Mention Tales of Destiny in a crowded room full of gamers and you'll get a lot of blank looks from people. People who hated the action-based battle system and high encounter rate. People who were turned off by the 16-bit graphics and less than stellar instruments. But, for every gamer who couldn't stand it, you'll find at least one other who waded through the slew of mediocre RPGs that bombarded the Playstation following FF7, stumbled across Namco's latest offering by pure chance, and discovered in it a true gem.
While the game passed by the notice of most gamers new to RPGs (who, admittedly, wouldn't even have been part of the market if not for Square's bigger-than-Jesus advertising campaigns), it sold respectably well among those longing for a breath of fresh air and a nostalgic trip back to the glory days of 16-bit, particularly after the hype surrounding Parasite Eve, Xenogears, and Final Fantasy VII. Later, in June of 1999, Working Designs proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that old school RPGs had a place in the American market, and many fans of ToD waited with baited breath for Namco to make what seemed the inevitable decision regarding a US release of Tales of Phantasia. And wait they did.
It is truly unfortunate that most of ToD's most avid supporters passed away quietly around this time, whether from being shamed by Lunar's relatively god-like (alright, so objectively god-like) translation and, for the "hardcore" gamers in the audience, graphics even worse than ToD's, or from asphyxiation it's unclear. And it's even more unfortunate that, with the upcoming Tales of Eternia scheduled for a US release and still no word regarding the PSX remake of Tales of Phantasia, we're not likely ever to see on these coasts the game that redefined 16-bit RPGs in Japan. But, if you've got some extra cash and a bit of Japanese under your belt, then by all means read on, because you're about to lose most of your free time to one of the most addictive games to come out in a good long while.
First off is the element that has always been the core of the Tales series; gameplay, and it's there in spades. There are precious few RPGs in which it's fun to fight, and Tales of Phantasia is probably one of the only games in which you'll actually find yourself looking forward to random battles. While both the original Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Destiny were plagued with an encounter rate that might try the patience of even the most avid gamers, the encounter rate has been drastically altered for ToP's PSX debut. On the overworld, downing a holy bottle now practically assures you safe passage from one town to the next without so much as a scratch; in most dungeons, it's now enough to get you through two screens worth. Furthermore, the dungeon encounter rate and the nature of the battle is now determined completely by what dungeon you happen to be traversing. Though the woods south of Tortis village, where your adventure first begins, yield about as many fights as traversing the flat plains of Dragon Quest 1, the final dungeon will have evil minions converging on you all at once. There, the encounter rate is noticeably higher, and many times in battle you'll find yourself trapped between one party of enemies and the next, the fighters keeping you occupied while the mages summon fire and brimstone and political campaigners to knock off upwards of 3000 HP per hit. This is a massive step up from the constant flood of mindless enemies in Tales of Destiny; as well as keeping you on your toes it adds a definite atmosphere to the game, one that'll have you taking battles a bit more seriously, to say the least.
In case you hadn't guessed already, the battles themselves are far more difficult than those of ToD; unless you bring along a strategy guide or are a veteran master of the LMB system, you're virtually guaranteed around ten well-earned defeats before you make it to the end. And, if that isn't enough for you, you can boost the difficulty level to hard at any time, not only increasing enemy statistics, but endowing them with greater intelligence. It may have been easy to slam a boss up against the side of the screen in Tales of Destiny and swing the rest of your battle party over to finish him off, but trying to pull that sort of thing in Tales of Phantasia on hard mode is likely to get you killed. And trying it on mania mode (only available after beating the game) is nothing short of suicide. Namco gets big points in my book for implementing the difficulty level so flexibly. Most people like to have a crack at the game's final boss on mania mode, but few of them would care to put up with the (effectively) random boss encounters in the entire game leading up to it. The only thing they might have done better is include a more toned-down difficulty level for those looking for an easy ride, but then again I'm certainly not one to complain about its absence.
As for the actual gameplay mechanics, you'll have a fair idea of what to expect if you've played ToD. Not a great deal has been changed, and what has been changed is largely for the better; ultimately, the game sticks rigidly by all the fundamentals that made ToD's real-time formula a success in the first place. Fleeing, for one thing, can now only be accomplished by reaching either edge of the screen and keeping the directional pad depressed until the running timer counts down to 0, the speed of the timer determined by the number, strength, and speed of the enemies present. This drove some people crazy in the original ToP due to the high encounter rate, but with the rate cut at least in half, it now seems perfectly reasonable. No longer are you able to wuss out of pincer attacks as in Tales of Destiny; the battles will actually force you to employ some spur of the moment strategy (in other words, pressing all the buttons at once to see what happens). Seriously, though, this is a well thought-out concept in premise, but, like so many good ideas Namco comes up with, it's overused, and pincers make up more of the game's fights than is really reasonable, or tasteful for that matter.
The only other change of any real significance is the addition of a "STAY" option for your characters who, stalwart companions that they are, will otherwise follow you unto the gates of Hell, and then sit there doing nothing until they've closed the breach with their dead. This was an unfortunate flaw in Tales of Destiny, and the fact that it's been fixed, however partially (there's no way to have this option on by default when entering a battle), is a cause for minor celebration.
As with ToD, control is pretty slick in the battle sequences; at least, what control is given to you. For better or for worse, you'll spend around thirty hours playing before you finally locate the equivalent of ToD's tech ring, and in the mean time you're stuck on control which is fully semi-automatic. This was all right in ToP for the Super Famicom, when the novelty of the battles was almost enough to carry the game on its own, but truthfully you could expect a bit more in the control department. Not that I mind in the slightest; when you finally do obtain it, and, subsequently, the ability to jump with total freedom, the game balance is rocked mercilessly, so much so that you'll have to up the difficulty a notch to ensure that you're playing the same game. In other words, it's probably for the best that Namco did what they did as far as control is concerned, but it's still an area that needs work. Giving enemy AI an actual capacity to defend against repeated jump attacks would have made it feasible for Namco to allow manual control from the very beginning. This is the only significant flaw as far as battle control is concerned, other than not being able to switch freely between characters. As always, it's unfortunate that you can't switch between different characters during battle, but unless you're a compulsive player switcher when playing games like Seiken Densetsu, this shouldn't bother you overmuch, although it's definitely a feature that would be appreciated by many if Namco ever came to implement it.
For those worried about the Tales multi-player experience, never fear, because Namco knows a good gimmick when they see it. The channel ring system of Tales of Destiny (read one of the ToD reviews for info) is retained in unaltered form, and furthermore, you pick up channel rings even faster than you pick up characters. This is a godsend for those who could never even find all of the channel rings in ToD, let alone have complete four-player capability within the first ten hours of gameplay. As always, the multiplayer Tales experience can't compare to a good game of Bomberman, but you still have to give Namco credit for including it as a feature.
As for actually controlling your other party members, I'll go as far as to say that they all control.appropriately. Half your party consists of magic users, so it'll be a while before you'll have a set of fighters that handle as fast and responsively as the main character, Cless. Most of your magic users control pretty sluggishly, dashing only slightly faster than Cless can speed-walk, but fortunately, the difference between how quickly they react to your commands is minimal. Though, admittedly, the difference in speed adds little more than further realism to the battles (although realism will always be a bit questionable with SD sprites capable of jumping 4X their own height), it prevents the game from being an enjoyable multi-playable experience for a long while.
Control outside of battles is overall well done. Total freedom of movement in eight directions is a definite plus, although it really should have been present in Tales of Destiny to begin with. Its only other notable aspect is that you actually move a little TOO fast while the dash button is depressed; so fast, in fact, that it makes the dash speed in Vay for the SegaCD look slow. And that's pretty damn fast.
As for graphics, if you ask me, they look great, and most fans of ToD will join me in singing their praises. There is a lot of detail represented in these backgrounds, particularly in the ever-popular Tales gimmicks of water effects and seeing your reflection in a mirror. Unfortunately, there's also a large amount of detail which isn't represented; just a glance at a screen shot of Saga Frontier 2's watercolor backgrounds and you'll realize that the hand-drawn medium is capable of doing a whole lot more. The graphics are dated, but also very nostalgic; I could have sworn I was playing a Phantasy Star game as I went through the last stretch of the final dungeon. This is probably the greatest appeal the graphics posses; they bring with them a lot of nostalgia, regardless of whether you've played the SFC original or not. As opposed to Tales of Destiny, the graphics of which felt occasionally garish and overdone in an attempt to capture the glory days of 16-bit, this game is 16-bit to the core. And for good or for ill, it shows.
Within battle, however, the backgrounds are chock full of detail, and everything down to enemy attacks contains some of the smoothest, sexiest 2D animation we're likely to see for a while, at least until Tales of Eternia comes out. And the sheer number of 2D backgrounds present in the game is quite impressive as well. For instance, get into a battle on a bridge and you'll fight over a paved stone walkway overlooking the water, get into a fight at night time (night and day cycles are, unfortunately, incorporated into the game only rarely) in a snowy field and both of these things are reflected in the area in which you fight. Namco hasn't cut any more corners than they need to on this one, and every locale which you'd expect to be wholly unique by glancing at the field map, is. As for the overworld, it's now fully polygonal, and one of the better ones found in a PSX game, at that.
Character design is done by Fujishima Kosuke of "Aa! Megami-sama!" fame, if that actually means anything to most of you. The point is, the character art looks terrific. And, in all honesty, I think I can say that pretty objectively: very few people will actually dislike it. As in Tales of Destiny, however, the anime sequences are precious few and far apart; there are effectively three in the entire game. The opening anime is visually very impressive, though the "Yume wa Owaranai" remix is bound to disappoint those who enjoyed the more upbeat sound of the original, and the ending, while containing no animation to speak of, consists of a series of very high quality stills that put the perfect touch to the end of the game. The mid-game sequence, on the other hand, while still visually impressive, is artistically very different from either of the others, and I'm not referring to the artwork. You'll probably enjoy it if you liked the FMV sequences in Final Fantasy 7, or if you enjoyed the rescored opening to the American version of Tales of Destiny. A lot of whiz-bang and little substance would be a fair way to sum it up.
Now, on to the soundtrack. It's composed by Motoi Sakuraba and Shinji Tamura, the former of Star Ocean 2 fame, so while I've never personally played SO2, it's a fair indication that you'll like at least some of his stuff. Then again, Uematsu swapped musical styles on us loyal FF-listeners around the time Square made the jump to PSX, leaving plenty of people disappointed, so in all honesty I can't discount the possibility that Sakuraba may have done the same since ToP's initial release in 1994. It's unfortunate that I can't put a solid recommendation behind the game's music, because quite honestly it's one of my favorite aspects of the game. The background music is very atmospheric, very appropriate to the setting, but, given the number of people who flip out over the FF7 and FF8 OSTs, it's not too well aligned with popular taste. Those who like the rigid, stiff, and predictable flow that Uematsu's work has taken on in recent years may want to mute the soundtrack entirely, as the music here is a lot more loose. It's quite clear these guys were aiming far more for simply what sounded good, rather than adhering to any single musical genre, or style for that matter. The result is a soundtrack of a variety that nearly matches that of Iwadare's Grandia soundtrack.
Over 64 tracks of music are represented in ToP's score, and there's no denying that they're a diverse bunch. The music spans across numerous genres and musical styles, and is overall very solidly composed, although the aforementioned looseness may cause RPG players weaned on FF7 to perceive some of the pieces as scarcely musically coherent ("Conclusion" and "Open Fire", which is too loose even for my tastes, being ideal examples of this.) Despite doing an exceptional job of fitting the moment, it may just be too far from the norm for some, particularly since the soundtrack is rarely ever pretentious when it doesn't have a reason to be. And clearly, from the number of people who scream and fuss over One Winged Angel and Liberi Fatali, being ostentatious sells bigtime. In ToP's soundtrack, a bit more emphasis is put on subtlety (did I just use an oxymoron?), and people accustomed to music the sort in which the composer is periodically bitch-smacking them around with every instrument in the piece at full volume may see some of ToP's compositions as being a tad shallow. In other words, I virtually guarantee you that every Uematsu buff in the audience will dislike it.
Another thing likely to turn a few away from the music is that the instruments leave much to be desired. Admittedly, they're nowhere near as reminiscent of 16-bit MIDI as the ones used in Lunar SSS, but in comparison to those used in the more prominent PSX games these days, there's a great deal of room for improvement.
Like I said, I can't solidly recommend the soundtrack, but if you love Grandia's OST to death, then you'll at least appreciate it for the variety. As far as stylistically similar soundtracks are concerned, the only game that comes even vaguely to mind is Phantasy Star 4. I may be going out on a limb here saying it, but chances are if you appreciated PS4's score, you'll like ToP's even more. Falcom music buffs will probably get a kick out of it too, even though every Falcom fan in the audience is bound to burst out laughing at the prospect of Falcom's musical offerings being compared to music composed for some 16-bit cartridge. Unless, of course, they've heard the music itself, in which case they'll probably just hmmph or mutter conspiratorially amongst themselves. And that's high praise, believe me.
As for the sound, really the only noteworthy thing about the sound effects is that they don't suck. Other than that, they're fairly unnoticeable. There's a bit more variety than in the average game, but other than that, it's pretty standard fare. Not too much worth mentioning.
The voice acting, on the other hand, while few of the seiyuu stand out as delivering a particularly outstanding performance, is very balanced and well executed, adding a completely different dimension to the game. In battle, your characters shout out their attacks as they execute them, and while most of the in-battle dialogue is merely above-average at best (Arche and Suzu's somewhat sub-average performances come immediately to mind), it adds an element to the game that is utterly essential to the Tales experience. The truly crucial battles in the game just wouldn't be the same without the opposing sides shouting at each other.which is one of the reasons I'm so unimpressed with the sort of show that Suzu and Arche put on in battle. Oh sure, it's swell when Arche cheerfully recites a spell within the context of a normal battle, or Suzu quietly rattles off one of her ninjutsu techniques, but when it comes down to the game-deciding battles, and I mean the really hard ones, no one wants to hear that sort of thing if they're losing ground. I mean no one. On the other hand, the male voice actors do occasionally seem just a little over the top in some random battles.particularly when you hear Cless scream "Makeru.mono ka??!!" at a helpless little rabbit, just prior to wiping him off the face of the earth with a sokuzanshouken. On the other hand, this is exactly the sort of thing you would want to hear when fighting some of the harder bosses.
One of the innovations which went probably more or less unnoticed in the game, but gives me hope that Namco might do something drastic like record two (or more!) sets of voice samples for Tales of Eternia, for normal battles and bosses, is that when you fight with Dhaos for the first time, Klarth occasionally shouts out stuff along the lines of "Dou da, Dhaos?!" and so forth, before or after firing off a spell. This is just one other nice feature (alright, so really more of a perk than a feature) compounded upon an already nice feature, and it impressed me quite a bit. Let's just hope Namco follows up on it.
Out of battles the voice acting is noticeably less of a mixed bag and more of a commendable one, with the actors delivering one of the more enjoyable performances to be found in a Playstation RPG. Probably one of the additions most deserving of praise in the entire game, one which should hopefully have any number of Japanese development crews smacking their foreheads and exclaiming "Why didn't I ever think of that!" is the conversation feature present on the world map. By simply pressing the select button while walking about in the overworld, your party's portraits will pop up and your characters will initiate a spoken conversation among themselves. In the very beginning, this is little more than a perk, albeit a really spiffy one, as your characters tend to stick to largely superfluous, story-based chatter. But as you progress further in the game, picking up characters as you go along, you really get a glimpse of what this sort of thing could do for a character development heavy company like Game Arts. Many of the conversations are absolutely hilarious, and a few of them give some genuine insight into the thoughts of your characters. The seiyuu must have gotten a serious kick out of doing some of the scenes, because aside from being funny as hell, they really round out the characters' personalities, barring them from succumbing to the one-dimensional character syndrome which prevented Tales of Destiny from being as much as it could have been. This is one of the game's greatest innovations, and you can expect Namco to build on it in the upcoming Tales of Eternia.
As for the story-relevant dialogue, it's really very sparse, and usually only present at crucial (as in the end of the game) points in the game. And, fortunately, you have the ability to turn it off without altering the other voices in the game, because the seiyuu rarely perform as well here as they do in the more "domestic" conversations. The only real glaring exception to the rule is toward and during the end of the game, where the acting is done really quite well. As always though, there are exceptions to that as well; the end of the game highlights of bad acting include some truly awful lines, delivered just as poorly, by Suzu, and some rather forced ones by Dhaos.
Despite a few flaws, however, the performance put on by ToP's small and close-knit cast balances out to be a memorable one, and nothing more need be said than that.
Finally, the story, the element which has elevated itself from generating only scant interest in the early RPG days to the make-it-or-break-it factor most gamers see it as now. And, while it certainly says something that ToP's story is absorbing enough to stand up to these high standards five years after its initial release, it's bound to be a let down for those looking for an epic story-line such as those found in the most recent FFs.
The game opens very cryptically, with a scene of a party of adventurers battling against a caped warlock. The archer is unconscious, the healer is grievously wounded, and the wizard begins murmuring an incantation as the fighter musters his fading strength and plunges toward the warlock, slashing blindly in desperation. It's like watching Record of Lodoss War with SD sprites ^_^. The warlock deals the swordsman a crushing blow, nearly killing him, and gathers his magic to finish them off, not noticing the wizard summoning his own magic until it's too late for him. This was actually a really neat-looking scene for the SFC, but the graphics just aren't as impressive as they once were; that, and the fact that for whatever reason Namco decided to try to synch up the voice acting with mouth movements on the SD sprites. It may even be slightly comical to someone who never saw the SFC version, or who's utterly clueless as to the battle's significance, but it's still enough to draw you into the story from the very start, (a far cry from ToD's story which took a good 10+ hours to get started).
15 years later, in the village of Tortis, Cless Alvein and his best friend Chester Barklight resolve to go hunting in the woods south of the village. Cless's father has instructed him since his early childhood in the art of the sword, and Chester grew up knowing how to use a bow (as you can see, if you're a Lodoss fan, there's a lot in here for you to take after fairly quickly). After some leisurely small talk on the way to the woods, Chester catches sight of a wild boar in a thicket, and they promptly give chase. Eventually they come to a large clearing, in the middle of which stands the skeleton of a massive tree; the boar is nowhere to be seen.
Chester: .Are you sure it ran this way?
Cless: .Well, I thought so at any rate.
Chester: Forget it, just stay put. I'll go take a look around.
(Chester runs off, leaving Cless a tad on the dejected side)
Cless: I know I saw it come this way.
(Cless begins walking towards the dead tree. A brilliant flash of light, and the image of a robed woman appears before the trunk, imploring him not to harm the tree. Then she vanishes. Looking up, for a moment that could have been a second or an hour, Cless sees a vision of what might have been, the tree lush and green and teeming with life, and then the vision is gone.)
(Chester runs back in)
Chester: Couldn't find 'im.you have any luck?
Chester: Hey, what's wrong?
Chester is about to say more, but at that very moment the boar reappears)
Chester: Ha! There it is!
(They make short work of the boar. Cruelty to anime-styled animals; the RSPCA would have a royal fit if they found out about it.)
Chester: (admiring his handiwork) Big sucker, isn't he? We'll probably have a hard time just getting him back, let alone anything else.want to call it quits?
(The sound of a bell ringing cuts off Cless's reply)
Chester: That's the village's warning bell!!
Cless: Come on!!
Cless and Chester rush back to find the village wrecked and the townspeople slaughtered by an unknown army. Not a single person has been spared from the destruction and thus, as the hero of an RPG, it is naturally Cless's destiny to hear his parents' dying words. Quite honestly, though, this scene is a step up from most melodrama in RPGs, as are many of the sequences in the game dealing with intense emotion. People who like watching soap operas are bound to be disappointed, but most everyone else should find it to be a nice change of pace. Cless acts more or less how you'd expect him to react, and after a momentary outburst of grief he takes ahold of himself and goes looking for Chester. He finds him bent over the body of his sister Amy, and after a long silence, tells him to come with him to find the answer to why the village was destroyed.
Chester: ...you're saying we should just leave everyone like this and run?
Cless: Chester, that's not-
Chester: No!! No, Cless! If you're going, go alone!!
Chester: ...I'm sorry, Cless.
Cless sets off on his journey alone, and a long and epic one at that. The only downside that's bound to repel some people is the story's simplicity; it's been left virtually untouched from the original version, and serves as just one of the many reminders that ToP is, in essence, a 16-bit RPG. Nonetheless, this is the story that redefined the 16-bit RPG epic, and I mean in the sense of epic fantasy, not a human (melo)drama like FF7. Taken in the context of 16-bit, this game would have sold like wildfire if it had ever been brought over to the US, and even by today's standards there's still a lot of enjoyment to be gleaned from the story.
Namco's biggest claim to fame regarding the story, however, is that virtually every line of dialogue has been rewritten for the PSX remake; in fact, every now and again, entire conversations have been reworked. The story remains true to its roots without being stale; every line of dialogue has been retouched with today's standards of RPG dialogue held firmly in mind. Sometimes they're terribly subtle things, which merely serve to better reflect the personality of the character in question, and sometimes they're blatant changes that alter the meaning of the dialogue entirely. But, taking the trouble to rework the dialogue so that the story is still fresh and entertaining, despite being four years old at the time of its release, is a huge step made by Namco, and the sheer amount of effort put into reworking the game rivals the care and consideration put into GA's Lunar remakes.
Now that I've discussed the good changes Namco's made to the story, let's discuss the bad. From the very top of my list to the very bottom is Suzu, an NPC character turned PC for ToP's PSX debut. Apparently, some terribly intelligent fellow at Namco thought "Hey! Why don't we make a playable ninja character? Everyone loves ninjas!" And, while I certainly can't argue with such exceptional logic, the actual execution of the idea leaves much to be desired. I guess I assumed that the staff at Namco, being the cool guys that they are, would manage to fit Suzu seamlessly into the story (she was already an established character in the original), and that she would end up as much an indispensable part of the cast to me as Arche or Klarth. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and Suzu falls prey to the generic secret character syndrome as much as Gogo ever did in FF6. When you get right down to it, it's not really any lack of motivation or anything of the sort that's objectionable, since her motives are.well, to avoid giving anything away, what you'd expect of her, I suppose. It's the fact that she ended up stuck with such a miserable seiyuu that gets to me, and she stands out like a sore thumb in your party of otherwise experienced voice talents. In other words, she sucks all the life out of the overworld conversations the instant you get her, which is most definitely not cool. Adding insult to injury, she's actually a very useful character, and a fairly essential one if you want to get everything that you can out of ToP's multiplayer options. Namco would have gotten some major points in my book if they'd only let you sell her off as a Euclid chimney sweep.
Despite a few flaws, the most notable one being Suzu, (and when a story's biggest flaw is completely optional, you know you've got some solid material) the story is still very involving, perhaps even more so by today's standards, since it's been a terribly long time since a game handed you the traditional RPG party, a la Record of Lodoss War. Every character is utterly unique in terms of both personality and role in battle; Cless is the swordsman, Mint the cleric, Klarth the summoner, Arche the mage, Chester the archer, and Suzu a ninja (or, to put her in a more traditional RPG class, the thief.) This is bound to placate all the fans of older FF installments who've been begging plaintively for the return to unique characters ever since FF5 first began the trend towards breaking down barriers of class, which, while probably making all the liberals happy, was a massive disappointment to most FF fans. If you've been waiting all this time for a traditional fantasy, then come on and get it, because meanwhile Square's just going to keep plunging ahead on its giant FF cash wagon, raking in the bills and ignoring all the fans being knocked off or suffocated under the weight of legal tender.
Another plus to ToP's storyline, which is a further credit to the charm of a more traditional plot, is that the presence of the villain is felt more or less throughout the entire game, unlike major villains like Sephiroth and Zophar, who only popped in occasionally for tea and scones. In addition, the characters more than liven up the times when the story slackens with their banter (which is actually amusing, unlike ToD's staler moments), and the ending is one of the most satisfying since Lunar: EB's conclusion to the epilogue. Add this to a solid soundtrack, nostalgic, hand-drawn graphics, great voice-acting, and a terribly addictive battle system with an adjustable difficulty level, and you have an installment more than worthy to carry on the Tales legacy (isn't that sort of redundant?). Anyone who liked ToD in premise but found that its execution left something to be desired would be foolish not to give the series a second shot, and if you're a fan of Tales of Destiny you should have already picked up your copy a long time ago. Tales of Phantasia is a traditional RPG of the highest caliber, and I would recommend it to all but those who utterly despised ToD. Here's hoping that the next time you preach the glories of the Tales series at E3, you'll be met with a smile and a nod, instead of a scowl or an empty stare. At least, before they tell you that you're talking to one of the displays.
|Conversation has been completely rewritten, and yet still keeps the same feel as the SNES version.
|The battle system now lets you choose your difficulty setting, and random battles have been cut down some.