sport flashier visuals, more innovation, or complex systems, Tales of Destiny extremely high fun factor will keep you coming back for more.