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

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."