While the US release of FinalFantasy: Crystal Chronicles may have delayed into 2004, and Tales of Symphonia won't be hitting stateside until even later, Gamecube owners aren't left entirely without any good RPG's, largely thanks to this game. Where to start? The game, put simply, is a very charming title, with a unique world design, a straight-forward but interesting story, a very colorful cast of characters, and a good dose of humor.
However, at first glance it might not give the best impression since the graphics are a little old-looking. Although there reportedly are enhancements between the Dreamcast version (which I haven't played) and the Gamecube version, it still lacks the smooth, shiny look of most games produced these days. That said, the graphics hold up pretty decently under the game's cartoony style, and most of the character models for the major characters and monsters are really quite good even by today's standards. There are, of course, the obligatory shiny long animations associated with powerful moves, but for once they can be skipped entirely when you get tired of them. The sound, meanwhile, is pure excellence. The musical portions are both well-composed and orchestrated, and the heroic themes are some of the most damn insipiring musical riffs I've ever heard in a VideoGame (I especially like the theme that plays when you start kicking ass in a boss battle). Voice-acting is not employed on anything near the scale of, say, FinalFantasyTen, but there are small bits which give you an idea of what the characters sound like, which is a nice touch.
The gameplay is similar to that found in other ConsoleRPGs? such as FinalFantasy or XenoGears. You travel around, fight random encounters, explore dungeons, solve simple puzzles, yada yada yada. There are some interesting wrinkles that it brings to the genre that deserve mentioning. The main thing is the "spirit system", wherein there are a certain number of "spirit points" that each party member generates each round for the party pool. These are required for most major actions, such as S-moves, magic, using ship weapons, or calling the crew of your ship to aid you. Since these are shared between the entire party, you have to figure out how to budget your SP. Basically, this prevents you from just walking into a battle and immediately blasting your opponents with everything you've got. Rather, you typically have to plan ahead to pull off anything grand. In a rather odd move, magic power is actually totally dependent on SP; all spells cost 1 MP, but better ones will drain more SP.
Learning magic is also a little different. You learn spells through your weapons, which you choose to charge with a certain elemental energy (this also affects the damage you do). Using elemental weapons earns you spell points in that area for the whole party. Since the entire party gets points for all elements used, I was afraid this would make the characters interchangeable, like FinalFantasySeven, but this doesn't really end up being the case. Part of this is simply because magic tends to take a backseat throughout the entire game to S-moves, which are unique to each character. In addition, the actual effectiveness of spell learning and offensive spell-casting will still vary pretty drastically between characters. Fina, the resident mage, will cast spells that rock; Drachma, the big tough guy. will cast spells that are a waste of a turn.
I wasn't sure what to expect from this game, but I trusted the reviews and picked it up and was overjoyed with it. While it's nothing revolutionary, it uses the classic RPG formula to full effect, and manages to be an outstanding game. The worst things I can say about this game is that the graphics are a little old and the difficulty is a little low. Other than that, the game is excellent, and a worthy contender to Square's FinalFantasy series.