What ingredients make for a good RPG? I’ll tell you what. A compelling storyline, a highly charismatic hero or cast of heroes, a nasty bad guy, creature, or "thing" hell bent on either ruling or destroying the world, an epic struggle of magic, swords, and sorcery, a hint of romance, richly detailed and "distinguished" 3D environments, a boisterous soundtrack, 50 plus hours of gameplay, some serious one on one quality time with your game console, and of course your favorite beverage along with some left-over take-out pizza. So how well does Namco’s "Tales of Symphonia" meet these special requirements? Hmm. Let’s just say it’s a good thing that we at least get the pizza and drink of our choice.
We could get on that "comparison" subject about how this RPG stacks up to other RPGs like "Kingdom Hearts," "Dark Cloud," "Xenosaga," "Grandia," "Crystal Chronicles," or the renowned "Final Fantasy" series, but let’s not go there. That wouldn’t be quite fair. Instead let’s just take this game for what it is. On the surface, "Tales of Symphonia" is really just your average RPG. True it does have some spectacular visuals and some quality voiceovers, and even a snappy new twist to your typical RPG battle system, but if you’re a hardcore RPGer this one’s gonna leave you with that half-full, half-empty feeling.
For starters the storyline is far from being compelling. In fact, it’s quite shallow and to be honest is thoroughly confusing at the start. The opening lines read as such and I quote: "Once upon a time there existed a giant tree that was the source of all mana. A war, however, caused the tree to wither away and a hero’s life was sacrificed in order to take it’s place. Grieving over the loss, the goddess disappeared unto the heavens. The goddess left the angels with the edict. "You must wake me, for if I should sleep the world shall be destroyed." The angels bore the Chosen One who headed towards the tower that reached up unto the heavens. And that marked the regeneration of the world…"
Um.Did anybody get that? I hope someone did because for me an utter state of confusion and a slew of questions followed thereafter. This is what I got out of all that. Ok, we got this huge tree that was the source of all magic. That is until a great war led unto it’s unfortunate "Timmmberrr!" No prob, I got all that, but from there it’s all a blur. "A hero’s life was sacrificed in order to take it’s place?" This statement raises some serious questions. Ok so we’ve established that the tree, while it was "living", was a vessel for magic? We’ve also established that the tree was no longer any good to the world in its "withered" or "dead" state, correct? Ok so if a "dead" tree isn’t any good to us, then why the "GiN" would a "dead" hero help things?
Moving on, we have a goddess who is so terribly grieved by this hero’s sacrifice, she decides to take some vacation time, head back to heaven for an eternal "nap" and leave all worldly internal affairs to the angels.*scratches head* Ah, since when do spiritual deities need sleep? Anyhow, the only catch is that if the angels don’t wake her from her deep sleep, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Ummm, so instead of effortlessly flying up to heaven themselves, gently tapping this half-wit goddess on her shoulder and saying, "Wake the heck up! The world’s on fire!", the angels get this hair-brain idea to choose a tiny ill-fortuned earthling, which they deem "the chosen one", to climb to the tippy-top of a tower that only reaches CLEAR TO HEAVEN’S GATES to wake the goddess and regenerate the world.
Sorry, I’m not feeling that one. At this point, I’ve decided to embrace this new venture not just to regenerate the world, but to regenerate my sanity by getting to the bottom of this mass confusion.
Let’s meet the characters. We have a hero named "Lloyd", his best bud and sidekick, "Genis", another one of Lloyd’s classmates and girl friend, "Colette", who happens to have been deemed the chosen one, Genis’s big sister and Lloyd’s school professor/part-time historian named "Raine", a mysterious mercenary-for-hire named "Kratos", and Lloyd’s pet dog "Noishe" who looks more something like a cross between a moose and a wild hyena. This colorful cast will be at your disposal throughout most of your adventure.
Though he’s not the "chosen one," Lloyd seems to be the star of the show. His "live-wire" attitude and thirst for adventure remind you of Vyse from "Skies of Arcadia." Genis is willing to follow Lloyd to the ventures end though it’s hard to tell whether his motive is for friendship or mere stupidity.
He plays the "rash, immature, little brother" role of the group, so you can look to him for comic relief at times. Colette plays the "sweet, innocent and vulnerable" part but, in fact, she’s the epicenter of the story. Selected as the chosen one, she embraces this huge task of world regeneration with little fear and much determination. Raine, is pretty much "the brains" of the whole group and definitely a treasure hunter at heart.
She plays the "moralistic" role of the group always correcting the ill-behavior of the others with a swift smack to the back of the head. Kratos plays the "tragic hero" script. He’s undoubtedly the backbone of the fellowship. He can do it all. From weapons combat to magic and healing Kratos is the total package. Then, of course, we have Noishe, Lloyds best 4-legged friend. Noishe is definitely no guard pet. Though he’s pretty good size and somewhat imtimidating, Noishe is quite the wuss. He likes to spend most of his time whining and running from other eminent dangers.
So the stage is set and our heroes embark out on their new journey. As was said before, Tales of Symphonia is truly a beautiful game. Lloyd and the gang will find themselves in some really lavish locales as they make their way through their venture. Richly colored and extensively detailed 3-D environments make exploration that much more fun and rewarding. Players will be treated to a slew of eye-popping graphics on both land, sea, and air.
Our heroes are fleshed out in the cool Japanese anime form. In the beginning, however, with the exception of Kratos, the entire cast is in bad need of an extreme makeover. Fortunately as the adventure goes on you’ll be able to gain access to some new seriously cool attire. Players can hook up their characters with new outfits and accessories from head to toe to help better suit their tastes.
Even though the storyline is somewhat cheesy, Namco has installed some quality voiceovers into the game that are worthy of being recognized. It’s always cool to hear the script talked out rather than having to read the words all yourself. The quality of the voiceovers in the game is crystal clear and really helps the players to understand the true behavior patterns of each character making the idea of role playing more valuable. Unfortunately though, only the key-scenes have voice-over scripts. The rest of the time you’ll be reading the subscript at the bottom of the screen.
To make matters worse you’ll be forced to sit through a ton of "triggered" skit titles that occur when certain events take place during the game. When a triggered skit title appears at the bottom of the screen you must press the Z button to watch it play out. Unfortunately, once you do this you have to sit through the entire skit as there is are means of pressing a random button to skip to the end. Most of the times, the skits don’t offer any real advantageous information, but more or less a deeper insight on a character’s background or thoughts. After "skit title #100" you’re either about ready to throw yourself off the roof or tie a large heavy rock to your ankle and jump into a nearby river.
Outside of town, exploration is made pretty simple and quite convenient for those that don’t like to do a lot of traveling between their different objectives and destinations. Using a bit of the olden day travel system from games like Zelda II and the early Final Fantasy series, players move their hero icon over a large world map that displays icons for towns, enemy strongholds, and other dangerous areas. Along the way, you’ll be heavily shadowed by monster icons. Since battles will automatically ensue upon contact with these icons, role players will have the opportunity to somewhat control the amount of monster encounters they take on. If you’re in a hurry, you can use the dodge-and-weave techniques to get where you’re going quicker. If you’ve got some time to spare for character development, the field never runs dry of potential monster battles.
During exploration, it’s good to keep a sharp eye out for "Guide Post Monuments" to activate "long-range mode". Long-range mode zooms the camera farther out than normal giving players a wider field of view. This is practically essential for finding those well-hidden areas. This also gives you a chance to make some use of Lloyd’s otherwise worthless pet creature, Noishe. Only in long-range mode, can Lloyd ride Noishe across the world map in between his destinations. Noishe is given an opportunity to showcase his greatest skill…running. While not much good for anything else, Noishe can outrun just about any monster icon on the world map and is sure to get you where you’re going in no time flat.
The real reason TOS deserves a second look is it’s real time battle engine. That’s correct, I said "real-time." Standard protocol for a typical RPG battle simulation is turn-based combat. Symphonia’s new twist to the standard battle system allows players and enemies to attack one another in real time, without hesitation, until one side is either defeated or annihilated. One can use a slew of short and long ranged melee attacks along with a healthy dose of black magic to achieve the victory over their opponents. Simple one-or-two button combos along with the use of the directional pad make tactical execution much easier and faster. However, even with an attack system made so simple and very user friendly, you’re gonna find that fighting battles with a full party in real time is quite a challenge.
Let me forewarn you, real-time battles are not as easy as you think. They’re very fast and chaotic and it takes some time to develop a strategy in the beginning. Though you control one player at a time during battle, you have to keep an eye out for the health of the other members of your party as well. Some characters, like Kratos, will automatically heal themselves and others as well but you can’t leave him out to dry when his hit points run low. Then there are other characters, like Raine and Colette, who are in constant need of saving during battle situations. Much of their tech points or TP will go to the use of black magic so it’s good to keep some "apple and orange gels" along with you to keep their health and mana up.
The key to being more successful during battle is to develop the "Ex Skills" of each member of your party. Ex Skills are skills that are obtained when an "Ex Gem" is set to a character’s "key crest". These skills are of either T(Technical) or S(Strike) types and have a number of different effects such as changing character attributes like hit and mana points as well as increasing defense and attack capabilities. You are allowed up to four slots on each character to place Ex Gems. Different combinations of Ex Gems will give you different combinations of Ex Skills. And different combinations of Ex Skills will unlock more advanced "Compound Ex Skills." Compound Ex Skills are lethal combinations of Ex Skills that inflict devastating damage on your opponent(s).
To deliver the ultimate blow to your enemies you must learn to harness the Compound Ex Skills of each character in order to deliver a super fatal "Unison Attack" by the entire party. As a battle progresses a "Unison Attack Gauge" will build up as you successfully inflict damage on your opponents. Once full, simply hit the "Z button" to unleash a deadly unison attack by the entire party. Developing these kinds of skills are critical to completing the game as you’ll find that enemy hit points are constantly on the rise as you make your way through your adventure.
Tales of Symphonia also has a way-cool multi-player mode which allows players to team up and play through the game simultaneously. You and up to three of your buddies can do battle side by side throughout the entire adventure. In the beginning when skills are still being developed, this mode is, honestly, a bit of a drag, however later on in the game when character attributes start to develop the fun level gets an extremely huge boost. And when you encounter those bosses with a heavy amount of hit points there’s plenty of action for everyone to take part in and showcase their skills.
There are "other things" you can do in the game besides meeting new people, whipping bad guys, and saving the world. You can also cook. Yes, each character has a cooking skill level indicating how well the character can prepare a recipe. To prepare a recipe you must run around town and gather all the proper ingredients. Once gathered you can make your selected dish. You can make things like sandwiches to partially restore the HP and TP of your party members. The more times you successfully make the selected meal the higher level of effect it will have on its consumer(s).
Hiding in many areas of the game is the mysterious "Wondering Chef." Each time you find him, he will teach you a wondrous new recipe. Other recipes can be acquired through other events. Ah, yes I always wanted to be a Mercenary-for-Hire/Master Chef…not.
The bottom line is, on the surface, Tales of Symphonia is just your average RPG. However it’s cool real-time battle system and it’s highly addictive multi-player mode make it the kind of game that shouldn’t be passed over without giving it a try. I’m sure this will be the type of controversial RPG that some will give much praise to and others will have melted down into a cool game coaster. I think the rating of this game is going to depend ultimately on how you play the game. If you’re playing the game as a single player then I would rate this game at a better than mediocre 3 + Gin gems. If you’re playing this game with some good friends then the level of fun is going to boost this game to a four Gin Gem title. It’s a mathematical certainty. That’s all I got from the oh-so-barren land of the "Cube."