Games of the Past REVIEW: Tales of Phantasia (GBA)

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

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Tales of Phantasia | Box Title: Tales of Phantasia
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Namco
Release Date: March 6, 2006 (North America)
Genre: RPG
Platforms: Gameboy Advance
Age Rating: E10+
Official Website

The Tales of series of games has gone through many incarnations across every type of platform. Its conventions, the controls and attacks that are used, and the way characters grow has evolved a little bit with every iteration of this action RPG series. And like any good series, those that truly fall in love with it want the chance to trace it back to its roots.

We couldn’t always access these roots, though. Tales of Phantasia, the game that started it all, was a Japanese-only title for the first ten years of its life, starting in its original 1995 release for the Super Famicom, as well as the remake for the Playstation. It wasn’t until 2006 that English speakers finally got a port of our own, for the Gameboy Advance.

Tales of Phantasia | Dhaos AwakensThe game starts not by telling you that there was once a great evil who was eventually sealed, but by showing you the final confrontation in that past battle. One of the two pendants that’s used to seal him is passed on to Cress, the main character, many years later. Which is why, while he’s out on a little hunt with his friend Chester, his entire village is burned to the ground, leaving no survivors. Cress flees, only to be captured by a knight named Mars, who takes his pendant.

An apparently dead lady shows Cress the way out of prison, and he meets the woman’s daughter, Mint, before escaping. Together the two watch helplessly as Mars takes their two pendants and unleashes the ancient evil: Dhaos. A mage who fought against him once before steps in suddenly and uses his magic to send Cress and Mint back in time 100 years. Back then, many people, at least those with elven blood, could use magic, which apparently is Dhaos’ only weakness.

Tales of Phantasia | World MapThus begins your journey to find magic and defeat Dhaos, in the past, present, and future. You’ll be all over the world of Aselia, exploring dungeons, sailing the seas, fighting evil, and meeting new people. For every bit of story you encounter there’s a decent chunk of exploration to do. That means walking the expansive world map or the variety of towns and dungeons that the game has to offer. The latter are some of the most well-designed dungeon areas I’ve ever encountered. Each one has its own little system without feeling even remotely gimmicky.

Tales of Phantasia | Jumping SlashWhich, sadly, is where the fun seems to end. Battles are a huge exercise in training yourself to deal with the game’s… unusual combat method. Yes, it’s sidescrolling action. No, you do not get to move easily on the battlefield. Instead, Cress will target the closest enemy by default. Pressing the buttons for either a regular or skill attack will cause him to run over to the enemy, attack, then dash automatically back to where he was standing before. The D-pad is only good for changing this reset position, which he does at a slow walk. This means you can’t really time your attacks at all, and the blocking function is usually next to useless.

Tales of Phantasia | The PartyYour other party members, who for much of the game are all spellcasters, aren’t much better. Mint, your one and only healer, will rarely actually use her healing spells unless you’re practically dying. Instead, she’ll spam debuffs to match Arche’s attack spells and Claus’ summons. Any time one of the three gets cast, the action will pause, pan back to the caster, then scroll back over to the target and let the animation play out before resuming again. This stop-and-go process was enough to make me switch Cress’ actions over to automatic through the bulk of the game–or I probably wouldn’t have finished it. Fighting manually is better for the tough battles, and it’s possible to get the hang of this strange system, but I didn’t really look forward to those moments.

The rest of Tales of Phantasia would be worth discovering by itself in a world without battles. There are tons of side quests and hidden items to discover in each of the ages of the game’s story, and these tend to actually expand on the world of Aselia. Which is not to say that it’s a full-fledged time traveling game. In fact, any time the plot sends you to a different age, that’s your last chance to find everything in the previous one.

Tales of Phantasia | Kangaroo

The word was supposed to be RAGNAROK. How do you even get kangaroo from that?

Overall, the story in itself is very well-plotted. Unfortunately, it suffers badly from poor translation. It’s hard to truly care for a character who only says “Darn!” when his parents are killed in front of his face. (Yes, that actually happens in the first hour of the game.) The little touch of voice acting, likewise, is grainy at best, and I was surprised to read that each character has a unique actor–it sounded to me like there was just one male and one female voice for the whole cast.

Graphically, I would describe this as better than the Super Famicom version, but not nearly as nice as the screens I’ve seen of the Playstation version. Personally, it’s pretty much what I would come to expect from a JRPG for the Gameboy Advance. The game is pretty colorful, though the past age deliberately mutes pretty much everything.

Tales of Phantasia | MilardAs a huge fan of Tales of Symphonia (you can see how huge in my review on the game) one of my biggest reasons to play this was to see the tenuous connection between the two. Phantasia and Symphonia are the only main games in the series that exist on the same timeline. Symphonia was designed as a distant prequel to Phantasia, but came West first. While there are plenty of connections, and the big plot thread is obvious when you’ve played through both, it’s kind of hard to grasp that the game I’m playing came before but is set after, compared to my old favorite. Some things, like the summon spirits in the game, seem to be completely reimagined between the two.

One thing that is still nostalgic to me is the music. Not to say that many tracks have been reused, although Fighting of the Spirit stayed. It’s clear, though, that all the subtle musical callbacks that the series uses can be traced back to this game. And it’s for good reason, because each theme is brilliantly composed.

That music, at least, will stay with me now that this game is done. So will the story and characters. Their interactions were lovable and memorable (despite what’s lost in this translation). So maybe it wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed that much, even if I did have to earn it by suffering through many, many clunky battles.

Still, what I ended up telling my friends who love the series is to read up on the party members’ backstories (most of which were unusual and interesting) and then just watch the anime adaptation of Tales of Phantasia. That way, you get the best of this game in just a couple hours, instead of 50 semi-fun ones. It’s kind of like a historical document. We appreciate it for what it’s done for our time, but personally, I’m past truly enjoying it.

Review Score
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com

Review copy supplied by the author.

About Phil Schipper

Phil N. Schipper joined the Operation Rainfall staff to review Android games, but soon fell in love with writing news articles and Games of the Past. His dream is to make a living writing sci-fi and fantasy novels, which is why he leads the Obscure Authors Alliance in his free time. Still, even in his stories, which usually involve insane people, video games are one of his strongest influences. He describes himself as "a Mr. Nice Guy with a horrible, horrible dark side."




  • mirahsan2

    I have yet to play this masterpiece!

  • Geoff Hatcher

    See, with Phantasia what I’m always going to recommend is a fan-translation. They’re not held down by any censorship nonsense and pretty much every line is crafted with love. Of course you should own the game before downloading something like that, (don’t be a pirate!) but it would really elevate your enjoyment of the story. As far as gameplay, it does help ease the pain that it was the first. Phantasia has been made five times now (SNES, PS1, GBA, PSP, and as a really solid pack-in with another PSP title) and gameplay-wise it’s gotten better each time. If a patch ever comes out for one of the PSP versions, that would be the definitive one to get. I’ve played them both and really loved them.

    • Pyrotek85

      I’d love if they would localize the PS1 version.

    • Geoff Hatcher

      Yeah, as a PS1 classic right? I could dig it. Personally though, the one I’d most love to see is Narikiri Dungeon X. Not only would that be Narikiri Dungeon’s first English release, you’d get what in my opinion is the best version of Phantasia for free. But mostly because I want to play Naridan in actual voiced English. ^^

    • Pyrotek85

      I really want to play that too, don’t think I ever found a translation though.

  • Vinicius

    Strange, a review of this game one day after I started replaying it.
    HOnestly I like this game more than Symphonia, the carachters, story and music were more interesting, the translation might not be the best and the combat system obsolete and hard to use, but is more fun to explore than symphonia, with some great boss battles and some very memorable sidequests, specially one that involves helping a couple get together in the past, and depending how well you do in it the town they lived will prosper or decay. It is a hard game to recomend to everyone, so I only recomend it to fans of old school 16-bit RPGs.
    Personaly, it’s my favorite Tales game.

  • Nonnahswriter

    I’d say play the playstation version. There’s already a fan translation online. I think because it was ported to a Nintendo brand console, it suffered some stiffness in the dialogue. Shouting “Darn!” instead of “Damn!”, or cutting Arche’s boat-dialogue altogether… They wanted to keep it kid-friendly at the safe E10 rating, but if they’d bumped it up to T and realized it’s not just kids who play on a GBA, they could’ve gotten away with a lot more stuff. And thus,stayed more true to the original script.

    That being said, there is no excuse for mixing up Kangaroo with Ragnarock. -_-;;

    • Tara

      The majority of the “flavor” in the DeJap fan translation was the translator’s idea of humor. Arche’s “boat dialogue” was never as crude as the fan translation had it. Not that I’ve got a problem with it, just note that it’s hardly a direct translation, either.

      So far as the censorship on Nintendo’s behalf, not so sure about that either. Nintendo paid for the localization of Symphonia (so it still surprises me they’re actually releasing that same localization on the PS3 for Chronicles) and Lloyd says “Damn” quite a few times, and of course “bastard”, and such. It’s not like it was “cleaned up” by Nintendo, exactly. A lot of the issue with Phantasia GBA’s translation is it’s a machine translation, cleaned up for grammar, and probably run through the some kind of filter to search for “bad language”. I’d say Ragnarok was censored to “Kangaroo” because someone thought it was bad to talk of the apocolypse, however Golden Sun has a lot of mention of Ragnarok in it.

      There was also every indication it was just a rush job anyway. They probably spent more time removing the sound test and replacing the opening theme with a generic instrumental than they did actually reviewing the translation.

  • Xx_Kares_xX

    You should have played the PSOne version with a fan translation…. the GBA Version is a TERRIBLE port… the game still feels rather archaic and is a game you should NOT attempt without a walkthrough, but the combat is MUCH more fluid in the PSOne version. The game does show it’s age but holds up quite a bit better than this review would lead you to believe, then again to be fair the review was of the only official english version, it’s just a shame that it was such a poor port.

    • Pyrotek85

      Yeah it’s old but it doesn’t feel *that* oldschool, not like the original FF or DQ. You’re right that there are some vague parts where you could go nuts without a guide though.

    • Geoff Hatcher

      Well, the game itself popped close to the end of the SNES, so they were working with some pretty interesting tech compared to what some of the earliest RPGs we had were. But, the FF comparison isn’t bad – the running back and forth motion always reminded me just slightly of older Final Fantasy battles, where you’d move a little forward, swing your sword at nothing, and then immediately fall back into place.

    • Xx_Kares_xX

      This form of combat is replaced with a more fluid one (more like the current Tales games) if you equip the correct accessory that you get about 5 hours into the game.

    • Phil N. Schipper

      That bugged me too–they actually HAD a bunch of more updated features in the game’s programming, but for whatever reason they decided to relegate them to those accessories! Meaning you have to choose between that or the crucial bonuses other ones could give you. It really doesn’t make much sense.

    • Xx_Kares_xX

      Yeah it’s a puzzling choice… Though I never found any other item bonus ‘crucial’ perse, but I agree it’s hard to defend.

    • Xx_Kares_xX

      That’s not exactly a good arguement considering you are comparing what was originally an SNES game (tales of phantasia) to NES games (final fantasy and dragon quest) a more proper comparison would be comparing Tales of Phantasia to Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI… and in that case how well phantasia has held up isn’t nearly as impressive as the comparison you tried to make. (Though I do really like Tales of Phantasia, not in my top 3 by any means but it’s good)

  • Anonymous

    I liked the GBA port despite being “horrible”

    • Xx_Kares_xX

      It was made as well as it could be considering the limitations of the system, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it too if I hadn’t already been spoiled by the far superior PSOne version.

  • Stealth

    i love this game

  • Roberto Ruiz Contreras

    I played this on SNES, I liked it better there.

  • smacd

    I played the GBA version about a year or two ago. It was my third Tales game (Symphonia and Vesperia were the others). I’d always wanted to play this since the SNES translations were made, but never got to it.

    And when I did play it, it felt unbalanced, and the battle system was unforgiving and SLOW. I had a hard time right at the beginning, and it took most of the game before I realized how to swap to easy mode. The story was pretty good, but I was not fond of the gameplay. It may have been better if my DS didn’t have big issues with the shoulder buttons.