I can easily envision all the hate mail now regarding my distribution of such low scores to one of the best console RPGs of all time. Therefore, I want to preface my review with the disclaimer that I love Tales of Phantasia and consider it one of the most memorable console RPGs I’ve ever played. If this review were for the Super Famicom original, 12 points would have been added to all the scores. Were it for the PSOne remake, 15 points would have been added to all the scores. The Super Famicom original was truly an amazing game and the PSOne remake made a great game even greater and showed how a remake should be done. However, this review is for the GBA port that US gamers got, and I thought it was a rather lousy port with a rather lousy localization that failed to capture the true magic of Tales of Phantasia.
Here’s my review:
Namco’s Tales series has had a storied history. Tales of Phantasia made a huge splash in the tail end of the Super Famicom’s life cycle, boasting high production value, the likes of which had never been seen on a console RPG before. The opening song with full vocals by Yukari Yoshida was undoubtedly impressive on a cartridge. The linear motion battle system characteristic of the Tales series was heralded as one of the most innovative battle systems to come out in a long time. The graphics and story were among the finest in a 16 bit RPG, and the rest of the game’s music was no slouch either. Since then, the Tales series has had its share of ups and downs, but has become quite prolific and is a series many RPG fans flock to when looking for a more old-school RPG with modern accoutrements. Tales of Phantasia itself was remade for the PSOne with upgraded visuals, smoother animation, an anime opening, remastered music (including a stellar new version of the Yukari Yoshida song), and some gameplay enhancements. One of the key non-playable characters in the original was even made a playable character in this remake.
But Tales of Phantasia was never officially released in the US, despite the best (and worst) efforts of RPG fans everywhere. Back in the day, I too was one of those people championing to have the Tales of Phantasia PSOne remake brought to the US. In any case, the game did amass a cult following, including some rather notorious fan translations. But now, late in the life of the Game Boy Advance, Tales of Phantasia has finally reached US shores in an official, portable form. Now the burning questions arise: How true is it to the original? Was anything edited, cut out, or altered? Is the magic still there, or has nostalgia clouded our judgment? Does it live up to the hype?
That’s actually a surprisingly complicated set of questions to answer. Tales of Phantasia is one of my favorite RPGs, but this particular incarnation of this Super Famicom classic is underwhelming to put it mildly. It honestly pains me to give Tales of Phantasia low scores, but this subpar GBA port that US gamers got is really disappointing; it feels like a half-hearted token gesture and undermines the true greatness of Tales of Phantasia.
In Tales of Phantasia, a group of warriors defeated a powerful villain named Dhaos and sealed him away many years ago. (When will legendary RPG heroes finally learn that merely sealing away a villain rather than eliminating him/her outright is a risky practice?). Cut now to the village of Toltus, many years later, where Cress Albane and his buddy Chester Burklight are about to go hunting for food. They manage to hunt down a large boar near the Spirit Tree, but then the village alarm bell goes off. Trouble! Cress and Chester rush back only to find that the village has been completely destroyed and that the residents are almost completely slaughtered. It seems the attackers were after Cress and his pendant. Cress vows revenge on the attackers and decides to seek refuge with his uncle in the town of Euclid. Chester, however, does not want to leave yet because he wants to give the people of Toltus a proper burial. He does promise that he will meet up with Cress later on, so Cress starts off his journey alone. After a bunch of introductory events, Cress and his friends are privy to the revival of Dhaos and find themselves in an epic adventure that not only takes them all over the world, but across time to the past and future as well. As a villain, Dhaos’ presence looms all around, even if he isn’t on screen all the time.
The story in the game was one of the best in that era of RPGs, featuring plenty of drama, adventure, and even some humor. However, in current times where RPGs have more involved storylines, Tales of Phantasia’s may seem slightly dated. Granted, though, the Tales games have traditionally been more about fun, action-oriented gameplay than deep, intriciate stories. Tales of Phantasia’s story has long been considered the best one in the series and many fans still think that holds true. However, the game’s otherwise solid story is brought down by absolutely lifeless dialogue in the localization. The English text is free of spelling and grammatical errors, but there is no personality to it at all and it makes otherwise cool and interesting characters and events seem rather dull and dry. Even the famous boat scene, normally a fun and lively scene, is a bit lackluster this time around. In addition, some of the Romanizations may put off series fans; for example, a major playable character named Klarth has been dubbed Claus. If the dialogue were snappier and not so stale, I would have rated the story higher.
The visuals in the game are excellent and have quite a bit in common with the PSOne remake. The overland is in Mode 7 rather than polygons and the intro sequence is that of the Super Famicom version, but the sprites, towns, dungeons, and battle screens in the game all have the vivid colors and improved detailing as seen in the PSOne remake. The sprites, both in and out of battle, are the SD style sprites that are present in the early Tales games. The full size character portraits in the menu status screen are great as usual and, though the character designs aren’t highly stylized like those of Yoshitaka Amano or Kazuma Kaneko, they are easy on the eyes. The visuals trump most 2D RPGs from the 16-bit era and even many 2D RPGs from the 32-bit era. However, despite the polished appearance, the battle animations can be a bit choppy and sluggish.
The music was always Tales of Phantasia’s weakest point for me. You can tell that a lot of work was put into the soundtrack, but the compositions themselves never really did it for me. The best part of Tales of Phantasia’s soundtrack was easily the title track, sung by Yukari Yoshida, and that was sadly absent from the US release in favor of a bland instrumental piece that doesn’t even flow well with the introductory visuals. That is the absolute biggest disappointment in the game for me, because not only do I really like the Yukari Yoshida song that traditionally opens the game (the song’s remake for the PSOne version is terrific), it was pretty much the only worthwhile piece of music in an otherwise decent-but-not-great soundtrack. The overland, town, dungeon, and battle themes lack any kind of flair, punch, or excitement and come off as generally listless. Although this smooth flowing style of music does work reasonably well for the more lugubrious scenes of loss, the music is just not punchy enough for a tale where the protagonist is driven by revenge to fight tooth and nail. At least the sound quality for the music is really good for a handheld featuring lots of distinct and layered instrumentation.
Sound effects are 16-bit RPG sound effects, but good 16-bit sound effects that sound just like the Super Famicom original. They get the job done, but I would have liked more updated sound effects. Either way, the music and sound effects fare better than the abysmal and atrocious English voice acting. The voice acting, which consists of battle cries mostly, was redone in English and the dubbing is terrible. It sounded as if one man recorded all the male voices, one woman recorded all the female voices, and neither made much effort to sound distinct for different characters. In other words, every character in the game has the exact same voice that either resembles a hoary old man or a bored middle-aged woman. It reeks of shoddiness when teenagers on a rip-roaring fantasy adventure literally sound like tired old people. In addition, the voice recording sounds as if the people are speaking through cardboard tubes. Why did it have to be dubbed? Why couldn’t they have kept the original Japanese voices? Really, the localization team fell flat on their faces with this one.
So between the naturally mediocre music compositions, the unforgivable omission of the Yukari Yoshida song, and the abysmal dubbing, this game fails sonically.
The gameplay was innovative and super fantastic at the end of the 16-bit era. In today’s times, though the game is still fun, it feels stiff, choppy, and less refined. The menus are among the most cluttery I’ve ever encountered in an RPG and can be quite cumbersome and unintuitive to navigate. This is disheartening, because prior versions of Tales of Phantasia along with other series installments have always had menus that were intuitive and never cluttery. There are even times during menu navigation when the pointer does not move, despite a certain option being highlighted as indicated by a beep. This is shoddy porting and there’s no excuse for it.
The game attempts to add Titles a la Tales of Symphonia where certain events or actions can alter a character’s title such as “Apprentice Swordsman” or “Kind Brother.” These titles are said to influence a character’s statistics, but there is no way of knowing what titles boost what stats, so I found the whole Titles system a pointless and extraneous waste since I did not discern any significant differences in character growth based on titles.
Saving is handled using the traditional save points in dungeons and save anywhere on the overland. Sometimes the “collision detection” with save points is a bit off and even standing dead center in a save point will not give you the “Save” option in the menu whereas standing on the edge might. I shouldn’t have to dance around a save point just to save my game because movement may thrust me into an unwanted battle when all I want to do is save. I also would have liked the game to have a quick save option, since it is on a handheld and I think games on handhelds need to accomodate gaming on the go. Many of the dungeons in the game are quite long, so hunting for a save point can be cumbersome. I think all RPGs, whether they be on handhelds or full size consoles, should have a quick save or save anywhere option, even if they’re ports or remakes of older titles that previously used the archaic save point system.
The crowning glory of the Tales series is the battle system. The “Linear Motion” battle system where battles occur in realtime was very innovative for the time, and the series has only improved the smoothness and dynamics of the trademark battle system over time. If you are used to the smoothness offered by recent installments like Tales of Symphonia, then Phantasia will feel dated. It’s like the evolution of the Model T Ford to the Saleen Mustang. The battles in Phantasia are fun, but the movement, control response, and character animations look and feel noticeably sluggish and choppy. If a game is going to be ported to a more current console, surely control response and battle motions can be made smoother, right? As expected, you control Cress and can set the A.I. of his party members to act in various ways. The A.I. is generally good and surprisingly better than the A.I. in games that have long come after it, such as Star Ocean: The Second Story (which had horrible A.I.). It is also nice that a little bit of TP (used to cast spells and do special skills) gets replenished after a battle.
The game is quite old-school in many ways. For example, battles occur randomly and there are times when the encounter rate seems rather high. In addition, I found that the game would too often surround your party with enemies on both sides during battles. The bane of level grinding rears its ugly head here as it has done in most every old-school RPG. EXP and money can sometimes be difficult to come by, so you need to grind big time not only to gain levels, but to accrue enough money to afford all the best equipment and necessary items for your party that the towns have to offer. I simply do not have the time or patience for level grinding, and though there is an option to adjust between two difficulty levels at any time, I still have to grind. This would easily be forgivable in 1995 or 1996, but times have changed and if you are going to redo an older game on a newer platform, it would behoove the people involved to smooth out the kinks to make the game flow more fluidly for an audience with more modern expectations. The game is long, and it took me over 45 hours to complete (though many could complete it in less time.) And even if level grinding is lessened or eliminated, length will not suffer at all. If it’s one thing that’s certain about the Tales games is that they are never short.
Tales of Phantasia is, in my opinion, one of the best console RPGs ever, but this version is not very good. The porting is very shoddy in places, and the alterations made for the English localization are awful. Personally, I think the best version of Tales of Phantasia is the Japanese PSOne remake that is only available via import, and even now may be rare due to the PSOne console having long been phased out. If you are a die-hard Tales fan, you’ve probably imported the Super Famicom original version or better yet, the stellar PSOne remake. I am happy that the game was finally given an official English release (it’s about time!), but I feel that it was just a half-hearted token gesture that undermines the greatness of an RPG that truly was (and is) something special.
In a nutshell, I could sum up my review in four words: excellent game, subpar port.