All videogame genres have their own set of clichés, but role-playing games (RPGs) have always been among the worst offenders for me. Pick up any RPG at random, and you'll probably find 1) a young male hero with a funny name who must set out “all alone” on an adventure, 2) magic (and 2a: a female healer who's a lousy fighter), 3) a vaguely medieval setting, 4) teenage sexual tension, and 5) at least two “final boss” battles. Namco's Tales of Phantasia has all these clichés in abundance. But the game handles them so well that it's made me see why these things became clichés in the first place.
That may be because Tales of Phantasia came out at a time when, in the West at least, RPGs were only played by geeks in dark basements (I say this from personal experience), long before they became a bandwagon for executives to jump on. Released in Japan for the Super Nintendo in 1994, the game wasn't a slave to some money-making formula. It was also was the harbinger of several sequels: Tales of Destiny, Tales of Symphonia, Tales of Legendia, etc. After 12 years, Phantasia has finally made it Stateside via the Game Boy Advance and I, for one, am very glad it did.
The game concerns a swordsman-in-training called Cress. Everyone in his village has been killed, and he wants to get revenge. So he gathers a motley crew of assistants (including a female healer who's a lousy fighter), travels through time, gets mixed up in hot spring shenanigans, and faces off against the evil king Dhaos four times. In a lesser RPG, these elements might feel like checkmarks on a To-Do list. Here, they help realize the developers' vision for the game.
Like its decendants, Tales of Phantasia features a real-time battle system where the player controls one party member and the computer controls the others. While Cress slashes enemies with his sword, his friends cast fire and lightening spells, summon spirits, or unleash their awesome ninja powers. And the artificial intelligence is pretty smart. The healer, Mint, is very good at not letting people die. Players even have some control over the AI's strategy, which can be set to one of several options in a menu.
The developers even spiced up the standard “kill stuff, gain experience points and learn new skills” mechanic. While Cress can learn new moves from simple levelling up, he can also find “Secret Skill” books that teach him to combine two or more skills he has already mastered. Characters can also gain “experience” cooking. The party collects recipies on their adventure, and each dish does something different. Some cure poison, some heal wounds, some replenish magic points, some cure paralysis, etc. As a character gets more accomplished making the dish, its benefit increases. Cooking isn't essential to the game, but it's a fun diversion nonetheless.
But what struck me most about Tales of Phantasia—even more than its gameplay, which is warm and familiar with enough innovation to keep it interesting—was how sympathetic and downright enjoyable its characters are. It's devastating when Cress's village is destroyed; it's also funny when he and Mint spend the night at an inn with only one bed. (Cress, being chivalrous, takes the floor). My favorite character is a pink-haired witch named Arche. She's funny, outspoken and impulsive, and I was thrilled that the developers gave her her own minigame (“Let's Go Arche”), unlockable after finishing the main game.
It's hard to explain why Tales of Phantasia is so much fun. Describing the game makes it sound like some digital paint-by-numbers kit, as if it were one uninspired stereotype after another. But while many of its components have become stereotypes over the years, here they are carefully constructed and fit together perfectly, creating something larger than the sum of its parts. Tales of Phantasia shows us that clichés exist for a reason: they were good ideas once upon a time, and in the right hands, they still are.