|Developer:||Tales Studio / Namco|
The GameCube has long suffered from a dearth of RPGs. Namco seeks to quench gamers' thirsts for one with their release of Tales of Symphonia. The third title in the series to be released stateside, Symphonia does not revolutionize the genre nor does it make a large leap forward for the franchise; rather, it relies on the tried and true style the series has clung to for years and delivers a solid experience.
Plot is one of the most integral aspects of a RPG; a well-developed, coherent story will draw the gamer into the silicon world and undoubtedly make for a memorable experience. This doesn't necessitate a narrative being overly intricate with numerous plot twists; even an ordinary, clichéd tale can be invigorating if it's executed properly. Unfortunately, plot is one of Symphonia's weakest areas, and it's due to a type of narrative confusion. In essence, Tales of Symphonia attempts to have a complicated, morally-challenging plot, but it slowly dissipates into a predictable, trite account. The gamer is thrust into the world of Sylvarant, which is in a state of decline. The world's mana has been depleting, leading to much woe: monsters (surprise, surprise) amongst other things. Thankfully, a "Chosen One" is born every generation; this person is given the duty to complete certain quests in order to wake the goddess, who will then "regenerate" the world. Largely reminiscent of many other RPG plotlines, it doesn't start in an original manner. However, Namco made an attempt to spice things up by including Sylvarant's mirror world, Tethe'alla. Basically, by saving Sylvarant, Lloyd (the young protagonist) and his posse will destroy Tethe'alla. This inclusion sounds intriguing on paper; though it's not a terribly original twist, the moral implications alone hold the possibility for it making Symphonia's plot top-notch. Sadly, the game never takes this as far as it could have gone; the key to making the mirror-world scenario outstanding lied with the characters and their respective development and reactions. However none of the cast responds in a manner which would mold the plot into an intense drama over moral repercussions; the questions are raised but at no point does the story escalate to the level of drama and development it could have. Everything becomes horribly predictable, and in the end, the gamer knows the characters' responses before the text appears. This is a title where the character development is intrinsically linked to the plot progression; since the tale is more of the simple kind; it relies heavily on the cast to provide top-notch interaction and development. This isn't to say that Tales of Symphonia features a humdrum cast of characters; they have attractive personalities and passable development, but that simply isn't enough here. The game features "skits", similar to the ones in Tales of Phantasia. At certain times during travel, the gamer can engage in an optional skit where the characters simply talk to one another; it goes a long way to developing their personalities and adds a humanistic, personal side to the game.
The gameplay of the Tales series has always been a selling point; even when most console RPG's were utilizing the standard battle system seen in the Final Fantasy titles and the like, Tales games featured a more active and action-oriented one. Tales of Symphonia deviates little from this tried and true formula; like the games of the past, battles take place on a 2-D plane (don't let them fool you into thinking it's now 3-D...because it's not), as the gamer can move back and forth and fight enemies using an active battle system. Hack, slash, or cast magic, all in real-time! It sounds more exciting than the random battles and standard system(s) that everyone is used to, but in the end, it becomes quite repetitive. Gamers will find themselves simply hacking away for most battles, and rarely using any other options unless in a boss fight. Since you can only control one character at a time in battle, power is relinquished to AI for the rest of the party. Thankfully there are many settings for the gamer to customize in terms of default AI controls, thus allowing for different tactics for different battles. There are other odds and ends added into the game, such as the tech points and grading system, but they are of little consequence and serve only to satiate the most hardcore gamers; one does not need to continually utilize intricate combos or unison attacks to defeat the enemy. Tales of Symphonia does not feature random battles; enemies can be seen on-screen, whether you're crawling through a dungeon or traveling on the map. The problem here comes in the form of boss battles; after some practice, it becomes quite easy to avoid enemies (especially the blips on the map). Unless you're a crazy leveling fiend, you'll soon find yourself at the mercy of the next boss battle. So, in essence, you're forced to fight rather than avoid.
Once again, Motoi Sakaruba takes the helm to compose the soundtrack for Tales of Symphonia. His work has been seen in all of the previous Tales games, as well as titles such as Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean. His style is similar throughout; heavy percussion, with emphasis on bells and snare drums at an extremely fast beat. Coupled with the usual MIDI strings and wind instrumentation (and simple musical compositions thereof) he creates dozens of decent but ultimately forgettable pieces. Rarely will the music in Symphonia be "bad"; it's just bland, usual Sakaruba. In fact, I don't think if somebody switched songs from Tales of Phantasia to Symphonia or even from Star Ocean 2 that anyone would notice. They all sound the same. The voice acting and sound effects are of a better quality; nothing is terribly over-acted, even in the cartoon, light style of game. None of the voices grate on the nerves, and the lines are delivered with accuracy and emotion.
Tales of Symphonia features a combination of polygons and cel-shaded characters. The result is a colorful, cute world with variety, a welcome thing in a videogame that lasts over fifty hours. Though this combination definitely achieves the "cute" effect, the cel-shaded idea lost its luster long ago, and though some argue that it is appropriate, it just looks too dated. The polygonal backgrounds themselves aren't terribly detailed, simply colored. The textures themselves remain simple in depth. It's as if the eyes are being assaulted by the rainbow, but without crisp definition and profundity. The best graphics are during the battle sequences; these alone make up for the mediocre map graphics and the somewhat blurry and dated graphics elsewhere. Here, they seem much more defined, crisp, and more like the works of art they are.
Tales of Symphonia is no groundbreaking RPG; however, it is not only a welcome addition to the GameCube but the entire RPG community. It features a flawed but solid storyline, entertaining characters, bright graphics, and involved gameplay. Spend a few hours with Symphonia; you'll enjoy it.