Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Despite my vocal support for western-made RPGs, Japanese-developed games still hold a special place in my heart. Not because of the stories, which are almost always campy and poorly written, or because of the characters, who mostly end up as caricatures of anime archetypes, but because they are games that I grew up with. Much like Miyazaki or Pixar films, many Japanese RPGs retain an innocence and single-mindedness that I find irresistible due to their simplicity.
One of the series in which I often find myself indulging is the Tales series. Despite basically being the JRPG version of Call of Duty – at least one entry every year with only minute changes in battle system and story – there is no franchise I find more guilty pleasure in playing than Tales. Namco Bandai has moved onto potentially greener pastures with games such as Enslaved: Journey to the West, but mere days before this writing, they saw fit to announce a stateside release of Tales of Graces f, the series’ most recent entry. This decision couldn’t be better, as Tales of Graces f is one of the best games the series has turned out.
The story begins with the main character, Asbel Lhant, and his younger brother, Hubert, both young sons of a lord of the city of Lhant, exploring a hill near their childhood home. It is here that they meet a mysterious young girl asleep in a field of flowers who seems to suffer from amnesia. As the player takes control of Asbel, the first hour or so establishes the backstory and childhood of the central characters. Asbel meets various childhood friends such as Richard, the prince of Baronia, and culminates in a traumatic incident that rips apart the delicate relationship the central characters share, ultimately propelling Asbel to join an order of knights to discipline himself. The story then jumps ahead ten years, when Asbel completes his training as a swordsman. Shortly after his first mission, he finds out that his father has died in an invasion from a neighboring country. He returns to his hometown to repel the invasion and reunites with many familiar faces of his childhood, each greeting him with varied responses, from disgust to indifference to relief.
The story is rather one dimensional, and it sings the same tune as many previous Tales games, about how conformity/class prejudice/racial intolerance/generic social evil number 4 is inherently wrong and how friendship/unity/belief in oneself/the power of love can overcome all of society’s ills. Similarly, characters are cherry-picked from a basket of Japanese archetypes. I sometimes wonder what the Tales character designers do during brainstorming:
“Okay, we have a justice-loving, hot blooded main character, the Obi-Wan Kenobi dude with a checkered past, the pure and innocent girl, the mysterious girl with amnesia who is also the last in a long line of powerful warriors, a taciturn but ultimately warm-hearted person, the token animal… guy… thing… what are we missing?”
“We need to have a ‘hot chick’ with breasts the size of melons. She has to make the other girls feel insecure about their bodies and be overtly sexual to the point of near-parody.”
“Brilliant! Cheez-its and three day weekends for everybody!”
But I digress. Having the player control the characters from childhood and building bonds of friendship such that the player becomes attached to those characters is a method that works in theory – in Suikoden V, the first three to four hours was merely a setup for the player to connect to the protagonist’s family ‐ but in Graces, the execution has limited success, partly due to the short time the player has to connect with the characters, and partly due to how one-dimensional the characters ultimately end up being. Regardless, those who don’t mind the simplistic storytelling and character development will find the narrative to be a breath of fresh air. Tales of Graces f doesn’t pretend to be deep and dark when it really isn’t; it’s a storybook adventure that has a cast of rather likable characters. No more, and no less.
Contributing to this is the game’s art style, which draws inspiration from watercolor paintings. The environments take on a hand-painted feel, which further reinforces the feel of playing a storybook adventure. In an age where games and movies tend to be cynical, dark, and grim, Tales of Graces’ relative lightheartedness and storybook quality is an enthralling experience and a welcome change of pace. While the graphical quality of the game doesn’t push any boundaries – it is an enhanced port of a Wii game – the colorful trappings and lush locales make the quality of the HD upscaling less noticeable. Still, those with a keen eye for detail may notice some graphical differences between character models, which have been touched up for the move to HD, and the backgrounds, which received minimal attention. Overall, the slightly lower quality of the visuals is negligible.
By this point, my opinion on Sakuraba and his music should be well known; he has worn out his welcome when it comes to Tales games. He did not score a single track in this game that is memorable or even significantly different from previous entries in the series. He had already reached his zenith, and is now on a steady downturn. Perhaps a vacation from the series will do him some good and get his creative juices flowing again? In the meantime, why not ask Go Shiina (Tales of Legendia) for a return appearance? Or get some new blood into the music department for Tales Studio? None of these suggestions could hurt.
The voice acting in the game is competent, if a bit predictable. Each character’s archetype is rather easily filled by a specific tone of voice. Part of this stems from the nature of Japanese voice acting, and part of it is due to the inherent quality of the characterization. Regardless of the reason, it’s rather easy to tell what kind of voice a character has just by looking at their artwork. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that the voicework doesn’t provide any surprises or memorable performances. It should be noted that as of this writing, no voice actors have been suggested for the English version of the game. However, I would submit Yuri Lowenthal and Johnny Yong Bosch to play Asbel and Richard, respectively, as they have had incredible chemistry when playing in opposing roles, such as in the anime Code Geass.
The main reason to play Tales of Graces is the same reason to play any other Tales game – the gameplay. It’s no exaggeration to say that Graces has some of the best gameplay in the series. Battles are action oriented, and each character has two distinct styles of fighting, Arles and Burst. Both have different methods of attacking – Asbel’s Arles skills, for example, are quick attacks with a sheathed blade, while his Burst skills are slower, more powerful attacks with a drawn blade. Tales of Graces utilizes the CC system from previous Team Destiny games, with each attack costing a different amount of CC. A character is able to continue chaining attacks for as long as she or he has CC. CC recharges when the character is defending or taking no action, so battles are a frequent struggle to maintain a steady chain of attacks while keeping CC in sufficient supply.
Characters learn abilities and skills not by leveling up, but by equipping various titles earned through story progression, sidequests, and gameplay achievements. Each title has five abilities and skills to learn, which are permanently applied to the character, as well as a passive skill only active while the title is equipped. The abilities from each title are learned through SP gained after every battle, and mastered titles are granted an improved passive skill. Some of these skills are useless, but others are incredibly useful, especially on higher difficulties, when even normal battles can become heated affairs.
The intense and entertaining battles are a welcome break from the game’s generic approach to storytelling; the sequence of “town, dungeon, boss, repeat” got old a while ago. Still, Tales of Graces is quite a bit ahead of most other JRPG story structures (Final Fantasy XIII, I’m looking your way). Even the skits (called ‘Groovy Chats’ in this incarnation) are rather weak this time around, whereas they were comedy gold in previous games such as Tales of the Abyss. There are a good deal of sidequests and other extra content to be found in the game, and sidequest NPCs are conveniently marked with icons so that players don’t miss anything within the small time frames in which those NPCs are available. The game offers a variety of difficulty levels for different people – players who just want to have fun without too many hangups can choose simpler difficulties, and those who want challenge and difficulty can ramp up the difficulty, which increases not only enemy stats but also the amount of SP gained after battle.
Tales of Graces f is by no means a perfect game – if anything, it carries many flaws inherent to Japanese development. However, the fun that can be gleaned from this game far outweighs any problems the game itself has. The term ‘flawed gem’ perfectly describes Tales of Graces f; but the fact that the story, characters, and setting are all by-the-book JRPG clichés should not keep RPG enthusiasts from playing the game. In the end, Graces f is an incredible example of how an entertaining and enjoyable experience can trump hackneyed storytelling and lack of production values any day of the week.