One of the memes bantered about in various gaming media lately is that the Japanese videogame industry is dying. I've always loved Japanese game design and aesthetics, especially in the role-playing genre (RPG). There is something alluring in seeing Tokien-esque fantasy, spaghetti Westerns, or mech-laden science-fiction as viewed through Japanese eyes. Yet even my sense of wonder and adventure was beginning to fade, and my willingness to see the next spiky-haired innocent youth save the world (unofficially trademarked by Square Enix) sorely tried by the lack of innovation in RPGs. I've always been comfortable with the turn-based battle system that lets the console tally up my super-mega-special finishing attack (as soon as I've made sure to drink a healing potion). But I admit that the system has begun to wear thin, and the emperor perhaps needs new clothes. Enter Namco.
I feel that Namco is at the forefront of a wave of Japanese RPGs which retain much of what makes the genre familiar and beloved by many, while still evolving in ways that makes the games seem somewhat fresh. A couple of recent examples to "mix it up" are Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (innovative dungeon crawling) and Final Fantasy X-2 (dress for battle success). Namco's own Baten Kaitos continues this trend by utilizing a new take on card-based battles. Tales of Symphonia doesn't eliminate genre staples: undead are weak against fire, healing gels come in varying strengths, weapons and armor can be sold for better versions, and the hero has moderately spiky hair. Yet it has gameplay that sucked me in, characters that were greatly expanded via manga-inspired "skits," and an epic story full of wonder. I wasn't sure if I would enjoy this game; my previous Tales experience was with Tales of Destiny 2 on PlayStation, and I found that game too trite to ever get involved. Fortunately, this new game is an entirely different animal.
The story begins in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, and focuses on Colette, a young girl who must take on a quest to redeem the world. As the Chosen, Colette must regenerate the world by awakening a goddess and restoring mana to her suffering world of Sylvarant. By her side is Lloyd, the inexperienced and naive youth who yearns to protect her. Rounding out the initial group are two brainy half-elves: Lloyd's best friend Genis, and the wise "elder" Raine. As the game progresses the group grows into a motley crew with various strengths and skills, not to mention diverse personalities.
It is these characterizations that helped draw me into Tales, and helped to make the game more than just another RPG. Colette, for example, is a danger-prone Daphne who trips at the least opportune moments - often to the disadvantage of nearby enemies. Genis sometimes regrets giving up the opportunity to study at the world's best school. Raine is an archeological geek who finds the promise of knowledge worth any discomfort, and will scare away the group with her rabid enthusiasm for anything dusty and must. Later a renowned hero, who turns out to be a "walking libido," joins the party. This detail is often revealed in what the game terms "skits." Skits are optional bits of dialog played out via manga-like overlays featuring written dialog (these seem like they might have been voiced in Japan). Some of these had me laughing out loud, a rarity in most of today's games.
After the obligatory introduction, the story picks up quickly, throwing the gamer into confrontational situations which require that RPG staple: battles. The battles in Tales of Symphonia are fast-paced and fun, due to the series' use of a real-time system reminiscent of a fighting game. The player controls one of four characters present on the field, with the other three acting according to player-assigned strategies. Fine-tuning the strategies is helpful to get through the tougher battles, and knowing how to swap strategies during battle is a must for the bosses. The player assigns a few special moves to the available button combinations. During fights, these "specials" are mixed in with regular attacks to build up attack combos, with an eye to finishing the battle "with style." A post-battle display tells the player how he did, and performing better to earn more experience or items can become an addictive goal.
The story is truly epic, and the action is woven throughout a cloth stained red with the metaphoric blood of innocents. Tales isn't without its genre stereotypes such as the suffering of innocents, the villain with a warped vision, a world (and more) in peril and an untried hero. But the telling and the plot twists made the game something special. I was often surprised by what happened next. There were many serious issues that the game worked into the story, with situations that included thought-provoking topics such as racial segregation and brutality, exile, incurable disease, the sacrifice of innocent people, genocide, and betrayal of love. That's quite a list for a game that, at first glance, looks like a children's anime. Yet it's not all serious and somber; Tales isn't afraid to poke fun at itself or the genre. In one skit, Lloyd wonders why an in-game event couldn't be avoided with a Quick-Jump (an occasional option for the player to avoid revisiting a dungeon); of course the other characters have no idea what Lloyd means. Another moment reveals an indirect Final Fantasy VII reference, an in-joke that Square fans will no doubt appreciate, if they find it. The game's story definitely has heart.
I've touched on the more prominent aspects of the game, but the devil is really in the details. I was obsessed with collecting recipes all over the world, by seeking out the elusive Wonder Chef, whose dishes provide various healing effects after fights. Haters of random battles will be relived to know that encounters can often be avoided, similar to the Chrono games. And I hereby declare that every game should copy the Synopsis, a log of story events and current quests which prevents the player from losing track of what is next on the agenda. Tales of Symphonia definitely recreated the sense of wonder that I expect from Japanese RPGs. I was almost sad to finish it (although a New Game option is available). It does so many things right, telling a large-scale story through the eyes of a small group that I wanted to get to know better. It has a battle system that I found truly addictive, to the point of seeking out battles in order to improve my skills and grow my characters. I even wanted to search the world map to find treasures and hidden skits. Namco Tales Studio has made an enjoyable RPG that evolves the genre nicely, and reminds me of the fun to be had with epic quests and spiky hair.