Question: when the game industry comes along with a good thing, what will they do with that thing? Answer: milk it dry, and run the brand name into the ground.
Though the Tales series is still going strong (Vesperia received plenty of good words from the gaming press), there was a time when I feared the good folks at Namco Bandai (well, just “Namco” back then) were going to shoot themselves in the foot. It all started when they felt that one development studio wasn’t enough to regularly release games in the Tales series. So, a new studio formed, and under the name “Project MelFes,” work was done to create two large-scale Tales games at once. Project MelFes would bring us the underwhelming Tales of Legendia, and the main Tales Studio would give us Tales of the Abyss only a few months later.
Though Legendia may not be a true abomination, it is indeed a dark blemish on the Tales series’ track record. If you haven’t experienced the game for yourself, allow this brief review to take the place of the firsthand experience. You’ll thank me for it.
Floating Islands and Flailing LMBS
When the game opens, we find Senel Coolidge (no relation to Calvin) and his adopted sister, Shirley, on a boat. Shirley freaks out because the sea breeze is making her sick, and Senel desperately searches for a place to land until he finds what he thinks is an island. As it turns out, this miles-wide island is actually an enormous ship with a natural landscape. Its name is “The Legacy,” and it apparently was created by an ancient race of beings. I think we know where this is going already, don’t we? Senel and Shirley, who end up having very direct ties to the ship, will have to save the world by preventing bad guys from taking over the newly-discovered ship, which they would undoubtedly use as a weapon of war.
Senel quickly makes companions out of unlikely allies: Will, the scholar and mayor of the one town found on the island; Chloe, the knight from a foreign land trying to redeem her family name; Norma, the terribly annoying treasure hunter; and eventually, even people you thought were enemies will make nice and join you in your quest. Much of the game is spent rescuing Shirley from being kidnapped, trying to protect her (only to have her kidnapped again), and then more rescue. Rinse and repeat. It’s all rather formulaic.
All of Senel’s teammates have one important thing in common: they know how to use “eres.” Eres is energy, the essence of life. It’s chi, mana, that sort of thing. Some people use “iron eres” (physical abilities), and others use “crystal eres” (magical abilities). Thus, your rag-tag band of heroes is conveniently ready for the hundreds of random encounters awaiting you because they can harness the energy of the world. Hurray!
Battles, like many other parts of Legendia, are ripped clear out of previous Tales games. Using the LMBS (linear motion battle system), random encounters are essentially a mini 2D fighting game, but with some menu-based commands to break up the otherwise-realtime action. Now, disregarding the obvious fact that this 2D setup looks ugly when working with these blocky, quirky 3D models, the combat itself is also rather unfulfilling. Comparing it to the truly 2D Tales games (Phantasia, Destiny, Eternia), Legendia feels like a step in the wrong direction. I don’t know if the fault is primarily that of the programming, the engine, or just the 3D artists; but I was unsatisfied. Hit detection was off, character movement is clunky, and many skills turn out to be useless in the average battle. And, generally, there’s no point in using standard attacks. It’ll be non-stop ability usage at all times, which makes for a very busy battlefield.
And why am I suggesting you will always be using skills? Because learning new skills requires that you repeatedly use old skills. Once you’ve used a certain skill a designated number of times, you get an upgraded form of that skill. And, if you have another skill mastered, you may learn some sort of combo skill that uses two previous skills in one massive attack. You can also create your own customized combo skills out of two or three other skills.
The one thing Namco did right with the combat was button assignment. Outside of combat, in the menus, you can assign a combination of a directional press and the skill button to execute an assigned skill. Using your own intuition, you can set aerial attacks to be “up + skill,” and attacks that pound enemies into the ground as “down + skill,” etc. You can also choose to control any one character in battle. And it’s good to switch up your controlled character regularly, since the AI isn’t all that great.
More than any other Tales game, and more than any other action RPG on the PS2, the combat in this game becomes so mindlessly repetitive that I really dreaded fighting. The game forced me to keep taking on random encounters just so I could continue to unlock new skills and be of appropriate level for the inevitable boss fights to come. But, when I just couldn’t take it anymore, I used potions that reduced encounter rate (a Tales staple) to get through the more pesky dungeons.
Namco’s “Project MelFes” team really did borrow just enough of the mechanics of the Tales Studio games to make this feel like a Tales title. A mediocre Tales title, but enough “Tales” nonetheless to keep it afloat. The inventory limitation of 15 max per item still applies; the gels heal you based on percentage and not by static value; the combat system is LMBS; and the story is highly character-driven. So the formula is all there. But it lacks the refinement that we see in nearly every other Tales game. For one more example, let’s take a closer look at plot and character development.
Clichés, Nicknames and… Incest?
Alright, I dropped a buzz word, so let’s just get this out of the way. Throughout the game, you learn more and more about Senel’s “relationship” to Shirley. They call each other brother and sister, though they’re not biologically related (apparently this is a big secret to the rest of your party until near the end of the game: though I really don’t see how). Shirley has a crush on Senel. Senel was clearly in love with Shirley’s older sister Stella, a mystery character who, for a time, is presumed to be dead. So you have a bunch of people that call each other “brother” and “sister” that want to hook up. It’s not incest. But it’s the next-closest thing. You get the impression, based on flashbacks, that these three grew up and lived together and treated each other like family. And now they all want to get married? This is the sort of thing one might expect from an obscure eroge, but not from a mainstream RPG.
The story revolves around Shirley (and Stella), as they are part of a race that is similar to humanity, except that they can breathe and live underwater (but, for whatever reason, only fresh water). Not-so-spoilerific spoiler alert: this race of beings is tied directly to The Legacy, and there are others of this same race inhabiting the island. The main plot arc involves uniting different people (most of whom have lived on the island for at least one generation) to form a resistance against an evil empire who is coming to take over the island. And yes, the villains are all trademark stereotype baddies. There’s the dutiful one, the crazy one, and the downright mean one. Their words and actions for the rest of the game are predictable after the first two encounters you have with them.
So here’s how the plot arc works, generally: travel around the entire island, reach the lair of the bad guys (this takes about 20 hours). Climactic scene ensues. Travel the entire island again for different reasons. Take on bad guys, end credits roll (this second step takes another 10 to 15 hours). After end credits, complete optional character quests and a bonus scenario as an epilogue… all of which involve traveling around the island again. This final section takes another 20 hours, at least.
I’ll give the development staff credit for maximizing content in one game. That’s a lot of stuff to put into an RPG, particularly a Tales RPG (usually a 30 hour adventure for a skilled gamer). But let’s not mistake quantity for quality. Given that I’ve already harped on the tedium of battle, let’s talk a bit about dialogue. Though generally well-written, the conversations had by many characters seems to go in circles. The relationships don’t exactly grow. For many characters, their first impressions of one another are all that matter until after the character side quests are completed after the game. The only significant development I saw throughout the game was between Senel and Chloe (another love interest?).
Everyone calls everyone else by different names. Norma is the worst offender, as she has a special nickname for everyone, and she refuses to call anyone by their real name. And, with Tara Strong as the voice actor for Norma, you can see how half her lines automatically become irritating with these cheesy nicknames. And although Norma doesn’t have a nickname for herself, another character (Moses) gives her the nickname “Bubbles.” Particularly fitting, since that’s the name of the Powerpuff Girl Tara Strong voiced in the once-popular Cartoon Network series.
Chloe, being a knight of honor, likes to call people by their last names. But it seems she only does this for men; and at that, only men she respects. She also has some disparaging names for people she dislikes, including Moses. So, at the end of the day, you better get used to all these nicknames if you want to follow any conversations.
Overall, I have to say that the plot didn’t draw me in. Not for a moment. Like Chloe, it was my sense of duty that allowed for the completion of my task. If I weren’t such a glutton for punishment, I wouldn’t have stuck by this game. The game itself wasn’t fun, and the plot left much to be desired. The only thing I liked was the idea of a floating island. An overused concept if ever there was one in fantasy RPGs… but I still get excited about them.
Though I don’t like the game itself, or the plot, or the in-game 3D graphics, I will say this: I am a fan of the character art, the anime sequences, and most importantly, the music. Composed by Masaru “Go” Shiina, Tales of Legendia’s score was a welcome reprieve from Motoi Sakuraba and Shinji Tamura, who have worked together on nearly every other Tales title out there. Shiina recorded a number of tracks with a full orchestra and also included violin solos in battle themes. But when a game’s soundtrack is the best thing about a game (as is the case here), the obvious solution to the dilemma is to own the soundtrack, not the game. Just a suggestion.
I’ll also give some guarded approval to the game’s voice acting. The direction was weak, in that there are plenty of lines delivered out of context (wrong words emphasized, too much emotion, not enough emotion, etc), but the English voice acting was pretty decent, and there was a lot of voice work packed into the game.
Tales of Legendia is redundant in the worst sense. No, I’m not talking about the game’s title (though that certainly is redundant: a tale is a legend, you may as well call it “Legend of Tales”). No, what’s wrong with this game is that it’s a shell of the other Tales titles, and within it they pack together a mediocre story, which would only be acceptable if the game itself was still fun to play. And since it’s not, I’m left believing that this is a game that’s hardly worth picking out of a bargain bin.
But please, take this review with a grain of salt: I haven’t played every Tales game out there. But my personal experience tells me this is one of the worst, and I know I’m not alone in this opinion. Not that I relish being in line with majority opinion on any particular game, but I think it’s safe to say that this is one PS2 RPG worth skipping.