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So you want to get into the Tales Series… (Part 2)

So you want to get into the Tales Series Featured

Other Entry Points to the Tales Series

As we noted, there are plenty of other entry points to the Tales Series. Read on to learn a bit more about everything else the series has to offer from multiple members of our staff.

Tales of Phantasia

Where to Play: GBA (Review) | iOS (Defunct) (Review) | Super Famicom, PS1, PSP (Japan only)

Cless, Arche, Mint, and Klarth, the main cast of Tales of Phantasia, outside of a castle.

Born out of a split amongst Wolf Team staff, Tales of Phantasia is somewhat of a miracle. Released on the Super Famicom in 1995, it carries all of the attributes that would become mainstays for the series going forward: a catchy pop song opening; colourful visuals; a funky Motoi Sakuraba soundtrack; and all the artes, spells, and summons that fans can probably now recite by heart. But it pushes the console to its limits, with voice work that required a brand new sound chip to be installed onto the cartridge.

By modern standards, this is exactly what you’d expect from an action RPG on the Super Famicom: basic. The story follows Cless Alvein and his childhood friend Mint Adnade (sorry, these are the correct spellings in my head) as they travel back in time to save the world. The chirpy mage Arche and grumpy summoner Klarth (Claus? Who’s that?) make this cast much more exciting, with a brilliant villain in Dhaos, one of the best sympathetic villains in any RPG. The combat is very clunky and the dungeons are often infuriating, but I can’t resist the charm of the Norse mythology-inspired world and the Kosuke Fujishima character designs.

But you see Super Famicom mentioned here, so how can you play this often-overlooked gem? Well, there are ways, some of which I can’t tell you… luckily, Phantasia has received multiple rereleases over the years, except the best versions (PS One or PSP) are stuck in Japan. But don’t worry, there are two versions you can officially play in English.

First, there’s the GBA version, which retains many of the PlayStation additions along with an extended bonus dungeon. But playing on the GBA screen is less than ideal, the sound quality is significantly reduced, and combat crawls at a snail’s pace. Oh, and the less we talk about Kangaroo Wars, the better. There’s also a mobile version which, one, upped shop prices and reduced save points to encourage you to spend real money to keep yourself playing and, two, it’s no longer available. There’s probably a reason for that, right?

I’ve been very vocal about how frustrated I am that we’ve never received a definitive release of Phantasia over here. I’m still praying for a true, complete version to reach our shores in the future, but for now, Tales of Phantasia: The Animation will have to keep me satisfied. I’d wait before nabbing a GBA copy in the hopes we will one day get that PSP version.

by Alana Hagues

Tales of Destiny

Where to Play: PS1 (Review) | PS2 (Japan only)

A character casts a spell in battle in Tales of Destiny

Though preceded by Phantasia in Japan, Tales of Destiny was the West’s first entry in the Tales series. An easily-overlooked gem in the late ’90s JRPG typhoon, with its diverse cast, unique battle system, and unpredictable story in a well-crafted world, it’s easy to see within the first hour of play that Destiny is something else.

The plot centers around the dim-witted but likable Stahn Aileron, a country boy who finds a sentient sword (a Swordian) called Dymlos while stowing away on an airship. Soon after, Stahn and Dymlos meet and begin traveling with other Swordians and their wielders. Many of Destiny‘s early interactions focus on exposition delivered by the Swordians, and as in many Tales games, the relationships between party members make up one of Destiny‘s strongest qualities. So, by the time the narrative spirals into something unique and iconic, it’s easy to find yourself heavily invested in the party’s backstories.

Despite many reviews at the time labeling the visuals as outdated, Destiny‘s sprite-based aesthetic has aged quite well for a PS1 game, and it looks like something we might still see today in an indie title. The character and enemy sprites are overflowing with detail, and the environments are designed with a lush color palette.

As one would expect of a sprite-based game, battles are two-dimensional side-scrolling affairs. The series’ fighting game inspirations are especially evident here, with the most advanced battle options requiring fighter-style button inputs to execute artes. In addition to being characters, Swordians function as actual weapons that can be heavily customized by equipping discs to alter their stats and give the wielder access to new spells. One of Destiny‘s biggest frustrations is that each character had such a unique feel in battle, but without utilizing a second controller and fiddling with AI options, players could only control Stahn. Luckily, the series has since corrected this issue.

Destiny is also chock-full of mini-games and puzzles, and many of them are nods to Bandai Namco’s older arcade titles. The most notable examples are a Galaga-styled naval warfare segment and an optional endgame dungeon based on The Tower of Druaga. These little distractions are usually short and fun to tackle, rewarding the player’s curiosity.

If you’re more familiar with modern Tales titles, this one will show its age, but for anyone with an appreciation for classic JRPGs or a desire to experience the roots of the series, Destiny is worth checking out.

by Kyle Seeley

Tales of Symphonia

Where to Play: GameCube (Review) | PS3, Windows (Review) | PS2 (Japan only)

A shot of the main character Lloyd Irving in an anime cutscene in Tales of Symphonia

Tales of Symphonia was many Nintendo fans’ (including myself) first foray into the Tales series. Tales of Symphonia was a Nintendo GameCube “exclusive” for a short time before finding its way onto many other platforms, including PS2, PS3, and Windows, all with additional content not present in the original GameCube version.

The story takes place in Sylvarant, a declining world which must periodically be restored by someone undertaking a Journey of Regeneration in order to sustain itself with mana. This is carried out by the Chosen, who undergoes many trials and hardships on their pilgrimage. This time around, the Chosen of Sylvarant winds up being main character Lloyd Irving’s childhood friend, Colette Brunel, whom he joins on her quest. Symphonia has some of the best and most memorable world-building and dungeon designs of any RPG I have ever played. The incredible soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba lends itself well to the unfolding story, which has more than a couple of twists and turns throughout, some of which will be sure to make your jaw drop. So if you love a story that’s all about challenging fate, facing down discrimination, and embracing idealism, look no further than Tales of Symphonia.

One of Symphonia’s greatest strengths lies in its large cast of playable characters, numbering nine in total. All of these characters have their own quirks and gimmicks, so you are sure to find someone who suits your playstyle, be it magic spells or close-quarters combat. The battle system is mostly par for the course for Tales, but Symphonia sports the linear motion battle system in full 3D for the first time in the series. But there’s a catch; only enemies can move freely on the 3D plane, while the player is stuck moving left and right, towards or away from an enemy. It;s not as big of a deal as it sounds, but it is somewhat frustrating to know that the enemy has such a distinct advantage over you.

There is some level of customization present here through EX Gems, but in my experience, this impacts the magic-based characters more than anyone else. Basically, players can choose skills on either the Technical or Strength side of a spectrum on each EX Gem. These affect parameters on a micro level, but on a macro level, they affect the types of artes characters learn as they level up. For example, on the Technical end, Genis might learn powerful area-of-effect magic spells, while on the Strength side, he has access to more ultra-focused, insanely powerful magic spells.

Between a memorable cast of characters, compelling story, and dynamic gameplay, it’s easy to see why Tales of Symphonia is so beloved by many to this day. In my humble opinion, it is a fine entry point into the series, as long as you don’t mind certain parts of the battle system being somewhat outdated compared to more recent titles.

by Josh Louis

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World

Where to Play: Wii (Review) | PS3, Windows

A shot in a character called Emil walking through a volcano in Tales of Symphonia Dawn of the New World

Tales of Symphonia is a beloved entry in the series, the definition of a fan favorite. Its sequel, Dawn of the New World, is… not. Acting more like a spinoff than a full-fledged follow-up, Dawn of the New World cannot escape feeling like a budget title compared to the original. From the playable cast (featuring only two full party members, with the other slots filled by captured monsters or temporary members who cannot change equipment or gain experience) to the story (an unnecessary “happily ever after isn’t actually that happy” tale that opts to introduce new problems rather than explore any seeds laid in the original), the sequel does nothing to expand on what made Symphonia great.

While Dawn of the New World sees the return of most playable characters from Symphonia, the focus is placed squarely on new protagonists Emil and Marta. Unfortunately, neither make a big impact. Emil plays with the old “mild-mannered boy whose more aggressive personality comes out during battle” archetype. Unfortunately, his meek side goes too far, with his passive refusal to ever participate in the story proving more frustrating than any payoff his character later provides. Marta fares a little better, energetically supporting Emil, but her devotion leaves her devoid of any development as her entire personality is too tied up in Emil’s growth.

In proper Tales tradition, things get more complex, especially when the villains come forward and the mysteries of numerous characters’ tragic backstories come forward, but neither the outcome nor the gameplay offers sufficient incentive to stick out the long haul. Collecting classic Tales monsters seems appealing, but the capturing mechanic is cumbersome, and monsters cannot be controlled in battle, limiting the variety available for players looking to take advantage of the whole party. Sidequests drag you through the same handful of maps over and over, and repetitive cutscenes and belabored dialogue slow the pace.

Simply put: play the original Tales of Symphonia and hold that memory dear. Don’t let the sequel muddy the waters.

by Wes Iliff

Tales of Legendia

Where to Play: PS2 (Review)

A shot in combat in Tales of Legendia featuring Senel, Chloe, Will, and Norma.

Tales of Legendia is a divisive entry in the series. Developed simultaneously with Destiny 2 (the Japan-only one) and Symphonia, Legendia feels like an alternate history Tales game thanks to its unique development team. Combat took on a new feel thanks to heavy input from people who worked on the Tekken and Soulcalibur series. Tales‘ stalwart composer Motoi Sakuraba is absent, so music duties fell on Go Shiina, who would later contribute some of the most unique tracks of later entries. Character designs felt fresh, too, with Kazuto Nakazawa (best known for their work on anime such as the El-Hazard series and Samurai Champloo) providing a more colorful, cartoony look for the cast.

This meant, even though the game launched two years after Symphonia, it lacked some of the unique evolutions the GameCube game brought. Battles moved back to a 2D plane, random encounters returned, and exploration featured a pulled-back camera that harkens back to an earlier generation. The game saw mixed reviews, especially in the West, with many fans disavowing Legendia as an oddity to be forgotten.

But that ignores what a distinctive and special entry Legendia is. While certainly not a game for the Tales neophyte, Legendia’s unique lineage offers something tantalizing for fans who are curious about what might have been. The input of fighting game veterans makes the 2D combat feel completely different, with quick footwork being rewarded and juggles, combos and throws providing a degree of tactical thinking uncommon in other entries. The audiovisual package is bright and poppy, the characters look unlike any others in the series, and some of the most interesting writing takes place after the main game through lengthy character episodes that focus on bringing each character’s individual arc to a close while continuing to introduce unique gameplay mechanics, like crafting and arenas.

Tales of Legendia is a game for longtime fans who have seen both the modern era and the origins of the series.  Its changes come into stark relief when you’ve got the context of where the series started to where it progresses after the fact. But don’t let its mixed reception ward you off: Tales of Legendia is a tale worth experiencing. Eventually.

by Wes Iliff

Tales of Hearts R

Where to Play: Vita (Review) | DS (Hearts, Japan only) (Review)

Kor Meteor holding a sword aloft in Tales of Hearts R

Tales of Hearts R is a Vita remake of one of several Nintendo DS Tales games never released in the West. If that’s not enough of an uphill battle alone, Hearts R‘s localization feels like it was made for an English dub that would never get produced, leaving odd disparities between voiced lines in Japanese and the text the player reads, including changing character names. And while the Japanese voices were left intact, Hearts R marks the most recent entry in the series that replaced the vocal intro with a dull instrumental track.

All of this is to say that Hearts R faced a struggle when it reached Western audiences. This is even before considering combat that felt dated compared to the previous year’s Xillia, a plot that lacks a compelling hook, the return of random encounters, and characters that feel surprisingly subdued considering their often outlandish designs.

But all’s not wrong with Hearts R. The unique progression system sees party members evolve by upgrading gems — called Somas — leading to new abilities, stat buffs, and even new weapons. Combat makes basic attacks more interesting with the Chase Link system reintroducing juggling to the series, and the varied designs and playstyles of each character make using different party members feel fresh.

All told, however, Tales of Hearts R feels like a step back at all times. It’s not a bad entry for longtime fans hungry for more Tales, but it’s unlikely to make any lifelong fans of the series. Instead, Hearts R is just… fine. And with the Tales series, you can always do better than fine.

by Wes Iliff

Tales of Graces f

Where to Play: PS3 (Review) | Wii (Graces, Japan only)

A shot of one of Asbel Lhant's Mystic Artes in Tales of Graces F

In 2009, Tales of Graces came out in Japan, but it wasn’t until 2012 that an enhanced PS3 port, Tales of Graces f, made its way to the West. Graces was, and still is to this day, a contentious game within the series. 

Graces received almost universal praise for its combat, which many people — including myself — consider the best in the series. Following earlier Japan-only titles, Graces used the Chain Capacity (CC) system, where CC regenerates over time, instead of the TP systems known to Western fans. And standard attacks are replaced by artes in Graces. These “Assault Artes” are represented by a tree of possible artes, each costing more CC than the last. “Burst Artes” are more like the standard Tales artes you remember, a repeatable ability that costs a set amount of CC. Assault and burst artes can be chained together for a staggering number of potential combos. It is hard to describe how smooth and natural it all feels until you experience it, but I consider it nothing short of perfection and an absolute triumph in action RPG design. 

While beloved for its combat, Graces is just as often panned for a lackluster story. I’m not as down on the plot as many others, but I will admit to its flaws. Graces can be quite juvenile in its understanding of the world and the decisions made therein. Not only that, it drags on far longer than feels appropriate. And while beautiful in its own right thanks to its painterly style, Graces isn’t as technically appealing as other PS3 titles due to its origins as a Wii game. And, love his work or hate it (I love it), series composer Motoi Sakuraba, alongside Shinji Tamura, provided the soundtrack.

Despite issues with the story, Graces is incredibly charming when it comes to its cast of loveable weirdos, largely thanks to how damn hilarious they are in skits. I would go as far to say that it has one of my favourite parties in the series, including one of my favourite Tales characters — the eccentric genius Pascal. 

In most Tales games, characters receive cute, ultimately useless “titles”, but Graces does something more interesting with titles and makes them akin to jobs or classes in other RPGs. Leveling up titles improves a party member’s stats and teaches them new artes. It is a simple system that leads to a ton of customization when combined with setting artes of your choice.

I love Graces, but it is hard to recommend it as someone’s first entry. The top-tier combat could make it difficult to go back to earlier games. It isn’t readily available on modern consoles or PCs. And it is absolutely crammed full of references and cameos from past titles. Still, once you have some Tales experience under your belt, I consider Graces an unmissable gem. The stellar combat also makes it one of the best entries to play in multiplayer.

by Izzy Parsons

Tales of Xillia

Where to Play: PS3 (Review)

A character, Jude Mathis, holding another, Elize Lutus, back in Tales of Xillia

I feel like Tales of Xillia gets a bit of unwarranted flack. It’s absolutely not the best in the series, nor does it have the best music or story. And it’s far from exciting or bright looking. But Xillia has a few unique wrinkles that make it worth a look.

The most recognisable aspect of Xillia is that you can choose who your main character is at the start. There’s Jude Mathis, a teenage medical student who can cause some hurt with his fists, and Milla Maxwell, the reincarnation of the god Maxwell who commands the four elemental spirits of fire, water, wind, and earth. Your choice doesn’t affect the overall story, but the plot occasionally diverges in really interesting ways because of the perspective you’ve picked. The story itself is intriguing, and there are some exciting twists in the middle portion, but it suffers from an underbaked third act. After release, the developers revealed they had to cut a lot of corners to meet the series’ 15th anniversary, which is why a direct sequel even exists.

The combat is where this game truly clicks, though. Xillia utilises Link Mode, which allows one character to link up with one other character on the field. The player-controlled character dishes out the most damage, while the linked AI partner supports by taking damage and surrounding the enemy. The real magic comes in the form of Linked Artes, which can be triggered by filling a gauge and activating specific attacks. So if Jude uses Demon Fist, he can trigger Demonic Chaos if he’s linked with Alvin, and these can be comboed together until the gauge runs out. It creates some chaotically delightful fights, but it also makes the game very exploitable. Fortunately, it’s almost perfected in the sequel.

Really, Xillia is more Tales. In fact, it’s probably the biggest distillation of the series’ annualisation during the early 2010s and runs with all of the tropes the series is known and not always loved for. But look past the grey exterior, and you can still have a lot of fun here.

by Alana Hagues

Tales of Xillia 2

Where to Play: PS3 (Review)

Two characters, Ludger and Elle, looking off in the distance in Tales of Xillia 2

Tales of Xillia 2 is… divisive, to say the least. Some will try to tell you this is the worst Tales of them all, taking shots at the story, level design, and that accursed debt system. And, well, they’re not wrong; this is by no means a masterpiece. Instead, it’s a messy game with a heart of gold.

Xillia 2 is, for all intents and purposes, the story of the Kresnik family trying to save reality itself. It’s been two years since Rieze Maxia and Elympios realized they were next-door neighbors, and some alternate reality hullabaloo threatens to destroy everything we fought for in the first Xillia. In short, take sci-fi but make it meh. That’s okay, though. They can math-math-science us as much as they like because where Xillia 2 truly shines is it’s characters.

All of our favorites from Xillia Vanillia are back and as charming as ever. Jude has been inventing, Elize has been learning to be a regular kid, and Alvin has been hard at work growing a truly terrible goatee. Rowen and Leia have swanky new jobs, and intriguing anti-heroes like Gaius and Muzét even get some much-deserved characterization. Then there’s Ludger, the silent protagonist that manages to have a personality and charm all his own. It’s his arc with Elle that truly elevates this game, a found family concoction so potent that I almost forgot about the timey-wimey tom-foolery it was hidden underneath. They are the heart of this game and make every science-fiction trope misfire worth it. Actually, scratch that. Rollo is the heart of this game: the round, fluffy, mafia-don heart of this game.

If the characters are what hook us, it’s the battle system that keeps us. Taking the foundation from Xillia and baking in a deep elemental weakness combo system, this game forces you to adapt to survive. Gone are the days of bread and butter combos that you repeat until your thumb swells. Rather, every fight, even random encounters, must be approached with weaknesses in mind. Bosses are subject to the same rules, meaning that in-game skill and planning make boss encounters all the more fun. As much as I love this series, I hate chipping away at bosses just for them to inevitably break out of my combos with a deadly super-move. Xillia 2 changes that, and I can only hope that future Tales look to it for inspiration one day.

by Kaleb Curry

Tales of Zestiria

Where to Play: PS3, PS4, Windows (Review) (DLC Review)

A character, Lailah, in fiery combat in Tales of Zestiria

Watch Tales of Zestiria The X.

Okay, but in all seriousness, Tales of Zestiria is the black sheep of this series. And yes, I said I quite liked this back in 2015, and I’m still paying for that. But I do think it’s better than what many have said, and it has some really good ideas that are fully realised in the next game in the series.

The story follows Sorey on a quest to become the next Shepherd and save the world from Hellions. He goes around the world gathering Seraphs with his water-based Seraph friend Mikleo. As the Shepherd, Sorey (and later, the thief Rose) can perform Armatization in combat, which means he fuses with one of the Seraphs to become an extremely powerful combatant: who you Armatize with changes how you attack. Mikleo’s Armatization focuses on magic and long-ranged archery, while the earth Seraph Edna is much more close combat based. When things come together, it works so well.

But there’s so much going on that it makes Zestiria buckle. There’s an entire weapon fusion system that’s extremely convoluted that you’re never clear how to get the best out of it. The maps are also more open than previous entries, but it turns out you can also get very bored running through the same three luscious green fields over and over. (But those temple dungeons are good!) There are no combat arenas either, meaning if you get into a fight in a tight corridor, expect some horrendous camera angles. And the plot, even for series standards, is bland, with uninteresting villains, lacklustre characters, and story beats that are just glossed over.

But hey, Go Shiina contributes to the soundtrack, and his compositions are the best songs in the game.

The good points don’t outweigh the bad points in Zestiria, sadly. But my little joke at the beginning wasn’t exactly a joke. Tales of Zestiria The X really is the best way to experience this world and these characters. And as Zestiria happens thousands of years after Berseria, there are plenty of lore drops that will leave you itching to play the next game.

by Alana Hagues

Tales of Arise

Where to Play: PS4, PS5, XB1, XBS, Windows (Review)

In a grassy area, an armoured man attacks a wolf-like beast in Tales of Arise. The swing of his sword tears up earth which throws the monster back.

After five long years, the newest installment in the Tales franchise has arrived, and the wait was worth it. With best-in-class visuals and gameplay to match, Tales of Arise makes a solid case as one of the strongest games in the series. Gorgeous textures and lighting blend seamlessly with a top-tier Sakuraba soundtrack. These, in turn, elevate a surprisingly mature narrative that addresses real-world problems.

Arise isn’t just an audio-visual spectacle, though; its combat is in the running for the most satisfying in Tales history. Combos are smooth and easy to pull off thanks to well-designed artes and a regenerating artes gauge. Additional systems like boost attacks, boost strikes, and over limit work together to keep the action nonstop. Plus, no other Tales game boasts mages and healers who are as fun-to-play and powerful as the fast and furious melee attackers.

The game doesn’t stop there either, because Arise is absolutely packed full of content. There are numerous and varied sub-quests, minigames like fishing, several optional dungeons, and owl-based collectathons — whatever your taste is in side content, Arise has you covered. Much of this side content also unlocks titles for your characters, which in Arise act as more than just amusing tags, but as mini skill trees. The game also hosts an impressive array of quality-of-life features to complement its breadth of gameplay options. Standards like fast travel and an extensive journal are as appreciated as unexpected details like being able to watch missed skits at camp or setting notifications for when you obtain enough skill points to buy a new skill.

There isn’t much that’s negative to say about Tales of Arise. If you want to experience the series for its multiplayer, then Arise unfortunately lacks it. Otherwise, superb accessibility, its availability on all modern consoles and PCs, and a lack of reliance on past titles make Tales of Arise a perfect first dive into the series. It’s a game both fans and future fans won’t want to miss.

by Izzy Parsons

Wes Iliff

Wes Iliff

Wes learned to read playing Dragon Warrior on the NES and they haven't stopped playing RPGs since. Through a superhero-esque origin story, they started writing like crazy and eventually ended up writing features at a site they'd been reading since high school, which was... some time ago. They love sharing the joy in whatever flawed masterpiece has caught their attention this week, usually to the captive audience of their spouse, children, and small menagerie of pets.