Tales of Symphonia Review

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Publisher: Namco Hometek
Developer: Namco Tales Studio

Platform: GameCube
Reviewed on GameCube

Thousands of years ago, a giant tree anchored the world, providing a copious source of mana, the power that fuels magic and energizes magitechnological machinery. War destroyed the tree, fracturing the world and leaving a realm slowly decaying for lack of mana. Now, crops are failing and half-elves (going by the name Desians) are stealing humans and taking them to Human Ranches where they work at backbreaking labor, never to escape from the fenced enclosures.

For all the despair in the world, there is a hope. A Chosen One has been born unto the world, endowed by the angels with the power to waken the Goddess Martel and save the world. The Chosen One, accompanied by her teenage friends, tutor, and myriad acquaintances, sets out for the Tower of Salvation to awaken the Goddess. And that is only the beginning of a very long journey.

Kyle Ackerman

Tales of Symphonia is a long game. You could probably speed through the game in a mere fifty hours, but if you choose to follow all the sub-plots, side quests or indulge in the myriad collectables, you really can fill the more than eighty hours of time that Namco claims this game will take a dedicated player. Certainly, there are eccentricities and small things with which one could quibble in Tales of Symphonia, but it manages to be incredibly engaging for such a long time that it's impossible to give Tales of Symphonia anything short of a hearty recommendation.

It's not just that the game is entertaining. You may expect a series of plot twists, especially when you seem to be approaching an ending and haven't even reached the game's second disc. Still, Tales of Symphonia manages to teeter on the suspenseful cusp of completion – for at least thirty hours. And despite feeling near-finished, there were always half a dozen things I wanted to try or explore before heading to the latest, ostensibly final showdown. That's so much fun that when the plot actually resolves and the game comes to a conclusion, I couldn't help but be disappointed the designers didn't have yet another bizarre twist to keep things going.

Ready Your Weapons and Your EX Gems

Like most console-style role-playing games, the bulk of your time will be spent talking or fighting, with an assortment of puzzles and mini-games making up the balance. Combat is emblematic of the game's overall mechanics, in that it is possible to breeze through with minimal interaction, or you can explore the combat system's substantial depth, micromanaging combinations of magic and techniques. On a high level, you can take as many as four members of your party into combat, controlling any one character at a time, with no or complete AI assistance. So, you could just set some high-level strategies and mostly watch the battle unfold, or time every block and blow according to your presses of a button.

Every character has a base set of moves, including simple combinations, blocks and aerial attacks. Beyond that, characters have special moves or magic spells that use Technical Points that range from special thrusts of the sword to a rain of lightning that rains purple destruction on groups of foes. Rack up enough solid hits during a sequence of combats and you can invoke Unison Attacks in which everyone simultaneously assaults a single target. Not only can these put a stop to enemy magic and inflict massive damage, but certain combinations of attacks (if discovered) can combine for even greater destruction.

It already sounds like there is a lot of depth, but battle can be even more complicated if you allow it. Attacks and magic can be aligned with specific elements (such as water or fire), and enemies can be vulnerable or resistant to specific elements. Moreover, each character can be equipped with up to four EX Gems. There are four levels of EX Gem, and each level has four possible functions. Group EX Gems of the right level and function, and characters can gain even more skills to augment their combat abilities. With all of these variables, there is a lot of room for experimentation in combat, resulting in even more powerful strategies with which to face future waves of beasts and hostile soldiers.

Combat is a large fraction of the game, and you'll be glad for the tremendous variety provided by hundreds of enemies, because nearly every major plot point culminates in a boss battle for which you'll need the experience. Skilled gamers will recognize the patterns enemies use, and easily defeat even powerful bosses, but even hands-off players will be able to win epic combats with some experience and help from the AI. Occasionally your allies will make foolish mistakes, such as your spellcaster running in for a quick hand-to-hand attack, but the AI is much more of a help than a hindrance.

An Extensive Story With Myriad Side Plots

As with most role-playing games, you'll spend a lot of your time traveling the world, having conversations and herding your party to the next destination you are predestined to visit. Tales of Symphonia is structured so that you will rarely find yourself in doubt as to where you should visit next. Towns are large enough to explore without being so large that you lose interest, and as you have to travel longer distances, you get faster modes of transportation. The plot easily herds you between events without being intrusive. There's always another portentous event just over the horizon – either begging you to discover the next turn of the plot, or giving you a clear destination once you have finished exploring whatever nook of the world has caught your fancy.

Any sophistication the language or dialog may have once had feels as if it has been lost in translation, but the underlying plot twists are bizarrely fascinating, more than making up for hokey bits or anything that failed to bridge the cultural gap. There's a lot of heavy handed talk of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination, but the goal of a unified and tolerant in-game world is certainly a noble one. What is more distracting is that so many of the voice actors are so familiar. It's hard not to hear Robin from the Teen Titans when Tales of Symphonia's protagonist Lloyd Irving speaks.

Tales of Symphonia does introduce an inventive dynamic to make many of the game's dungeons interesting and different. At the very beginning of the game, you acquire the Sorcerer's Ring. The Sorcerer's Ring is an artifact so powerful that it does whatever is necessary in a given dungeon to solve that location's puzzles. It can cast flames, throw electrical bolts, store light, freeze water and much more – but only one function at a time. As such, a single device, rather than an extensive inventory, serves as the core tool in each puzzle. The puzzles are all one-trick ponies, but are pleasantly simple enough to be easily solved, and just challenging enough to provide a little satisfaction when completed. Mostly, the puzzles provide a nice break from the combat and dialog, providing enough of a change to keep you consistently interested.

Just in case dozens of hours of the above isn't enough to keep you interested, Tales of Symphonia introduces plenty of other game mechanics particularly suited to the compulsive gamers in the community. For example, each of the characters has different cooking skills, and by learning and preparing recipes, one can make food that will restore or improve the party's abilities. Just discovering recipes is its own adventure, and it can be really satisfying to discover the "mysterious Wonder Chef," who tends to disguise himself as colorful interior decorations. Find him, and he will happily dance with his giant fork and teach you a new culinary delight. In a similar vein, one of your party members enjoys finding and naming every dog in the world, or with sufficient funds, you can rebuild a town that has fallen prey to catastrophe.

Simply speaking, there is a lot of fun in the core game, just following the main plot. That's nicely complemented by plenty of optional exploration and surprising (but largely optional) complexity in many of the game's dynamics. Whatever complaints you might muster regarding Tales of Symphonia, the game provides so much entertainment, for so long, that this is a title every GameCube owner should buy.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on September 2, 2004 1:40 PM.

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