Tales of Symphonia


Review by · October 30, 2004

Most people look at me a little funny when I mention that Tales of Destiny is one of my favorite games of all time. It was a lesser known title on a system heavily saturated by excellent, timeless RPGs. Why, then, do I consider this game, amongst some of its more prestigious peers, to be so enjoyable? I believe it is for mostly the same reasons I truly enjoyed Tales of Symphonia (hereafter TOS) so much. It’s not for the fact that the script contains a groundbreaking, imaginative plot; it’s not for the fact that it introduces heavy innovation into the RPG stereotype. The interesting fact is that it does nothing original at all, really. What makes TOS (and its predecessors) so great is that it takes everything that an amazing RPG should be, and makes it that much better.

For starters, the battle engine in TOS is nothing short of sublime. While at first glance, it seems to be filled with what looks like action packed button mashing, the player soon realizes that it is actually a piece of full-on strategic, user controlled action gold. Though they may tout the system as being three dimensional in nature, it is in fact more of a 2.5 dimensional thrill. Rarely do the extra .5 dimensions come into play, but when they do, it is usually for a well placed reason. I know everyone and their grandma has mentioned that the battle system is something of a mix between Street Fighter 2 and Grandia, but quite frankly, that is exactly what it is like. You can input combos in a myriad of ways, and rapidly hacking away at enemies ultimately controls the flow of battle. There are no silly turn based battles here, everything happens in real time and can get quite chaotic. I had more than one friend walk by and wonder out loud how in the world I was controlling such a volatile environment.

Thankfully, controlling the action in TOS is never a problem. Heck, it’s so well put together that I felt like a pro within 15 minutes of firing up the game. Everything just seems to work exactly as it should. The only concern I had was that assigning a technique to the control pad (you press up with the analog stick and the “B” button) while using manual attacking can sometimes result in a jumping attack rather than the technique you really wanted. This can be alleviated, however, by assigning techniques to the secondary analog stick (a feature I want in all my games now, by the way).

TOS plays out completely like you would expect an old school RPG to. However, it does everything one step better. For instance, the overworld map, which is a staple to RPGs everywhere, is made just slightly more convenient. You can see random encounters before you run into them, and I rarely encountered a situation where combat was unavoidable. If you are tired of backtracking, you can simply fire up “Long Range Mode” which makes traveling both quicker and easier. Inside of towns and such, an onscreen marker will appear if you are able to interact with the environment, which makes it much easier to explore. You are also given a very nice map that will help you keep your bearings.

Really, the only new gameplay element that I had mixed feelings over was the new “Skit” system. Basically, when you are wandering around anywhere (there are other times it is triggered as well), you will randomly get the signal to press the “Z” button. Once pressed, a conversation will play out involving differing members of your party. Sadly, the conversations are generally somewhat boring, and there is no option to speed up the text. Also, in the Japanese version, the skits were all voice acted whereas in the North American version, it is simply text. The concept alone isn’t that bad, but the execution gets a little grating. The skits seem to appear right when you are in the middle of charging ahead in the game (ie: right after a major plot point) and sometimes occur one after the other, after the other. Thankfully, they can be skipped, but it seems to me that the system could have been implemented somewhat better.

Luckily, pretty much every other aspect of the game has been implemented perfectly. Series fans will be happy to know that many of the awesome staples that make up a Tales game have been left intact. You will find yourself saying hello to the Wonder Chef as much as possible so that you can continue on with the odd cooking system. The item and equipment management system is back and as intuitive as ever. As a bonus, your in-game character model changes appearance based on whatever butt-kicking piece of equipment you just equipped. There is even an amazing plot feature that will be explained below.

It should be noted that while the plot for TOS is very well put together (and long!), it contains plot twists garnered from pretty much every single conceivable form of fiction. I won’t get into too much detail here for the sake of spoilers, but let’s just say you will be able to see a few things coming from several hundred miles away. The execution and character interaction, however, just feels so right that you will be more than willing to forgive the “borrowed” concepts. And what happens if you find yourself feeling lost in the plot? Why, there is even a synopsis feature that will keep you on course. I am convinced that every single RPG from now on NEEDS this feature. It makes it so unbelievably easy to pick up the game, even after a week off, that it seems asinine that it isn’t a genre staple.

Technically, TOS is a definite improvement over its forbearers. The graphics are extremely colorful, and the use of cel shading really works in this case. The character models are still somewhat super-deformed, but they look very well done. The environments have to be seen to be believed. They provide such a rich surrounding that you really get drawn into the action. While the areas in the game draw from the big book of RPG clichŽs (ie: lava temple, giant tower, water dungeon), they all have their own take on the idea, and the presentation as such is very well done. While perhaps not quite up to Final Fantasy caliber in terms of realism, this is definitely one of the nicest graphical pieces of its kind.

I, personally, very much enjoyed the soundtrack to TOS as well. The composer for this game, Motoi Sakuraba, has been responsible for several enjoyable game soundtracks (including Star Ocean 2, another one of my favorites) and constantly does a very competent job. The music never gets stale and even the battle theme gets switched up 3 or 4 times. I have the album here at home and it is one of my most listened to albums of late.

The voice acting (VA) is equally impressive. Sporting VAs who actually sound like their characters should and featuring readings that don’t sound the least bit forced and instead fit the mood perfectly, TOS could, quite frankly, be one of the most impressive examples of voice acting in a video game that I have seen yet. The impressive part is that most of the game is voice acted. While most RPGs force a fair bit of the script into dialogues, TOS actually makes a decent effort to put as much VA in as they can. Sadly, the “Skits” got somehow passed by, but I am willing to let that slide due to the overall excellent quality of the rest.

TOS is one of those games that so rarely comes along, which I could rave about forever. With my severe lack of time these days to play games, when a game this long (60 hours!?!?) comes out, holds my attention for the entirety of it, and then makes me want to start all over (there is a very creative form of a new game plus), I sit up and take notice. TOS is one of those games that will truly appeal to almost any form of RPG’er. Those who enjoy their battle engines hot and fast will love this game. Those who enjoy a deep and enriching story will enjoy this game. Graphics whores will love this game. Heck, even those who enjoy playing multi-player with their buddies will enjoy this game (there is a somewhat rudimentary 4 player system during battles). With this much to love, I would find it a crime not to recommend TOS. Go out and buy it now; Tales of Symphonia has finally gone through the trouble of explaining for me why I love this series so much.

Overall Score 95
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Lee Babin

Lee Babin

Lee was part of RPGFan's reviews team from 2004-2007. During his tenure, Lee bolstered our review offerings by lending his unique voice and critique of the world of RPGs. Being a critic can be tough work sometimes, but his steadfast work helped maintain the quality of reviews RPGFan is known for.