Tales of the Abyss

Namco’s Tales series may not be as popular as Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy series, but its uniquely JRPG flavored narrative continues to introduce fans to a deeply diverse cast of endearing characters with every release. Legendia‘s characters, unfortunately, were shackled by what became mediocre gameplay in the latter half of the title, a far cry from its predecessor, Tales of Symphonia. For Tales of the Abyss, Kosuke Fujishima and Team Symphonia return to tell another unique story filled with twists, betrayals, and characters that battle not only the monsters that roam their world but those that lie within their past. In the seventy plus hours that it may take to explore their stories, the magic has mostly returned to lend its own farewell to the PS2 .

Tales of the Abyss had been scored on the PS2.

I Can’t Believe I Have to Play This Guy

Abyss‘ story may be packaged in a “Teen” rated title, but the themes that it explores are as mature as any that might be found in headlines today. It may not have the serious “feel” of a Final Fantasy, but the characters that are forced to face the issues that riddle the world around them and how they grow from these experiences is a remarkable testament to what the series has continually done well. If you’ve never had a chance to play any of the previous titles before, Tales of the Abyss is as good a title as any to get your feet wet with the series especially if you are a fan of JRPGs.

The story takes place on a world called Auldrant, a world where the future can be read thanks to the discovery of the Score nearly two millennia ago. In the distant past, fonons were discovered to be the unique power woven into everything. Six unique fonons were found, but it was the discovery of the Seventh Fonon by Yulia Jue that enabled the creation of the Score and would save Auldrant from a terrible blight known only as the miasma. Ever since then, for the next two thousand years, the Score has been used by the people of Auldrant to predict everything from whether they should farm on a certain day to national policy.

Two powerful nations, the Kingdom of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear and the Malkuth Empire, both use the Score towards their own ends while conducting a sort of Cold War following the end of their most recent conflict nearly twenty years earlier. Luke fon Fabre of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear was kidnapped nearly seven years earlier by the Malkuth Empire in order to disrupt a prediction by the Score of his potential to lead the Kingdom to prosperity. He had been rescued but his family has made him a virtual prisoner in the last seven years by keeping him isolated from the outside world. All of that is about to change.

Luke is not a likable guy, but he is the person that the player will be asked to play the game through at the start of the story. A spoiled, selfish, and arrogant product of the nobility, Luke’s grating personality will be hard to swallow for several hours into the game until an event changes his life forever. It is then that his story becomes intertwined with the hopes and fears of those around him, learning humility, his struggle to find his place in the world, the friends that he will earn, and what it truly means to become a hero.

Luke’s transformation as well as that of those that he will discover along the way is a remarkably complex and emotional tale filled with gut wrenching pitfalls and fist raising moments of triumph. The villains are also far from being your typical cookie-cutter bad guys, each one having their own hopes, fears, and beliefs that what they are doing is right not only for themselves but for the world itself. The Tales series has always been known for the detail that it gives its characters and the ones in Abyss are no exception, feeling less trapped by anime stylings and more open to daring changes and eye opening revelations making them the centerpiece of this latest chapter.

Gameplay

Tales fans will find a lot of familiar territory in Abyss along with several welcome changes to its combat system while newcomers might find the action oriented party system to be something that they’ll either find exciting or annoying with its button mashing. As in its predecessor, Tales of Legendia, most of the encounters are visible on the 3D world map allowing the player to avoid or head right into trouble. When a fight starts, the “Flex Range Linear Motion Battle System” is what will take them through the battle as the player takes a direct hand in a real-time system. As for the rest of the gameplay, it’s pure Tales. Not all of the changes are for the better and some of these will feel more like cosmetic ones to longtime fans which might not be such a good thing.

Many of the Tales series’ traditional features are here; the real-time combat, the deep story, and the special abilities that each character can unleash as the party and the enemy fight each other within a small, 3d area where the action takes place. The ability to get around the battlefield is now within the player’s control, much like what players familiar with Radiata Stories might recognize, allowing them to get some distance between them and the enemy’s many attacks. Skills and abilities that are unlocked with the use of others also makes a comeback, encouraging players to use many of their characters’ abilities as often as possible as long as they have the points to spend on them. Characters will also learn “AD” skills that grant them a variety of powerful benefits such as faster casting times and the ability to absorb magical damage or improve their item use. These are learned through the course of their development and can even be turned “off”, although I never found it necessary to do so.

Magic plays another part in combat. Spells cast on enemies along with certain actions tied to the elements can create “fields of fonons”, temporary spots on the battlefield that have an affinity for that element. By chaining another elemental attack or spell in the same spot, this can lead into a Mystic Arte which unleashes a tremendously powerful attack that fills the screen with an animated catastrophe. But getting the fields of fonons created and then performing the appropriate skill at the same spot is often more a matter of timing than careful planning as the fields have a tendency to disappear quickly. Given the hectic nature of combat and the fact that most monsters won’t stand still for the player to make their move, most of these events were triggered more out of luck.

The journal that helps to keep a synopsis of the events in the game is back, although Legendia veterans might miss the entries made from the point of view of different characters as this one is written entirely from the perspective of Luke. It also doesn’t keep track of the many small side quests that the player might discover in the game, but it does keep track of the stores that the player visits giving them a complete listing of goods and their prices making it easy to decide where to go for specific items. It also provides a map listing the places the player has been to, including dungeons and the special “harvest” spots found throughout the world.

Recipes are also back, but the Wonder Chef that had usually given them away in previous titles, isn’t. They’re found throughout the world, out in the open as books or even shared by one of those the party may talk to. Depending on what ingredients that the player has in stock, the party can rejuvenate their weary magic or heal up for the price of a meal made by one of their own. It isn’t a substitute for other items that can heal up a party or for spells making this an option that, while interesting, wasn’t as important as one might think. The Wonder Chef from Legendia made it seem more like an interesting side quest with its own story to tell, but the recipe hunting as presented in Abyss felt tacked on.

Harvest spots on the world map are special places where the player may find ingredients that can be sold in a shop that opens up later on in the game. At the shop, depending on what the player sells, different items can be made along with the right donation of cash such as armor, weapons, and even medicines. This was an interesting addition to the Tales formula providing something extra for collection hounds that have to have everything here, but otherwise, it really didn’t do much to keep Abyss‘ gameplay from feeling much like a new adventure using an old formula with only a few tweaks.

Capacity for Destruction

There are also what are called “Capacity Cores” that, when equipped by characters, can add bonuses to certain attributes when they level up allowing the player to shape their development to some degree. This was an interesting way to build up your party, but the bonuses given to every statistic weren’t that great aside from that given to “Enhancement” which, the higher it is, the more skills the character is supposed to be able to learn making every point count. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it felt to be more of a chore to manage than as something that allowed any real change.

If someone is a particularly strong fighter, the odds are good that they’ll remain so even if the player decides to continually boost the statistics that strengthen their regular attacks as opposed to their magic. Shuffling around one Core to each party member in order to benefit from its particular bonuses, such as adding to the “Enhancement” attribute, was a chore that really shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Capacity Core “stores” are also available, but the only function they really serve is to list the cores that you have in your possession. You can’t buy Cores, only find them during the quest or hidden throughout the world, making these places virtually worthless.

In addition to Capacity Cores, the player also can collect special “fon slot chambers” that can improve existing skills or spells. While only one kind of fon slot chamber can be added, they can eventually be stacked to make spells cheaper to cast or skills more damaging in combat as only two examples. While it sounds like a nice system to have and bring back memories of Materia from Final Fantasy VII, it isn’t as good. Materia had several direct effects on the characters, but the only effect that fon slot chambers have on the gameplay seems to be simply to make it appear deeper than it really is since one can go through the game and roll over most monsters with a party weaned on leveling and equipment without even using these.

Given that fon slot chambers can’t be bought and you have to find these scattered throughout the world or wrest them from certain monsters, this feature can feel more like work than as something that actually adds any real advantage to what a decently leveled party is capable of doing. I never bothered to find more of these things and finished the adventure just fine. It’s another feature for completists, but I didn’t feel that it added much else.

Orchestra of Sound and Pictures

Kosuke Fujishima of Ah! My Goddess and Tales of Symphonia fame returns with a new batch of character designs to fill Abyss‘s world. Much of the game shares in a kind of animated appearance, much like what Legendia had done only with characters that are closer to being actual characters instead of big headed chibi caricatures. Although the graphics might not challenge Final Fantasy XII for the crown, they hold a unique charm that is all their own which fans of the series have come to expect from the whimsical look of the towns on the world map to the mysterious grandeur of ancient technology hidden deep within Auldrant.

As oriented as Abyss is towards music, the soundtrack isn’t bad but it’s a mixed bag. Some of the pieces, especially towards the end and within many of the ancient ruins, are filled with great, soaring moments such as the theme for the capital city of Baticul or mysterious music that hints at the hidden secrets within the Score. But much of the rest simply doesn’t seem as memorable as it should have been.

The voice acting, as in Symphonia and Legendia, continues the tradition of being some of the best to be found in any RPG today, adding a great deal of personality to each character. Jade’s sarcastic wit as the ‘old’ man of the group, Luke’s personality as he continues to grow and discover what it means to be more than simply a noble, Guy’s nervousness around women despite being ‘Guy’, Anise’s questionable pursuit of money while being a holy protector…all of them come to life thanks to the actors behind them making this troop of unlikely heroes more than a simple band of adventurers pulled into something larger than themselves. The only exception is Mieu, a small creature that the party encounters which will help them with certain obstacles, whose high pitched whine might drive some players through a wall.

The skits, the side cinemas that the player can trigger as they go through the game to lend some additional background to certain events or decisions, aren’t voiced unlike in the Japanese release meaning that the player will have to watch as the animated faces of each character mime the text that is presented onscreen. There are nearly five hundred of these things to be found in the game, and not all of them might be revealed when it is finished meaning that players that have an aversion to subtitles will probably not like the way skits are done yet again in this latest chapter. But for RPGers that love plenty of story to go with their gaming, they’re something to really look forward to.

Sour Notes

As strong as the story is, it isn’t without flaws many of which are thanks to shortcomings found within the gameplay itself where several of its changes feel more like useless diversions. Given that the basic formula of the game hasn’t really changed other than with its story and the characters involved, some fans might feel that the series may be trying too hard to make itself feel like a new experience.

Other RPGs such as Final Fantasy XII along with Tales of Symphonia allowed players a great deal of leeway in following the story and in exploring the world around them which Abyss continues. But Abyss also forces the player to backtrack an incredible number of times to play nursemaid to a variety of chore-like tasks. It’s not as bad as what Tales of Legendia had put players through in its second half, but it felt more like the game was artificially extending its life through all of this traveling. There was plenty of traveling in Final Fantasy XII, too, but it never felt repetitive as there was always the feeling that it was heading forward towards some greater climax. Here, the player may often feel as if they’ve become a taxi/postman to everyone on the planet.

At one point, the characters manage to get a flying vehicle, but this is beset by a variety of ‘convenient’ accidents that may deprive them of its use at certain milestones. The gameplay might need to do this in order to corral the player to go in a certain direction, but it gets annoying when it feels like it is simply trying to send the player to do busy work instead of moving ahead with the story. Add to this the fact that the flying machine moves like mud, and players might be wishing for the sky sleds from Symphonia to make a comeback or for Vyse from Skies of Arcadia to drop in and give them a real airship. There’s an autopilot that can allow the vehicle to zap the players instantly to any city they’ve been to making some of the repetition easier to bear, but it becomes available only near the end meaning that for most of those seventy or so hours, players will need to deal with plenty of frequent flier miles or get used to watching their characters run everywhere.

It also doesn’t help that one of the story elements feels as if it occurs as frequently as the combat. The skits extend the backstory in small, dialog heavy sessions of humor that can unexpectedly break the fourth wall, contain bits of valuable introspection among the characters, and simply add to the plot by explaining certain things. However, the frequency at which they attack the player will probably drive some to ignore these. As mentioned before, there are nearly five hundred of these hidden and scattered throughout the story which is going to be plenty of reading for players that simply want to experience the main story as it is and may see these as interruptions. Some of these are only a minute or so, but others can mean several minutes of watching and reading with no means with which to speed them up. The silent show that these skits create was something to bear in both Symphonia and Legendia for the sake of the story, but the battery that awaits the player in Abyss may make them wish that these were integrated better within the ongoing story instead of making them a peripheral part of the experience.

Then there are the features that have been added to the gameplay to punch it up. The best addition was the ability to move freely in combat, but that’s really about it. Capacity Cores and fon slot chambers make character and skill development too much of a chore that doesn’t really add much to the gameplay other than in making things that should have been a natural part of the gameplay separate from it, creating an illusion of having a direct hand in developing the characters into…more powerful versions of themselves? Luke will always use swords, no matter how far you develop his fon magic attributes.

The End of Another Story

Tales of the Abyss is a return to the things that had made Tales of Symphonia stand out from the series with a somewhat improved combat system and a dramatic story that deals with the concept of fate, knowledge as an addiction, and what can truly change a person making it the best part of the game as its familiar gameplay doesn’t stray far from the franchise formula. As with previous chapters of the series, longtime fans will likely get the most out from the latest Tales title while newcomers expecting the traditional trappings of console RPGs may not be as excited about its action oriented approach of button mashing their way through battle. However, it is still a unique RPG that tells one of the best stories yet to come out from the imaginative worlds created by Team Symphonia, offering plenty of character oriented fun for RPGers curious enough to give it a try. It may not reinvent the series, but the familiar music continues to prove the series is still a class act.

– World 1-1

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