Confessions of an RPG Nerd

Tales of Versperia Artwork

HIGH Finding an RPG hero and villain who aren't exactly like every other RPG hero and villain in video game history.

LOW Non-skippable cut-scenes. Really, should I have to watch five minutes of dialogue again just because I suck and died on a boss?

WTF There is a dog in your party. A dog who fights with a knife and smokes a pipe.

About 25 hours into Tales of Vesperia, I came to a realization: I don't like the Tales games. I feel free now that I've said that—it's been an issue lurking in my subconscious for years and it's good to have finally gotten it out in the open. I was worried about making this admission at first, scared that it might somehow ruin my hardcore role-playing game nerd-cred. Now that it's out, I don't even care anymore. Don't get me wrong—I don't hate the Tales games. They're competently made and if you're into whole goofy Japanese anime aesthetics, I can see how you might enjoy them. My days of trying to convince myself I like them are over, though. I just can't live the lie for another minute.

Despite this revelation, I'm going to review Tales of Vesperia, the latest entry in the long running (and console-jumping) series and I'm going to do it fairly. I think this might even be for the best, because freed of my feeling that I should like these games I'm now able to look at them in a totally objective light. I will say this: Tales of Vesperia was not the game that pushed me over the edge—that would be Tales of Symphonia—it was merely the one that brought about my "moment of clarity." I suppose that because of this truth Tales of Vesperia will always have a special place in my heart.

It could have had that sliver of cardio real-estate for even better reasons if not for the game's penchant for shooting itself in the foot at almost every turn. Vesperia is one of the oddest RPG experiences I've ever had: during my 55 hours with the game, we were all over the place. For the first seven hours or so I loved it. During the next twenty, there were periods where I hated it. At other points I felt impressed by the title's ability to subvert my genre-based expectations. These were almost immediately followed by periods where I wanted to kill myself because the game was following the "RPG 101" rulebook to the letter. It tried valiantly to win me back at the end, but by this point I was too exhausted to care. And again, even at endgame, the title manages to do something right and then almost immediately screw it up. When the end credits rolled, I felt battered…and relieved.

Because the things Vesperia does well are so inextricably linked with the things it botches, it's hard to talk about one without talking about the other at the same time.

Tales of Versperia Screenshot

The game's main character, an ex-knight named Yuri Lowell, seems like he's been cut from the same cloth as just about every other RPG protagonist in the past decade. He's an ex-knight, for starters, who quit because he didn't think the gig was the best way to affect positive change. His best friend is still in the knights, which sets up the potential "friend vs. friend" conflict we've all seen a hundred times before. He starts a noble quest that begins locally and eventually morphs into something global. He meets a group of friends who go on the journey with him…conventional RPG plot elements for sure. Something happens about a quarter of the way through the game though—something that makes Yuri far more interesting than we'd been led to believe early on. Yuri is not above dispensing his own brand of justice. Unlike the multitude of do-gooders who comprise the RPG lead character universe, Yuri Lowell kills people. He has reasons that he finds just for committing murder, but he still wrestles with the philosophical implications of the act. For an RPG, this kind of character depth is pretty damn groundbreaking. Yuri's characterization makes it all the more tragic that the rest of his band of fellow travelers are so generic that they could have been pulled from any of a hundred other games. Tales of Vesperia gives us one great character, then surrounds him with the standard "princess no one recognizes," two annoying kid characters, a hot chick from another race/culture, the standard comic relief character who's the butt of most the game's jokes, and a dog. Not just any dog, either, but a dog that fights with knives and smokes a pipe. If that's not a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment, I don't know what is.

The saddest part of all of this? I expect this level of buffoonery from the majority of Japanese RPGs in general and the Tales games in particular. It's business as usual, except for that Yuri Lowell guy. He makes the mediocrity of the game that much harder to swallow—we get a glimpse of something intriguing, of something that could almost take this resting on its laurels series and make it relevant, and the game never really does anything with it. Tales of Vesperia is willing to flirt with a break from tradition, but when it inches up to the precipice it quickly backs away in favor of a princess who's been chosen by destiny and a cast of characters who're about as interesting as reading the tax code.

Yuri isn't the only place where the game manages to get something right. No one will ever mistake the narrative of Tales of Vesperia as particularly deep, but I did feel at various points (mostly in the last act) that it was far more timely and filled with social commentary than most of its brethren. Allow me to explain.

The game's story centers on a bunch of mumbo jumbo about "aer", "entelexaia", "adaphagos", "blastia", and "apatheia" (I found this last one pertinent since most of this stuff left me feeling "apathetic"). What all that is and how it works doesn't really matter—what matters is that the story uses all this material to make something of a point about conservation and proceeding in a world where the old source of power is no longer available and must be replaced with a new one. You don't have to spend a lot of time reading about "peak oil" to make a connection between the game's story and our current energy crisis. I thought it was a stretch at first, but as the game inches closer to the end, the parallels become harder to dismiss.

Tales of Versperia Screenshot

The problem (and yet another positive as well—I told you these things were all linked) is that the story presents all of this social commentary in a clichéd RPG storyline. It feels like the writers had no real idea where the tale they were spinning was going and they just strung together some scenarios until they got to the end.

This flaw is most apparent in the presentation of the game's final boss. Tales of Vesperia's last enemy reminds me of some of the PlayStation era Final Fantasy games wherein the last boss just appeared out of nowhere. The character here is involved in the story from relatively early on, but he never really comes to prominence until close to the end of the experience. That's not so good.

What is good is that this last boss is a character almost equal to Yuri when it comes to subverting expectations and exhibiting depth. I called the guy the "final enemy" earlier, and he is in the sense that he's the last boss you're forced to fight. However, unlike most RPGs, this guy is presented not so much as a bad guy, but simply as a guy you have to fight because he has a different idea about how to proceed in resolving the current crisis facing the planet. You can identify with this character to a degree and what he's trying to accomplish. He's not evil, or even entirely misguided, but instead just has a different opinion than the heroes. This made for some really interesting final sequences.

And there you have it, the most interesting and annoying things about Tales of Vesperia. As far as everything else goes, the graphics are nice (but not as nice as Eternal Sonata), the battle system is just a slightly tweaked version of the ones used in Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss (meaning it's a combo-crazy button-mashing arte spam-a-thon), and the voice acting is all over the place (it's particularly funny when you see the androgynous looking Duke character open his mouth and hear a Barry White bass come out of it).

If you hadn't figured it out for yourself already, allow me to reiterate—Tales of Vesperia is sort of like an RPG treadmill. For every step forward the game makes with its use of characters or social commentary, it follows up with a step back in the form of an over-reliance on genre clichés and a meandering narrative focus. I may not have loved Tales of Vesperia (or even liked it that much), but I can respect it for the things it does well. Perhaps this is a sign of the series going through growing pains as it strives to reach new ground. Rating: 6.0 out of 10

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 55 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol references, fantasy violence, mild blood, mild language, and suggestive themes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: will miss out on the voice acting, but not the story itself since everything is subtitled.

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

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14 Comments on "Tales of Vesperia Review"

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Feder
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Feder
7 years 3 months ago

I love Tales games to death, but you hit this title right on the head. It’s nice to see someone who finally agrees with me! For me, this was one of the more disappointing Tales titles. While I thought Yuri was a great character, he alone couldn’t save the rest of the cliched cast and story.

Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
7 years 5 months ago

It’s been months since I played it, and I’ll admit I didn’t have my stopwatch out, but there are some long unskippable cutscenes before boss fights in Tales of Vesperia.

And, just because other games have unskippable cut scenes doesn’t make it any less of a problem.

Vesperia isn’t worse than Symphonia, but it’s not a particularly good RPG, either.

Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
7 years 5 months ago
It’s the same basic battle system from the past 3 Tales games…who really wants to spend a bunch of time reading “you can spam artes” over and over for a paragraph or more? I mean, really, that’s the battle system. Spam the same few artes over and over. It’s not particularly deep and doesn’t warrant much discussion. The story is the only thing that’s even remotely interesting about Vesperia–and it’s only interesting because you can read so much into it through all of the generic JRPG trappings. Sorry you think the review is “incomplete”–but the idea of writing a “laundry… Read more »
Thanatos
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Thanatos
7 years 5 months ago

Hold on…the most important thing about the game – the thing you spend most of your time doing – the battle system – gets mentioned in part of one sentence in the entire review? We get 7+ paragraphs on the story, but 1 SENTENCE on the graphics, sound, and battle system combined? Not to mention absolutely nothing mentioned about the music? (something you hear constantly during the game)

Do you not see a problem here? This review is woefully incomplete and focuses on all the wrong things.

Omer Altay
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7 years 5 months ago

6/10? Come on. How was this any ‘worse’ than Tales of Symphonia? Most RPGs have non skippable cut scenes, and none of the scenes before a boss fight are five minutes long.

Sparky Clarkson
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7 years 8 months ago
Another to consider is The World Ends With You. Although it engages some of the classic JRPG cliches (spiky-haired angsty teens ahoy), it departs from the genre norms in some significant ways. It plays very differently from any other JRPG you’re likely to encounter, and actually does some very clever things with the mechanics to reinforce its message. Persona 3 & 4 are also pretty innovative, but I would disagree that this is true of MegaTen games in general. Digital Devil Saga and Devil Summoner use fairly conventional mechanics, although the settings are a notable departure from standard JRPG subjects.… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
7 years 8 months ago

“What recent JRPGs do you think are the most non-conventional and innovative?”

The easy answer is Persona and the MegaTen games in general. Persona 3 was a very unique gaming experience (in both good and bad ways–but mostly good). Persona 4 looks to build on the framework of that game while tweaking a lot of the problems.

Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
7 years 8 months ago

[quote=Dale Weir]It’s a shame because Japanese RPG developers have shown in the past that they can break away from the JRPG cliches… temporarily. (Remember Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits Mike? 🙂 That is probably my favorite example.) Many JRPG developers do actually propose or entertain grandiose ideas, but it seems that once it becomes clear how much work would go into sustaining such a story, they resort to genre short cuts.[/quote] That’s an interesting point. I’ve long grown tired of the JRPG formula. What recent JRPGs do you think are the most non-conventional and innovative?

Dale Weir
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Dale Weir
7 years 8 months ago

It’s a shame because Japanese RPG developers have shown in the past that they can break away from the JRPG cliches… temporarily. (Remember Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits Mike? 🙂 That is probably my favorite example.) Many JRPG developers do actually propose or entertain grandiose ideas, but it seems that once it becomes clear how much work would go into sustaining such a story, they resort to genre short cuts.

Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
7 years 9 months ago
I wish I could be more discerning when it comes to JRPGs, but for whatever reason I still have this insane hope I can play EVERYTHING and I wind up mostly wasting 40+ hours on something I don’t really like. I’d highly advise skipping Tales. The last RPG I really enjoyed was Persona 3–but those are an acquired taste. Lost Odyssey is pretty good–not earth-shattering or anything, but I didn’t find myself playing it thinking “with this 50 hours I could have played 5 other games”. That’s a spot on observation about the Tales series, Sparky. That’s the realization that… Read more »
Sparky Clarkson
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7 years 9 months ago
The really unfortunate thing is that the Tales series seemingly can only get one or two things right at a time. Vesperia has an interesting setting and moral conflict, but the plot loses its way, and even the good characters have no developmental arc. Abyss had a bland plot and indifferent setting, but the characters worked (especially Luke). I hated Legendia, but it did interesting things with setting and scope (in its first half, at least). Symphonia has nothing really going for it from the story side, but it had the cleanest mechanics and was the most fun to play… Read more »
Brandon Erickson
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Brandon Erickson
7 years 9 months ago

Well, after reading your review, I think I’m pretty resolved to stay away from Tales. RPGs are such a time sucking affair that I feel like I need to be pretty discriminating about which ones I delve into. I think that last JRPG I really liked (and I haven’t played many of them) was Dragon Quest VIII. I played Lost Odyssey through to the second disc, but I haven’t touched it in a while. But I digress. At any rate, I think I’ll take a pass on Tales.

Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
7 years 9 months ago
Sparky, Thanks for taking the time to write such a well-reasoned comment (and I say that not just because you agree with me :p) I’d thought about including the Flynn/Yuri stuff but the review was getting long and I was afraid it might become overkill. That’s a really great point about the character arcs–one I wish I’d have made. There are a lot of those Yuri and Estelle moments now that I think about it. I was also sort of annoyed by the fact that the game would make you watch a cutscene then follow it up with three skits… Read more »
Sparky Clarkson
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7 years 9 months ago
This pretty much matches my view of the game. I actually thought the social justice angle was better presented, because of the moral conflict between Flynn and Yuri. The rivalry between them has some conventional JRPG stuff going on, but overall I thought it was refreshing because it featured pretty good characterization, the game didn’t really choose sides between them (except to the extent that you play Yuri) and the rivalry has a genuine question about justice at its center, rather than just pre-teen bravado. Unfortunately, the social justice angle gets dropped entirely 2/3 of the way through the game… Read more »
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