Tales of the Abyss - RPG Retrospective
I don't have much of a history with the Tales series. I originally played Tales of Symphonia during a brief period of time when I owned a Gamecube, but didn't play it to completion. I have thoroughly played and enjoyed Tales of Vesperia on the 360, but I wouldn't exactly say I was an expert at it. They were both enjoyable action-RPG's, with some distinct Japanese-ness to their style and plot along with some great-looking anime-styled graphics.
Tales of the Abyss is very similar to those two titles. Having originally been released on the PS2, it saw a re-release on the 3DS recently, which is the system I've been using to play it. Put simply, the Tales series has changed very little in its iterations, which can be both good and bad.
If you've never heard of or played the series, Tales of... features party-based combat in a real-time action RPG field. Enemies are seen on the field, and as such, can usually be avoided or fought as the player wishes. The screen then shifts into a combat field, wherein you control a character in real-time. Combat in Tales games usually revolves around building chains of attacks through regular strikes and your teammates' Artes (essentially magic or abilities). When not in combat, the game is very much a huge, sprawling JRPG epic, containing all manner of towns, countries, dungeons, and other areas to explore.
The characters are anime-inspired, as are the environments and general story elements. Small scenes (called skits) between party members play out at different moments by pressing the start button when prompted. These skits play out through static pictures and written text, and can add surprising layers of depth to the individual characters. It seems like a small thing, but when you're playing a game as huge as this, it's neat to have some smaller moments with the party's thoughts.
I'm honestly not sure how close I am to finishing Tales of the Abyss, but I'm about twenty-five hours into it and it still feels as though I've got a great deal more to experience. That said, the story in Tales of the Abyss starts off as a convoluted mess. The main character, Luke, is a bratty, antagonistic, mouthy punk. He's the nephew to a powerful lord, and has been restricted to staying inside a manor due to being kidnapped years ago by a neighboring country. Luke has no memory of life before the kidnapping. Thus, he is also fairly ignorant of the world around him, which gives the game plenty of excuses to explain arbitrary details about the world.
And that's part of this game's problem. In the initial five or six hours, the game pretty much defines the term "info dump." In rapid succession, Luke's trainer is attacked by a mysterious woman, so Luke defends his trainer.. A flash of light appears, and Luke and the woman (called Tear) are whisked away to a neighboring country by some sort of pillar of magic. Instead of tearing apart the snobbish kid, Tear feels a great deal of guilt about what has transpired and agrees to escort Luke home.
Tear and Luke get arrested by a group of individuals trying to formulate peace between the two rival nations. Led by Jade, an effiminate master warrior, this group is escorting Ion, the head of some group called the Order of Lorelai, in an attempt to broker peace. The ship is attacked by individuals called the God-Generals, who appear to be great forces of evil in the service of Maestro Mohs.
All of this sound overly complicated to any of you? Literally all of this is presented to the player in mere hours. None of the organizations are explained in any great detail. Characters come and go so rapidly that it's hard to keep track of who is who, who serves what, and what the hell any of these organizations and countries stand for. It's a blur of information. The game does get better about slowing things down and explaining the plot details a little more thoroughly, but holy shit, that initial five hour period or so is dense.
The characters themselves range from bland to mind-bleedingly irritating. Luke has some pretty funny moments of douchebaggery. An annoying creature called Mieu comes into his service early on, and Luke finds time around every other minute or so to heap abuse upon him. While I'm finding Luke to be annoyingly whiny, I'll admit to laughing when he punts the screeching Mieu a good country mile during one cutscene. But that's all that's likable about Luke. He never comes across as anything more than a brat, and when the plot starts trying to make him likable and relatable, the damage has been done.
Mieu is the absolute worst, though. He's a little rabbit-ish creature called a cheagle, and I have no idea if he's supposed to be either comic relief, the adorable pet, or the character everyone in the world was meant to hate. Anytime I can predict a Mieu scene coming up, I turn the sound all the way off. He's that annoying.
The Graphical Style
Good grief, this game looks good. The visuals have this hand-drawn cartoonish appeal to them. But interestingly, the color palette almost seems to be centered around pastels. You wouldn't think that'd look good, but oh holy crap, does it ever. Everything has this soft, appealing feel to it, giving the entire game's aesthetic this warm, fuzzy blanket feel to it. The style holds up remarkably well too, as do most Tales games. The characters look good, are animated very fluidly, and there's a lot of emotion packed into the in-engine cutscenes.
Combat looks great, too. The Artes have plenty of visual flair, there's a lot of punch to attacks, and there's a respectable amount of enemy types, so it's fairly light on palette-swapping enemies. The towns look good too, with plenty of distinctive places to visit and a very lived-in feel to everything. This is a world someone very lovingly crafted, and the art team realized it. The characters can look a little generic, but for the most part, they're fine.
If I have one complaint, it's with the font size, but that's more a problem with me playing it on a 3DS than anything else. Still, a slightly bolder font for text would have gone a long ways.
I tried to find a Youtube video that could show both some overworld exploration, a town, and some combat to show you the beautiful graphics, but many spoil essential plot points. Instead, here's a video of some combat, which will show you some of that delightful color palette and the visual effects of the combat.
This is really a mixed bag. The score is pretty good, but heavily inspired by anime, which means you'll get some neat orchestral moments ruined by J-pop-like beats and moments. At its best, the music is unobtrusive. At worst, it's mildly irritating. It never strays too far into great or bad territory. The characters are much the same way. If you've seen any anime or anime-inspired game, you'll know what I mean when I say it's merely tolerable. There's about as much actual emotion put into the voicework as, say, an early 90's cartoon. That's not to say that it's bad - it's just merely serviceable.
What really grabs my goat though is the incessant shouting in combat. You'll here the same phrases over and over, and in a game of this length, that's really not good. Characters do that stupidly irritating Japanese thing where they shout whatever move they're using. Every. Single. Time. It's easily the worst part of the Tales series as a whole, and here, it's no better.
And whoever thought up Mieu deserves to be shot. It's almost as annoying as Limle from Star Ocean: The Last Hope.
All this sounds sort of bleak, I know. I don't know when the second and final part of Abyss's retrospective will be let loose, but I suspect a few points in the game's favor when I look at such things as my overall enjoyment and the value of the game. Because, despite everything I have said here today, Tales of the Abyss is actually pretty good. Maybe not great, but there are plenty of redeeming qualities to it that might turn things around for the game. Until then, I hope you've enjoyed reading.