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Tales of Symphonia
game: Tales of Symphonia
four star
posted by: Aaron Stanton
publisher: Namco
date posted: 12:00 AM Wed Aug 11th, 2004
last revision: 12:00 AM Wed Aug 11th, 2004

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Role playing games and I have always had a tense relationship. On one hand, games like Betrayal at Krondor and Fallout 2 rank as all time classics in my "warm and fuzzies" memory department. You put me in a room with another nerd, and I can guarantee that both titles will come up in the same sentence as "the good-old days" at some point in the conversation. On the other hand, I also find they can require too much investment, too much time before you really get into a game. And all too often I find myself thinking, "Oh great, another random battle with a dragon creature. Let's move on, already." Unless you're hanging out with your D&D friends, RPG games don't tend to be the types that you pop into the machine for a little gaming session after supper. "You've got to see this, guys. It's sooooo cool. So I'm going to play it and you guys can....um.... watch me, I guess."

So when Tales of Symphonia showed up at my door with a 1-4 player label, cartoon style graphics, and a real-time combat system, I couldn't help but throw it into the GameCube, friend in tow for some mulit-player fun, with mixed feelings. It was telling when, after only a few minutes, my friend turned his character to automatic combat control, put down his controller, and declared, "I think I'd rather just watch you." Ah man, I thought, there goes the multi-player aspect of the game. It's in trouble now. And yet, amazingly, after the first hour, we were still playing. Or I should say, I was playing, and he was watching and eating, one hand in a potato chip bag, the other holding an ice tea. And we played for a second hour. And a third. And a fourth. We ate dinner, chatted about some random thing, and then, without discussion, went back for a fifth, sixth, and seventh hour. Tired, stumbling into walls, mumbling things incoherently about "bookworms" and "pissing him off" (long story), I finally made it to bed that night at 4 in the morning. I repeated the ordeal again the next night, finally clawing my way to bed in the early, early morning, friend crashed on the couch.

Tales of Symphonia is a multi-player RPG game with only marginal multi-player support, an interesting storyline, teenage main characters, and engaging and enjoyable graphics that entice you to pick it up, try it out, and get hooked by its other gameplay elements. Built on a cartoon style and a Japanese animation spiritual themes, Tales of Symphonia not only feels like you're watching a cartoon, but looks like it, plays like it, and sounds like it (sometimes). Solidly built, with hours and hours of gameplay, there are few GameCube RPGs that even consider coming close to the quality and design standards set by Symphonia. While certainly not perfect, it's a game that every RPG fan should look at, while still being able to serve as an interesting starting point for the RPG uninitiated looking for a first-time experience. Leave the controller unattended on the table, and you're likely to find it picked up by the hands of a significant other by the time you return. Tales of Symphonia offers a little bit for everyone.

Role playing games are traditionally the realm of story and character driven play, and as a consequence tend to be slower in pace. No one familiar with RPGs would blink an eye at the sight of a random thirty second dialog between two characters discussing whether or not they feel confident enough to save the world. Imagine the faces of gamers, though, if Link and Necrid from Soulcaliber II suddenly hung up their weapons and broke down into an intimate conversation about their emotional needs. What you find in Tales of Symphonia is a story that's spruced up with fighting, and as most RPG players will tell you, urges the player onward by offering ever expanding glimpses of the game world and characters. And, of course, better weapons. Tales of Symphonia offers a relatively linear plot about saving the world from destruction, a tale of heroes most people will find interesting enough to care about, and an easy ability to see your own progression in strength and story.

In a nutshell, the world is dieing, loosing mana. A ruling body of generally nasty half-elves known as the Desian dominate the land and suppress its people, managing a number of Human Farms for a reason that isn't immediately known. Every so often, when the time is right, a special individual is chosen by the Goddess to embark on a journey to revitalize the world. Sometimes they succeed, but sometimes, as in the case of the last Chosen One, they're killed in the attempt. Symphonia opens at the point you would expect. Mana is nearly gone, and it's time for the Chosen One to re-appear and once again fill the world with hope and light. Initially, the plot treads a pretty standard RPG path, with a small party battling the evil forces to save the world. However, in this game, the main characters are children, one born and raised to grow into the Chosen One, the other two merely friends. Their stories are not simply tales of honor, though, and the darker elements of the story help to offset the cartoony style of the graphics. For example, Lloyd, a character young enough at the start to take on his first monsters with a wooden sword, nearly destroys his own village after he and a friend naively attempt to rescue a slave from being whipped. The villager's deaths that come later at the hands of the retaliating Desian army, the banishment that follows, and the guilt that plagues Lloyd through the rest of the game make for a much more interesting character. The Chosen herself, an overly nice young girl, follows a path that evidently leads to a darker reality than the legends let on, and discovering that end as she slowly evolves into something not human is a part of the game's appeal.

To tell the truth, it's the blending of a childish style with complex adult themes that makes this game worth playing. Surprisingly enough, there are very clear commentaries about certain moral values. What makes a family, blood or bond? Is there a God? In fact, sometimes the dialog makes the fictitious religion in the game nearly indistinguishable from a number of real-world counterparts, referring to God, faith, and a need for spirituality. The importance of family, the seriousness of death, faith, and the evolution of children into adults in a world full of slavery and darkness keep the storyline engaging and well worth your time.

Yet, at the same time, while the dark aspects of the characters mix well with the childish feel of the game presentation, the characters tend to cling to those identities. Lloyd will be forever torn by guilt and anger, the Chosen will remain too nice, forgiving, and scared, and the others will always be the way they are. Even as their strength grows, much of the dialog and random encounters seem somewhat repetitive. It becomes easy to predict who will say what, and while you do see significant changes in the character's allegiance and relationships towards the end of the game, depending on how you play, the fundamentals of who the characters are remain basically constant.  What changes you do see are mostly, but not always, predictable.  That doesn't mean you won't be interested seeing them happen, but it does mean that for the most part they won't surprise you. 

In fact, repetitiveness is often the boon of the RPG genre, and while Tales of Symphonia does a good job of avoiding this, there are occasions when you just wish you could jump to the next cut scene. For example, when traveling around the larger map (much as if you were Gulliver traveling the lands of a miniature kingdom; the map has you stylistically towering over towns, trees, and castles), all enemies are represented by the same two generic icons. When you collide with them, you discover that they're actually made up of different types of creatures, some harder, some easier. Why couldn't those creatures have, I don't know, maybe looked like the enemies that they are? Part of the joy of an RPG isn't just growing your character and adding new weapons and spells, but discovering new enemies to use them on. By replacing all the random encounter map enemies with the same graphics... well, there's that repetitive thing again. Luckily, though, the storyline itself keeps you interested in what's to come as you travel from land to land, and the repetitive nature of the random combat seems a minor point. In many places, the game is saved by its sense of humor (there's a Titanic pun that cracked me up).

Another major disappointment in the game is the so-called multiplayer aspects. While technically this is true, what the 1 - 4 player mode really means is that, when fighting, the four individual players in your party can be controlled separately and at the same time by plugging in controllers for them. Poof, all of a sudden it's a four-player game. Great. The problem is that there are large stretches of the game that don't have anything to do with combat, and with so many things happening during the real-time battles, it's too confusing for four players to see what's going on anyway. Sure, it's nice to be able to give your friends something to do, but it's by no means an all-consuming multiplayer game. Your friends will play for a moment, then sit while you navigate the map, talk to people, buy equipment, deliver a package, play a game with an NPC, and then, after a bit, maybe deliberately get into a fight to give your friends something to do. After a while, you might discover that your friends are setting their controls to automatic and sitting back to watch the show; after all, there are interesting things happening in the story by itself. The multiplayer might be briefly entertaining, but it's by no means a ticket out of the spectators box.

Combat itself is actually rather fun. Based on a real time system, you have the ability to completely control your characters, running them forward and back, mashing buttons to launch attacks, trying to time your blocks to avoid being hit. You can pause the game to issue in-combat commands to your AI controlled players, casting spells and drinking potions as needed, but for the most part the combat system reminds me, oddly enough, of Super Smash Brothers for the N64. Less flexibility in the jumping, and more complexity in the attacks and spells, but ultimately a similar style of play as you maneuver to get in the right blows, the right moves, and the right combinations for maximum damage. In terms of RPGs, it's much faster, more intense, and open to people unused to the RPG systems than in other games. The combat, combined with the graphics and interesting characters, are part of the draw that makes this a game to be sampled by everyone.

When it boils down to it, Tales of Symphonia has what's important to an RPG. A story we care about, characters we like to hang around with, combat and weapons that progress in perfect increments to keep things interesting, and a world with an interesting enough mix of elements to keep us exploring. While not for children, the cartoon-like style keeps the experience fresh. Tales of Symphoina is easily the best RPG I've played in some time.

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