Tales of Destiny II (originally titled Tales of Eternia in Japan) is the long-awaited (at least for Tales fans) sequel to Tales of Destiny. The Eternia of the title is the world upon which the story takes place, or rather the worlds: two worlds, suspended miles apart, separated by the Orbus Barrier, a watery film, and the Seyfert Ring, a ring of matter that helps to stabilize the Barrier. One world is Celestia, a cold dark place unknown to the inhabitants of the opposite, temperate world in Inferia.
The story begins in Inferia with a young man named Reid. Reid Hershel is a hunter in the reclusive village of Rasheans, an orphan who's learned to care for himself. While hunting in the nearby forest he comes across his childhood friend, Farah Oersted, at a small lookout point. She barely has time to note that the sky looks an unusual colour before an explosion of light knocks them both sideways. As they pick themselves up, Farah runs off to find out what it was, leaving you to make your way through the first 'dungeon' of the game.
First thing you'll notice about the game is the graphics, a considerable step from Tales of Destiny, though quite difficult to tell whether it's a step up or down. The faintly chibi, cartoony colours have shifted slightly to more, but still not fully, proportionate character models and a more pastel feel to the colours. Certainly on first impressions it comes off better - the forests and medieval towns look better at first glance in soft pastel rather than brash colours. However, with the de-chibifying of the graphics comes the loss of charm - there was always something cute and fun about big-headed Cless or the mass of hair that Stahn had. It loses a little in that aspect, but generally doesn't hurt too badly at all.
The second thing you will have noticed after the first cut-scene is the voice acting, which you no doubt have heard (pun not intended) a lot about. For those who hate any and all voice acting, it's good to note that any cut scene dialogue can be x-buttoned through, which will in most every case also cut off the dialogue with it.
For those who like to listen anyway, while the voice acting, overall, is quite bad there are enough redeeming points to make it bearable. There are also some great quotes for certain characters - Max's loud yell of "Yeah!" has become a signature quote for the house I live in after my play through.
Meanwhile, on par to the softening of the graphics, the music is softer and less obvious, rather swamped by the sound effects throughout the game. There's really no point where the music ever becomes notably there or notably good, an approach that isn't helped by some very loud menu sound effects and the standard music-sound volume balance being about 100%-130%. If you want to listen to the music, be sure to turn the volume of the sound effects down.
I'll come back to the battle system and its intricacies later - for now, Reid makes his way through the forest, and on the way comes across some of the local food. Upon picking it up, I did as you might expect - I open the menu, look for the 'food' portion of the item listing, and go to put the cheese in my food ba-... hey, wait, I don't have a food bag!
Indeed you don't in Tales of Destiny 2 - instead, you must search for the Wonder Chef, who will hide in various locations and give you recipes for meals, which you then cook, akin to Star Ocean 2's cooking system. One character is best at each certain recipe, and thus has more of a chance of cooking the dish successfully. Dishes will, say, restore 30%HP to all party members, or cure all abnormalities, and so on. Each meal needs 3 to 5 ingredients and can be set up to be automatically cooked after each battle, although with the large encounter rate and the Tales' traditional limit on items, 15 of each, it's really not a good suggestion to do so or else you'll run out of ingredients very fast.
In addition, one recipe you always have is the Dark Pot, a recipe that takes random ingredients and spits out random (and often very detrimental) effects. All in all, the new food system works, though it doesn't feel Tales-like. I feel a great nostalgia for the old food sacks.
You'll note I didn't open up the entire item listing, only the food section - this is because there is no longer a full items listing. Instead, your item list is filtered through various categories; New, Valuable (a.k.a story items), Tools (a.k.a the different gels), armor, and so on. While it's kind of annoying not to be able to call up a full list, it's also much more convenient later in the game to be able to filter out most of what will become a very large item list.
You'll note as you walk around that practically every dungeon will have at least one puzzle in it, some of which can get very hard indeed. There'll be quizzes, a large number of puzzles involving fire and ice - the traditional Sorcerer's Ring is back together with an Ice Ring, which allow you to shoot sparks of fire and or ice - or pushing and pulling puzzles, such as dropping items down chutes.
The trouble is that Reid has a really difficult time managing to actually move things. He'll get stuck all over the place, will frequently let go of objects, or just get stuck on empty space. When you're dealing with a time limited puzzle, this gets extremely annoying very fast. The majority of the puzzles, however, are good fun, especially one dungeon where the puzzles get very strange and esoteric - one verse of poetry with an extremely gothic air, and the solution is simply switching the character opening the door.
On this note, the quirky humor of the Tales series is back in force, with plenty of extremely strange quotes (and plenty of people who know they're in a videogame) and an almost-FF9 like array of references from, most notably Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Destiny, with a smattering of other games along the way.
The mini-games are all very strange but good fun, with such highlights of playing a bizarre ballgame all about using attractive and repellant forces to run a beachball into someone, driving a train and stopping at stations, or WHIS, the game's one version of Uno. There's a lot of meaningless little mini-games to play around with, which can earn you a lot of the character 'classes' that have also come from previous games, such as Knight, or Combo Master, or Reckless. They don't do anything, but they're fun to play around with.
The battle system takes Tales of Destiny's battle system and expands it in a notably large number of ways. First, the AI is vastly improved - whereas in ToD only characters closest to the enemy would directly attack, here Reid and Farah will quickly both run forward to attack the enemy, Reid being the weapons master and Farah the martial artist.
In addition, there's a great many options to set each character's individual strategy - there's a series of sliding bars that let you decide what priority each character will give to normal attacks, special moves, defensive spells and offensive spells, and they do follow this well. You can also give a "Command" once per battle that will shift everyone's overall behavior, say, to totally defensive, totally offensive, or waiting for the enemy to get near, amongst others. In all, this does work well, although the spell casters can sometimes be too busy casting to actually move away from the enemies if one approaches.
In terms of normal attacks, there's no more of this running up and doing one swipe/stab/whatever. Instead, you can now chain attacks into a three-hit combo, and from there into a special move if you wish. Doing so will get you better combos and more experience points - those of you who remember the item from Tales of Destiny that gave you experience for combos will be pleased to hear you always have that in ToD2. In addition, people with friends will be glad to hear that anyone can instantly pick up a pad and play another character without the need for the Channeling item.
Although I don't want to give much of the story away, since it does move very fast, I will note that you'll end up with the traditional elementals to be able to cast spells - Ifreet, Undine, Gnome, Sylph, etc. Anyone who's played Tales of Phantasia will be in good hands here with the idea of the Elementals. You create spells by putting them in a Craymel Cage, and 'fringing' - bringing together - the two Craymel Cages. Certain combinations of Craymels (the ToD2 name for Elementals) will give you different spells, while having too many elementals in one cage will start to limit your spell options.
As you fight, the Craymels gain levels and you'll get more spells to use. The old favorites are back from the previous Tales games, going right up to Indignation, Holy Lance, and so on. A major change you'll notice, though, is that spells no longer stop the battle (and your combos) - instead, the spell fires off in real-time, as the battle continues to rage. With the larger spells this can make the battle seriously confusing to anyone who might be watching, but they're extremely pretty effects and by the time you're that far in the game that spells start to make such a graphical difference you can start to tell what's happening with each separate character in the battle.
Special moves are done in an intriguing system this time 'round. You no longer get special moves with experience - instead, you get a separate experience bar for both Slash and Thrust (or, in Farah's case, Punch and Kick). The more you use one attack type or another, the faster the bar will go up. After gaining enough experience, you'll gain a level in the style, and getting a certain amount of levels in one style will get you a new special move.
Again, Tales of Destiny staples litter the special moves, such as the repeated stab or the waves of force running across the ground. Sacred Skills are back too, but like all other skills they're not based on level - instead, you'll have to use previous skills a certain number of times and gain a certain amount of Slash and Thrust before it gets opened up.
There's only one real problem I have with this - none of the special moves are really beefy enough. There's no really satisfying skills such as Assassin, and while this means that no one character becomes better than another, it does also mean you can't do any really showy stuff when other people are watching. Which was, as we all know, the main reason for learning Assassin.
While all of this seems to come together to make an extremely confusing battle system, it does work a lot better in practice. The time spent with only Reid serves to introduce you to the battle system, while you can pull off some very good combos later on in the game, with both Farah and Reid attacking for all they're worth and spells adding to the combination streak - my personal best was 50 hits. Unfortunately, this system can make bosses rather easy - start to combo then and you can knock off a truly amazing amount of damage in one go. And then repeat.
As I said, I won't touch much on the story, but the main quest is always at the forefront and has enough twists and surprises to keep most people entertained. In addition, there are plenty of little side bits of story, with a very good set of side quests for one of the optional characters. In the same vein, there is a ton of secrets to find, from hidden locations on the world map to plenty of secret dungeons, including one tower full of puzzles and a very hard fight at the end. The arena is back for you to compete in, and the mini-games help to spice things up nicely.
Unfortunately, the game is marred by lots of little niggly points - the encounter rate is too high, the battle system too confusing to watch at times, the voice acting getting on your nerves, the AI's occasional glitches in battle, the extremely annoying pushing and pulling problem.
It's a great game overall, in my opinion, although if you don't like Tales games I'd recommend staying well away from it. Likewise, if you're the sort who tends to dwell on little niggling points, stay away from it. If you're a solid Tales fan, no doubt you'll love the new revamped battle system. A very solid game and a fitting sequel.