Nintendo fans have been mired in a RPG drought for almost 10 years now, ever since the last gasp of the SNES. Almost all RPGs in the 32/64-bit era went to systems with CD-based media (PSX & Saturn), and during this generation the story's been more of the same. While the RPG scene has definitely improved on GameCube, it still doesn't compare favorably to Xbox or PS2. Seeing this, Namco decided to take advantage of the situation and release Tales of Symphonia to an RPG-hungry GameCube fan base. The result is one of the system's best sellers, and its best RPG yet.
Tales tells the tale of Colette, Lloyd, Genis, Raine and others as they travel together in an attempt to regenerate the world. The world of Sylvarant is in decay, thanks to a shortage of life-supporting mana. Since Colette is the Chosen One, it's her duty to go on a journey to release the seals and regenerate the world. Like all good RPGs the story's much more complicated than that, but in order to keep this spoiler-free I'll let you discover the rest.
The backbone of any good RPG is the storyline, and one of the major complaints leveled at Tales is that the storyline is too generic. That's certainly true...in the beginning at least. The opening is eerily reminiscent of Chrono Trigger (Wake up Lloyd!), someone destined to save the world has been the focus of countless RPGs, and innumerable other story elements will seem oddly familiar to veteran RPG fans. Stick with it for a few hours though, and the game's storyline finally begins to find itself as it does away with the clichés and becomes unique.
Helping matters is that the characters have distinct personalities that really shine through over the course of the game. Although most characters fit into a definite mold (Colette as the sweet innocent girl, Raine as the nerdy professor, etc.), they're given enough personality within that to become memorable. One way this is done is via "skits", which occur whenever the player presses the "Z" button at designated times. These occur after a certain amount of time in an area, after a major event, at pre-determined areas on the world map, etc. These skits show the animated head of each participant in the conversation, and are great for fleshing out each character's personality over the course of the game. They're entirely optional, but also help to answer a lot of questions that other events in the game leave unanswered and thus shouldn't be skipped.
Exploration takes place in towns, dungeons/hostile areas, and on the overworld map. The overworld map has fairly detailed models of each location on it, although they're in the typical "character as big as the city" style. Towns function largely as safe areas to rest and stock up on items as well as areas to move the plot forward, and there is the occasional battle there as well. Dungeons are largely straightforward, although there are usually several challenging puzzles in each. Similar to The Legend of Zelda, these involve pushing blocks, hitting switches, and using the unique power granted to the Sorcerer's Ring in that dungeon. The Sorcerer's Ring is acquired very early, and can be activated to use different powers over the course of the game. For example, in the Water Temple it can shoot water to douse flames or fill up buckets while in Desian bases it can shoot electricity to start up machines.
The Tales series has always been known for its unique battle system, and that's been retained here for the first time in 3D. Enemies are represented by generic on-screen monsters, so they can be avoided if many situations if desired. Battles are real-time, with up to four in a party battling against multiple enemies at once. The player controls only one of the party members at a time, and most of the time that'll probably be Lloyd. He's the central character in the game, and his physical attacks are by far the easiest to control. The computer, or other players control the other party members if there are friends available to play. Although the battlefield is 3D action still takes place on a 2D plane, and as a result the player will need to switch targets in order attack different enemies. If an enemy is close to a wide sword swing they may still be hit as well however, as locking onto a specific enemy doesn't automatically mean that no others can be attacked. As a result positioning on the battlefield is very important.
How the CPU members act relies on a wide array of A.I. settings set by the player. For example, CPU members can be told which priority to take when choosing what enemy to attack (magic over physical, same as the player, etc.), how hard to fight (keep some magic in reserve, go all out, etc.), and what position to take on the battlefield. Specific CPU-controlled member skills can be mapped to the C stick, so simply pressing up or down on the stick can tell a CPU member to execute a specific tech such as Healing Circle. There are a few holes in the A.I., but for the most part CPU party members will act exactly as the player wishes them to.
One of the game's selling points is that it provides over 80 hours of gameplay, and I can vouch that for once the back of the box isn't lying. I completed my first time through in 80 hours and 24 minutes, doing most of the side quests but still not seeing everything the game has to offer. In addition to a vast number of side quests, there are several mini-games scattered throughout the world to enjoy. This includes games like matching emotional balloons and Red Light/Green Light.
Unfortunately it sometimes feels like the developers tried to stretch the game out as long as possible, resulting in some pointless fetch quests that should've been left on the cutting room floor. For example, when first entering a required dungeon a gnomelette will block the only entrance deeper into the dungeon. The player must then travel halfway around the world to find his brother in another dungeon and ask him to return home before he'll move out of the way. Once his brother is found, he informs the player that he's not going home until he finds a magic potion. If the player doesn't have one in his inventory, he then must again travel across the world map to one of two towns and retrieve one. Then he must go back into the second dungeon, give the potion to the brother, and finally return to the original dungeon to continue the main quest. Why couldn't my big, bad party simply have forced the first gnomelette to move out of the way?
Tales of Symphonia is another in a long line of games this generation to use cel-shading graphics, and here they produce a stunning world. Tales' world is simply beautiful, from the regal architecture of Meltokio to the snowy cottages of Flanoir. Details are everywhere, whether it is a constant downpour of snowflakes or the vast interior of a King's castle. Enter a room and you'll find shelf after shelf of books, objects scattered around the floor, and a number of other details. In dungeons you'll find intricate artwork, vast expanses, unique devices and traps, and other small details. The world really is like a series of paintings come to life. Character models are detailed as well, although the animation of them is a little stiff as in most cel-shaded games.
The soundtrack consists of tunes that are perfectly suited for each setting, but aren't memorable enough to leave a lasting impression. They just kind of get the job done, while being enjoyable enough to tolerate during the time spent in each area. The voice acting is high quality, even if a few characters sound more like they belong in the mall than in an epic RPG. It even includes some big name voice talent, and it's a compliment to the rest of the actors that I couldn't see a marked difference in the quality of her work versus their own. Although the entire game is not voice-acted, most of the key scenes are.
80+ hours of gameplay will keep anyone busy for a long time.
The graphics, and especially the environments, are beautiful.
Each character has a strong and unique personality, and his or her issues to resolve.
The battle system is very enjoyable, and keeps the player more involved than a turn-based one.
Some fetch quests feel like filler added to lengthen the game.
Clichés abound in the first few hours of the game.
The soundtrack is adequate, but this is a genre filled with stellar ones.
Tales of Symphonia is like manna (or mana in this case) from heaven for GameCube owners hungry for a good RPG. While I think it's been over hyped a bit by GameCube fans desperate for an epic RPG to call their own, it really does compare favorably to the best any other system has to offer. It's obvious flaws means it falls just shy of brilliance, but nevertheless it's an adventure not to be missed.