|Publisher:||Namco Bandai Games America|
With the holiday season coming fast upon us, there are a plethora of great games (and systems) coming out for gamers to choose from. Slipping in ahead of the rush, Namco Bandai has released another addition of its Tales franchise, this time being Tales of the Abyss. Is it a worthwhile play with so much else available at this point in time?
The game starts off with our main character, Luke: a teenage swordsman who lost his memory 7 years ago. He's also a spoiled brat who uses his amnesia as an excuse for not having any common sense whatsoever, although perhaps never being allowed outside his manor may contribute to that as well. Moving along quickly, you meet his long time friend and servant, Guy, and then his mentor and sword instructor, super cool tough guy Van. This fellow has more important, political things to do then work out with Luke, but for some reason he does it anyway, giving his long-time trainee lessons on hitting non-moving objects and blocking. Once you've got the basics down, a mysterious girl (Tear) comes and accidently knocks Luke and herself across the world into enemy country territory. Naturally, upon finding himself finally out of his dull, prison-like home and alone with a busty, beautiful female, Luke wishes to go home immediately.
The next few hours of the game introduce you to remaining members of your party and the political situation of near-war between the only two real countries in the world. Along with the aforementioned Guy, who is a gynophobe, there's the gold-digger adolescent Anise, the sarcastic and all-knowing Jade, and the stuck-up naive princess Natalia. If this all sounds a bit painful and generic to you, well, it is. At least, it is to start with.
Once you reach the game's big 'plot twist' (which you can sort of gather from watching the opening movie), things pick up a fair deal. The story itself, while never becoming particularly revolutionary, becomes fairly interesting. Once it gets the awkward set-up over with and really kicks in at the plot-twist, it continues to flow in a well-paced and less generic manner. It's also nowhere near as predictable as say, Tales of Symphonia (in which you were nearly gagged with foreshadowing), perhaps because the only character in this game that has any clue as to what's going on is Jade, and he doesn't share with anyone. The characters also become a whole lot more likable as they're developed as well. Luke's transformation from a whiny, ignorant brat to a respectable human being is well paced and believable. Between the multitude of side-quests and skits, as well as in the main game, the rest of the playable characters all receive a sizable chunk of development; everyone feels fleshed out by the end, and nowhere near as generic as they were in the beginning. The villains and other important NPCs don't get as much love, naturally, but they still get enough to be respectable characters by the end, for the most part.
The world of Auldrant, where our story takes place, is also a well developed character in its own right. The game creators put a fair bit of thought into the elemental magic system/science of fonology that the world uses. Everything is made up of the 7 fonons: the first six being standard elements like fire, shadow, ect., while the Seventh is basically memory. A fairly long time before the game takes place, a woman named Yulia used the Seventh fonon to read the Score for the world. The Score is the history of the planet, and people use it for useful things like knowing when to go to war, and figuring out what to make for dinner. There's a religious sect, the Order of Lorelei, that upholds the Score, and gives readings to the people. Led in name by Fon Master Ion (not a girl, despite the looks and voice), and in reality by Grand Maestro Mohs, this group plays heavily in the political dealings between the countries of Kimlasca and Malcouth. Aside from religion, fonons are utilized by fononists in a standard magical fashion (although when using the Seventh fonon for healing, the user has to sing a verse), and in various branches of science. Fontech machines range from music boxes to ships that can traverse land and sea. Even people are made out of fonons; if you're not feeling well, perhaps your blood fonons are low. The game goes pretty in-depth with it, and it really makes the world more interesting.
Of course, graphics are another important factor in bringing the world to life. Abyss is definitely the nicest looking Tales game to date. The world seems a bit on the small side, but what's there is pretty nice. Large scale buildings, in particular, look very lovely. The neck-straining views of Baticul and the plethora of waterfalls in Grand Chokmah do justice as their countries' capitols, although my personal favorite is the outside of the incredibly wealthy merchant Astor's mansion. Dungeon scenery and the great outdoors aren't as spectacular, but they fit the mood and style of the game well enough. The scenery has some nicely hidden treats all throughout the game, so you should also be on your toes looking for goodies. Anime cutscenes show up every now and then and are generally pleasing to the eye, save for a massive battle scene which looked the artists were feeling a bit lazy.
The character models are all cleanly crafted and pleasantly designed. There isn't as much detail as you might see in a Square Enix game, but the style doesn't really call for it. Clipping rarely occurs, and character movements are clean and natural, if slightly limited. Facial expressions, both in-game and in the skits (As seen in previous Tales games, skits are optional character dialogue scenes), are also well done. Be careful where you start watching a skit, though. There isn't much fading of the background during them, so if there's a save point or similarly bright object near the bottom of the screen, the letters can be hard to read and you'll miss out on what's being said.
After discussing graphics, a noticeable drawback needs to be mentioned- slowdown. This is most prevalent in the beginning of the game for some reason, perhaps because that's when you spend the most time on the larger continents of the overworld. When you're running to and from towns and twirling the camera around, you're going to experience lag. Areas with unique weather conditions, like the desert, suffer most. Dungeons and towns are mostly free of this, although load time in between scenes can be a bit long. If the loading screen looked interesting, it might be less noticeable. Also, all the items in the game have unique images; you may not notice this because the pictures don't load up until several moments after you've highlighted them in your inventory. As noted before, though, this is mostly a problem in the early stages of the game (well, the item screen remains this way throughout). Once you're halfway through, this issue is far less persistent.
Control-wise, there aren't any major problems in the game. The battle system's controls are responsive and intuitive (we'll discuss battles more a bit later), which is the important thing. Out on the world map, things control well enough when they aren't suffering from lag. Dungeons and towns are fine for the most part. The mascot character, a "cheegle" named Mieu, is used for various things like spewing fire and breaking rocks; there are a few times when the game is picky about how you're lined up when using these skills, and it can be a bit frustrating getting it just right, especially since you get a bit of a pause right after using these techniques. It can also take a bit to get yourself in the right spot to go up a ladder. Overall, though, controls are solid.
Something that is never an issue in this game is the balance between story cutscenes and exploration of towns and dungeon areas. You never feel bogged down with either of them. Abyss is most certainly a game, not a movie. None of the dungeons are exasperatingly long, but they're long enough to be fulfilling; they have enough twists and turns to avoid being linear, but there aren't so many that you're in a tizzy over which way to go next. Of course, there aren't random encounters in this game; enemies spawn on the map screen, and running into them will start a fight. This time around, they aren't represented by blobs but by the type of monster you're going to fight. The lack of forced encounters may be a big part of what helps the balance. Many of the dungeons have extra sections and goodies that can't be reached until later on, but you can see they're there, so you know to go back for them. On the flip side, the optional skits sometimes come in a flood, which may annoy some people, especially ones who want to watch them all, but not at that exact moment.
Of course, the real pull of the Tales series is the real-time battle system, and Abyss gives us another fast-paced, fun entry in this regard. It's not the same old hat, though, as this is the first of the series to have the "free roam" ability; that is, your characters can run around the entire battlefield instead of the 2D line they were stuck to in previous outings. Of course, if you want to still play in a line, you can; the ability to run around is an "AD" skill that you can choose to ignore, or even turn off if you like. Characters gradually gain a variety of AD skills through natural leveling up. These range from things like free roam to additional combo strikes, random stat boosts, and the ability to go into Overlimit (more on that in a bit). Your characters' actual sword techniques, magic, and the like are called "Artes" (with a silent "e"). Most of these are gained by leveling and usage, although there are some powerful ones that have to be gained through sidequests. Like previous Tales games, you link a number of them to your control pad buttons, and can short-cut some of the moves of your other characters to the one you're playing as well, to command them on the spot (or just use the command spots to hot-link more moves for the character in use). Eventually in the game you're given access to FSCs, which you can link to skills for random bonus effects like increased damage and lower TP costs. Another new feature in-battle are Fields of Fonons: colored circles that appear on the ground after an elemental spell or technique has been used on a particular spot. If it's powered up enough, and you use the right Arte while standing in one, the Arte changes to a more powerful one. Artes can also lead to Mystic Artes. I mentioned the concept of the Overlimit before; basically, each character has a bar that raises as they inflict damage on foes. When it's full, Overlimit can be activated- giving your character a brief time of increased stats. If you hit the X button after initiating an Arte while in Overlimit mode, your character will do a Mystic Arte, a unique, powerful, flashy attack. Using a Mystic Arte is also a good way to get some extra grade in battle (grade is earned or taken away for various accomplishments or inaptitude in battle; you can use it to carry over various things or create new challenges in a second playthrough when you've completed the game).
Some other things that affect battle: cooking is back! Recipes are collected through sidequests or just found sitting on tables. They can heal you as well give stat bonuses for your next battle. Capacity Cores can be attached to your characters to change their stat growth. You can't buy them anywhere (at least not in your first playthrough), but late in the game some can be made at a particular store that creates items for a low cost in exchange for resources that can be found primarily at Search Points (beams of light scattered throughout the world). Keeping on the subject of stores and items, this game features an interesting "Town Link Point" system. Certain actions you take throughout the game can increase or decrease trade between producing towns and supplying towns, which affects item costs. There's never any announcement about how many points you're earning, but prices for everything can easily be checked on your world map.
A returning feature that seems to have a bit of a downgrade is the Title system. As in Symphonia, characters gain equipable titles relevant to their actions either in the main quest or in side events. In this game, they cause raises in temporary points while standing still for the most part, but this isn't explained in the game at all; I had to look it up. Overall, there aren't many useful ones, so it seems mostly worthwhile to collect only the costume ones, which can lead to some entertaining skits. An unfortunate aspect of acquiring some titles is that they interrupt the mood of serious main quest scenes. It would have been preferable for the titles to be announced after the scenes are over, or at least not interrupt them with their little jingle. A particularly important and unexpected plot twist with Natalia stands out in my mind as being diminished because of a title being gained in the middle of it.
Aside from the titles, the in-game music is always appropriate for the scene, and matches the art style of the game well. Much of it sticks with you after you're done playing, and in a pleasant way. There's a large quantity of tracks in this game, so there isn't anything that annoys you by being overused. In fact, it's definitely the sort of soundtrack you can enjoy without having played the game. Overall, the voice acting in the game is well done. There aren't any moments of "Oh, my, they didn't actually look over the script at all before they recorded, did they?" and appropriate emphasis is seen throughout, although Van sounds a bit too flat at times. Mieu is annoying, but is supposed to be; he sounds the same in the Japanese version. Anise's voice actress seems to fall out of character at bit near the end (as in, she occasionally sounds a bit older than she normally makes Anise sound), but she still does a decent job; the Japanese VA for Anise sounds downright annoying, so I think we got a good deal on this one. We missed out in other areas, though. Once again, none of the skits are voiced in the English version, even though all of them were voiced in the Japanese version. When I first watched the opening movie, I could feel the lack of lyrics in the song, even though I hadn't heard it or anything about it before, and sure enough, it is a lyrical song in the Japanese version. The instrumental version we've gotten instead is very nice in its own right, however.
About 70+ hours after my hesitant start into this title, the game was drawing to an end. When I had begun, I was questioning whether I really wanted to play through the whole thing, but as the final battle was set before me, I found myself trying to find ways to draw it out so that it wouldn't be over so soon. Of course, there's quite a few nice treats and challenges that can only be found in the second playthrough, but I still didn't want my first outing to end. After a rocky start, Tales of the Abyss proved to be a truly enjoyable game; possibly the best in the series so far, and a contender in my book for game of the year.