Namco caught my eye last year with some solid role-playing games, such as the ambitiously space-operatic Xenosaga and the innovative, card-utilizing Baten Kaitos. I found Tales of Symphonia to be a particular standout, so I was eager to see what this year's Tales of Legendia had to offer. Rather than a game that relied completely on its brand name, I found a colorful role-playing game (RPG) that stepped up to the challenge of providing a unique experience compelling enough to keep me in front of the controller to the end of the story, despite some smudges around the edge.

The game presents the tale of squatters in an ancient kingdom, whose remnants are aboard a continent-sized seafaring vessel. Legendia is literally a colorful place to visit, with a world that is realized via a vibrant palette of bright pastels to keep the spirit light. The overall feeling is that of an electronic storybook. The character designs are striking, and I admire the way the artist(s) created characters whose appearance truly embodied the personalities. Although I was attracted to the visuals, it was the characterization of the staid stalwarts, the seemingly single-dimensional knights, the happy-go-lucky rogues, and of the unexpected heroes—which proved to be my biggest draw to Tales of Legendia. The dialog and vocal deliveries let the characters live and breathe through patterns and traits of speech.

Humor is apparent throughout the game. The bratty, ambitious treasure hunter Norma is always ready with her antics. Chloe, the junior knight who is learning to be less rigid, must try to keep secret her love interest, not to mention her fear of swimming—quite the deterrent when it comes time to travel via submarine! An Elvis Presley look-alike runs a police organization known as the Bantam Bouncers, who are surprisingly earnest in their quest for order, love and well-practiced dance numbers. The Tales staple of cooking returns, and the clumsy baker Mimi delivers the recipes, which is surprising given how much the poor girl trips and tumbles. Plenty of chuckles await the gamer who isn't afraid of levity, and that is one of the things that really made Legendia work for me.

As expected with an RPG, the battle mechanics can make or break the game. Tales of Legendia is a solid, but not outstanding, performer here. Battles occur on a 2D plane, and the player is able to move, guard and attack in an action-oriented, real-time fist-fest. (Not to mention attacks using feet, spears, and even vases—depending on the character!) Special attacks, which also serve as a plot element, are called eres and can be used according to the situation, or just whim. There is additional fighting flexibility in that it's possible to change weapons, armor or assigned eres in real-time. Party members' strategies, which allow broad guidance for how a character should attack (or not), can also be tweaked on the fly.

Motivation to keep on battlin' came from earning new eres, then to see how the new abilities could be utilized in battle. An unleashed fury of kicks and punches may be useful against a larger opponent, for example, whereas a forward stabbing blade might be more suitable versus a small, agile opponent. Other dangling carrots are in the form of titles and rankings. The player earns and can equip titles for various statistic bonuses during the game. Rankings keep a running tally of how the player performs in a fisticuff, with a promised bonus for future play-throughs if the player does well.

Although there were many elements to the battle system, it never quite gelled for me. I enjoyed it, but more often that not it felt like button-mashing: success via brute force, or at least nimble fingers. Rather than encouraging strategy tweaks, it was easier to roll out special attacks and hope that the timing would match with other party members to pull off combos. This approach works, but without large combos, it was impossible for me to get high battle rankings (especially after taking damage). One thing not under my control that irritated me was that autonomous magic-users would often use an attack with the same elemental attribute as the attacked enemy, which lowers the post-battle ranking.

In spite of these gripes, the game was eminently playable and it provided me with an entertaining experience. It feels like Namco didn't innovate so much as get back to basics with Tales of Legendia. The result was that a great ensemble cast ended up in an intriguing story that was told through the medium of an average game. Despite Legendia not being greater than the sum of its parts, it gave me a world that I enjoyed exploring, and it was worth keeping the controller in hand until I reached the story's resolution. Rating: a tasty 7.0 out of 10.

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