Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Tales
Release Date: 04/13/2012
Platform: Playstation 3
Time Played: 20 Hours
Not many game developers can boast that their franchise has reached twelve major releases spanning five consoles. Tales of Graces f is the latest Tales game to hit shelves in North America; it is a re-release of the previously Japanese-exclusive, Tales of Graces, originally for the Wii. With a new epilogue, high-definition graphics, new side quests, and a handful of new abilities, Tales of Graces f is a vast improvement from the original.
Tales of Graces features the only cast in a Tales game not plagued with awkward character interaction. Excluding the obsessive personality of one party member, the entire party was formed with a likeable group of characters that helped accentuate the seriousness of Graces’ political struggle and heartwarming friendships.
The protagonist is Asbel Lhant, a young knight of Windor. He is surprisingly level-headed for a Tales lead, most of which are horribly reckless or immature. He is accompanied by six other characters throughout the game: Sophie, an amnesiac found atop a hill; Malik, Asbel’s superior within the knights; Hubert, a lieutenant for the country of Strahta, Cheria; a girl with mysterious healing powers; Pascal, an eccentric explorer; and Richard, prince of Windor.
The first few hours of Tales of Graces are spent following eleven-year-old Asbel and his younger brother, Hubert. You are introduced to five of the game’s main characters at this early age, including Sophie, Richard, and Cheria. I found this to be a very unique approach, as most games neglect character development at this important age. Many bonds are formed between these characters at an early stage in their lives, and several discussions in the game refer to events that occur at this point in time. You are introduced to the basics of combat within the first minutes of the game, with each character using a variety of makeshift weapons like wooden swords and small daggers.
After a traumatic experience occurs in the lives of the children, the five of them are all separated. It is at this point that the story moves seven years forward, to Asbel completing his last mission before his graduation from the Knight Academy. He receives word that his hometown of Lhant is under attack and returns with Cheria who, like Asbel, had been granted mysterious abilities following the event that resulted in their separation.
The game centers on Asbel’s quest to reunite his friends and put an end to the political struggle tearing apart the three nations. More often than not, Asbel finds himself manipulated or used by various politicians and leaders; this may force some to sympathize with the protagonist, while others to condemn his naivety. Above all, Graces is a heartwarming tale about Asbel’s loyalty to his friends, even through betrayal.
While the plot of Graces is excellent, many events felt far too convenient. Among secret passages, hidden ruins, and poor guard management, it felt that there was no obstacle able to prevent the party from achieving their goals. the easy workarounds weren’t only limited to physical obstructions; there were elements of the story that seemed far too convenient, usually granting a character some sort of bizarre power that alleviates the situation. Within the first ten hours of the game, the group successfully uses a secret cave to get behind enemy lines, a teleportation device in ruins beneath a fortress to infiltrate it, and a hidden passageway to sneak into and out of a castle. While this did not negatively affect the suspense the game presented, it diminished the sense of nearly every accomplishment by the characters.
Deus ex machina and convenient structures aside, Tales does present one of the best character-driven stories in modern RPGs. The character-driven method of storytelling is a refreshing experience compared to most of the narratives in modern RPGs. I found beating away at monsters with simple weapons and listening to the juvenile discussions between the children to be some of the most light-hearted and amusing parts of the game. This also paved the way for some incredible character development as you could see how each character matured and how their interactions with others change over time. I hope more RPG developers see this as a technique worth utilizing in future games.
Concept/Execution Grade: 21/25
Tales of Graces has kept many familiar systems from previous installments, though almost everything has been repurposed. The first few hours of the game may feel awkward to veterans of the series who have come to expect the same battle system since Symphonia‘s release in 2004. While not horribly complicated, the Linear Motion Battle System’s unique mechanics may seem daunting at first. Luckily, a slow-paced tutorial takes place in the early battles of the game; at the start of each fight, a brief explanation of a mechanic is presented.
The battle system is the most changed component in Tales of Graces. Where previous Tales games relied heavily on character stats, available skills, and intelligent item usage, Tales of Graces puts a much heavier emphasis on individual player skill. Blocking, dodging, and counter-attacking seem to be the biggest factors in determining your success in battle. As someone who has played through numerous Tales games, the new challenge was a welcome addition.
Changes to the battle system begin on the area map. As with other Tales games, monsters are seen roaming about the map, and you will only enter a battle if your character and a monster collide. In Graces, the angle at which you engage your opponent (behind or face-to-face dictates the bonuses and positioning advantages you will receive in combat. The bonuses are minor, so missing the proper angle is not a major issue; that being said, it is always great to secure every advantage.
The Linear Motion Battle System returns in Graces, albeit with many adjustments. Like previous games, you fight on a circular map and can run backwards and forwards in a line between your target and the boundaries of the battle map. Your ability to attack is dictated by Graces new combo system. Every attack a character uses—from a simple thrust to a flurry of blows—consumes a certain amount of Chain Capacity (CC). CC regenerates automatically over time, when blocking, when chaining a certain amount of attacks, and when defeating an enemy. You are unable to attack when your CC is depleted, so careful management is necessary for success. With intelligent decision-making, players can create potentially infinite chains, with devastating results. It should be noted that with the introduction of the CC system, Graces has abandoned the use of TP (similar to mana/MP in other games). While it may aggravate fans who have been used to the TP system for over a decade, it does not take long to see how incompatible the CC and TP system are with each other. Choosing to exclusively use the CC system was unquestionably the best move for Tales of Graces.
In addition to the CC system, Graces provides yet another new mechanic in combat. Each character now has two fighting styles, defined as A-artes and B-artes; each fighting style is played differently, and each character has their own style of fighting in each stance. For instance, Asbel will fight with an array of kicks with his sword sheathed when using A-Artes and with his sword unsheathed when using B-artes.
In addition to the CC system, Graces provides yet another new mechanic in combat. Each character now has two fighting styles, defined as A-Artes and B-artes; each style has a distinct visual style. For instance, Asbel will fight with an array of kicks with his sword sheathed when using A-Artes and with his sword unsheathed when using B-artes. When fighting in A-artes stance, players press the x button and move the left stick in a direction to begin a combo. A combo begins with a weak attack that costs only one CC to activate. Chaining additional attacks cost one CC each, with a maximum level of four. B-artes are much simpler; you set four abilities in advance, each triggered by the circle button and a direction on the left stick. These abilities are not part of combos, but are strong abilities with an expensive CC cost. The key to success is careful transitioning between the two.
The character development has also received an upgrade. Previous Tales games utilized the Titles system, granting characters new titles based on story events, side quests, and various accomplishments. Titles return in Graces, but they now function as the foundation for character development. When equipping a title, the character begins working on unlocking the five abilities (two passive, two active, one special) linked to the title. Each ability costs a certain amount of SP (gained in battles and applied automatically just like XP) to unlock and you are able to change your title any time you have access to the menu. Once you unlock an ability associated with a title, you can use that ability permanently. This created an extremely engaging method of leveling and developing your characters. By focusing on abilities that matter to you, you can create a party that does precisely what you want.
Crafting returns in the form of dualizing. Dualizing is the process of combining two items to create a new item. Items range in purpose such as recovery items, food, and items with a high sell value. Crystals can also be combined with weapons and armor to create varying results such as stat bonuses, CC increases, and resistances.
The combination of familiar systems with new concepts worked remarkably well. While veteran players will find themselves a bit lost in the beginning, the adjusted battle and development systems ultimately leave a wonderful impression. Combat in the modified battle system feel as fluid as ever, and the customization in the character development is executed perfectly.
Mechanics Grade: 25/25
The dialogue in Tales of Graces proves to be some of the most believable in a Tales game (and in the JRPG genre), a triumph for any game in the genre. Gone are the horribly awkward conversations and catch phrases; in their place are well-crafted sequences of dialogue that truly emphasize the bonds between the characters. Even the conversations between the children were well-done with Asbel excellently portraying the role of an adventurous, disobedient child.
The voice acting makes the dialogue even more enjoyable. Industry veterans Jamieson Price (Code Geass, .hack//G.U.) and Laura Bailey (Catherine, Persona 4) play Captain Malik and Cheria, respectively, both of which are voiced wonderfully, depicting Malik’s calculated, callous tone and Cheria’s emotional personality. Other voice actors such as Steve Staley, Kate Higgins, and David Vincent also give impressive performances. As such, it was a delight to hear the voices of characters during the course of the game, including the previously text-only skits.
Tales of Graces’ musical score is well-done and consistently fits the environment. The battle music is an arrangement of the children’s combat music, which I felt showed the maturation of the characters, as well as the situations they find themselves in. The music fits the jovial nature of Graces with few songs played in a minor scale, whether you are in battle or wandering the overworld. Battle music changes with the environment, so it rarely became stale. Korean singer, BoA, wrote and performed the game’s theme song “White Wishes,” which made Tales of Graces one of the few Tales games to feature a popular artist performing the opening.While this is a common trait in a JRPG, it was nice to see Tales looking to change even the opening of the game.
The cinematography in Tales of Graces is excellent and adds to the emotion of every scene. Moments like the one where Asbel teaches Sophie to write are particularly heartwarming and the developers took advantage of the infinite possibilities of “camera” direction in a digital setting. The animation was also done in a commendable fashion. With the exception of a few awkward gestures (at one point in the game, a character bows frantically and repeatedly; I was surprised she did not become disoriented), the characters seemed very human.
Despite having a beautiful world that was crafted with the war in mind, most of the game does not grant the freedom of exploration. While Graces utilizes their mostly linear progression to carefully direct their story, die-hard RPG fans may find this detrimental to the traditional role-playing experience. Before playing Tales of Graces, I was often put off by games that seemed to control where you went based on the developers’ decision-making. After seeing how well a linear narrative could be constructed, my stance has shifted; I believe that any game that directs you in as an intelligent manner as Graces does, should receive the highest praise.
Atmosphere Grade: 22/25
With a gripping story, solid mechanics, and a beautiful atmosphere, it is hard to imagine how Graces could go wrong. Tons of side quests, a complex enhancement system, and cooperative gameplay give the player a daunting amount of content to complete. Unfortunately, the immense amount of content quickly becomes an annoyance.
Until you gain the means to freely travel the world, most side quests come in the form of collection missions. Every city’s inn has a board filled with requests from villagers for various items. While some items are easy to acquire and are usually in your inventory to begin with, other requests involve locating items that are hidden somewhere obscure either in the city or between cities. These side quests are optional, but they give the impression that the developers sought to tack on an aggravating amount of scavenger hunt missions just to make up for the lack of early to mid-game side quests.
The ability to combine items with weapons to create enhanced versions of them initially seemed to be a welcome addition to the game. However as time went on, what was pleasant quickly turned into a lot of irritating management just to obtain a better version of your characters’ equipment. Enhancing weapons and armor is not mandatory, and it is a relief the main enhancements can be set without generating much of a headache. It would have been much easier if Namco Tales stuck with simple enhancements, rather than building an unnecessarily in-depth system.
On a positive note, most of the annoyances in Tales of Graces are easily ignored. I never once felt hindered by not fulfilling a request on the board or foregoing high-level enchanting. If I felt that my party would need the upper-hand on upcoming battles, leveling up never proved to be boring. Graces‘ battle system stays fast-paced and fun from start to finish, and choosing which abilities and stats you want to focus on allow for great customization.
The cooperative gameplay in Tales games always adds to the entertainment. Strategizing with friends is a vast improvement from issuing orders to your party members to generate desired results. Similar to other games in the franchise, each character in Tales offers a unique way of fighting which will allow you and your friends to pick a character most suited toward your style of play.
Overall, Tales of Graces shows a vast improvement in nearly every single field compared to its predecessors. With more mature themes, a skill-based battle system, and the introduction of new character development systems, Graces is definitely a step in the right direction for the thirteen-year-old franchise. While the game is not perfect, it is encouraging to see that Namco Tales is able to create a game drastically different from its other entries, and still release a quality product. I am extremely excited to see how Tales of Graces affects the development of future games in the franchise, as well as the RPG genre as a whole.
Entertainment Value Grade: 20/25
Overall Grade: 88 (B+)