Since 1995’s Tales of Phantasia, Namco’s (now Bandai Namco) Tales series of RPGs has become one of the most prolific RPG series. My first experience with this series was Tales of Destiny for the PlayStation One, back when the series was virtually unknown in North America. The series, over the years, amassed a following strong enough that recent years have seen many Tales games released in North America. Because of the strong library of Tales games in North America, July 2007 seemed like a good time to introduce Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology to North America. Tales of the World is a spinoff crossover series where characters from multiple Tales games come together for fun and adventure. Some import gamers may recall the Tales of the World: Narikiri Dungeon games for prior generation handhelds. Those games stayed in Japan, but Radiant Mythology for the PSP is the first Tales of the World game to venture outside of Japan.
Tales games have typically never had amazing plots, but this dungeon crawler has a thinner storyline than your average Tales game and almost no character development because the game assumes you have played various Tales games and are already familiar with the characters whose developmental journeys occured in their own games. Of course, there are some characters that North American players will not have familiarity with due to some games such as Tales of Rebirth not having been released outside of Japan. This game could be best thought of as a single-player Tales MMORPG dungeon crawler without the MMO aspect.
The story takes place in Terresia, a world threatened by a planet-eating beast called The Devourer. Terresia has summoned various Tales heroes from Tales of Phantasia all the way to Tales of the Abyss to combat it. The Tales characters have formed a worldwide organization called Ad Libitum. Ad Libitum has chapters in Terresia’s three towns and they help the townspeople with their problems while fighting the Devourer. Unlike other Tales games where the lead character has his or her own preestablished identity, the lead character here is you- a champion created by the world tree itself. You start out unconscious in this strange world and meet a flying catlike creature named Mormo (original Radiant Mythology character), the last survivor of a world that just got eaten by the Devourer. After a few introductory events, where you meet a girl named Kanonno (original Radiant Mythology character) and Chester Barklight (Tales of Phantasia), you are directed to the town of Ailily to see Kratos (Tales of Symphonia) about joining Ad Libitum. From there the tale is basically save the world from The Devourer and the silver-haired, black-robed Sephiroth clone holding its leash.
As you progress in the game, you will occasionally be privy to the amusing inter-character dialogue skits that are a Tales series hallmark. These are the most fun, amusing, and entertaining parts of the story. These are opened by being at the right place at the right time. The dialogue and writing are fine, but some of the dialogue reads strangely because people talk to, and about, my character as if he is a boy, yet the character I created is a girl. Some skits are voiced whereas others are not.
Yes, Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology has a rudimentary character creation module and it is the first thing you encounter upon starting up a new game. First, you choose your character’s gender. From there you can select his/her face (which includes hairstyle) from a list. Next is a list of hair colors. After that is a list of skin colors. Following skin color, you can select your character’s battle cry voice from a limited selection, which I thought was nifty, though the selection of female voices is much better than the selection of male voices. Finally, you can select your character’s class from Warrior, Thief, Mage, or Priest and give him or her a name (which can be changed any time you wish.) The character creation process is not as extensive as that of, say, Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast, but it does its part to enable gamers to create relatively unique avatars. I would have liked options to alter my character’s body type and initial outfit, but as you purchase weapons and armor, those will show up on your character. Of course, since the player is you, he or she is a silent protagonist with Mormo mostly serving as your mouthpiece. There are times you can choose one of two dialogue options during conversations, which is fun and can make for some funny dialogue. As you progress through the game, you can eventually change your class at the guild and even open up avenues for more elite classes. The only bad thing is that when you change to a new class, your level will reset back to 1. Do not fear, though, because the level of the class you switched from will be saved. It would have been great if the first time you’re able to switch classes, the optional classes started on the same level as your current level so there would be less need to tediously grind and more incentive to switch your class.
The game mostly consists of you and Mormo going to town guilds for quests, forming parties with various Tales characters or generic mercenaries, and engaging in various repetitive fetch quests, kill-the-monster quests, material refinement quests, and the like. Some quests progress the plot (these are marked in purple), while others are just there as busywork for you to level grind. Speaking of level grinding, Tales characters do not gain levels unless you take them out with you on quests whereas generic mercenaries’ levels usually hover around yours. However, it’s just more fun to use the Tales characters. The most interesting and challenging quests are the ones where other Tales characters challenge you to one-on-one, one-on-two, and eventually one-on-three duels. Successful completion of quests earns you fame points which open up plot quests and cutscenes around town with various characters. You do most of your early quests by yourself, but once you become a member of Ad Libitum, you can add up to three members to a questing party and even find out what each character thinks about you. The game’s default difficulty is normal, but harder difficulties can be opened up with subsequent replays. Normal difficulty is generally pretty easy, but there is a sudden spike at the end where the last three bosses are quite tough, even bordering on cheap. The duels against other Tales characters are challenging as well.
The meat of the gameplay is in the Linear Motion battle system that the Tales franchise is known for. Battles are realtime affairs where you control your character and computer AI controls the rest. Battles allow movement along a 3D plane, but have the intuitive feel of the side-scrolling battle system of prior Tales games. Control during battles is extremely fluid and responsive and the camera work during battles is perfect. Combat fast, frantic, and above all fantastically fun. If things get too frantic, combat can be stopped so you can use items or redistribute commands. Battles can get challenging and merely bulldozing your way through them will get you badly hurt. Sure, the battle system is not as revolutionary as it was back in 1995 with Tales of Phantasia, but from that game to now, the Linear Motion battle system has only gotten smoother, more fluid, and more refined over the years. As with some later Tales games, Radiant Mythology does not have random encounters. You can see enemies on the field before engaging them, and if you run past them they will chase you. The Linear Motion battle system is one of my favorite RPG battle systems ever and whenever I play a Tales game, I find myself going out of my way to pick fights rather than run from battles.
The funny thing is that I am normally not fond of realtime battle systems such as this because I prefer total control over my party’s actions and prefer the more patient pace of turn-based battling (I’m a turn-based RPG guy at heart), but the Tales games have always programmed good AI for party members and I have never once had to babysit my computer controlled characters. I’ve played RPGs with similar combat systems where the incompetent AI controlled characters needed constant babysitting, taking the fun out of combat (*cough*Star Ocean series*cough*), and I am always left wondering how the Tales games have always gotten it so right where other RPGs have not. Character AI during battles has good customizability, and it is also interesting seeing how different characters fight. For example, Luke (Tales of the Abyss) and Reid (Tales of Eternia) are both sword fighters but Reid is a much more aggressive fighter while Luke is more hesitant. This adds variety and personality to characters who would otherwise be highly similar.
In terms of the interface, menus seem slightly unwieldy at first, but ultimately they’re quite ergonomic and well designed. The menus are easy on the eyes and easy to read despite the sheer amount of information and small font size in the text. Cooking, and other such syntheses of raw materials into useful items, are here in full force and the menus do help you keep track of the smorgasbord of things you gather throughout the game. The synopsis feature in the menu keeps track of where you’ve been and the quest window tells you what quest you’re currently on so it’s easy to get back into the swing of things if you have left the game on the shelf for a while.
The overland and towns are point-and-click affairs. This is disappointing because the Tales games have always typically had expansive overlands and towns to walk around in. My favorite part of every prior Tales game I have played has been exploring the massive towns and locations within. Exploration in Radiant Mythology is limited to mazelike, puzzle-free, and non-randomized dungeons that are not terribly lengthy. One aspect that makes dungeons seem longer than usual is the dearth of save points in them. I am not a fan of save points and believe handheld RPG should allow users to save any time they want to or have a quick save feature to facilitate gaming on the go. The save points here do not have a recovery feature so use your supplies wisely. Outside of dungeons, you can save anywhere and any time you want.
The visuals are quite good in the game. The environment graphics are 3D polygonal graphics and would not look out of place in some current generation PlayStation 2 RPGs. Locations within town pop with bright colors and high resolution detail, but dungeons, though nice looking, have a shroud of mist that masks the somewhat short draw-in distances. Dungeon environments can also sometimes get repetitive. Important characters look as you would expect them to in their respective Tales games, but have a first-generation PlayStation 2 look with some jaggies. Normal townspeople look very plain. The loading screen does not appear very often and even then, loading times are short and unobtrusive. The opening cinema is a visual treat showing anime cutscenes of various Tales characters doing activities together. One of the funniest parts is Raine (Tales of Symphonia) giving a stern lecture to Reid (Tales of Eternia) and Chester (Tales of Phantasia) in her classroom. The character designs are an obvious mixed bag because multiple character designers have worked on Tales games over the years. Characters from Tales of Legendia, for example, look very different from characters in other Tales games such Tales of Destiny or Tales of Symphonia. The weakest aspect of the graphics are the very flat looking 2D town and overland screens. They do not look bad, but compared to the quality graphics elsewhere, the town and overland screens look as if less effort was put into them.
The sound is also well done in this game. The instrumental piece that plays during the introductory cinema is great, but it sounds empty without the Japanese female vocals. I viewed the Japanese opening on YouTube and the vocals were great and really made a good song awesome. I am always disappointed that any Tales game released in North America either eliminates the vocals in the Japanese opening songs or records completely different instrumental music. Smaller companies such as Atlus and NIS keep Japanese vocal songs intact for video game introductory sequences, so why can’t a larger company like Bandai Namco do the same for the Tales games? Throughout the game, the MIDI music is solid if somewhat generic. Heroic themes sound appropriately heroic, town themes sound relaxed, battle themes have punch, and some of the boss themes are very good. Dungeons themes are more atmospheric and though not bad, tend to fade into the background. A nice touch is that various classic Tales battle themes play during the quests where other Tales characters commission you for jobs. For example, if Reid (Tales of Eternia) commissions you for a job, you will hear the Tales of Eternia battle theme instead of the Radiant Mythology one while questing with him.
There is also some high quality voice acting in the game during major scenes. Characters deliver their lines well and there is never any stutter or signs of loading. Most characters had the same voice actors from their respective games reprise their roles, but some characters had different voice actors who still did a fine job. For example, the English voices in the Game Boy Advance port of Tales of Phantasia were some of the worst I had ever heard, so thankfully Arche and Chester were given new and very good voices in this game. Though some voices are better than others, the voice acting is generally very good and I wished there was more of it. Wendee Lee, an excellent US voice actor, was the voice director for this game and she gets a thumbs up from me.
Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology is a fun game that one could spend 20 or more hours with. There is even a New Game Plus feature where everything about your character is carried over. However, Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology is ultimately one of those games that can only be recommended to a target niche. Said niche is Tales series fans who have followed the series for a while and want to go on offline MMORPG style dungeon crawl adventures with various Tales characters. If you are new to the series and/or looking for more character and storyline driven Japanese RPGs with some of the most fun realtime combat engines in the genre, definitely check out Tales of Symphonia or Tales of the Abyss. Radiant Mythology’s brilliant battle engine and truckloads of fan service are strong points, but those elements are not nearly enough to push this game above the echelon.