Tales of Symphonia Review

I must begin by clearing away the misconceptions, discarding the popular opinions about GameCube RPGs – they aren’t as rare as it is often made out. There aren’t many, mind you, but there aren’t many titles for the console in general.

However, with a limited catalogue, good RPGs certainly are a rare commodity.

With this in mind, it was with great glee that I borrowed the latest game in my beloved Tales… franchise from a friend of mine and, already working on a scheme to convert the arrangement to a permanent deal, I rushed home to immediately test out my latest acquisition, well aware that the moment may never come again.

The story is a strange one. On the one hand, the plot is ludicrously clichéd and convoluted - the idea of a summoner and her band of merry guardians on a global voyage to open seals in a bid to save the world will certainly sound familiar to more than one of you, yet at the same time I lost count of how many twists and turns (and re-twists and u-turns) the game took as my feeble mind raced to keep up.

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'To boldly go...'

On the other, it’s original and enthralling. There is a depth of history to the characters and the lands that they inhabit that is hard to match, with each and every character supported by a back story and purpose in the adventure. Add to this an original feature known as Skits – conversations between the characters as they journey from place to place, revealing their opinions and new ideas, that you can choose to watch or ignore – and you quickly find yourself wrapped up in the story and deeply attached to its cast.

The graphics certainly help, too. They’re of the anime style and thus miles from the relentless drive for the realistic that the majority of RPGs seem to be racing in, but it’s the cartoony (anime = cartoons, I tell ya!) image that adds to the warmth and depth of the game.

Don’t let it fool you into thinking it’s childish and silly as there are some dark, adult moments in the game – alongside some wink-wink inside jokes for the mature gamer (oxymoron detected) – but its colorful art makes it a far more pleasant experience than many of its current peers, and within the boundaries of its individual style the graphics themselves are excellent.

It is short of the cut scenes or rather FMVs that we have come to take for granted, which knocks you out of its reality in one or two sequences that really would have benefited from their inclusion, but those it does have are animated like a, er, anime to match the rest of the game, and they are smooth and beautiful despite only lasting for around a two second average.

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Strike a Pose
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Following in the footsteps of the plot and the look, the sound is – wait for it – amazing. The soundtrack is expansive, with a wide range of music for each location and situation, all of it evoking the right reaction in the gamer, sometimes gentle, and sometimes angry. Obviously, a few tunes are reused from time to time but as they should be – to remind you of previous scenes and emotions rather than of laziness on behalf of the composer.

Even more important than the music, as in all games that include this feature, is the voice acting. The entire game can fall to its knees if the voices are not matched to the characters or are slow and choppy due to the engine, and will leave you begging for the days when it was all text based.

However, there are no such scenes of a disheartened Dave involved with this one, as the voice cast were perfectly chosen and directed. They each inhabit their character with unique voice that captures their personality and stands apart from the rest of the group, whilst at the same time blending in with the group dynamic so that the conversation flows at just the right pace. Discounting one background character that spoils his big 15 seconds of fame with an awful voice, the cast here offer one of the better examples of the addition of vocal chords.

But then we come to the battle system which, for me, showcases one of the games two weaknesses. Now, don’t get me wrong, it does sport a whole host of features and capabilities to give the fighting aspect of the game some edge and originality, such as Techs and Ex-Skills.

Ex-Skills are based around gems that you can attach to each character. There are four levels of gem and each gem will have four options, which vary between characters. These options can do anything from increase your strength to decrease the cost of items in shops.

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Pwned

Techs are special attacks that are created when you have gems attached, and will be S-Type (Strike) or T-Type (Tactical) based on the options you chose, meaning there are many different attacks available to you, each of which evolve to a more powerful version over time. You can align six of these attacks to your controller at any one time.

You can also combine attacks to create outrageously long combos, the highest of which will gain you Experience Points at the end of each battle. Your longest combo is also recorded and you can check on the information screen, alongside the number of encounters you’ve had throughout your journey.

On top of that is the Unison Attack, for which there is a bar that increases with each hit. When it is full, a tap of the Z Button will unleash a group attack, with each member of the battle party assigned to either the A, B, X or Y button for you to press and activate their attack.

And, of course, there are many styles of combat, from swords to magic to feet, and there are unique weapons and clothes for each style – yes, even for the feet – which affect your characters strength, health, defense, and so on.

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So, why is it a weak point? Well, because for all its detail and intricacy, when it comes down to it, you need not do any more than button bash to make your way through the game. You will have to consistently level up in order to have the skills and health to survive boss battles, but still there is little strategy involved – your thumbs will be sorer than your brain.

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I'm man enough to admit it, baby

But, it doesn’t detract from the whole and is still thoroughly enjoyable and never a chore. The only time the game ever comes close to feeling as such is during its puzzles, its second weak link.

You must overcome one of these at each of the earlier mentioned seals in order to get inside. They start out easy and end up mind-bendingly difficult, and towards the tail end of the game they follow in quick succession. However, once again, these are quite fun if you take them one at a time and have just a little patience – they’re very rewarding once you figure it all out, a well read walkthrough by your side or not.

Thus, to cap it all off, this game is pure joy on a disc. It has incredible length and replayability, so if you have a few days worth of time looking to be filled up, or are fed up with that empty space by your trusty GameCube, you need look no further than Tales of Symphonia.

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