A healthy portion of RPG players often fall into two camps: The old-schoolers and the new-schoolers. Those who grew up in the SNES era of RPGs swear that the old-school RPGs of their day are better, because they have a certain “mojo” that these newfangled games simply do not. On the other hand, the new-schoolers may see the older games as somewhat clunky and much prefer the smoother refinements of the current generation of games. I fall somewhere in the middle. I grew up in the old-school era and do enjoy the old-school mojo, but I don’t have the patience for the old-school annoyances such as tedious level-building or stilted dialogue translations. I am happy to say that Tales of Symphonia is an RPG with a happy blend of old-school mojo and new-school refinement.
While the plot isn’t the most original or innovative, it does have a surprising amount of depth. The plot is like an onion- it has many layers and as each one is peeled back, the characters find that there is more than meets the eye out there. So let’s do some peeling. There are two worlds called Sylvarant and Tethe’alla that have a mana link between them. However, this link does not have enough mana to support both worlds simultaneously. Therefore, it flip-flops like a seesaw. For a period of time, Sylvarant gets the mana and Tethe’alla goes into ruin. After that period of time is over, the roles reverse and Tethe’alla gets the mana and prospers while Sylvarant suffers. This back and forth has been going on for generations. The slumbering goddess Martel could save the lands, but only ‘The Chosen’ can wake her. Over countless generations, many Chosens in both Sylvarant and Tethe’alla have tried and failed to wake the goddess. Somewhere in Sylvarant, a young girl is about to undertake the trial of the Chosen.
Sylvarant has been suffering and the Chosen’s success will bring the mana flow back to it. Perhaps due to the world’s decline, there are many atrocities being committed. A race of half-elven people called Desians have set up a bunch of human ranches where humans are cruelly enslaved. One such ranch is near the small village of Iselia, where our tale starts. The ranch has made a pact with Iselia’s mayor that as long as the villagers stay away from the ranch and basically leave the Desians alone, they won’t trash the village and/or enslave the villagers.
Let us go now to Iselia’s one-room schoolhouse where a class is in session. A young swordsman is sleeping in the back. He is Lloyd, our hero. He lost his parents when he was really young and was taken in by a dwarf. Iselia is on one side of a dangerous forest and Lloyd’s house is on the other. Since he has to traverse the forest every day to get to school, he’s become quite an accomplished swordsman. “Lloyd!” a voice sternly cries out before throwing a book at him. This is Raine, Lloyd’s teacher. Other notable characters in the classroom include Genis- Lloyd’s best friend and Raine’s younger brother, and Collette- the next Chosen and also one of Lloyd’s friends.
Despite the layers of depth I’ve illustrated in the plot’s humble beginnings, the plot as a whole is honestly nothing you haven’t seen before. A bunch of meddling kids and some meddling grown-ups learn about the worlds, learn about themselves, meet traveling companions, fight bad guys, and quest to save the world. While the game does thrust you into the ‘save the world’ role rather quickly, the definition of ‘saving the world’ changes multiple times as more of the plot is revealed. That, I liked. However, some of the game’s attempts at moral ambiguity fall flat, in my opinion. Shin Megami Tensei (the pinnacle of moral ambiguity in console RPGs) it ain’t. I do applaud that the game does try to sidestep some clichés. For example, Colette the Chosen is a melee fighter rather than a mage. This definitely breaks the norm.
The real beauty in the story comes in the storytelling. The dialogue is well written, the voice actors do a good job for the most part, the pace is speedy, and the story is pretty easy to follow. A helpful feature in the game is the ‘Synopsis’ feature in the menu which summarizes past events and can give you a hint as to where to go next. This is awesome for gamers with busy schedules who can’t play daily, to stay up to speed. Periodically you will be prompted to press the Z button and view side conversations between the characters. These conversations develop the characters above and beyond the norm. Sure there are some characters that are more likeable than others, but you find that in almost every RPG.
Notice I said the voice actors do a good job “for the most part.” The hero characters’ voice actors do an excellent job. They really sound like they’re having fun with their roles. Scott Menville, who voices Robin in the Teen Titans cartoons, absolutely nailed Lloyd. Unfortunately, the voice acting for the villains was not quite up to snuff. Granted, many villains only played minor roles, but most of them were rather poorly acted.
Music is always called upon to enhance the story and gameplay experience in RPGs. Motoi Sakuraba’s compositions for the game are unremarkable, but get the job done. Each piece fits its intended scene and environment, but none are really that catchy and all pretty much sound like generic fantasy video game music. I must admit, though, that Sakuraba eased up on his use of synthesized flute, which he often uses too much in his soundtracks (Star Ocean: The Second Story is a notorious offender.)
The visuals in the game are very good. All characters and enemies are cel-shaded, which gives the classic look of sprites with the smooth fluidity of polygon characters. Since Tales of Symphonia is an RPG with old-school mojo in a new-school package, this look is perfect. The dungeon and town environments look great as well with lots of vibrant colors. From the forest village of Ozette to the sickeningly posh hotel in Altamaira, the art direction is wonderful. In particular, I found the natural locales such as forest and mountain areas the most pleasing to the eye. The only negative as far as visuals go is the overland. It doesn’t look bad, but it looks rather dated in comparison to the killer dungeon and town visuals. Except for the anime intro, some anime in the ending, and a few CG movies, the majority of the cutscenes use the in-game engine.
The Tales games have always shone in the gameplay department, especially the battle system. The tried and true Linear Motion Battle System is back and better than ever. The polygonal environments give battles a 2 ½-D feel so that it’s comfortable for both series fans and newcomers. Movement is smooth, fast, and fluid with excellent control response. Battles occur in real-time where you take control of one character and AI takes control of the others. There are multiple ways to set the AI and it’s usually quite competent. However, I find that I play my melee characters much more aggressively than the AI does. And even in all the mayhem, it’s easy enough to pause the action and give out commands to other characters. For those who are scared off by the real-time battles because they may not have twitch reflexes, fear not. As a somewhat older gamer myself, I certainly don’t have the twitch reflexes I had a decade ago, and I was able to keep up with the pacing of the battles.
Speaking of melee characters, I found that there were too many in the cast. While the characters often had interesting personalities outside of battle, there was only one pure mage and one pure healer. The rest were all melee characters. This meant that I often didn’t use many of them since, well, characters like Colette and Sheena were often overshadowed by the stronger melee fighters like Lloyd or Kratos. At least everyone earned the same amount of EXP after battles regardless of whether they fought or not. This made the pacing and progression throughout the game very smooth. Some boss battles require you to use certain characters and there are no worries if you haven’t played said characters much. Their levels will be up to snuff.
Otherwise, the gameplay is standard fare for an RPG. There are dungeons to explore, towns to see, people to talk to, quests to go on, equipment to buy, treasure to find, puzzles to solve, loads of side stuff to do (i.e. rebuild a town, find new outfits for the characters) and all that good stuff. Despite the dungeons generally being rather small, it took me a good 64 hours to complete the game, even without completing a lot of the side stuff. The game is generally linear, but there are sections in the game where the decisions you make can influence some cutscenes later on. The difficulty balance is great. It starts out easy enough and the difficulty gradually increases at a relaxed pace. RPG veterans may find the game skewed more to the easy side, but it’s not a complete cakewalk. There are some bosses that gave me a run for my money. Brute bulldozing doesn’t always work in battles so you do have to use some strategy. Both on the overland and in dungeons, you can see your enemies beforehand prior to engaging them so the encounter rate is quite manageable. The Tales series has always been criticized for annoyingly high random encounter rates, and this is a step in the right direction. There is little need to power level, so long as you don’t avoid/run from too many battles. And since battling is so much fun, I always found myself eager to pick fights.
The game has decent replay value and a New Game Plus mode. Throughout the game, you earn GRADE based on how well you perform in battles. While GRADE can be redeemed for various power-ups in the game, it also allows you to buy game enhancements for your next playthrough. I think that is a very clever idea. One idea I did not find so clever regarded save points. Most dungeons have unusable save points that require a memory gem to use. While there is no shortage of memory gems to be earned in battles and you will end up with excess gems, I saw no rhyme, reason, or point to this system. It felt like needless busywork.
Tales of Symphonia doesn’t break any glass ceilings in terms of innovation or originality. Instead, it gives gamers a fun RPG with the intangible old-school mojo and some new-school refinements. While I may have nitpicked points about the game here and there in this review, the actual playing experience was buttery smooth, loads of fun, and all elements came together very nicely. 2004 was a great year for RPGs and Tales of Symphonia was right up there with the year’s best. If you own a GameCube and like RPGs, you probably already have this game. If not, then definitely give it a shot.