It pains me to do this again. Some of you may remember my review of the Game Boy Advance port of Tales of Phantasia about seven years ago, where I lamented that the localization and porting sucked the life dry of one of my favorite JRPGs. It hurt me to give the game relatively low scores then, and it hurts me to do it again now.
Back when I was a semi-avid importer and actually had disposable income and free time, two of my most beloved import purchases were my Super Famicom cartridge of Tales of Phantasia and the PlayStation remake. I never had the opportunity to play the Full Voice Edition of Tales of Phantasia for PSP, which is a more definitive version of the game that this iOS port is based on. Sadly, I had to sell my imports some years back to pay off debts, and after both the GBA localization and this new iOS localization, I wish I hadn’t sold my A-grade versions of the game.
When I first booted up, I was immediately disappointed by the poorly rendered anime opening that was not optimized for the iPad’s HD resolution. This is a shame, because it looked fantastic in the PlayStation version and deserves to look beautiful here too. Even more disappointing was the generic piece of instrumental music backing it up. When Tales of Phantasia first came out on the Super Famicom, its sonic strength was in its opening song with full vocals. This was unheard of on a cartridge and it blew my mind. That Yukari Yoshida song still remains one of my favorite video game vocal themes, and the version used for the PlayStation remake is even better. To be denied such a defining aspect of this game in not one but both localizations is an absolutely unforgivable travesty.
The rest of the soundtrack is solid, but the compositions themselves are not the most memorable. As much as I love Tales of Phantasia, and recognize the painstaking effort that went into the music, the soundtrack simply does not hold a candle to such stellar golden-age 16-bit soundtracks, such as those of Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger or Phantasy Star IV, to name just a few. The best piece of music from Tales of Phantasia is that Yukari Yoshida vocal theme and its absence upsets me big time! On a positive note, the fully voiced cutscenes retain the fantastic Japanese voices, so purists need not cry foul there.
Not only could the anime opening have used some freshening up to optimize it for the iPad’s HD resolution, but the in-game graphics could have used some restoration too. The character portraits in the menus look crisp, but most everything else looks pixilated and drab, making for a jarring contrast. I don’t necessarily need fully redone graphics, but some slightly refreshed sprites and tiles optimized for the platform, a more vivid color palette, reduced pixilation, and smoother overall rendering would have been acceptable. The graphical highlight is the polygonal overworld that’s brightly colored, if blocky and dated-looking.
JRPG stories have become more intricate and involved since Tales of Phantasia, but a good ol’ fashioned adventure like this never goes out of style, so long as the storytelling is engaging. I enjoyed it a lot when I first played the game, and it still remains one of my favorite stories within the Tales series. It’s a rollicking adventure that starts out slowly, but builds up and gets better as it goes along. Unfortunately, the updated script is only a mild improvement over the utterly dull and lifeless Game Boy Advance localization. The text stays relatively true to the Japanese script and is free of any technical errors, but it reads stiffly at times and lacks the vivid personality of that well-known fan translation from years ago. At least the colorful Japanese voices add the needed personality to the lifeless words.
Purists who balk at creative liberties will be happy that the script stays true to its roots. However, I’m not opposed to minor changes here and there if it means a more dynamic reading experience for English cultural and linguistic sensibilities. The notable boat scene presented here is more reminiscent of the dry and somewhat sanitized version of the Game Boy Advance’s localization, and does not have the magic and delightful personality of the aforementioned fan translation’s creative liberties.
Purists may balk at the minor localization inconsistencies, though. For example, the opening credits screen spells the protagonist’s name in Romaji (English letters) as Cless Alvein, but his in-game name is Cress Albane. Another example is a character named Klarth in the opening credits, but Claus in the game. I prefer Cless and Klarth myself, but that’s just me. This does not take away from the game at all, but when the dust jacket of a book spells a character’s name one way and the pages spell it another, it just looks slipshod.
But these aforementioned complaints pale in comparison to the one aspect that makes this version of Tales of Phantasia nigh unbearable to play. It’s the one sticking point that proves that some console games, even despite their utmost efforts, cannot and do not translate well to tablets. That sticking point is the controls. Tales of Phantasia is one game that needs to be played on a console with a controller or gamepad. Actions that are so simple and intuitive with controllers, such as rotating cameras or interacting with objects, are clunky, fiddly, needlessly difficult, or just plain impossible on the iPad.
When playing Tales of Phantasia on a console, it’s easy to walk Cress up to an object, like a moveable block, hold down the action button, and drag said object around while walking. The iOS interface in Tales of Phantasia lacks an “action button”, so collision detection is automatic and annoyingly imprecise. This is problematic, because sometimes I may brush by an NPC and have to hear his or her standard line when I did not wish to hear him or her talk. It also made the aforementioned moving of blocks annoyingly difficult. When I needed to pull an object toward me, the interface wouldn’t register that I touched the object and I could never pull it. Even the simplest block moving puzzles are battles of attrition that made me want to smash my iPad. The simple addition of a virtual “action button” would have done wonders to make this game playable.
It also does not help that walking is more slippery than running on an ice skating rink in satin ballet slippers. Cress’s walking speed is adequate, but dashing makes him zoom so fast that he loses precision. The iOS port uses a virtual D-Pad that operates in a semi-analog way, in that a subtle movement makes Cress walk and a lengthier slide makes him run. The slippery nature of the touchscreen interface, combined with Cress’s naturally slippery running, makes getting from point A to B an exercise in needless frustration.
The characteristic Linear Motion Battle System of the series tries to work with the touchscreen interface, but the constant tapping feels clumsy compared to the smooth use of a controller and face buttons on a console gamepad. Assaulting the enemy involves just tapping somewhere on the background to attack an automatically selected foe. Tapping low on the screen results in a normal attack and tapping high results in a jumping one. I disliked being at the game’s mercy of what enemies I strike, because I sometimes wanted to target specific enemies other than the ones the game told me to. Likewise, choosing a slash or thrust attack depending on the button press, as seen in the original Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Destiny, is sacrificed for touchscreen format limitations. Directional flicks initiate special attacks, and this does not work as well as button-press combinations. If a special attack is mapped to the “right flick” box in the menu, that attack is always initiated using a right flick, even when the character is facing the left. This feels counterintuitive, especially in the heat of battle. For an action-oriented system like this, I want the kind of unobstructed view of the screen that a console attached to a TV provides. But, with this game, my hands and fingers were always getting in the way of my view.
Maybe all this isn’t so bad, since the game can be procured free. Yes, the full game can be had at no charge, though there are optional micro-transactions for purchase. The micro-transactions themselves are items to eliminate encounters temporarily, various packages with huge EXP boosts for the party (I actually bought one to compensate for the control issues so I could progress), and Miracle Orbs. Miracle Orbs revive your party once during a battle if everyone falls, preventing a game over. Cress’s mom gives him an enchanted Miracle Orb to sample during the first boss battle, but after that it disappears. Once you get a game over, you will be prompted to purchase one and, if you don’t, all the automatic saves the game periodically logs will be deleted, and you can only load from a previous manual save.
Old school gamers will probably scoff at that, since they’re used to manually saving at points and on the overworld. Normally, I would scoff too, but this version of the game deactivated at least half of the save points the Super Famicom version originally placed in dungeons. I saw the save points on the ground, but they didn’t glow and there was no way to reactivate them. I would have thought Memory Gems, like those used to revitalize save points in Tales of Symphonia, would be made available in-game or even as purchases in the micro-transaction shop. Worse, the game only has one save slot. I, for one, like to keep multiple save files in my RPGs.
So, the micro-transactions can theoretically be ignored (as long as you don’t mind the game being almost unplayable), but I cannot ignore one of the most disagreeable features of the game. You have to be connected online to play this game at all. What is the point of this? Tales of Phantasia is a single-player RPG. Why should I have to go online to play it and log my saves? What if I want to play but am in an area without wi-fi? This is a completely nonsensical policy that goes wholly against what this type of gaming experience should be about.
The quick and dirty of this review is that I simply cannot, in good conscience, recommend the iOS port of Tales of Phantasia. Not only does it prove the point that some console RPGs are better off staying on consoles, but this port is hampered by required online connectivity; slippery controls and a crippled save system that goads you into buying micro-transaction content. The visuals don’t take advantage of the iPad’s resolution, and there is no Yukari Yoshida opening vocal song. I would willingly pay money for a proper remake or enhanced console port of Tales of Phantasia via PSN, XBLA, or Nintendo’s eShop rather than suffer this falsely free nonsense that nickel-and-dimes players just to make the game remotely playable on a tablet.