Tales of Graces f Review
The last time US gamers saw a Tales title? 2004. It was Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World for the GameCube. We had heard rumors that the well-received Tales of Vesperia for the PS3 would eventually find its way over here, but that never happened. So now we finally get another entry in the long-running Japanese role-playing franchise, and you know what? It’s exactly what you think it is: fantastic for the die-hard fans of the sub-genre and for everyone else, well…
As this is essentially an upgraded version of the 2009 Wii title, you shouldn’t expect too much in the way of impressive detail and breathtaking special effects. However, while it doesn’t quite have the colorful pizzazz of last year’s Atelier Totori: Adventurer of Arland, this one has an almost indefinable charm. Rather than richness and vibrancy, there’s a distinct softness, which lends the entire presentation an alluring, calming tone. Even the flashiest special moves aren’t exactly feasts for the eyes but the graphics should please JRPG followers.
The sound hinges on several great music selections and a few moderately well-voiced characters. Once again, the effects aren’t going to blow anyone away, but they’re sufficient for the style. As for the voice performances, I actually think they get better with time, although you’re never fooled into thinking the cast is loaded with accomplished professionals. This is one of the downfalls of Japanese productions this generation and it hasn’t really changed. Still, I did enjoy quite a few of the well-drawn characters, and that soundtrack is excellent.
No, it isn’t turn-based. I start my gameplay explanation with that clarification, simply because I know it’s an answer to an always-burning question. Therefore, if you’re seeking some good old-fashioned turn-based JRPG fun, make sure to try the aforementioned Atelier Totori. However, if you’re okay with the slightly more “modern” combat layout and are interested in a dynamic, appropriately deep fighting mechanic, you should continue to pay attention. And remember, don’t pass judgment in the first hour— There’s more to this mechanic than meets the eye.
First of all, let’s address the overall structure. It’s a linear adventure, as you might expect, but in my eyes, it’s actually a little too linear…and considering my love of old-school RPGs, that’s saying something. Most all areas are connected by a simple road, which you can at least explore (in contrast to the simple select-location-and-go design in Atelier Totori), but you’re really limited. You can sometimes run off the beaten path but you can never go far and for the most part, there’s not much to see. On the plus side, the trek is usually quite pleasant.
You encounter enemies as you did in Final Fantasy XIII; the enemies are seen roving the landscape and if you touch them, you’re brought to a separate battle screen. Combat begins instantly and you can choose Auto, Semi-Auto, or Manual (a mode that actually has to be enabled by purchasing or finding the “Manual Manual”). Obviously, your selection dictates how much direct control you have over your character’s actions. In general, you use the left analog to move and the X button to attack, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
You can hold Square to block and while holding block, you can use the left analog stick to quickly dodge around the enemy. Also, holding the Square button longer will cause different auras to surround your character; blue, green and eventually red. I won’t give everything away (gotta play to learn more), but let’s just say this adds strategy to the tougher fights, and simply using the left analog during battle is easy enough. Outside combat, you can assign Titles to each character; each Title has a set of skills you can learn by earning SP from battles.
It’s deep but it’s a straightforward kind of deep, if that makes any sense. For the most part, all your battles are very fast; many only last a matter of seconds, especially if you’ve worked to build up a little. The game adds another twist by encouraging you to meet optional goals: a goal will be given at the start of battle (“Don’t get hit,” “Defeat an enemy with a 4-hit combo,” etc.). If you’re successful, the spoils are better and the next battle will have another optional goal. String successes together through multiple encounters, and the spoilers get better and better.
There’s also a relatively simple synthesis mechanic called “Dualization,” which lets you combine items and even equipment to create new stuff. There are a variety of towns and other locations around the world, which encourages you to locate all the Discoveries (environmental points of interest you record and save). Lastly, there are optional pieces of story that can be revealed by pressing the Select button when the prompt arises. It can happen in certain locations; when you activate it, the characters will interact with one another, giving you a better look at their personalities.
The story really isn’t anything too special and takes a little too long to develop, as your first hours don’t involve anything overly dramatic. The characters are only mildly interesting and too clichéd at the start: You’ve got the cocky little boy as a protagonist, for example, and it’s a character type that we’ve just seen far too often. Still, Asbel is likeable, as are his companions. You will likely develop a soft spot for the adorable red-haired Cheria, who was born with a sickness that makes her cough pitifully when she tries to keep up with Asbel.
It’s just that with some stilted dialogue and only average voice acting, along with questionable pacing, the story only rewards those who keep pushing forward. But the good news is that it does get a lot better, and I’m a big fan of the gameplay. I didn’t think I would be – when it comes to old-school JRPGs, I really just want turn-based; I can find a bunch of other mechanics elsewhere – but I really took to the combat system, which is extremely well designed, I think. It’s accessible but deep and it encourages strategy, planning, micromanagement, and timing.
Plus, you really have to appreciate the nod to traditional structures, what with the layout of the map. Sure, it’s a little too linear, but at least it’s an obvious throwback to a time when exploration involved towns, talking to NPCs, and attractive natural locales. So when you combine the characters and plot that get better with time, the entertaining battle system, and a style and design that is bound to cater to the long-time JRPG fans, you’ve got a winning formula. I mean, it’s not for everyone but as I’ve often said, it’s not supposed to be.
Tales of Graces f is a solid RPG with a compelling, fun battle system, a mostly traditional setup, a few appealing characters, and a story that gets better with time. It’s dragged down by some pacing issues, occasionally mediocre voice acting, and a slow start, but that shouldn’t deter the hardcore fans. For the most apt summary of this game, I refer you to the EGM review, where their Good and Bad read respectively: “JRPG conventions at their finest” and “JRPG conventions at their ‘finest.’” That pretty much says it all about this particular game and indeed, most any JRPG these days.
The Good: Pleasant visual presentation. Good soundtrack. Interesting, enjoyable combat mechanic. Likeable characters. Story gets rolling if you give it time. Traditional style is catnip to lovers of the genre.
The Bad: Some mediocre voice performances. Everything starts slow. Not enough exploration when wandering about.
The Ugly: “Too colorful and charming…tough to find any ‘ugly’ here.”
3/19/2012 Ben Dutka