Tales of Symphonia
The Gamecube has been going through some dark times as of late. In a world of jeering fanboys, in a time when bashing Nintendo had become commonplace, many of the console’s fans cried out for a game that could not only salvage the Gamecube’s lineup of RPGs, but also provide for a new and refreshing gaming experience. And when all hope was lost, when many were predicting the downfall of Nintendo’s presence in the industry, there came a game that would silence their predictions for just a little while longer. As fans watched in wonder, Tales of Symphonia was released into the hands of mainstream America where it was embraced and praised as the next great RPG on the Gamecube. Even though this game is critically acclaimed by its newly formed legions of fans, it still falls in that gray area in between quality gaming and too much hype.
I suppose that all of the initial praise for this game stemmed from the blatant lacking of RPGs on Nintendo’s trusty system. While many RPG fans have come to rely on the Playstation 2’s massive library, the Gamecube owners have been left out in the cold. There’s only so much hacking and slashing in PSO or connectivity in Crystal Chronicles before the fans start to get antsy. Finally, Gamecube owners can immerse themselves in a story mixed with wonderful characters and a surprisingly dark plot. The world of Sylvarant is plagued with the presence of the Desians, a race of beings supposedly superior to the humans spread across the land. These Desians raise and breed their own humans in human ranches, which are really just euphemisms for concentration camps. And as the other humans can only live in fear of this dominating presence, only one hope of peace and tranquility remains to be used. The Chosen One will supposedly rise up and undertake a quest of bravery and danger, using their God-given powers to regenerate the world. And once the world has been rocked by this almighty presence, the Desians will lose their supremacy and humans can finally live without fear.
Just one problem though: You aren’t the Chosen One. You are Lloyd Irving, a punk grade school kid that that likes to go on adventures instead of studying. It’s your classmate Colette that’s been marked as the savior of mankind. You’ve got a shy little mage named Genis to back you up when your hacking and slashing can’t finish the job at hand. And even though these characters are basically a bunch of meddling RPG cliched kids, they still bring enough personality to the table to make for an enjoying experience. To be perfectly blunt, Lloyd is missing much more than the necessary amount of intelligence of the standard RPG hero, but he still can wield those dual blades with God-like ability. The Chosen One herself is a shy sweet girl, if not just a little ditzy. It’s these small details that add so much to these characters, making you instantly fall in love with their strange and often hilarious quirks.
So you’re on a quest to “regenerate the world.” What exactly does that mean? How does the Chosen One use her powers to save everyone? Instead of coming up with something a little more creative than average, Tales of Symphonia takes for a horribly overused setup to aid the progress of the game. You’ll spend a great deal of time wandering around a massive world map, dodging wild monsters and searching for towns and buildings. And although you could spend hours maxing out your characters and leveling, the real goal at hand is the finding of a few mystical seals hidden in the far reaches of the land. Each seal basically involves a mini-dungeon with some rather simplistic puzzles. They’ve even been designated certain elements just to make it easier for you. You’ve got your Fire Seal embedded within a desert, or a Water Seal hidden underneath some hot springs. Given this uninspired method of dungeon design, the game can be fairly predictable once you’ve figured out which direction to turn.
Thankfully, this bland experience is saved by the multitude of towns and a few formidable dungeons that are intertwined with the story. The world of Sylvarant is covered in places with fancy names. And while the majority of the towns serve the basic purpose of the inns, equipment merchants, and save points, each place has its own unique place with continuation of the adventure. Sometimes that cheerful mayor knows something that can help you, or there’s some item or person to find before you can continue the quest. Sometimes you’ll have to go mano a mano with the Desians in their massive human ranches, seeing the atrocities and learning more about your despicable foes. And while these various places are essentially forced down our throats, they still offer much more than a monotonous hack n’ slash RPG.
But if there’s anything that shines about this game, it’s the battle system. Lloyd and three of his little cronies will rush a hapless foe at once, leaving nothing but some pure real-time battling goodness. You control Lloyd manually, but you can program your allies to do just about anything in the field of combat. You set up the AI attack patterns to use only magic from afar, close in quickly and use physical attacks, focus on healing, whatever you want. And once you’ve come up with the ultimate strategy, it’s time to dish out the destruction upon the evil hordes of Desian scum. Sure, it really boils down to hacking and slashing. But what makes this so much more fun is that the characters are limited only by the commands that you set for the AI. There are few things more satisfying than completely dominating your foes with tons of magic attacks and sword combos. All of the mayhem happens at once, blessing the gameplay with silky smooth framerate and undeniable clarity.
But the beauty of this game isn’t necessarily limited to the countless battles. Sure, there are dozens of attacks with pretty special lighting and detail effects. The game runs without a hitch, even during the most ferocious and brutal battles to the death. But while we revel in the bright magical lightshows, we can’t ignore the detail that has gone into the characters and the towns. All of these characters, from Lloyd to the little dogs in every town, have a distinct amount of detail and attention. Sure, most of these characters are decked out in some occasionally ridiculous anime-styled outfits, but there is still so much detail in each of them. You can see Lloyd’s white scarves flowing behind him as he runs, or the way that Kratos’ spiky brown hair bounces with each step. It’s these details that tend to be overlooked when we’re faced with the extravagant battle animations.
There’s only on thing that irks me though. All of these characters have distinct voices and wonderfully rich attitudes. The voice acting is superbly done with so much clarity and excellence. But despite all of the quality, the characters’ cel-shaded lips don’t move. You don’t get to see nearly as much facial expressions from our heroes as we would in other RPGs. It’s like I’m playing Skies of Arcadia all over again, except the characters say more stuff and have acute attitude problems. While I admit that voice acting is certainly a step in the right direction from the alternative text silence, it still lacks the novelty that could have added so much to this game. But even though this is a stain on the overall presentation, the audio quality can’t be forgotten. All of the levels, characters, battles, and major points of the game have their own orchestrated themes, making a wonderfully detailed and enjoyable soundtrack. All of the battle sound effects are still crisp and clear to the ears, leaving a feeling of realism and setting.
As a fan of RPGs, I’ve been holding out for as long as I can, hoping for that next big RPG that will make for a Gamecube classic. And after all of that waiting, ignoring all of that pressure to give up on the Gamecube RPG library entirely, Tales of Symphonia finally arrived to appease my hunger. And while this game was certainly over-hyped in its infancy, it still has the goods to deliver something for the starving masses of malnourished RPG fanatics everywhere. While you won’t be seeing anything too original or off center from today’s standard, this game will still provide something fresh for that old and decaying Gamecube RPG lineup. And while this game will still get plenty of praise from hyped marketing practices and cult-like fan following, we can’t forget about why this game is so damned likable. Maybe it’s the story, or the ensemble of characters. Maybe it’s the world of Sylvarant that draws us near, or perhaps it’s the wonderfully executed battle system. Whatever it is, Tales of Symphonia still reeks of goodness.