TalesOfSymphonia is the most recent entry in Namco's acclaimed "Tales" series (as of 2004). However, unlike earlier entries, which appeared on the PlayStation console, Namco opted to release this one on Nintendo's system, the GameCube. The game features many mechanics similar to the typical FinalFantasy-esque RPG, but uses a real-time combat system when entering battle mode.
Story: The story is a bit of a mixed bag. On the upside, it has a lot of expected and unexpected twists, its share of effective emotional moments, and a reasonably good premise. There are some segments that are handled incredibly well, such as Lloyd's lone ascent to the Tower of Salvation. However, I think they tried to do too much. There are a lot of characters- nine who join the party, and many many others of significance who don't. About half of the characters seem to have some sort of bizzare secret, and there are about 20 billion conspiracies and counter-conspiracies going on between everyone. It's all paced well enough and explained often enough that you don't get lost, but it gets a bit tiresome when the game feels that it has to introduce a shocking plot revelation every ten minutes. I think the story would have succeeded better by concentrating more on the important aspects and cutting the subplots that didn't really go anywhere. But still, what's good is good, and the unnecesary parts don't really take much away from that. The characters are very well-defined, although how much you like some of them (one in particular) will depend on your affinity for bubbliness. In general I found the characters you meet later to be more interesting than the four Iselians. Thematically the story is interesting, playing off of a surprising number of Christian themes for a fantasy game from Japan. I especially found it rather chilling the way it handled "angels" (the quotes there due to one line by Yuan that seems placed to avoid stirring controvery).
You're surprised at Christian themes in a Japanese RPG?
Graphics: The game uses cel-shaded graphics, like Zelda: The Wind Waker, or Viewtiful Joe. The use of cel-shading is not as good as either of those games (Zelda in particular outshines it), but it's also much better than most other games that use it. On the whole it looks fine, usually (but not always) avoids the "paper doll look" found in Wild Arms 3, and is aesthetically pleasing because the art design and drawings are really good. There are a few pretty animated cut-scenes that exist, but they're really sparse. You get one before the title sequence and then you go the next 35 hours without seeing another one. So most of the cut-scenes are done in the game engine, which is acceptable, although I found it jarring how the animation was occasionally off in action-based plot scenes.
Sound: First, the good: the music and sounds are quite excellent. What I liked particularly about the music was its great variety in styles and the use of recurring themes in separate pieces to tie the story together. For example, there's one theme associated with holy places that comes back with piano or organ remixes depending on the mood of the place you're visiting. Now, the bad: the voice-acting is... well... uneven. To be fair, VideoGames rarely have good voice acting. All told, TalesOfSymphonia is above average when compared to other games with the ammount of acting this has, but only a few of its more veteran cast members are consistently good, and the problem is accentuated by the lack of proper timing in the dialogue sequences.
Gameplay: Ah, the gameplay and the major area that I felt didn't have any pronounced flaws. Basically, you encounter enemies on the map and then go into a battle scene, similar to MarioRPG?. However, once in the battle scene you gain full control of the main character and fight the enemies like you would in an action game. This works remarkably well. You have a good assortment of moves: basic attack combos, air combos, blocks, magic shields, special moves, and spells. Perhaps the best thing about this is that the battles suffer from much less monotony than other ConsoleRPGs?. As the game progresses, you will gain new abilities and party members you can use, so you can switch your style up now and then. Other characters in the battle are controlled by the computer, following a general strategy that you set up, although they can be given direct orders or switched to at any time. Another neat thing that deserves mentioning is that you have some control over how the characters develop. You can change what stats they will improve the most when leveling up by acquiring and using "Titles", change their bonuses by using "Ex Gems", and alter their usage to determine whether they will learn quick moves or more complicated combos. It's not complete party-creation by any means. Genis is a crappy fighter just about any way you dice it. But it's nice that there's a bit more customization than usual (excepting, of course, games with "job" systems), and it doesn't sacrifice the uniqueness of the individual characters. There are a few other interesting quirks, such as the cooking system or the use of the magic ring in dungeon puzzles, but they're pretty simple.
Conclusion: I think I would have prefered a simpler plot, and more sparing use of voice acting. While today's generation of game critics will often bitch if you have to read the plot, it's really a situation where you have to be careful what you wish for. I think they would have succeeded better if they made several more animated cutscenes, and just had voice acting for those, rather than trying to record for every plot event in the game. But as I've noted before, it's easier to criticize than to create, and in the end they did a wonderful job with this game. It's fun, it's a bit emotional, and it's something a little different. Highly recommended for any ConsoleRPG fan.
I haven't played through the entire game yet (I only just made it to the second disk), but these are my thoughts so far. First off, the game, surprisingly, does too little hitting you with a clue bat labelled with your next destination. So far I've had to resort three times to a FAQ to figure out where I was supposed to be next. Granted, one of these was because I accidentally did part of the game out of order and hence had left a certain dungeon behind, but still. With a game this complicated plotwise, some system to indicate your next destination (or a logbook keeping track of what's happened recently) would be very useful. This is, really, my biggest complaint with the game. Since I can only play for a few hours per sitting (if that) thanks to school, I spend a fair amount of time remembering what I have to do next. Usually, if you select whatever chapter in the "Synopsis" listings is shown in yellow, it will point you squarely at where you need to go next, with a few exceptions.
The graphics are fine; I don't think that true 3D would have worked with the character designs, and really, it does look like a hand-drawn anime most of the time. I'm not a huge fan of cel-shading, since it tends to make things look too bright (and definitely, this is a bright game; there's no use of darkness at all), but it's done properly here.
Combat is all right, though a bit repetitive sometimes. Very early on I figured out a way for Lloyd (the main character) to do a 12-hit combo on his own, and after a good twenty hours of gameplay I haven't found anything better to do with him. Oh, yes - the game keeps track of your combos (number of times an enemy is hit in rapid succession). High combos can earn titles for Lloyd, and earn extra "Grade" for you (basically money you use to buy certain semi-rare items). This gives you something to optimize for during battles that would otherwise be uninteresting, though most enemies don't have enough hitpoints for you to perpetrate obscenely huge combos on them. My highest combos are consistently on bosses (I'm up to 54 hits, so far).
One of the interesting things the game does is periodically display "skits", which are basically dialogues between the different characters where they talk about recent happenings in the plot. This is a good opportunity for character development without needing a complete cutscene (in skits, the characters talk via hand-drawn portraits instead of complete models). These are generally interesting, although the constant poking fun at Lloyd's below-average intelligence gets old pretty quickly. The biggest problem I have is that they're slow - a few lines of text pop up on the screen, and then the character's mouth opens and closes for several seconds. I suppose that really, this is a minor beef, but it's still irritating.
Overall, from what I've played of the game it's pretty good. Certainly better than what Squaresoft has been putting out lately. I'm still waiting for a game with a GrandiaIi-style combat engine, but the TalesOfSymphonia engine works well enough.
Some amusing quotes:
Zelos: Is your chest the only part of you that's well-endowed?
Regal: These shackles symbolize my crime. Lloyd: So... you're a handcuff thief?
[After winning a battle] Collette: Justice and Love will always win! Lloyd: Oh man, I HATE that saying...
[Likewise, when Lloyd gets poisoned] Lloyd: Collette...need...cure poison... Collette: Why? I'm not poisoned! Lloyd: No...I mean...for me...
[And again] Sheena: And don't come back! Collette: I don't think they can come back!
There's an entire skit related to the "buzzing" Sorceror's Ring with Lloyd and Presea "trying it out". I have to assume that the game writers knew what they were doing when they added that in. And, thanks to the wonders of GameFAQS?, here it is!
Lloyd: *Sigh* Man, this place is just big for no apparent reason. Presea: ...It is big. This is true. Lloyd: And we've already done this tingling thing with the Sorcerer's Ring once before in Sylvarant. Presea: Really? Lloyd: Yeah...you want to try it? Presea: Ah, okay... Ah, itttttt tingllllessssss. Lloyd: Ah! Presea, don't point it at yourself! Presea: Oh, okkkk... Lloyd: Don't point it over here eitherrrrrrrr...
Colette: I'm going to go for a walk. Lloyd: Want me to come? Colette: Thanks, but I'll be fine on my own. Genis: Ha ha! You got re-jec-ted!
[After Lloyd and Genis are unable to lift a very heavy block] Lloyd: Wait a minute, this thing is heavy...I've lost all confidence as a man. Genis: Me too...
Lloyd: What's the meaning of this? [Dorr turns around in surprise] Lloyd: What's the matter? You look like you just saw a ghost. Genis: Um, Lloyd, that's a really clichéd line. Lloyd: Shut up, Genis!
See also: ConsoleRPG, GrandiaIi