The Gamecube dropped down at the end of 2001. It didn't exactly start off as a big hit. It didn't even end as a big hit, for that matter. When it first dropped, however, there were several RPGers wondering if there would ever be a decent RPG on the Gamecube. They were few and far between. The PS2 seemed to be getting them on a weekly basis once Final Fantasy X had come out. RPGers who invested in a Gamecube seemed to be out of luck. That is, until a little game called Tales of Symphonia dropped down. For several gamers (myself included) this was the first introduction to the Tales series.
Tales of Symphonia doesn't concern itself with trying to be an original story. It's simple stuff. Colette is the Chosen. And as the Chosen it is her job to go on a pilgrimage to save the world of Sylvarant because Mana is slowly being drained from the land. She'll be accompanied on her journey by her teacher Raine and a mercenary named Kratos. Her best friend, Lloyd, however, is the main character and he wants to be there to help her on her journey as well. Lloyd brings along his friend Genis (Raine's little brother) a very intelligent young boy who happens to be adept at magic as well. At first Lloyd is turned away until Colette specically says that Lloyd needs to come. As the journey begins there doesn't seem to be much more to Tales of Symphoia. Except there truly is. Tales of Symphonia may not have the most original premise, but it's got a cast of characters that will MORE than make up for it's shortcomings in terms of story ideas. More than that, Tales of Symphonia's cast is what really helps the story really come to light. It becomes a remarkably good tale thanks to the cast of likable characters that the game goes through hoops to develop. The game also throws in tons of twists and turns. You'll have character join your party, betray you... rejoin... only to betray you again!
Yet it's mostly the emotional pull of the story that really keeps it interesting and keeps it going. It's also well written. Much of the dialog is very humorous, and while the voice acting isn't the best, Tales of Symphonia easily stands out as perhaps the best Tales game out there (the only one coming close to topping it would be Tales of the Abyss). The game eventually became a cult classic on the Gamecube and made the Tales series a bit more well known outside of Japan.
Like many Tales games, Tales of Symphonia utilizes a real time battle system. On the field you'll run around like you would in just about any RPG. Once in battle, however, the game quickly takes on on a simple action fighting game stance. Whoever you decide to control runs on a line. You'll have a basic attack button, but you'll also be able to use special techniques. Genis, for example, has his magic. Lloyd has sword techniques, Raine has healing arts etc. etc. There are up to eight playable characters. You can only control one in battle, however. The rest are controlled by AI which is surprisingly competent AI.
Learning abilities depends on using an "Ex-Gem." These will bestow other abilities on you, such as giving you an extra strike to chain with your three basic strikes in battle... or giving you more HP etc. These are pretty helpful little abilities. At first glance, learning some of Tales of Symphonia's battle system can be quite complicated and complex. But the game is paced well enough that you'll easily learn much of these things without problems.
The only downside to battling is that it can feel like button mashing at time. Except for boss fights, that is. Bosses in Tales of Symphonia can be quite challenging. Rush into battle simply mashing on the attack button and you're sure to lose. There may not be a lot of strategy involved, but the game makes sure you know that rushing head first into the situation can lead to death. Eventually the game does become quite amusing to play as a result. There's also some multiplayer thrown in there for good measure. Up to four players can go into combat. The only downside to the multiplayer is that the camera keeps focused on player one and only player one. It's kind of a downer.
The battle system doesn't stop there, however. If you begin to take too much damage in battle, your character will eventually go over the limit, allowing them to hit freely without stumbling and taking half the damage. There's not much else the over limit is really there for, and there's not much of an indication to let you know you're about to go over the limit. It just happens. There's also an action gauge that when full, allows you pull of special attacks using the techs of your entire party. The battle system has a lot to it, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to learn.
Tales of Symphonia isn't without it's problems. The first is one that seems to plague every Tales game. There is A LOT of exposition. Tales of Symphonia suffers the worst of the post two-dimensional games. There is a lot of backtracking and running between towns. Sometimes you'll hear a story explanation and have to run to a town just to hear MORE story explanation and then to another town to hear MORE story exposition. And sometimes there's hardly any battling in between. Other times there's so much you can put two and two together before your characters do. Tales of Symphonia also shows that you can provide too much character development. Throughout the game there are also skits. They serve nothing more than to add outside commentary to the story and to develop characters. They're funny and amusing stuff, but sometimes the game will hit you up with several in a row. They're welcome, at least. If you view every skit... by the time you finish Tales of Symphonia you should know every character as though they were part of your immediate family. It goes that in depth, making sure to give everyone some story time. If the cast of characters weren't so charming, this might be annoying. But the cast is likable. There are some things we probably could go without knowing (why, for example, do we need to know each characters favorite food?). The world of Sylvarant really comes alive because of this.
How long does the journey last? It depends on how much you want to do. The basic story last about fifty hours, but those looking to master Tales of Symphonia will easily spend 80+ hours. There are tons of sidequests and optional areas to explore. They're not all open right off the bat. For the most part, until you get to a certain point Tales follows the Final Fantasy formula of making sure you've got a firm grasp on the story before it lets you do a lot of exploring... the game won't even let you go into towns that are further down the path (Lloyd will say something like, "We don't need to come here right now," and then leave automatically) for a while. But when you do get to the moment where you can explore there are tons of little sidequests to do. There's a coliseum to go to, plenty of optional towns and dungeons... but the most rewarding side quest has you going around the world looking for eight legendary weapons (called the "Devil's Arms") and defeating some of the games optional bosses. You'll spend a lot of time with the game in this case... and it'll make sure you enjoy it. There's even a New Game+ and a new difficulty level unlocked for those who wish to go through it again.
The Tales games have never been known for their graphics. They usually look rather bad. Tales of Destiny was on the original Playstation and looked like a rejected Super Nintendo game. Even Tales of the Abyss, with its Playstation 2 graphics was an eyesore to look at (though Tales of the Abyss makes up for it in terms of pure fun factor). Tales of Symphonia, strangely, doesn't have a poor presentation with its graphics. It's actually one of the best looking Gamecube games out there. The art design, character design and cel-shaded design is absolutely breathtaking. It might not look as good as games such as Resident Evil 4, but it's still a testament to the power the Gamecube had. Case in point, in Japan the game was ported to the PS2 and it didn't look as good... because it couldn't. The PS2 just wasn't able to handle the lighting quite the way that the Gamecube could.
I wish the same could be said for the audio. For the most part there are tons of memorable music themes in Tales of Symphonia. The battle themes in particular really stand out. So do some of the more dramatic themes played at the more dramatic moments. Unfortunately most of the soundtrack is quite forgettable. Town themes and world map themes in particular. The voice acting also isn't the best... but it's still better than a multitude of other JRPGs from its time. Put simple, the voice actors lack emotion. They've definitely got the right voices for the job, it's just that there isn't always a lot of emotion that comes out. The cast sounds lively enough (as they should) but sometimes it's hard to tell if they're sad, happy or disappointed.
In the end, if you have a Gamecube (or a Wii) Tales of Symphonia is defintely worth getting a hold off. The game is an RPG masterpiece filled with loveable characters, fun plot twists and it has a good battle system. If you can get through the dialog heavy moments the fact that the game will beat a lot of stuff into your head, then you'll find a really enjoyable RPG experience.
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