Tales of Graces f review
I am a rather big fan of Namco Bandai's Tales series, ever since I first played Tales of Destiny II (aka Tales of Eternia) on the original PlayStation. At that time, it was my favorite game — a combination of Super Nintendo RPG aesthetics with the colorful anime graphics and voices to which I was addicted. One day, I found myself playing on my father's giant television, while my stepmother watched bored from an armchair, waiting for Wheel of Fortune's timeslot so she could banish me to the basement and watch the big colorful wheel spin around in peace. During one of the game's particuarly cliched "let's save the world" speeches, my stepmother felt it necessary to try and speak with this disgusting creature occupying her living room rug.
"These are the kind of games you play?" she asked.
"Yeah, I love RPGs," I confirmed with a dumb grin, not taking my eyes from the television. "Why?"
"I just figured you'd play something more mature."
The point is that the newly-released Tales of Graces f for Playstation 3 isn't the kind of game you'd want to play within sight of your b**** of a stepmother. Though the game continues to provide an addictive mixture of old school RPG gameplay and attractive modern gloss, it also remains bogged down by an overall lack of maturity, the plot advanced by a variety of unoriginal characters and some cringe-inducingly bad dialogue. Though diehard JRPG fans will likely still find something to like, the cliched narrative and overly linear design is definitely a major step backwards for the series.
Asbel attempts to name his new amnesiac friend: "Tiger Festival."
The awkward lowercase 'f' in the game's title apparently stands for "friendship," with most of the game's central characters having been childhood companions until a great tragedy caused them to all go their separate ways. If this was a Stephen King novel, they'd all return as adults to help destroy an evil 1958 Plymouth Oldsmobile with their newfound psychic powers. Instead, we're treated to the kind of predictable story formula perfected by the Shonen Jump school of plotline, with each minor character development obvious to anyone who's ever sat through an episode of Naruto. The plucky hero finds that his unerring optimism is the solution to all problems, the good guy turned stoic badass rediscovers the value of friendship, and the mysterious girl who speaks only in monotone learns what a smile is. The overwhelming sweetness of the plot burns through your gut like a saccharin overdose, and the fact that first five hours of the game follows the cast's adventures as adorable ten year olds, doesn't help.
The "power of friendship" theme is more than a bit juvenile.
Once the timeline jumps seven years away from the Toon Disney tones of the game's outset, things start to get a bit darker. However, the plot remains bogged down by a serious lack of ambition, where even the character destined to turn to the dark side is clearly marked by his sinister black cloak. Not to mention that any excitement this plot twist might've provided is easily diminished as the game returns to focusing on the mundane diplomatic problems of this fictional nation.
It's interesting to see how the characters have changed after the time jump.
Additional character development is provided by Tales' trademark "skits," minor voice-acted scenes which help you get a feel for each character. These scenes are oftentimes comical, and a few inspired genuine chuckles (one female character was particularly upset about the group's willingness to escape the belly of a giant monster through the butthole), then again, the character's are all too cliched for any of their interactions to be worthy of attention, and there's really no need for the game's twenty or so variations on the "Cheria denying her feelings for Asbel" skit.
Skits are a fun way to learn more about characters, though the majority are instantly forgettable.
Luckily, the game's thrilling mechanics are a fine distraction from the anime-inspired antics, adding layers of depth to an otherwise forgettable experience. The Tales series is well known for its frantic real-time battle systems, and Graces features perhaps the best implementation of this ideal that I've seen yet. Players are still encouraged to string together massive attack combos using a combination of special skills, though gone is the TP (Technical Point) meter these "Artes" once drained. Now players can launch attacks at will, using their character's Chain Capacity points to pay for the onslaught. CC points refill quickly during battle, and moves like blocking or dodging attacks help them refill even faster. These tangible bonuses for defensive maneuvers add some serious depth to the battle system, while the CC point system lets players actually enjoy the wealth of cool battle abilities their character's accrue, without forcing them to spend every last bit of Gald on mana potions.
Shiny visual effects make the combat particuarly beautiful.
The game's character building aspects are also particularly engaging, with the new "title" system standing out as the most exciting feature. By progressing through the story and fulfilling various objectives, characters will earn new equippable titles, each of which grants access to a mixture of five stat buffs and special abilities. As characters earn experience in battle, the titles similarly rank up, giving permanent access to the contained title skills. Though managing the system can feel a bit haphazard (forgetting to switch up your title will have you investing points into skills you may not particularly want), it is definitely more interesting than your standard EXP based system, and there's a definite thrill to unlocking a rare title and gaining access to its unique powers.
Just one of the game's many addictive "collection" elements.
A feature not implemented as well is the game's dualizing system, which lets players jam items together to create ever-rarer swag. Though this feature seems fun to play with, players will quickly discover that most combinations result in nothing more than stupid trinkets to be sold to merchants. The most interesting combinations involve rare crystals, which either augment the stats of weapons / armor or transform them entirely. Unfortunately, there's no real excitement to any of it. You jam a strength crystal into a sword and it does more damage, you jam two strength enchanted swords together and you get an equippable crystal which augments strength. Keep doing this forever and you'll end up with a bunch of random crystals and overpowered items, none of which required much planning or skill to assemble.
Limited "dualizing" options hold back this item creation system
However the real problem with Tales of Graces seems to be its linearity, misguidedly choosing to lead players by the hand throughout the majority of the adventure. To be honest, some of the hand holding does help to streamline a notoriously cluttered genre, and it's nice that a simple press of the R1 button brings up your next destination / objective, but the game takes things one step too far by creating invisible walls in front of areas you're not meant to explore yet. Railroading the player in this manner is a definite game design sin and exposes just how linear the entire experience is.
Don't you dare cross this bridge! NO EXPLORING ALLOWED.
Following in Final Fantasy's misplaced footsteps, Tales of Graces f features no world map, leaving players little room for exploration until the very tail end of the game. As a result, the game design feels overwhelmingly claustrophobic. The game's multitude of towns and dungeons all seem to have been built within eyesight of each other, and the sense of adventure is greatly diminished when the other side of the world is less than five minutes away from the town you grew up in. The game's sidequests are perhaps the most obvious example of Tales' lacking depth, each town offering nothing more than a static bulletin board-style listing of these supposed quests. Though a few of these sidequests have some minor story sequences to accompany them, the majority of them are faceless "Find Two Apple Gel!" style objectives, with the imaginary requesters of these items existing only as faceless text boxes.
If you're a fan of giant empty roads, you're in luck.
As mentioned, though Graces is a bit more cohesive than previous titles, in stripping out some of the clutter they've also done away with many of the advancements 2008's Tales of Vesperia attempted. For instance, Vesperia's boss battles often included some minor environmental set-pieces to interact with, like targetable bridge controls which could be destroyed to halt the appearance of additional enemies. Though these elements were awkwardly implemented in the previous game, it's disappointing to see the feature abandoned entirely.
Stop looking for depth and start hitting stuff.
More disappointing though is just how quickly Tales Studio has done away with mature thematic tones that Vesperia was exploring , the best friends adventure that is Tales of Graces barely deserving of a T for Teen content rating. Vesperia's Yuri was a rather intriguing protagonist, especially when cast against the character Flynn, the obvious "white knight" character who seemed an homage to the tired RPG heroes of old. Asbel Lhant, the protagonist of Tales of Graces f, is basically Flynn with a different haircut. Seeing Graces again embrace it's fuzzy roots is definitely a disappointment, though it's hard to expect more of a series largely known for its cute anime-style character skits and schoolgirl outfit DLC costumes.
Some lines are particuarly cringe-worthy...
That being said, even with all of its flaws, Tales of Graces f is still an honest-to-god JRPG, a genre which is desperate for attention. Though the game fails to deliver anything truly noteworthy, its mediocrity is polished to such a fine sheen that fans of the genre will likely forgive the various missteps. In short, if you've not yet tired of helping plucky teenagers save the world, you'll likely enjoy this game. Though if you're looking for something with a bit more grit, you'd be better off loading up a new Skyrim campaign.