After a three-year wait and a troubled production history, the new and improved Tales of Graces has finally made it to Western shores with a new PS3-exclusive arc that continues the story after the events of the main game ("f" stands for "future"). But does the future look rosy for Graces f, or does it end up in a rather graceless heap?
The Tales of series has always been a rather odd beast to me as a story-focussed player. Most of its main entries have interesting basic ideas behind them, yet the execution of the stories tends to fall flat, either due to relying on the repeated use of certain tropes, or due to suffering from an under-explanation of critical plot points. Yet, despite the frequently weak storytelling, I often end up enjoying Tales games due to their colorful worlds and exciting gameplay, but, most of all, the plethora of character interactions in the form of skits and side quests. Tales of Vesperia remains my favorite in the series to date, not because of its story (which has holes that one could drive an entelexeia through), but because of a cast of characters that is amazingly fun and well-written. Thus, I was eager to see what Namco would bring to the table with Tales of Graces f, which had scored highly in a number of renowned gaming magazines.
Gameplay: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?
One of the most fun aspects of any Tales title is undoubtedly the battle system, which provides a counter-point to the menu-driven design of other series by presenting a more fast-paced and action-oriented combat with strategic elements. The party of up to four characters can move freely around the battlefield, engaging enemies in hand-to-hand or long-range combat according to their designated strengths. Although the player only ever controls one character at a given time, they nevertheless maintain some say over the rest of the AI-controlled party by juggling skill sets and determining the AI's behavioral patterns for each character (e.g. focus on guarding, healing, etc). Additionally, the player is free to switch characters mid-fight or interrupt the AI's actions to issue specific commands.
Graces mixes up the tried-and-true formula with the "Style Shift Linear Motion Battle System," a mouthful of a name that denotes the characters' ability to fluidly switch between two different styles of fighting: an assault style, which centers on the execution of a variety of predetermined combos, and the burst style, which allows players to trigger powerful special moves and magic attacks (burst artes) that are mapped to shortcut buttons. The MP gauge is done away with in favor of a refurbished version of the Chain Capacity feature from Tales of Destiny, which prices battle actions (including guarding, evading, attacking and spell-casting) at a certain points value and requires players to strategize instead of repeatedly spamming their favorite moves.
Unlike in previous entries, the learning of artes, skills, combat benefits and even certain costumes is tied to the acquisition of titles, another long-standing feature of the series. Titles can be earned via story progression, doing side quests, performing certain actions in battle, viewing skits, and a variety of other means. By equipping a title, the character in question will begin to master its various benefits, eventually allowing them to keep these benefits without having the title itself equipped.
Two other notable features are the eleth mixer and dualizing. Dualizing lets the player mix two pieces of loot to produce new gear, healing items, or more valuable loot required for side quests. The eleth mixer complements this setup: by setting acquired loot or dualized items into its available slots, the eleth mixer will automatically produce more of said items over time without the consumption of raw materials. The rate at which items are produced depends on the rarity of the item in question, a stat which can be improved by leveling up the eleth mixer through frequent use or by acquiring special spell books that provide enhancements. If a cooking item is set in a slot, the eleth mixer will also help out in battle by automatically cooking the set dish once certain conditions are met, albeit only a fixed number of times. For instance, if a dish with revival properties is set, the eleth mixer will kick in to revive a character once they are downed, but it will only do so once per battle in order to keep players from getting reckless.
Despite the impressive number of features available, however, I have to say that I found combat to be a lot less fun than in Tales of Vesperia, and a lot more frustrating to boot. This is less due to the features themselves, and more due to a subpar AI and unbalanced characters.
The AI which governs the actions of the three other party members frequently proves to be a rather fickle creature, particularly when it comes to the spellcasters, who have the tendency to place themselves in harm's way despite their physical frailty and the player's best intentions to keep them at a distance from heavy hitters. I also found that they would often flat-out "forget" an enemy's elemental resistances, attacking it over and over with spells that were barely effective — or worse, getting absorbed or reflected back at them. In most cases, the only way around it is to get a good idea of the enemies inhabiting a location and then switching off all the spells which are guaranteed to get the party in trouble, though this is less a solution and more a crutch.
Adding to this is the unbalanced nature of several characters' skills. For instance, Pascal, the primary attack mage of the game, is equipped with a long-range rifle/staff which allows her to attack enemies from a distance, yet the majority of her attack spells are designed to affect enemies in a small space directly around her. Even worse, these close-quarter spells are also close-range, often prompting Pascal to rush headlong into the path of a rampaging rhinossus. With the low HP and poor physical resistance that seems to be a prerequisite for mages in RPGs across the board, this proves to be a recipe for disaster, especially since spells — even close-range spells — take a ludicrously long time to activate. This can be alleviated somewhat by equipping mages with items that enhance casting speed and mobility, yet most of those only become available later in the game, thus guaranteeing hours of frustration.
Last but not least, enemies seem to have the mysterious ability to hone in on the player-controlled character and pursue them relentlessly, even when the AI-controlled team is alive and wailing on them. This not only makes it nerve-wracking to play as one of the physically weaker characters, it also places the player in dire straits whenever they desperately need to heal themselves or an ally: Healing requires standing still to chant the appropriate spell or toss an item, yet this is at best difficult and at worst impossible with four to six monsters on the player's tail, who will not be deterred from their target no matter what the rest of the party is doing. Frequently, the only solution for me was to just not play as a mage and focus on the two-to-three melee characters, but I was left wondering where the fun is in an RPG where you cannot reliably play with half your party.
Story: "Be good!" — "But I don't want to!"
Set in the world of Ephinea, Tales of Graces f centers on Asbel Lhant, the young heir to an independent territory wedged between three warring kingdoms. While exploring the surroundings of his hometown together with his little brother Hubert and their sickly neighbor Cheria, Asbel finds an amnesiac girl sleeping in a field of flowers, whom the three children decide to take in and name "Sophie." At the same time, Richard, the young prince of the kingdom of Windor, is brought to stay at Lhant manor due to political unrest in the capital. Against the advice of Asbel's father, the group befriend Richard, going so far as to follow him back to the castle when he leaves. However, while attempting to meet with Richard in secret, they are attacked by an unknown monster which is only defeated when Sophie sacrifices herself in a display of incredible physical prowess. Asbel awakens in Lhant, where his father informs him of Sophie's death and Hubert's adoption into a foreign noble house in order to ensure the stability of Lhant's rule. Unable to accept his father's actions and crushed by Sophie's loss, Asbel runs away from home and enrolls with the knighthood in the capital.
Seven years later, Asbel returns to Lhant following his father's death in a border skirmish, only to get swept up in a bizarre series of events involving the reunion with his estranged brother, who is leading the occupying army, the appearance of a girl who looks just like Sophie, and the increasingly erratic actions of Richard, who has not escaped the attempts on his life unscathed…
Trying to summarize Tales of Graces' story is quite a task, if only because so much happens within the first five hours of game time, with so little to follow afterwards. Although the setup is rife with the potential for great character drama and conflict, the game itself attempts to do very little with it.
By far the most interesting part of Tales of Graces is the "Childhood" arc which opens the game, focusing on an inept father's attempts to prevent strife between his sons by doing his best to drive a wedge between them himself, an ineffectual mother who cannot dissuade her husband from his plans and instead supports him in his decisions to employ "tough love," and the five children caught in the middle, already hovering on the cusp of being severely damaged by the adults in their environment.
The 12-year-old Richard leaves a particularly unsettling impression as a cynical, withdrawn and bitterly lonely child who has learned to view the entire world according to the rules of courtly intrigue. My heart ended up aching for Asbel and Hubert, too, who are suffering under the mood swings and unpredictability of their paranoid father, alternately praised and berated for one and the same thing, constantly measured against one another, and eventually forcibly separated. By far one of the creepiest moments I've ever encountered in a game occurs early on when Asbel returns to Lhant seven years later and finds his family manor exactly the same as it used to be, with his grieving mother tremulously telling him that she has kept his and Hubert's room just as it was when they were children. Right down to the toy chest and bed spreads.
Yet, the twisted relationships of the Lhant family and even Sophie's mysterious nature are quickly thrust aside in favor of an endless search quest for Richard, who has — spoiler, except not really — become possessed by an evil entity and is now out to destroy the world. 3/4s of the plot are literally nothing but a long, drawn-out shouting match, wherein Team Asbel implores Richard to stop being evil, and Richard, possessed and cackling maniacally, responds by kicking evil into overdrive.
Moreover, several extremely interesting developments, such as hints that the world the characters live in is in fact nothing but a gigantic experiment turned Noah's Ark, are brought up and discarded again in the space of minutes, with none of the characters pondering the implications of their discoveries or reevaluating their ways of thinking. This is only partially remedied by the PS3-exclusive "Future" arc, which picks some of these discarded concepts back up, yet never explains the hows and whys of crucial story developments to the player's satisfaction.
Most of this could be rendered moot or at least bearable with the help of a strong cast of characters, yet a surprisingly high percentage of Graces' cast comes across as lacking in flavor and direction. Asbel particularly suffers from a lack of presence as a protagonist, especially when considering that he's following in the footsteps of Vesperia's Yuri Lowell, whose layered personality and emotionally involving private journey managed to pull the majority of that game's weight. While Asbel has plenty of potential due to his twisted upbringing, he spends most of the game pondering how to best "save everyone," with very little else to season or change him as a character, and even less to give him weight as the de facto leader of the group. Malik and Pascal, despite being some of the more noticeable personalities, feel out of place for a good chunk of the time since the game fails to give satisfactory explanations for their presence in order to keep secret the "big reveal" of their backstory.
This lack of flavor and distinctiveness translates to interactions between party members that tend to border on the inconsequential or nonsensical. Whereas Vesperia shone with snappy dialogue, genuinely funny gags and heartwarming moments that slowly developed the relationships between the various party members, the cast of Graces either remains stationary or develops unexpected quirks completely out of nowhere (such as the serious and generally soft-spoken Richard transforming into an over-the-top secret vigilante). Most of the gags seem rather one-note as well, such as Pascal not wanting to bathe, or Malik's non-sequitur "advice," or Cheria's random fits of tsundere violence against Asbel.
All in all, the most interesting character turns out to be Sophie, who is stuck with the prototypical "amnesia" plot device yet manages to genuinely come into her own. Her discovery of the world and attempts to figure out the meaning of big concepts such as life, mortality, responsibility and eternity are handled with surprising sensitivity, sometimes even without addressing them directly. One of my favorite side quests was helping Sophie raise a little flower garden with seeds she finds on her travels, doing her best to understand what it means to be alive and care for something.
Graphics and Sound
If there's one thing that can be said about Tales of Graces, it's that it's visually beautiful. Cel-shading is by far my favorite animation technique for video games because it ages so well, and Namco Bandai have always been good at infusing their worlds with a vibrant color palette that I personally find a lot more appealing than the gray-on-brown color scheme that seems to plague most of modern gaming. It's clear that a lot of effort went into the character designs and the vast amount of skill animations. Not only are the characters' wardrobe changes and different weapons seamlessly integrated into cutscenes, but Graces also introduces an overhaul to the skit system by featuring full-body animations similar to those found in visual novels. Although this can get quite crowded when more than two characters share a conversation, there was an obvious effort to make the Tales cast more expressive.
Unfortunately, the decision to do away with the world map has done the same thing for Graces that it has done for Final Fantasy X — it creates a smaller and much more linear world wherein the player is restricted in their movement and is robbed of the joy of discovery. One of the nice things about the Tales of series has always been the world map, which allowed players to feel accomplished upon finding a new town or dungeon (even if they were "meant" to find it), to explore the geography of the world, find hidden items and fight secret bosses. It is difficult to gauge distances and progress in a game lacking a world map and open sandbox areas to boot, which in turn makes it much harder to gain a sense of scale of conflicts and issues within the game world.
Graces similarly lags in the sound department, both in terms of music and voice acting. After the amazing voice work in Vesperia, it was disheartening to see so much wooden acting — some of the characters speak with close to no passion (Malik, the adult Richard) so that it is hard to become invested in their plights and emotional moments, while others (such as Cheria) never seem to leave their default setting. In fact, Sophie, although she is meant to speak in a monotone for the most part, has better line delivery than her teammates, who supposedly possess full emotional capacity.
The music, composed by Tales powerhouse Motoi Sakuraba, likewise failed to grip me this time around. I love Sakuraba's work, since it's so full of energy and does a great job at getting you pumped, but this time, I'm struggling to even remember the battle theme. In fact, the opening song is the only musical piece that stuck with me, partly because it is catchy, and partly because it was kind of amusing to see all those scenes featuring Asbel and Richard set to a song about true love and romantic moments under the stars (the original "Mamoritai" was about friendship). All in all, though, I can't consider the score of Graces a revelation by any stretch.
Verdict: "f" stands for effort
The original Tales of Graces, released in 2009 for the Nintendo Wii, was a game plagued by many problems. Riddled with bugs and glitches, it eventually prompted Namco Bandai to issue a recall and allow disappointed fans to exchange their copies for a version that fixed the most glaring issues. With the PS3 version, it is obvious that the developer wanted the game to succeed, going so far as to add an entire story arc which picks up the tale of Asbel and his friends a year after the main game, revisiting the central mystery of Sophie's existence in order to bring it to a more satisfying conclusion.
Graces f clearly has the markings of creative ideas in its story and world design, as well as a complex battle system and some beautiful artwork to offer. Yet, despite all the polishing and bug-fixing, much of the creativity is buried beneath a story we have played a hundred times before, surfacing only occasionally to tease with glimpses of an interesting world lore and potential for conflict. This is compounded by a cast of characters that never truly comes into their own; often lacking presence or originality, or struggling to find their place in the awkwardly paced story. Unfortunately, the American localization has not done the story any favors, featuring its fair share of miscast voices and subpar performances that feel increasingly avoidable, especially after the stellar voice work offered in Vesperia. Not a bad game per se, Tales of Graces f mostly gives the impression that it could have been far more than it was. Here's hoping Tales of Xillia will know how to recover the momentum.
Title: Tales of Graces f
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platform: PlayStation 3
Tales of Graces f