Monday, September 25, 2000

Tales of Symphonia GCN review | 8.0

After much waiting, wailing, and gnashing of teeth from its owners, the GameCube finally got its own RPG. And what an RPG it got!

This game is absurdly fun to play. Control in both the overworld, dungeons, and battle is effortless, with the controller utilized to good effect in almost every instance. Item use and character development are easy to control. However, if you want, you can get very particular about your character's growth thanks to the 'title' system. The Strike/Technical divide, which is poorly explained by the manual and the game, also allows for a more general way of controlling your character's growth. The application of EX gems and their associated skills allows still finer control of your character's abilities. But again, you can play the game very well and have a lot of fun without getting too deeply into any of this.

The real-time battle system will be a bit confusing to those used to the more standard turn-based gameplay of other console RPGs. The learning curve is pretty shallow, however, and the inability to directly control the other members of your party is not as much a handicap as you might think. The AI is reasonably intelligent (though the characters sometimes position themselves oddly or run around for no apparent reason), and if necessary the player can command them to use particular skills using either controller shortcuts or the battle menu.

The learning curve for controlling a given character, as I said, is very shallow... you can learn to control Lloyd, Kratos, Zelos, and Sheena in only one or two battles. Regal, Presea, and Collette require a bit more work (or at least they did for me), and Genis and Raine will be hardest (mainly because they're useless as melee fighters, and everyone else is either primarily melee or at least useful for it). Carefully assigning your battle skills to your controller and preparing unison attacks will allow you to create combos and special attacks that look awesome, but it's just as fun to assign a few stock skills and wail away on your opponents.

Again, battle strategy is as deep as you want it to be. The game sets defaults which are reasonably useful, but if you desire it, you can adjust strategies to fit your own approach to battle. Also, you have the ability to adjust individual strategies in battle through the menu, or switch the whole group to an alternate strategy through D-pad shortcuts. As with other aspects of the game, battle strategy is scalable to your level of interest and expertise.

I have not tried multiplayer, but I have seen complaints that the tendency of the camera to zoom in on Player 1 in battle detracts from the experience. Multiplayer for this sort of game is an iffy prospect anyway, and the AI is sufficiently competent that you don't NEED your pals to pick up controllers, so I don't view this as a weakness.

The gameplay unites RPG strategy with good old-fashioned button-mashing fun, and that makes for a great experience, IMHO.

With the caveat 'for a game', as always. Despite some cheesy lines (and I mean REALLY cheesy), the story of the game is nicely plotted, and most of the characters behave believably. The twists in the story are both interesting and plausible, and the game makes effective use of foreshadowing without being ridiculously heavy-handed about it. The only problem is that you have to devote some time to the game before the plot picks up; the first part of the game makes it seem like it's going to be the standard 'beat the dungeons and save the world' story that's been standard on consoles since the first Legend of Zelda game.

Cel-shading. Some love it on general principle, some hate it on general principle. If you belong to either category, I can't help you. However, if you like a game that just looks good, then you won't go wrong with this one. The overworld graphics are rather bland (and the black-blob monsters in the overworld are atrocious), but everything else is very nice. The choice to use blurring as a method of introducing perspective was a mistake, but this is the only complaint I can level against the cutscenes and town areas. The character designs are pretty standard (slender build + narrow chin + absurd hair) for anime, except for Regal. Monster designs, however, are generally good, and the appearance of the special moves in battle is good overall and fantastic in a few cases. As long as you're not a cel-hater, this game will be lots of fun to look at.

Most of the voice acting is good (the post-battle exclamations particularly so). However, the guy playing Kratos sounds like he has a head cold, which makes his delivery fairly weak. The music is passable; not really inspiring (until the end credits, which inexplicably have much better music than most of the game), but not distracting. A few places have really catchy tunes associated with them, however (Katz Village), and generally the music is at least nice to listen to. The main weakness, however, is the z-skits, which should have had voiceover (and apparently did in the Japanese version). A few lines here and there are over-emoted, but generally voiceover quality is high.

An abundance of side-quests and mini-games (although these tend to be of little interest to me), the Grade system, and the ability to reshape the story in several places makes this game a lot of fun to play multiple times. Winning it once might take 60-80 hours, but in all likelihood you'll want to win it at least twice, and maybe more times than that.

Hours of excellent gameplay and an engaging story are paired with eye-pleasing graphics and surprisingly good voice acting. If you have a Gamecube, this is an excellent choice. Hopefully Namco will be releasing future 'Tales' series games over here as well.

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