A criminally forgotten 'almost' masterpiece
Review written by
July 8th, 2016
The Tales of franchise is an often-forgotten strand of RPGs. Whilst it has a fervent fan base, its various installments have not yet entered the public consciousness the same way as Final Fantasy. Even my mother vaguely recognized Cloud- and her game knowledge extends to 'that yellow munchy fella'.
There can be a million and one reasons for this, one seems to be their fluctuating quality. Whilst the same negative could be applied to the aforementioned alternative, Final Fantasy has taken more of a negative tailspin- whilst the Tales franchise has had a sporadic history of bounding between high caliber genre benders to derivative rubbish, since its inception.
But at the epicentre of its legacy rests a truly fine game: Tales of Symphonia.
The game was recommended by a friend and, given the multiplayer nature of the battle scenarios, we proceeded to play together whenever both available. Where this game really sings is narrative. A ducking and diving exploration of story twists, you are never on quite the same quest for all too long at all. It's safe to say all the RPG plot cliches are here (good guys are secretly bad guys, bad guys are secretly goods guys, people betray you- yadda, yadda, yadda) but when delivered with such conviction and alongside much more original twists (albeit much less often) it really doesn't matter and the story rockets. But what is a good story without fantastic and lovable characters to relate to (Hint: the majority of Hollywood blockbusters.) Symphonia brings them in spades. To start with, your part is a vast pantheon of delights. There are a handful of RPG archetypes here, but every now and again a cliche is a cliche for a reason: Because it works. There are also, acquired later, more original characters to be welcomed into your World Saving Collective. Each comes with a backstory to flesh them out and side quests to push them further, and this extensive attention to detail stretches far beyond your playable characters. Bosses, families, friends, even the occasional 'so and so' you bump into is rich and dynamic enough to be the star of their own franchise.
With twists, turns and side quests- this is a truly vast and scrawling, complex narrative. There are more optional avenues than you can shake a stick at (not that stick shaking is an advisable way to approach gameplay, unless it's the Wii.) What's fantastic about these diversions in plot is that they're not just there to taunt the obsessives who crave the elusive 100%. Each throws up new story beats or character flourishes to enrich the world.
The gameplay matches up with its narrative and characters tenfold. The controls are fluid and easy and the mechanics smooth. Predominantly a 1-player game, up to 4 can drop in to aid in battle scenarios if desired, allowing fantastic opportunity for teamwork and tactic. Your party can be adapted and molded in anyway you see fit, with a wide range of costumes and apparatus to apply to whomever you please- and even the function to strengthen the friendships between whichever pairings you like. You may begin with a handful of RPG archetypes but you end with a gang unique to you.
Is it all glistening rainbows though? Well no. When you do not have friends to control your party for you AI takes over and this is AI with the IQ of a spoon. Sometimes you'll be waiting for your party to back you up but find they're so inactive you genuinely start to suspect they've popped off to the shops mid-battle. When they do decide to intervene it is in such an utterly useless fashion you will find yourself craving for the days when they did nothing and wondering if there is a hotline you can call that offers medical help for "Insanely Idiotic Fictional Characters". The graphics have not dated well, we're talking GameCube era here, and whilst this doesn't bother myself in the slightest- for a lot of people graphics are important. If you are one of those people, you may have to swallow your pride and deal with a few rather badly rendered polygons. The game is also home to a wee intrusion it refers to as 'skits'. These are comic book styled conversations that pop up when map exploring to delve further into character dynamics. Now for me, a geek for narrative and character development, these were mostly a delight; yet at times tested my limits when I just wanted to get into gameplay. Whilst the majority can be skipped with the press of Z if you get yourself into a bad mood, when they pop up it can be infuriating and intrusive. Making matters worse if you do choose to indulge them to experience the character additions, you cannot skip through the dialogue at a speed befitting your own reading level, and must go with the pace the developers have settled on. I don't want to make the obvious joke so I'll merely give you the words: Skit speed. Snail. Slower than...
Whilst I am a admirer of a good cut-scene on most days I feel it is safe to say that the best game developers are learning to tell their stories within action because action is what games do best. Symphonia is certainly behind the curve in this regard and anyone desperate to dive in guns blazing may want to just skip them as the time it takes may not be worth the information you get.
Overall though this is a strong, if criminally underrated, game with plenty to offer and vast scope. If you're willing to look past a couple minor foibles and horribly outdated graphics, sacrificing visuals for story telling, you may just have found a great old RPG to give a crack if you can't quite afford the newest title. Or if you can afford the newest title, grab Tales of Symphonia anyway, as whatever it is will be hard pressed to muster up a story that rivals.
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