The Tales series makes the jump to the Gamecube, and to 3D (sorta)...How does it hold up?
It's hard for me to be biased when it comes to a Tales game. Despite the fact that in reality, each game in the series had been a step down since Tales of Phantasia was released, it sits very neatly on it's throne as king of RPG series in my opinion. Tales of Destiny 2j really started to shake my faith, as it was the first one I wasn't hopelessly addicted to, I was fairly wary about Symphonia, given its new visual direction, changes to the Linear Motion battle system, and the fact I had to buy a damn Gamecube for it. I couldn't have been more wrong, thankfully.
I ended up being a swag whore and picked up the minty green Symphonia edition Gamecube, which came with a nice, smooth green coloured cube and GBA player, along with a memory card and the game itself. If you don't have a cube and want to import this, I recommend going this route, since aside from being all cool and such, it's fairly convenient and a good deal.
Symphonia, while not being highly advertised as such, is a prequel to Tales of Phantasia, the first in the series, and one of my top 2 favourite games ever. You won't really find out it is a prequel until you see certain locales and names are mentioned, but even then, you wouldn't really know unless you were a fan (we are left scratching our heads until the end, too)
This is the first game in the series to venture into pseudo 3D realms. The familiar 2D plane of the Linear Motion Battle system has been replaced by a Star Oceanesque open field. You remain on a 2D line with your targeted enemy, but your teammates (or other enemies) can also be locked on from a different direction. It takes some getting used to, but you will find it lends many more options when trying to break down enemy defenses. This works extremely well, upping the fun ante from Tales of Eternia (the prior benchmark for chaotic, fun battles). The interface is intuitive and simple to pick up on, never will you feel too overwhelmed.
As always, you control one character, in real time, while the rest of your party acts as you set their AI to do. The AI has again improved, with most of the fantastic additions to Destiny 2j carried over, along with some new ones. A big new addition is the Unison Attack system, which allows you to perform a 2 person beat down when your gauge is full. This is a cool addition, but I was let down a bit. There is a relatively small amount of unique Unisons to be had.
The other combat gripe I had is the Over Limits system, which is the typical "character goes into a RAGE!~ after being beaten on enough" gauge. I found it to be totally useless, except in Shiihna's case, since it is the only time you can use her summons. The addition of attack skill and spell extensions while in this mode would have been nice. (This feature was one of the few cool features in Destiny 2j).
You see enemies on the field map, and can avoid them or freeze them with the Sorcerer Ring to get out of combat, but mostly you will find yourself not bothered so much. The addition of multiplayer options just add to the addictiveness of combat. Never is leveling or dungeon crawling a chore.
In my opinion, the series has thrived on having memorable (or at least highly likable) casts every time out. The slutty teenage witch Arche, prim and proper badass swordstress Philia, yaoi wet dream Judas, chances are there is something for everyone in each installment. I was fairly under whelmed through the first half of Symphonia. Each was fairly stereotypical, with voice acting to match. Lloyd, the eager, but naive sword toting hero. Soft voiced Collette (who to my surprise wasn't the healer of the team). The older, busty, Shiihna, who is one of those mysterious "Fight me and kill me 3 times before I join you" types, and of course, the rough voiced old man OTHER sword toter Kratos. Thankfully, they all really begin to flesh out and prove to have meaty back stories, while their relationships deepen with each other. In the end you will find yourself attached to them all.
The trademark humour remains intact throughout, such as when you go to meet the Unicorn, who will only meet with "pure" females. This leads to a humourous exchange, ending in a rather ticked off Shiihna...*ahem. Then there is Zeros, a character acquired about 1/3 of the way in, he is a great example of this. All of his sentences have flamboyant flourishes or hearts, and when put in the party lead, he will use his charms on female NPCs to get items and gald for you. His constant passes at every female party member provide quite a few laugh out loud moments, but of course there is something a bit more serious lurking.
The interaction between party members is played out mainly through skit points that occur randomly. After particular events you will see an option pop up to hit the Z trigger and cue a face chat scene, using expressive character portraits. This is another series trademark, and always provides a lot of the best dialogue, and there are a few things you can obtain only through specific skits.
The voice acting, as I mentioned, mostly falls into the standard Japanese seiyuu stereotypes, but are executed well enough, particularly in the battle cries and more intense scenes. No complaints.
The soundtrack is fairly good, although you will be hearing town and dungeon music reused several times over. Boss themes are all suitably adrenaline pumping. One of the best boss themes ever, Fighting of The Spirits, from Phantasia is remixed here. The first time I heard it, I was all marking out at the coolness factor, and not paying attention to the task at hand, which left my party dead and Undine laughing at me. The opening theme, Starry Heavens by Day After Tomorrow is an acceptable standard J-Pop intro, even if the beginning is a blatant rip-off of Boys and Girls by Ayumi Hamasaki. I wouldn't rush out and buy the OST, but in game it is more than enjoyable.
Visually, the game uses the ever in vogue cel-shaded characters on nice, colourful backgrounds. They range from very nice to kinda bland. The characters are all designed very well (even if some people think they look like BABIES, *glares at Sheila), and show a nice range of emotions. In battle, everything runs silky smooth, with slowdown occurring sparingly if multiple participants are casting higher tier spells (which is rare, actually). Spell effects can get pretty spectacular, especially when used in Unisons, and the summons look fantastic. Field battle backgrounds can be kinda bland, but really, with battles being so fast paced you hardly notice.
I've written a novel and haven't really touched on non battle gameplay. The story is good, if sometimes standard RPG fare. You start off on the planet Silverland, which has a sister planet called Tesselea. When one planet is especially prosperous, the other is suffering, and vice versa. I won't spoil anything further. It is twisty enough to keep you interested, and there are a myriad of antagonists to keep you in "I want to kick his ass" mode most of the time. There are a few holes in the plot, but I have a feeling a replay will fill a good majority of them, once you know how certain events you forgot about from the first half play out. I was a bit miffed at (spoiler coming) when a semi important town is destroyed late in the game, and it isn't even mentioned in passing afterwards, to the point of I really didn't know until I tried to go there. "Oh, so that was the place getting blown up in that scene...".
You won't be bored with the story at anytime, but the ground won't be breaking beneath you.
Dungeons are all fairly straightforward, with puzzles that will make you think a bit, but not make you break controllers. I think I was only stuck once or twice for more than 10 minutes. If you import and have weaker Japanese, then you may have to consult an FAQ for a few that require some Kanji reading, however.
There are a ton of side quests to distract you from the main story. Cooking, rebuilding a destroyed town, battle arenas, bonus dungeons and bosses, et al can be had. The bonus dungeon is a bit lackluster, but the immortal Morlia Gallery from Phantasia set quite a high bar to live up to. The inclusion of a collecterfs book, which shows you the percentage of items you have collected, will become the bane of your existence as you scour the world endlessly to find things you missed. (I still can't figure out the 2% of food items I missed...). The replay value is quite high. If you are the type that simply can't replay an RPG, this probably won't change your mind, but if you do choose to, as most will, given how goddamn good this game is, there is a new game+ type option, which then lets you spend grade points accumulated throughout your first play (you get graded from -5.00 to 10.00 on your performance in battles) to buy bonuses for your replay. These range from the carryover of learned recipes and skills, to Experience x 3. Sadly there isn't an inherit equipment or gald upgrade.
Symphonia is the first real RPG for the cube, and will be hard to unseat as the best on the system (really, it is the best RPG I have played in the last 2 or 3 years, only Valkyrie Profile keeps it from being the best RPG since Phantasia). It will be released stateside; it is currently scheduled for an April 2004 release, and is an essential purchase in either language.
Title: Tales of Symphonia
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Tales of Symphonia