Wednesday, May 29, 2013

GOT 'IM - Tales of Vesperia

It's been a long time since I played through a Tales Of RPG, but I managed to do so in the last days of April.  Here's a review for the XBox 360's Tales of Vesperia.  It's my fourth completed target of 13 in '13. 

 First, as usual, personal Monsoon history with the series.  When I was into SNES emulation in a big way (early 2000s), I mostly targeted games that never received an official version in the United States.  Early on, two games that jumped out at me with their niche popularity were Tales of Phantasia and Seiken Densetsu III; today, I consider both among my all-time favorite RPGs.  So after playing ToP around 2001, I sought out other Tales Of games and found Tales of Destiny and Tales of Destiny 2 (nee Tales of Eternia) on the PS1.  I (...sort of recklessly) bought both of them and ended up really enjoying D2/Eternia and not enjoying Destiny much at all.

Then Tales of Symphonia happened.  Now, I've been accused of being a Tales of Symphonia hater before, but that's not true.  I just didn't like it as much as Phantasia and thought that it wasn't even the best GameCube RPG released in 2004 (I'm a big fan of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door).  The GameCube was starved for RPGs, so I figured that Tales of Symphonia became overrated as a result.  That and it liberally borrows plot ideas and situations from Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Eternia and has a story suspiciously similar to 2001's Final Fantasy X.  Whatever.  I played it in 2006, and I thought it was all right; I like Phantasia better. But that didn't stop a great many GameCube owners from overrating Symphonia as the best RPG in years. Like it or not, Symphonia created more Tales Of fans than any other game in the series.

So after playing those four games (but only finishing Phantasia and Symphonia to completion), I used my PSP, PS2, DS, and college laptop to play as many Tales Of games as I could.  At least five or six in addition to the four I've already mentioned.  Of all these, I've probably finished half, and if I didn't finish one it's because I was turned off by the grinding and rank traditionalism of the series.  Sometimes it's like that.  And now, probably 12 years after I first played a Tales Of game, Vesperia happened.

Tales Of is an uneven series, with several duds among the gems, but I like what it has going on.  Appealing characters, traditional JRPG stories, excellent combat, and fairly deep customization options.  It knows its formula and it works.  When I finally obtained a copy of Tales of Vesperia to play on my borrowed 360, I knew what I was getting into.  The surprise was that Tales of Vesperia is the best realization of the Tales Of formula ever, and is now probably neck and neck with Phantasia to be my favorite game in the series.

The first thing that should be talked about in any Tales Of game is the battle system.  From the beginning, these games have had really interesting combat that gets smoother and more interesting seemingly with every new entry.  Symphonia introduced a 3D plane of movement, Abyss improved the game's camera and added a free run, and Vesperia builds on that Abyss engine but with better visuals and more sensible targeting for spells and combos.  Characters move on a 3D field, either on a single line to the targeted enemy or in a free run with the R2 button held.  This is no big news to someone that's played Symphonia or Abyss, but Vesperia does a particular awesome job of doing it.

So, just in case you haven't played a Tales Of game before, combat is action-packed and nonstop.  Your party contains four characters, but you choose a P1 character to control during battle and either have other players control your allies (Tales Of multiplayer is a blast) or have them controlled by the AI.  Character AI is customizable with a few dozen categories and behaviors, so Vesperia's AI-controlled allies will rarely do totally dumb things (or more accurately - aren't quite as dumb as AI characters from past Tales Of games).  Combat differs from character to character, but in general it involves chaining a simple combo of 2 to 3 strikes to special moves called Artes.  Base Artes can chain to more advanced Arcane Artes, which can chain to additional moves if certain conditions are met.

"If certain conditions are met?" you ask?  I say that because there are so many "systems" in play during combat that a ton of crazy things can happen.  Your characters have a shared Overlimit meter that, when activated, makes all attacks chain together regardless of move type for the player character.  In Overlimit level 3 or higher you can use powerful Burst Arte and Mystic Arte attacks, but for Mystic Arte a certain skill needs to be equipped.  Skills are passive abilities that are learned from weapons (use a weapon more, learn its attached Skill permanently) - Skills let you chain moves together in new ways, change arte properties or learn new Artes, increase character stats, improve striking, movement, and blocking properties, or even heal characters under certain conditions.  Skill management can get really effective if you make sure to change weapons often and keep an eye on what skills your characters know.

 Also, item creation system. Like many RPGs, Tales of Vesperia has a robust item creation system, and boy does it ever.  Nearly every enemy drops synthesis items, and you can synthesize almost any item in the game with some creative item-hunting (sometimes earlier than makes sense). Some enemies require weather or time-of-day conditions to appear or drop rare materials.  My total playtime on Vesperia was around 75 to 80 hours, but a large amount of that was item hunting for weapon synthesis.  They really sold me with the carrot on a stick strategy.  And it helped that the combat was fun enough not to make the grind that boring. 

So combat is a fun, action-packed affair and there is some crazy Arte/skill/weapon/combo customization.You equip weapons and armor, weapons teach skills in addition to dealing damage (and the weapons appear as their proper selves in battle - I'm always glad to see that), and can even change character appears with special doohickies called Titles.  Titles are gained from leveling up, advancing the plot, and in side conversations (they're literally just character titles - they describe accomplishments or quirks of their associated character).  Getting Titles can be pretty neat once you accumulate enough to choose between character costumes.  Just another fun piece of the character customization puzzle.

When you're outside of battle, you walk around in a pretty standard 3D interface with a fixed camera.  A lot of the dialog is voiced, and the character models all look great.  Occasionally, the game prompts you to listen to "skits" - chatting character portraits providing minor details or amusing side conversations.  It's all well-executed and interesting if you enjoy the characters.

And I should mention - Vesperia's writing is a mixed bag, but overall I have a very positive impression.  The plot sometimes moves along too abruptly, but there are a ton of interesting characters, the dialog is snappy, and the game's themes run the Japanese RPG gamut of environmentalism, class struggle, abuse of power (both political and magical, heh), personal growth, bonds of friendship, and nihilistic despair.  My favorite theme that Vesperia explores is the relationship between the main character Yuri Lowell and his best friend Flynn Scifo. Yuri is a disenchanted former Knight cadet and Flynn is a knight wunderkind who is determined to correct injustices through his position as a knight captain rising in the ranks.  Throughout the game, Yuri openly works against the law (i.e. commits felonies) for the betterment of society while Flynn chastises him and resists his personal credo of following law to the letter. It's an interesting dynamic that reminds me of Ramza and Delita from Final Fantasy Tactics, but with less subversion and more confrontation. I dug it and wished they visited that theme more, and they already visited it plenty.

Tales of Vesperia's cast is rife with Japanese RPG stereotypes, just like every Tales Of game, but I thought that Vesperia's cast was particularly strong (with a few exceptions, of course).  Yuri and Flynn have an interesting connection and clash of ideals.  Estelle's role as a naive princess character goes to an extreme, but she's rarely annoying and earns points by being a surprisingly solid defensive character in addition to being your main healer.  Raven is the "sarcastic older guy" that's in every Tales Of game, but he has a few hidden sides to his character that provide great surprise-twist material. Those twists are really cool and feel earned in his case.  Judith, Rita, and Repede all have interesting, offbeat personalities to their character angles, but didn't strike me as impressive as Yuri or Raven.  Rita in particular was the source of some very good comedy beats, especially in the first half of the game.  Those three didn't get under my skin and were usually fun to use in combat to boot.  The cast's weak links are its villains (they're either over-the-top stereotypically evil or undergo saw-that-coming character turns) and the sidekick Karol. Karol's character arc is whiny brat to less-whiny brat, and he was the only character that I deliberately avoided using because of irritating dialog.

Really, the problem with Vesperia's plot and characters are that they're all over the place.  When you have such a large cast in a story with so many themes and several characters, some plot elements get shortchanged. Vesperia's plot as a result feels stilted - sometimes things move smoothly and the big moments and twists have major impact, but at other times a sequence of events is so rushed that it feels unearned. I said "my, that escalated quickly" so many times over the course of playing Tales of Vesperia that it basically turned into a joke. Vesperia is a game with a lot of talking, but I wanted more talking and more details so the game didn't feel so rushed, particularly in Vesperia's third act out of three. 

The gameplay portions of Vesperia are arranged fairly well, building on the framework of that excellent combat.  Enemies are visible in the field and engaging vs. avoiding them are often a choice rather than a one-way street. Thankfully, Vesperia's dungeons usually don't feel too long or drawn-out (a major problem with a few other Tales Of games, including Phantasia), with the exception of one or two "final dungeon" joints.  The ability to avoid encounters and the general ease of navigating the maps and dungeons helps a lot.  A lot. 

One annoying point of contention is Tales of Vesperia's optional side quests.  Most of them are innocuous fetch quests that end up with a new title or piece of equipment, but a few of them are extremely obscure and difficult to catch at the right time.  At least two side quests will permanently lock out if a VERY particular set of actions is not completed at an equally particular time.  With help from a guide, I was able to sniff out one of those two quests (for Estelle's best weapon and some lesser stuff), but not the other (for Judith's best weapon).  I like that Tales of Vesperia has a wealth of optional side quests and that a number of them are sort of interesting (Dragon riding race courses? Territory marking contests for dogs? Count me in!), but the easily missable nature of a few of them is horrible.  Missable items and objectives are one of my biggest videogame pet peeves.

The visuals of Tales of Vesperia are smooth indeed, with slightly polygon-deformed character designs (shoulders a little too broad, heads a little too big for realism, but it's not super-deformed) and a mix of dark and bright environments.  The anime look is really smooth and characters have a huge number of animations.  I particularly liked Repede's lunging quickness (Repede is a dog with a knife in his mouth, for the record) and Yuri's ridiculous weapon tossing/spinning/uppercuts. Yuri fights like he was in the army's color guard, but he makes it look cool. 

Vesperia's audio is okay, but nothing to write home about.  Really, you can say that about 95% of Sakuraba soundtracks, but I'm compelled to give the guy a pass.  Sakuraba composes something like 6 game soundtracks each year, and that sheer volume is noteworthy and impressive.  But the fact of the matter is that Tales of Vesperia has okay music that isn't particularly memorable or catchy to the level of a Yasunori Mitsuda soundtrack or a Tenpei Sato soundtrack.  (it's probably unfair comparing Vesperia's soundtrack to Mitsuda, who's the best game composer in the world, or Sato, who's incredibly unique, but there ya go). 

Really, it all comes down to the combat.  I liked the characters, story, art, sound, and side stuff well enough, but the combat was intense action with lots of customization that's even better with local multiplayer.  Having excellent combat as a series trademark is a great way to run things, and Tales of Vesperia is perhaps the ultimate realization of Tales Of tradition.  tl;dr I liked ToV game a lot.  

Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2
3. 10,000,000
4. Persona 4 Arena
5. Persona 3 FES: The Journey (NG+)
6. Hexyz Force
7. Persona 4 (NG+)
8. Psychonauts
9. Tales of Vesperia

Targets: 4/13


So that's that.  I should have a Guacamelee! review up pretty soon (finished that 4 or 5 days after Vesperia); other than that, I've been playing a ton of Skyrim.  Yes, THAT Skyrim. I think I'm near the end of the main quest, and I'm gonna try and finish that one before the end of May. Almost there. 

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