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CONSOLE: GameCube DEVELOPER: Namco Tales Studio PUBLISHER: Namco
// review by SoyBomb

Let me tell you a few tales...

The Tales series just doesn't get enough love outside of Japan. It is actually a fairly long-running series, originating in 1995 on the Super Famicom (the Japanese SNES equivalent) with Tales of Phantasia. Ten of the games from within the main series or its various spin-offs have been released overseas, most recently (as of this writing) Tales of Graces f for the PlayStation 3. But they're just not achieving a high level of mainstream success Stateside. It's a shame because if the others are anything like Tales of Symphonia, they definitely deserve your attention.

Tales of Symphonia is a Japanese RPG that follows Lloyd Irving and his traveling companions (most notably Colette Brunel, their world's Chosen who has been selected -- yes, chosen -- by forces beyond her to bring the world to salvation) on their quest to save not one but TWO concurrently deprecating worlds from the manipulation of angelic overlords and their Earthly henchmen, the heartless Desians. It is the ultimate in cliché, I'm aware, but the basic plot is merely icing that covers the cake (and I have horribly paraphrased). While the plot does heavily shape what Lloyd & Co. do, the game seems more poised on delivering countless events of character development. We spend as much time, if not more, on learning about the backgrounds and the inner thought processes of each party member as we do on following the plot.

Tales of Symphonia also introduces a very novel method of storytelling that I found refreshing. While wandering between major story events, you'll very often see a purple icon (representing the GameCube's Z-button) appear with a small caption. Pressing the Z-button at that time will cause an additional little cutscene appear, complete with chatting portraits of the party members in the scene. I thought this was grand because you can choose whether to experience it or not, thus appealing to both those interested in the deep storytelling of RPGs and those who just want to rush back into the action. My only qualm is that the text in these additional cutscenes moves at a set speed, rather than allowing me to read at my own pace. Short sentences move quickly; longer ones take forever to dissipate.

The game prides itself, however, on its battle system, which has been dubbed the Multi-Line Linear Motion Battle System, solely for confusion purposes. There are no random encounters here; you can approach clearly visible enemies skulking on the field or in dungeons at your own leisure (although they may end up chasing you down first). Once you enter battle, you and up to three comrades engage the enemy in real-time battle in a three-dimensional environment. Whomever you are controlling will home in on one particular target (which can be easily changed in the heat of battle) and you will be locked to a two-dimensional plane between yourself and that enemy until you defeat it or change targets. That may be the "linear motion" part of the battle system title. The controls here are pretty solid; I rarely felt like I had lost control of my main character during battle (and definitely not during field travel).

While you're slashing away at enemies, the other party members are controlled by the AI based on directions you can give them before and/or during battle. Later in the game, Lloyd learns about how to perform Unison Attacks using a meter that builds up as you deal more damage to the enemy. When the Unison meter is filled to capacity, all four members can drop some wild techniques on a single enemy simultaneously for a higher amount of damage. Of course, you can definitely get by without activating this feature, but it's a nice touch for battle enthusiasts. Additionally, players can use items during battle (and, thankfully, the battle stops while you make your selection). At the end, you get experience (for everyone, not just the active party members) and Gald (an "original" take on gold), as well as a Grade for your efforts. It's like going back to school!

Let Lloyd slice through the enemies. It pleases him.

I didn't find Tales of Symphonia to be considerably difficult (save for a few puzzles for which you may need to twist your brain), but ensure that you take some time to level up, get the best armaments you can, and stock up on healing items. But you will need to employ some strategy in your battling if you want to complete this game. Just going in blindly and trying to slash your way to freedom is not always going to work in your favour. Make sure all party members are doing exactly what you want them to, and know when to back away from a vicious foe.

To further help you out, you can equip better weapons, armor, and accessories for all, typical of most RPGs on the market. But beyond that, there are also EX Gems, special jewels that can be equipped to provide new abilities. EX Gems come in Levels 1 through 4, with 4 being the most sought-after. Furthermore, when equipping EX Gems, you can actually select (out of four possibilities) which ability you gain. Of course, you can replace equipped EX Gems with others, but when you remove one, it automatically breaks and disappears. The right combination of EX Gems can result in gaining EX Skills, even more advanced abilities.

This all sounds very serious, but the game has its own sense of lightheartedness. Not only are conversations filled with charm (including resident heartthrob Zelos Wilder's constant need to compliment/lure the ladies), but the graphics themselves aren't as dark and cinematic as other genre leaders such as Final Fantasy, which has been slowly increasing in realism and melodramatic tone. Instead, characters are effectively cel-shaded while maintaining a hand-drawn anime style. They travel through fully 3D environments, and though most of them are nothing to marvel, each suits It's a shame that the overworld is so relatively bland. I grew tired of looking at so many giant green polygonal clumps of forest.

The soundtrack also deserves some notice. When I heard the title screen theme, I thought it sounded quite familiar. After a bit of research, I discovered it, as well as the rest of the music, was the work of Motoi Sakuraba, the audio genius behind such other great soundtracks as the Star Ocean series, the Golden Sun series, Eternal Sonata, and many other Tales games, of course. Though never quite in your face, each song definitely grips the player and helps integrate them into the world.

Tales of Symphonia had very few flaws that I could really report on. Some many consider it to be too wordy, though so many conversations can be skipped. I, however, was overall quite impressed; I had moderate expectations walking into the game, but by the end, I was a bit depressed that the long journey was over. And it IS a long journey -- at least 50 hours in length for the speed demons -- spanning two GameCube discs. Like I said earlier, if other Tales games are like this, I should definitely embark on a quest to experience the entire Tales series. But if you want a great place to start, Tales of Symphonia will not fail to disappoint, regardless of whether you're a novice or a seasoned RPG fan.

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