Tales of the Elements is an interesting piece of multimedia from a hip-hop artist who goes by Last BeNeVoLeNcE. His Tales of the Elements game (divided into two parts: FC for “First Chapter” and 2C for “Second Chapter”) is a companion piece to his concept double-album of the same name. The game and soundtrack are published by pioneering “chip-hop” rapper Mega Ran’s RandomBeats label. I first heard Mega Ran’s wonderfully catchy song “Grow Up” during the end credits of the 2008 film Second Skin (a documentary following various MMORPG players), and since then he has become a prolific and acclaimed artist. I’ve never encountered a quirky video game serving as a companion piece to a hip-hop concept album before, so I naturally had to check this out.
Tales of the Elements is an action RPG with available “couch co-op” play elements (provided you have access to multiple gamepads), similar to games like Zelda Four Swords. Unlike more aggressive action RPGs that favor “come out swinging” tactics, Tales of the Elements aims for a more “stick and move” approach. Unfortunately, this effort falls far short of the gold standard set by Zelda and Ys for tightly responsive control, fluid pacing, and overall gameplay balance.
Single player mode consists of you having full control of a chosen party member and AI controlling the rest. The companions’ AI is not the absolute worst I’ve ever seen, but it is pretty lousy. Babysitting AI companions that wildly run headlong into danger is not my idea of a good time, and the game offered no options for me to direct how I wanted the companion AI to act. I tried the co-op play with my nephew when he came over to visit one weekend, and it was definitely more fun playing with him. However, we both found ourselves fighting with the clunky controls.
The game recommends playing with a gamepad, but control with it feels loose; using a keyboard is even worse due to some awkward button mapping. Slippery character movement and stiff weapon response, along with imprecise (and sometimes nonexistent) hit and collision detection, don’t help when even normal enemies pack loads of HP, take forever to defeat, can bulldoze you into a Game Over, and only offer the most paltry EXP, cash, and item drops. Bosses are even more merciless thanks to stupidly high amounts of HP, Ferrari level evasion speed, and attacks akin to a sledgehammer pounding a ladybug. I felt the laborious grind throughout the game because it often took me an eternity to scrape up enough cash to upgrade equipment and stock up on items as well as build levels. This combination of sluggish repetitiveness, clunky play control, reckless companion AI, and pitiless enemies made playing this game a protracted slog with scads of cheap deaths.
Menus are intuitive to navigate and look stylish, but I’d have liked the dark blue indicator bar that highlights options to be a lighter color that contrasts better with the mostly black menu background. As it stands now, highlighted menu options are difficult to see. I also didn’t like that some menus mapped to different hotkeys were not accessible via the main menu, so I felt like I was skipping around far too often to access various menus. In addition, the menus’ stylized font that looks like dripping paint graffiti writing is not always legible; for example, I sometimes had a hard time distinguishing 5s from 6s when buying items. Thankfully, the font used during dialogue is large and legible.
The story resembles a stream of consciousness recollection of a JRPG loving rapper’s dream that mixes his passions for hip-hop and video games. Instead of an evil empire taking over the world, we have The Industry using mainstream hip-hop as a weapon to stifle progressive thought and promote their insidiously conspiratorial agenda. Instead of a ragtag group of dreamers seeking out the lost elemental crystals to become the Warriors of Light destined to save the world, we have a ragtag collective of underground rap artists seeking out the lost elements of Hip-Hop to take down the soul-swallowing Industry. Instead of character classes like knights and mages, we have MCs and DJs who wield microphones and turntables as weapons rather than swords and shields. The hip-hop veneer adds some originality to what is essentially a classic JRPG plot, though the narrative is an acquired taste. Where proverbial JRPGs feel more like movies, plays, or TV shows, Tales of the Elements has more of a music video vibe. As with many music videos, Tales of the Elements’ storytelling aspects don’t always make sense or progress smoothly.
Though Tales of the Elements utilizes nifty SNES Mode 7-style graphics during hidden mini-game stages, this RPG Maker VX game does little to visually distinguish itself in the crowded field of RPG Maker games. The game also experiences slowdown when the on-screen action gets frenetic, especially during those aforementioned Mode 7 sequences. With RPG Maker games like Darkblood Chronicles, Rainblood I: Town of Death, Sweet Lily Dreams, and more out there stepping up their production values beyond the RPGM pale, Tales of the Elements’ mostly cookie-cutter look falls a little flat these days. With so much creativity going into the music, I would have liked to see more pizzazz with the graphics, like maybe a greater number of uniquely drawn sprites, tiles, and character portraits rather than the ones I’ve seen used many times before in several RPGM games.
The imaginative music is Tales of the Elements’ crown jewel and should be heard through good speakers or headphones. Recent JRPGs, like The World Ends with You and Persona 3-5, have smatterings of hip-hop elements in their soundtracks; but none capture the intangible mojo of alternative hip-hop the way Tales of the Elements’ creatively composed beats do. As I listened to the music, I was reminded of artists like De La Soul, P.M. Dawn, Aquavibe, The Roots, and Gorillaz to name a few of my favorites. I could throw out buzzwords like funky or fresh all day to describe Tales of the Elements’ music, but words can’t encapsulate how much I dig this game’s tunes.
I also really like how, in certain areas of the game, changing the background music has a field effect on the enemies, adding depth to battles. The game also features a cool sidequest to find and unlock several vocal songs, so players can hear and read Last BeNeVoLeNcE’s eloquent rhymes and evocative lyrics. Having checked out Last BeNeVoLeNcE’s Tales of the Elements double-album, I would call it required listening. Not only is the music incredible on its own, but the rhymes and lyrics really flesh out the game’s narrative and fill in its perceived missing pieces. I would have liked to hear more of the vocal songs within the context of the game rather than as sound test unlockables, but that’s just my personal preference.
The amount of heart and soul Last BeNeVoLeNcE put into his entire Tales of the Elements project is readily apparent. There is simply no denying this game’s eccentric vibe and excellent soundtrack. Unfortunately, clumsy controls and grindy gameplay marred my overall experience. Game aside, I wholeheartedly recommend lending an ear to Last BeNeVoLeNcE’s soulful music on Bandcamp and taking in his evocative rhymes and lyrics. Tales of the Elements is a one-and-done game for me, but I totally see myself grooving to Last BeNeVoLeNcE’s music over and over again.