Tales of Phantasia
Platform: Super Famicom
Publisher: Namco
Developer: Wolf Team
Genre: Action RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: Japan 12/15/95

Graphics: 90%
Sound: 100%
Gameplay: 85%
Control: 80%
Story: 85%
Overall: 97%
Reviews Grading Scale
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Mint plans to heal a tree.
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The party flies towards destiny.
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Okay, we get it, they really like trees.
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The big boss baddie, Dios.
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Tales of Phantasia

Some of you will already be familiar with Namco's 'Tales of' series from its more recent incarnations on the PS2 and Gamecube. However I firmly believe that the cream of this series' crop was launched on the SNES waaaay back when the N64 was on the verge of release and 2D was out of fashion amongst popular games. A game that mixed the best of both Eastern and Western RPG conventions, Tales of Phantasia is an unsung classic.

Story: Not to give too much away, Tales of Phantasia (ToP) revolves around the exploits of a young swordsman named Cless who, after a brief encounter with an evil mage in his own time, is sent back through time with the virginal healer Mint in order to change history and find some way to defeat him before his powers can grow. Along the way themes of love, fate and death are touched upon, as well as the drive for revenge.

It may sound cliched, but the story manages to keep itself moving at a good pace; and despite the temptation to mimic lesser games, finds new territory to tread upon. Yes this game deals with time travel, but Chrono Trigger it is not. Once Cless and Mint are in the past there is no way for them to return home. They have to make the choices they deem right and live with the consequences of altering their own timeline. Such a theme, especially in the light of their other teammates being from the past and not fully understanding the enormity of events, is epic indeed.

Cless too is not your typical big-sword hero. He isn't out to do the right thing by everyone; rather, he wants revenge for an incident near the start of the game and feels that he has nothing else left to lose. Mint is the typical healer, but her morality clashes with his own darker motives as we begin to realize that she is the more humane hero. Challenging stereotypes is not new ground for RPGs, but rarely has it been done as subtly as this. Some could play the game through and never notice its underlying themes.

Additional story lines such as the quest to preserve Mana and return home are necessary additions to the plot and are implemented slowly with gradual buildup. However the main goal remains 'kill the bad guy and destroy his evil empire' throughout the game.

Gameplay: Within ToP there are a few innovations that, at the time of release, had not been seen before. The standard overhead view of characters and the talk, run, etc. menu options are all available as per RPG convention, but the use of a food sack, which can contain healing items for automatic use, and of 'Rune Bottles' to change the properties of items are truly original. The menu system is easily useable and allows for easy sorting of the MANY different items you will collect over the course of the adventure.

However the greatest innovation by far is the battle system, which does not use a turn-based system, but instead puts you as the player firmly in the shoes of Cless as he fights. Shifting the view to a side-scrolling field of combat, you can advance, retreat and deal physical attacks to the enemy whilst allowing the other members of your party to act according to your own pre-designated characteristics. Each ally has a selection of modes that range from 'conserve TP' to 'Cast lots of spells' and can even by ordered to do specific tasks by the player from a command menu that pauses combat.

You as the player also have a selection of special attacks that are learnt, found and bought throughout the game that can be activated in close or long-range combat by a simple press of a button. Distance from the enemy decides automatically which of these two skills is performed. As you progress, stronger abilities develop, and if you max out your learning period on each skill the chance to use high-level mixtures of two or three skills at once becomes a viable option. All of this adds to the thrill of leveling up a move and watching your abilities grow.

Sometimes the AI can be annoying; one example being a healer using a low-level spell when better versions are available or using too high a spell for her TP supply. To counteract this, the menu allows easy access to the full list of characters' moves at any time outside of combat, and each one can be turned off, making it unusable unless directly ordered so by you.

Some monsters do cause genuine groans of terror, as you realize that they are impervious to Cless' attacks and must instead be combated using the spells of your other party members; Cless remains the only physical character throughout the duration of the game. This can cause aggravation in some of the larger dungeons when you are saving every ounce of TP for the inevitable boss encounter. Small portions of TP are rewarded back to characters at the end of each battle depending on their level, but until later in the game this doesn't change the setup that much.

Additional features of gameplay, such as sub-quests and mini-games are also present, and satisfying rewards are supplied for their completion. These features add further to the shelf life of the game as a whole.

Graphics: One of the last games to be released on the SNES, ToP has some excellent graphical touches that can't help but make you smile. Water and mirrors reflect mirror images of your characters as they walk by, house interiors can be seen through windows and weather effects subtly alter the surroundings. Whilst characters do not have a huge range of emotional graphics to work with, the quality of the script allows for proficient storytelling and more than gets the point across in most situations. In combat, the sprites are bigger and have double the detail whilst retaining their anime charm. Every character's special moves include unique animations as well as the requisite hurt, dead, poisoned, etc. status effects that we all know and love.

Enemies are varied to a point, but do fall into the classic trap of 'same sprite different color' in a few places; a fact most noticeable in a battlefield scenario midway through the game. But this shouldn't put you off as this only tends to affect the world map, and each dungeon contains at least three unique monsters to decimate for EXP.

Backgrounds are lush and beautifully rendered; a high point being the forest areas which brim with detail. World map standards are also high and entry into a city depends upon which direction you come from instead of a single fixed location in most cases. When you gain a flying machine later in the game, the rendering on the mock 3D world map is astounding and rivals any other game released in that period.

Sound/Music: Where ToP really excels is with its sound. From the first moment you boot up the game you realize that this is something special. Opening with a famous quote about the morality of man, followed by an actual song with full vocals over a blend of images from the game to come, the realization that these are sound bytes of professional actors and singers begins to dawn. Indeed, the intro bills characters' voice actors like an anime would, and goes on to lead into one of the most involving soundtracks this side of Final Fantasy.

In battle (and out when the plot requires it) the characters speak the names of their special abilities when they cast them, as well as giving victory speeches and yelling when hurt or attacking. The tone and nature of these voices feach perfectly fits the character in question, and helps to draw you into the experience.

Musically, the score is for the most part memorable. One dungeon even requires you to match the music to the location in order to progress, which is an original puzzle indeed. Each character has a theme, as well as general areas and villains, and sound effects, though sparse, are well recorded and clearly recognizable.

Control: For the most part the controls are standard fare and very little can be said to alter the norm. However in combat they can become a tad annoying should a finger slip to an unwanted button at the wrong moment. Dashing off to attack the level 80 monster is NOT a good move with your level 50 swordsman, and seeing him dart across the screen only to be hit (and then because of the setup of the system, to remain in that spot) repeatedly until death takes him. Only having two moves at a time for Cless also seems to hamper the lead in comparison to everyone else, who have access to their full range of spells and summons in combat, but it does add a nice tactical side to choosing. Weapons are also hit and miss: some can hit flying monsters and some can't, some can hurt certain beasts, some can't. It all comes down to careful item juggling and the game rarely lets you pick a single weapon and stick with it. Don't be put off however, because once the system is mastered, it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Overall: ToP is a great game that was released too late onto a console on the way out. Had it been released at the same time as Final Fantasy 6 we might have seen a different page in RPG history. Alas, importing appears to be the only way to play this masterpiece.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An official US release of Tales of Phantasia for the Game Boy Advance is forthcoming. Stay tuned to RPGfan for more details as they arise.


© 1995 Namco, All Rights Reserved.

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