Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Publishers: Namco, Nintendo America
Release Date: 07/13/2004
Difficulties Played: Normal, Hard, Mania
Time played: 120+ Hours
Concept and Execution
If you have played even a few JRPGs, you will recognize the tired premise of a shortage of mana in the world, usually resulting in a catastrophe or the appearance of monsters. Namco Tales’ Tales of Symphonia is the fifth title in their Tales series and uses this foundation for their narrative, but creates a memorable story in the process.
Tales of Symphonia follows the story of Lloyd Irving, who is tasked with protecting his childhood friend, Collette Brunel, as she travels the world fulfilling her role as the Chosen of Regeneration. It is the Chosen’s duty to sacrifice herself in order to restore the proper flow of mana to the world, usually every fifty years. The two are accompanied by brother and sister, Raine and Genis Sage, as well as the enigmatic mercenary, Kratos.
The tale would not be nearly as compelling if it was just another story of a cycle that runs every fifty years. Conspiracies run deep within the world of Sylvarant, and the game emphasizes just how corrupt organizations within the government and religions can be. Plot twists occur at every turn, and betrayals are common. This creates a truly suspenseful environment in which you are often placed in a position where you do not know who you can trust.
The construction of the world in Tales of Symphonia is comparable to others in the franchise. Very little is left unexplained, which is a feat for a game filled with fictional terms and cultures. Unlike many games, even within the Tales franchise, the lexicon in Tales of Symphonia is introduced at such a slow pace and explained immediately, ensuring you’re never left wondering what an Exsphere, arte, or Desian is. The game also features a journal which gives you a synopsis of the current situation and previous events, letting you regain your footing if you had been away from the game for a while or have forgotten your current objective.
The core narrative is nearly always supplemented by optional “skits” that occur numerous times throughout the game. When characters reach a location or when certain characters are in a party together, a button may be pressed to temporarily pause the other events of the game and bring up a screen with portraits of the characters involved in the skit as they discuss things in a text-only format. These conversations are always entertaining, and range from serious discussions about the state of affairs, to characters unabashedly flirting with other party members. Through the narrative and use of skits, the cast of characters quickly grows on you.
Despite the recycled narrative, Tales of Symphonia presents an enjoyable story from start to finish. Knowing that one of your party members could leave at any time and betray you keeps a sense of suspense and paranoia during most of the game. Characters grow on you quickly and each one feels fully developed and does not exist just as a filler character. The skits present a nice break from the core narrative, giving a look into the interactions between various characters.
Concept and Execution Grade: 23.5/25
As the Tales series was one of the first to introduce a real-time battle system in the RPG genre (instead of the turn-based systems), it has always been a delight to see how Namco Tales has evolved their Linear Motion Battle System, a combat system that allows players to run freely from their character’s origin point to the enemy.
Six years later, Tales of Symphonia‘s battle system still presents one of the most fluid and aesthetically pleasing combat segments in the genre. Each character can be programmed with up to eight different abilities, known as artes, bound to a combination of the joystick and an artes button. With a moderately sized roster of nine characters, Namco Tales did an excellent job of making each character feel unique, even though there were some overlapping abilities. Characters like the dual-wielding Lloyd Irving and swordsman Kratos Aurion fight at a much faster pace than heavy hitters Regal Bryant and Presea Combatir; magic users Genis and Raine Sage both feature their own unique styles of play that feel extraordinarily different from their companions. For the player who prefers hybrid characters, Collete Brunel and Sheena Fujibayashi utilize a blend of melee and magic abilities.
Since the combat is done in real time, players must make appropriate use of blocking and dodging while they focus on using a combination of regular attacks and artes to defeat their opponents. The battle may be paused at any time so the leader can issue orders to other members in the party or use consumables. The AI of other party members can be set to follow various combat strategies (engage in close-range attacks, do not use artes, stay away from the enemy, etc.) and can have abilities turned on or off, so they are not using abilities you deem worthless or not appropriate for the situation. Monsters generally have elemental weaknesses which — once determined — may be exploited by the magic users in your party. At the end of each battle, you are granted an amount of grade that can be accumulated over the course of the game and redeemed in New Game+ to give your characters different advantages such as 10x, 5x, and 2x multipliers in experience, increased item capacities, and abilities that carry over from the original save file.
Engaging enemies begins in the world map or area map, allowing you to initiate a battle only when you deem it appropriate or when the narrative introduces a conflict. Monsters are represented by small creatures that have no relation to what monsters you will encounter on the battlefield. While your encounters are not random, the groups of enemies almost always are. When your avatar and the monster collide, the screen shatters and your party is set on the battlefield opposite a group of opponents.
While playing with a well-designed set of AI party members is satisfying, Namco Tales went the extra mile to include a cooperative multiplayer experience. Each party member in the battle (you may have four party members in a fight) can be played by another human player. Naturally this disables the leader’s control of other party members’ abilities, but the ability to scream at your comrade to use an ability always proves to be far more enjoyable.
The development of characters as they progress through levels is deceptively simple. By using a certain arte in combat, you have the chance to eventually improve the arte or combine it with others. For example, using Lloyd’s Sword Rain ability a certain amount of times will unlock his Sonic Sword Rain ability. After unlocking the ability Beast and using it a certain amount of times, you will unlock Beast Sword Rain, which combines the two artes into one swift attack. While this system seems straightforward enough, a gauge in the menu shifts toward an S or a T over time based on the abilities you use in battle. Certain artes are identified as S-type where others are identified as T-Type. By using more S-type abilities than T-type, that gauge will shift toward the S side and begin granting you high-level S-type abilities, and vice-versa.
With such a well-designed and fast-paced battle system, even when you are killing monsters for hours on end, you never feel like you are grinding. The wide array of abilities and combat styles ensures that battles feel different every time you change characters. The multiplayer component is also a welcome addition due to the rarity of cooperative gameplay in RPGs. Tales of Symphonia‘s mechanics are solid and do not rely on any gimmicks for entertainmet.
Game Mechanics Grade: 25/25
It wouldn’t be a JRPG without awkward dialogue and sometimes questionable voice acting, and Tales of Symphonia excels in those departments. Dialogue becomes laughable at points; it almost becomes concerning how any other character takes the protagonist seriously with his trademark “give me your name and I will give you mine” to anyone who asks. Despite the amount of odd dialogue, the characters do grow on you as the game progresses. You will find that characters who once made you cringe when they spoke become the awkward ones you just smile at when they say something downright bizarre. This is not to say the entirety of the game features poor dialogue; most of the core narrative is well-written, and emotion is dripping from the voice actors during key moments in the game. It is when we are treated to obvious filler moments that these travesties occur.
The environments in Tales of Symphonia are what you would come to expect in an RPG: You have your small starting towns, your booming metropolis, two or three cities on the coast, and numerous forests and ruins to explore. While Namco Tales did not completely break away from the typical expectation, adhering to this model always works as it keeps you transitioning to new, vastly different areas before you have become bored with one. Sticking to this model also makes the few awe-inspiring structures and areas that much more moving as we are completely caught off-guard by it.
For the first half of the game, you travel across the world map in a very linear fashion. You move from point A to point B, both of which are generally located near each other. You are able to explore on your own and locate stones that give you vision of the area and will let you mount your dog/horse/wolf, Noishe, which lets you travel at a much faster pace.
The music for most of Tales of Symphonia is simple, yet fitting. You have your peaceful music in towns, epic orchestral pieces while traveling the overworld and eerie music while traveling through forests and ruins. The battle music is always engaging, and the huge selection of boss music is wonderful. Occasional gems do appear, and songs like “Fatalize” and “Decision” have made quite an impression on the community, both having remixes popularized by video game music remix site, OCremix.
Atmosphere grade: 20.5/25
Between New Game+, tons of titles to collect, rare weapons to find, and an extremely challenging difficulty mode to complete, Tales of Symphonia offers the amount of content the gaming community has come to expect from the genre. I have played the game for over 120 hours and still have not completed all of the content that available.
The New Game+ system in Tales of Symphonia is without a doubt one of the most entertaining New Game+ modes I have seen introduced in games. Where certain battles were unbeatable your first time around, beating these opponents in New Game+ rewards you with new cutscenes and high grade payouts. This brings new challenges to the second playthrough aside from the side quests you can tackle.
Tales of Symphonia also presents a series of rare weapons known as the Devils Arms which are the product of finding rare weapons throughout the world and defeating an incredibly difficult boss. These weapons become stronger with every battle fought, so the possibilities are almost limitless and create another avenue for completionists to explore.
After completing the game, you may opt to enable Mania Mode, a wonderful addition to an already rich game which gives enemies twice as much health and damage as well as improves the enemy AI. Conquering this mode requires the utmost skill in combat as well as incredible knowledge in character development, making it the perfect mode for RPG enthusiasts to test their skills.
Whether you play RPGs for the presence of a well-written story or complex battle and stat mechanics, Tales of Symphonia excels on almost every front. The sheer amount of content in this title certainly made it one of the most memorable titles in the series and serves as an excellent starting point for newcomers to the Tales games.
Entertainment Value: 25/25