By Phil Schipper / June 29th, 2013
|Title: Tales of Symphonia
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Release Date: July 13, 2004
Genre: Action RPG
Platforms: Nintendo Gamecube
Age Rating: ESRB Teen
It’s one of the most well-loved JRPG’s of all time. This summer, it’ll celebrate its 10th Japanese birthday with a very welcome remaster. Unique as one of the very few RPG’s ever to grace the Gamecube, it’s a special favorite for many of us here (and especially me, the guy who’s planning to stream it): Tales of Symphonia.
What exactly is it that makes the game so beloved? And does it really earn its place so close to many of our hearts? This game has big shoes to fill. We’ll see just how well it does when it comes down to the facts.
The actual tale being told is a complicated one. In the beginning, you’ll find yourself playing as Lloyd Irving, a simpleminded young man who strives to protect his friend, Colette, as she begins her journey. Colette is the Chosen of Mana, which means that she has to visit special temples around the world and become an angel, in order to restore mana to the world and banish the evil Desians.
Soon, though, this basic story will change completely when—well, I can’t say. That would ruin the first of the game’s many mind-blowing plot twists. There may be one or two in the beginning, but after the first 10 or so hours of the game, these bombs will start dropping almost constantly. While there are still some stretches where you can focus on gameplay and push your way through a few dungeons without too much going on, generally speaking you’re going to find yourself wrapped up in the turns of the story at all times.
Lloyd and Colette are just the beginning of the party you’ll adventure with. Throughout Tales of Symphonia you’ll gain and lose from a cast of 9 characters. Each has his or her own personality and backstory to discover, with at least one twist thrown in the mix. Their motivations permeate everything they do, to the point where playing the game a second (or third, or fourth, or tenth) time can make your jaw drop all over again when you realize what a character really meant.
On top of that, a good half of the story’s details are essentially optional to discover. Going through the main plot will give you everything you need to know to understand, but the world and characters have much more to discover. At almost all times the game will be offering at least one skit, a short dialogue among the party that you can call forth at the press of a button. Some are touching, some bring in new facts, and many are just hilarious. On top of that, there are as many side quests just for background info’s sake as there are for actual rewards. And, late in the game, you’ll have to choose one character for Lloyd to get to know much more closely, shaping every event from that point on and right into the ending.
Of course, it wouldn’t be worth going back to discover all these things if it weren’t full of magnificent gameplay, and luckily, Tales of Symphonia is. It centers mostly on the real-time battles, of course, which are fast-paced action fights that take place in a full-fledged 3D battlefield (although movement can be somewhat restricted). You’ll be attacking, guarding, dodging and using dozens of unique special attacks, and building up combos against your enemies while trying to avoid their own big damage-dealers. Quick reflexes and a dash of strategy are key, whether you’re dispatching small fry or facing down the big bosses of the game.
All this takes place while your party members help you against the whole group of enemies—and you can even set other players to control them and fight alongside you! It’s in this multiplayer aspect that the game becomes truly amazing. RPG’s rarely offer multiplayer, let alone co-op, and the teamwork of keeping enemies off each other’s backs or timing attacks to keep up a high combo is exhilarating. Unfortunately, the story can take away party members temporarily, or leave you with spellcasters that are less fun to play (who wants to wait for casting time?), and the camera won’t always accommodate the other players very well, but at this point those are just nitpicks on an otherwise wonderful system.
All these battles start from visible encounters, either on the sprawling overworld or in dungeons. A large part of the game is exploring and solving unique puzzles, which usually involve an item called the Sorcerer’s Ring. With it, you can use a special ability unique to the dungeon you’re in. These puzzles are designed around the Sorcerer’s Ring and require you to employ it creatively, whether it’s a ball of fire, a gust of wind, music that can call animals or the power to shrink yourself. This is, of course, to say nothing of RPG classics such as block puzzles and ice-sliding floors, which have their own share of presence.
Half the point of exploring this world, though, is obtaining items and other benefits to prepare you for the battles. As in any RPG, you’ll have a plethora of equipment and healing items to work with, but there’s also food—which plays into cooking, a whole aspect of the game in its own right—and EX Gems, which can be equipped to characters for a variety of special effects. Early ones just boost your stats, but later they’ll let you run faster, make longer basic combos, speed up spellcasting or any number of other useful bonuses. In fact, choosing and swapping EX Gems is probably the biggest strategy move you can make from one battle to the next.
That’s just one of the ways your characters will grow, though. As they level up, not only will they learn new battle techniques naturally, but you’ll also get the chance to unlock upgraded versions. What you can learn is affected by your choice of EX Gems and how much the character used the more basic techniques in the past.
Of course, the other thing that leveling up is good for would be stat growth. But stat growth in this game, like just about every other aspect, uses its own system. Each character starts the game with a unique title. As you progress, characters can gain more titles in various ways to “equip,” from hitting a certain level to racking up a huge combo to simply happening to see the right cut scene. The titles each have their own unique stat growth when you level up, and of course, the tougher they are to obtain, the better the stat gains. Some characters get titles from challenges like collecting every last item in the game, or completing up to a certain point without letting any character die, so they also serve as a measure of the things you’ve accomplished.
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