The Abyss Beckons
I've spent what feels like the best part of a month playing Tales of the Abyss, the eighth main series title in Namco Bandai/Tales Studio's venerable action JRPG franchise originally released in 2005 for the PS2 (2006 in the US) that was recently ported to the 3DS which also marked its European debut. What's often an issue when discussing any one of these Tales games is how difficult it is to avoid talking about how many of its core elements are shared between its predecessors and successors, due to how the series has evolved in a far more gradual and incremental fashion akin to Dragon Quest than in the much more experimentally diverse and discrete leaps between, say, any two given adjacent Final Fantasy games.
That isn't to say Tales is staid and formulaic, at least not entirely. The series is beloved by many because it sticks to its guns in some fundamental respects while returning to the drawing board for those facets which need to be refreshed: specifically, the cast of characters, the setting and some tweaking of tertiary mechanics that perhaps didn't pan out as satisfactorily last time. By allowing certain immutable elements, like the core combat systems and item naming conventions (though Tales is hardly alone in the latter - this is a particularly common trait among JRPG series to maintain a uniformity), the franchise feels lived in and familiar, which is the sort of tactic that can maintain a fanbase without repulsing them in turn by serving up the same dish over and over to diminishing returns. Like Zelda or the IGA Castlevanias, there'll always be a mix of visitors that will be satiated after a few entries, perhaps occasionally coming back to the series every once in a blue moon when a particularly well-regarded sequel transpires, and those on its wavelength that are salivating for each new iteration regardless of how homogeneous they are perceived by those outside the zealous fanbase.
Still, even with the numerous elements unique to Tales of the Abyss, it's way too easy to drop a couple hundred "this is a feature implemented in earlier Tales games" or "this reference calls back to Tales of ___". So... screw it. I'm going to do a full analysis of this game from top to bottom, throwing in as many allusions and references to the other Tales games as frequently as I deem germane. This'll include a deeper look at the lore, the setting, the characters and the finer mechanics of the various RPG systems in play. But, you know, in a typically frank and irreverent manner. Trying to talk around its dumber moments or how it entirely lifted ideas from earlier entries would be almost impossible, and I wouldn't have a whole lot of fun writing that sort of 'beating around the bush' scrutiny. Nor, I can imagine, would it be that much fun to read either. (I should also state here that there's spoilers up until the end of the first act of the game, which is only when the plot really starts to kick off.)
Tales of the Abyss can be awfully trite at times, the plot moves glacially at certain points and there's a veritable exhibition of very common tropes that appear frequently in the Tales series, and by extension to JRPGs in general, but Tales has always been more interested in inventing characters and letting them develop than it is in its greater schemes and stories. A lot of the story beats are the same old power struggles and wrong decisions spurred by good intentions, but it's in creating a likeable ragtag team of protagonists, putting them through these familiar rigors and letting them discuss these experiences among themselves that the Tales series usually flourishes.
Of course, each new team of Tales heroes and heroines are carefully designed from a gameplay perspective as well. Characters fulfill basic class roles as they would do in any party-based RPG, though Tales is fairly unique in how each character's fighting style is tailored to suit their personality. Tales' chaotic real-time combat plays out similarly to one of those arena fighters like Anarchy Reigns or Ehrgeiz, with each character given a list of special attacks named Artes that consume varying amounts of a "Technical Points" stat (a slightly convoluted means of allowing weapon skills and magic spells to draw from the same mana pool, which regenerates to some extent after each normal attack and the battle's conclusion); a foundation of frantic free-for-all chaos upon which greater layers of general team AI strategies are spread. Certain characters are predisposed for the front lines, of course, but whether they're there to run interference and aggro enemies while the player's magic-user does all the heavy lifting damage-wise, or if you've set those magic-users to support and healing while you, as the melee fighter, go to town with your best combos will often change depending on the story circumstances, the type of opponent(s) being faced or just your preferred playstyle. When discussing either their role in the plot or in battle, the characters adhere to broad archetypes but are nuanced sufficiently to set themselves apart as unique entities, even as the overall cast of the Tales series grows and grows. It's a factor that always been instrumental to the success of these games, and one the designers seem to always pay keen attention to above all else.
The Tale of Tales of the Abyss
Tales of the Abyss is set on Auldrant, a world locked in a seemingly endless war between two vaguely European sovereign states that between them comprise of most of the globe's five continents. The third, much smaller kingdom is that of Daath: a theocratic ersatz Vatican City that mediates the peace and not-so-secretly controls the two other factions with an immense prophetic scripture called the Score.
The Score is an all-encompassing and absurdly detailed divination regarding everything and everyone that was transcribed from a group of floating rocks during the Dawn Age, an ancient time of unparalleled technological advancement, that everyone follows without question. In exchange for utter obedience to the Score, the people and nations of the world are promised untold prosperity. As such, the fragile peace between the two empire-nations has been kept in check, until the Score decrees that the two must come to blows once again.
Now I'm fairly sure those last two paragraphs set off about five or six JRPG cliché warning klaxons in your head, but it's the nature of any Tales game to stick to a few common themes and find ways of shaking them around by the foundations a little, if never toppling them entirely. For instance, the game zigzags on the veracity and potentially nefarious nature of the Score quite a few times, setting up villains and heroes that adhere to and reject it in equal measure. The game also has a wild conclusion to its first act, spurring a complete moral shift for at least one of its characters and features an entire team of recurring villains that each get a surprising amount of screentime for their individual backstories that properly frames their motivations, among other factors.
Science Time with Professor Anime
The setting of TotA is unusual among Tales games because it leans so much more heavily on the game's bizarre invented science regarding fonons - an elemental matter I can really only compare to midichlorians given the number of times they've been used to explain away some scientific implausibility in a fantasy world that probably shouldn't be trying to apply scientific scrutiny to itself in the first place. The fonons are in both organic and inorganic matter and are instrumental in keeping the body's atoms held together(?). And there's a chain of seventh fonons that circle the planet like an accretion disc named the Planet Storm that civilizations have been drawing on to power their technology. And then it just gets weirder. The discovery that the entire world is suspended several thousand feet in the air, including the oceans, in order to keep the continents away from the now toxic surface of the planet is a bizarre twist, though given that something very similar happened towards the end of Tales of Destiny in reverse it's perhaps more that Tales is playing around with its own mythology a bit. Then there's a whole bunch of hooey about "isofons" - replicating a person or object by copying their fonic data and creating a duplicate from wandering fonons - and the game starts veering towards Parts: The Clonus Horror territory.
Without getting too deep into all this pseudo-science (which is gradually explained to a main character ignorant of much of the world due to his sheltered upbringing) lest I inadvertently start spoiling things, Abyss immediately sets itself apart from its brethren by just how deep into its own lore (or up its own ass, if you'd prefer) it's willing to get. It's a fascinating, if absurdly detailed, narrative decision that aids the verisimilitude of what might well have been another batch of JRPG made-up "lifestream" hokum, and also helps to emphasize the point that there's a hell of a lot of weird business going down that most of the world's scientific community is only barely cognizant of, but are itching to discover (or rediscover, I suppose, given that all the ancients had this figured out at one point). When you start seeing the requisite "how the hell did they do this?" scenes when encountering ancient super-advanced machinery, such as the enormous light pillars keeping the tectonic plates afloat, it comes from a place of knowing just enough about the world's grasp of science to understand how far beyond the current level of technological advancement much of these ancient gizmos really are. It almost feels like a Jules Verne world (though I'm probably putting way too much stock into this game with that comparison) because the science tries to be as sound as it can be despite its entirely fictitious nature. Maybe Star Trek would be a better comparison: a show that supposes the existence of certain outlandish fantasy elements like the ability to travel at faster than light speeds by warping space, or creating food and supplies out of photons, but most everything else must have some degree of scientific plausibility for that world to operate effectively and come off as realistic to us, the viewers. At least that was always the case for the Next Generation, where they weren't bumping into mobster planets and Greek gods every other episode.
The game's also way more into eschatology than usual. It's not surprising to discover some sort of doomsday scenario in a JRPG which inevitably comes to pass during the game's events, but the Score's foretelling of a time of desolation is a central plot point and comes to define a lot of the characters' motivations as they attempt various means to escape the fate that the Score has preordained for the world.
And then there's the Kabbalah influences. The Jewish Kabbalah's one of those insane (in its complexity and scope that is; not to denigrate anyone's religious beliefs) mysticism things like Gnosticism that is as every bit as ripe for a JRPG adaptation as Norse or Greek mythology. Xenogears is a particularly well-known example of a JRPG that gets deep into wacky Judeo-Christian concepts while also balancing it with a bunch of mechs and a plot that moves one word box an hour. In Abyss's case, the entire world of Auldrant is represented as a physical manifestation of the idea of Kabbalah's Sephirot trees: a set of ten virtues that denote the divine potential of humanity, with chaos and toxicity surrounding it on all sides and threatening to smother those virtues in vices - in-game, this is represented by the floating Outer Lands being held up by literal trees of light referred to as Sephiroth gates, with the Qliphoth (a Kabbalah term referring to poisonous outside forces) as a sea of toxic "miasma" mud generated by the sick planet's core. Kabbalah involves a lot of complicated theological hoo-ha, and the game seems to simplify a few of its concepts, borrow its glossary and generates a largely facile facsimile with which to build its world around, but even so it's an impressively deep cut for a source for inspiration you rarely see exploited too often, even given the reputation JRPGs have for pontificating on too much spiritual twaddle.
Cast (Into the Abyss) (That Was a Thing I Did There)
As previously stated, any given Tales game puts most of its emphasis on its brand new cast of characters, developing them with backstories and complex motivations, and fleshing them out with various optional "skit" conversations between party members. Abyss only has six playable characters, a slightly lower number than usual for the series, but they're certainly a memorable bunch! (/movie trailer). I've included a "Pantheon Position" paragraph to discuss that particular cast member in the extended universe of Tales characters. Certain traits tend to repeat quite often, though even with my incessant critiquing I'm not above acknowledging a new twist on a character archetype whenever it emerges.
Luke fon Fabre
Luke's a petulant noble youth from Kimlasca's fon Fabre family, second only in power to the Royal family. He was kidnapped as a child by Malkuth, the rival empire, and as such has been locked away in the family mansion for his own safety until he comes of age. A lifetime of confinement has made him both ignorant of the world and just kind of an entitled ass in general.
Even though his character goes through a drastic development arc due to accidentally nuking a town (hey, shit happens), he never quite settles on being a likable character. He's either too arrogant or too self-effacing, and painfully earnest in both incarnations of the character. It's apparently the unfortunate fate of every JRPG protagonist to be the oblivious straight man.
In combat, Luke's a tank. Unfortunately, that means he's also every bit as slow as a panzer, as most of his sword artes require some build-up time. He has the most diverse range of strike artes (as in, the ones that involve hitting things) but a lack of alacrity doesn't make him a whole lot of fun to play as.
Pantheon Position: Luke's fairly novel due to his bratty incarnation, and it's an interesting experiment to pull on the player to see how much they can tolerate following this spoiled rich kid around as he alienates everyone he comes into contact with. After the change he's pretty much every other Tales protagonist: Well-meaning, impulsive and a little slow.
Asch the Bloody
Asch is also Luke. It's complicated. As the customary broody temporary character, Asch only joins the party at brief intervals when his and the party's immediate goals match. He's antagonistic throughout the entire game due to his disdainful opinion of Luke, and is seemingly irritated by every little thing he does. Like other temporary Tales characters, such as Kratos or Flynn Scifo, he's considerably more badass than anyone in the core team. You get the impression that he stays away just so the game can retain some degree of challenge.
Asch fights identically to Luke, but right up until the end of the game vastly overpowers him with his wide range of strike and magic artes.
Pantheon Position: Very much adheres to the Tales temporary character core personality model: He's powerful, but kind of a dick.
If Luke has the thankless job being the humorless buffoon hero, Tear has the equally unenvious role as the strict but caring foil that steers him on the right course. A military singer priestess (sort of?), Tear's a special agent of the Order of Lorelei - the official church of the world of Auldrant. Attuned to the McGuffin-esque Seventh Fonon, a rarity among magic-users, Tear fulfills a convenient healer role in the group. When she's not sternly reprimanding Luke for screwing up again, she's acting coy around cute creatures, her "thing". Just imagine Azumanga Daioh's Sakaki-senpai with even more bangs and the ability to not-so-softly kill things with her song.
Tear's the healer, which means she stays at the back and helps out. Her Fonic Hymns are an unusual twist on magic artes, but not so unusual that they don't feel like regular spells with the requisite charge times and glowy pyrotechnics.
Pantheon Position: Tear's a healer, which is the standard female deuteragonist role, but her temperament as a cold, business-like soldier gives her some space to come into her own as the typical compassionate and thoughtful foil to the brash, inconsiderate hero in a much more believable fashion. Tear's arc is far more interesting than Luke's, though also oddly parallel: She was also raised in seclusion, given a very specific role in the salvation of the world as detailed by the Score and she's not entirely sure of who's in the right and how much she can trust those around her. She's also forced to fight almost everyone who had a hand in raising her, which is when we start seeing cracks in her detached veneer.
"The Yellow Dart"
My man, the Yellow Dart. Guy Cecil is a talented swordsman and servant of House Fabre, and one of Luke's few friends growing up. Guy's past is shrouded in secrecy for much of the game so I needn't delve into it here, but let's just say a smartly dressed fellow with an unusual swordfighting style working as a footman in a regal household is probably not all he claims to be. Guy's also a big fan of machines that run on fonic power and is intensely curious about how they work, in case he wasn't cool enough already without adding some Donatello to the mix. His humorous (but eventually tragic) character quirk is his severe aversion to women, at least while they're in close proximity.
Guy fights similarly to Luke, but greatly favors speed and combos over raw damage and high defense. Instead of tanking his way through most battles, Guy's more about hit and run tactics and has a very useful self-heal in case of emergencies. He's extremely adaptable and the easiest character to play as in combat.
Pantheon Position: Guy seems to have been created last second to give the player another swordsman (usually the Tales "class" with the most built-in artes) with a different speed/power distribution in case they wanted a change of pace. Story-wise he most closely resembles Loni from Destiny 2, or perhaps Chester from the original Phantasia - that sort of supporting "best friend" role that's largely incidental to most of the story beats. Of course, Guy has a secretive backstory that gets a lot of plot mileage, and he's easily the funnest character to play, so to call him inessential would be wildly inaccurate.
"Above This Shit"
Jade's a Malkuthian Colonel and a sinister looking guy who on first impression comes across as cold and ruthless. Mildly sociopathic, even. The best part of Jade's character is that none of these apparent traits are inaccurate, and you spend the entire game wondering when he'll double-cross you, or at the very least leave you in an icy bathtub without your kidneys. The reveal that Jade's chequered past paints him as someone who once had to redeem himself after a mistake assuages the player's concerns that's he on the level, but not entirely. Jade's already a fantastic presence due to him being in his 30s and very impatient with his youthful companions' BS, which means I immediately identify with him, but the added wrinkle of being a potential supervillain who interferes with corpses certainly helps.
Jade's your standard mage nuke in combat, with most the game's most devastating spells. He can also summon a spear with the power of his goddamn mind and can perform a few magic-enhanced combos with it. He's suited for distance, ideally, but he's there for pure damage in whatever form it's required.
Pantheon Position: Jade both fulfills the "socially awkward mage" and "grouchy old man" roles common to Tales, like a cross between Rita and Raven for the Vesperia fans out there. He's been given the outward personality of a recurring scientist villain though (think: a much more grounded Hojo from Final Fantasy VII), presumably to change things up a bit and keep the player guessing, since party members betraying you and departing forever are certainly not uncommon to Tales. He's prone to inappropriate jokes (of the gallows humor kind, rather than the lascivious anime kind) and deadpan sarcasm, and is continually exasperated by the rest of his team and their youthful antics. I'd probably invoke Ricardo from Innocence had anyone actually played that game, because there's very few situations where he seems happy to be in most scenes unless there's some schadenfreude to enjoy.
"The J in JRPG Stands For Jailbait"
Anise is the game's comic relief character, a man-hungry 13 year old eager to marry into wealth and somewhat more worldly than she lets on. She's also the bodyguard of the fey Fon Master Ion, the highest official in the Order of Lorelei, and leaves the fighting to her enormous war puppet Tokunaga. She's essentially Cait Sith, right down to the combat marionette and covetousness (and a certain other shared aspect that would be too telling to reveal). As creepy as her attempts to intermingle with men twice her age might seem, she's always rebuked and it's usually played for comedy. But, as you all know, anime is as anime does.
In combat, the tiny girl is inexplicably the strongest and slowest physical attacker. She's also an intermediate spellcaster, so she has a bit more variety than most of the other characters. I suppose an accurate description of her combat role would be a juggernaut: slow to act, but hard to stop. The various unique accessories she can use - which changes her puppet to resemble various Namco Bandai properties as diverse as Wonder Momo and The Prince of All Cosmos - also gives her something of a wild card edge.
Pantheon Position: Every Tales has their oddball character, one who takes a bit of practice before you understand their combat role fully. Combining a slow heavy-hitter with a magic user is inspired, because both modes take their time to get going. I'd hate to do this to Anise, because she's a lot of fun, but she most closely resembles the infamous Marta of the Symphonia sequel, simply because she's worldly, opinionated and utterly convinced of her own irresistible nature. Whether it's because she hits on everyone who looks like they might have a fortune stashed away, or because of her puppet's constant rictus grin, I just kind of get skeezed out whenever she's around.
Natalia Luzu Kimlasca-Lanvaldear
"Princess von Kickass"
Natalia is the regal and compassionate princess of Kimlasca, and Luke's betrothed. She's also Luke's cousin, so I don't even know what this game is saying about monarchy but it's probably accurate. Natalia's as naive and opinionated as Luke, but considerably more bearable to be around, and of all the characters is the happiest to be running across the world every five minutes for the next plot coupon. That makes one of us, I guess?
Natalia's an archer and the only true long-range unit. Most of her strike artes either stop enemies in their tracks or knock them back if they get too close, so she's a great character to control if you don't like to get hurt. She's also the party's second healer, so you can't really ask for better support.
Pantheon Position: Archers tend to get the short shrift in their character development, and I'm only guessing it's because they're usually treated as support characters both in and out of combat. Chelsea and Nanaly weren't particularly important characters in their respective games (Destiny and Destiny 2, for those asking) and the archers since then haven't really stood out much either. Natalia's healing elevates her support role to something practically indispensible, but she's given very little plot development beyond a certain mid-game twist that resolves itself fairly quickly. She's best utilized as a counterpart to Luke: a Royal who actually acts close to the ideal, rather than an entitled little brat.
"The Squeaky Mascot"
Mieu's a cheagle, a race of semi-intelligent woodland critters that the Church of Lorelei holds in great esteem, for some reason. In broader terms, he's the team mascot and the conduit for the Sorcery Ring - the quintessential Tales item that allows the player to perform several field actions to get past obstacles or find hidden treasure chests. He says cute things and is cute and everyone just kind of tolerates having him around, except for Luke. Mieu is inexplicably tied to Luke due to some variant of the Wookiee life debt, but the hatred Luke feels for this fuzzy little annoyance is palpable. I think I got like three Star Wars references in that last sentence by mistake.
Mieu doesn't appear in combat. He's a lover, not a fighter.
Pantheon Position: Almost all Tales games have a mascot character, with varying levels of importance to the plot and to the fighting. For instance, Vesperia's Repede was a serviceable member of the party in battles as well as the "cute thing" certain characters would fawn over (though I'd hesitate to call Repede "cute). Mieu's just this trope obnoxiously dialed up to 11, since his only job is to be the Sorcerer's Ring equivalent.
Fon Master Ion
The Fon Master is the one of the highest ranks in the Church of Lorelei, second only to Funkmaster. Ion is like a young, bishounen John Paul II; a saintly ideal for the Order he represents. For much of the game he follows the party around, partly to dispense advice to a conflicted Luke, partly to use some very specific fonic artes when the plot calls for it but mostly so he can get kidnapped a lot and spur everyone onto the next dungeon.
Pantheon Position: Ion's that quintessential guest character, one who never fights but is there for color commentary for skits and the like. The guy also has "martyr" written all over him, considering his kindness and how he faints every time he has to exert himself, but don't let that concern you.
Emperor Peony Upala Malkuth IX
The King of Kimlasca, King Ingobert VI, is your standard JRPG King, right down to imprisoning the party at a crucial juncture due to misinformation and composing operas about lost children, but the laid-back Emperor of Malkuth is a different matter entirely. Though he's kept his kingdom on the straight and narrow with his wisdom and foresight, the dude would clearly prefer looking after his pet rappigs and teasing his old friend Jade over doing any actual work. In New Game+, he even gives everyone Power Ranger costumes for the hell of it.
Pantheon Position: Peony reminds me a lot of Destiny's Max, largely because he was an off-beat authority figure who kicked ass whenever he was on screen. His friendship with Jade is an important part of the latter's backstory, but that's about it beyond being the far more chill and open-minded of the two rulers the party is forced to co-operate with often. He doesn't appear often enough in the plot for my liking.
"Definitely Not the Bad Guy"
Despite looking like a samurai Ming the Merciless, Van is introduced as Luke's sword instructor and mentor and an all-round cool guy. He seems to be Luke's only true ally early on, and frequently disappears around the world to stop the Oracle Knights (the stormtroopers of the Order of Lorelei) from doing bad things. The game really doesn't want you to think that he's a megalomaniacal nihilist obsessed with ending the control the Score has over the world by blowing it up and killing everyone. Let it never be said that a Tales villain's motivations aren't completely sympathetic.
Pantheon Position: Vesperia's Alexei immediately comes to mind, right down to the obvious heel turn twist, but almost all of Tales's main antagonists were well-intentioned extremists who bordered outright psychopathy a little more closely than anyone was ever willing to admit.
The Six God-Generals
"Oh, It's These Guys Again"
The six "God-Generals" (I have no idea what that means, but it sounds intimidating) of the Order of Lorelei are a group of recurring villains loyal to Van and Van alone. Though they seem like a disposable team of flamboyant villains, each has a deeper link to the plot or one of the six main characters in some way that eventually emerges as the game progresses.
We have Legretta the Swift, a gun-kata badass who regularly gives the party a run for its money. There's Largo the Black Lion, a hulking beast of a man with a giant axe who is nonetheless cool and calculating. There's Sync the Tempest, a mysterious masked fonic user who looks and sounds exactly like Fon Master Ion as if we wouldn't figure that out. There's Arietta the Wild, a former bodyguard of Ion and another tiny girl who uses monsters to fight for her (I have no idea why the Order of Lorelei doesn't hire adults to protect their most important official). Lastly, we have Dist the Reaper, a malevolent scientist who flies around in a jet-powered throne and sounds exactly like James from Team Rocket, because that's how you make a goddamn JRPG villain. The sixth is actually Asch, but he bails on the group almost immediately once he cottons on to what they're up to.
Pantheon Position: Most recurring villains in the Tales series either existed as a collective group that were fairly nebulous on an individual case by case basis, or they were simply independent recurring villains that didn't necessary align with one another. Symphonia's Desian Grand Cardinals are a good example, since they were largely autocratic and many were instantly forgettable once they had been dispatched; the few with a bit more story importance didn't really fall in with the rest. The Six God-Generals are each as important as each other, and none of them feel like superfluous "boss-fight bait" because of their ties to the heroes.
The Black Wings
"The Recurring Bosses That Aren't"
The Black Wings are another bunch of recurring villains, except they don't really do much to you besides inconvenience you a couple times. A troupe of circus performers who are secretly a crack team of international thieves is a trope as old as Final Fantasy IX, at the very least, but they're a colorful trio that tend to pop up whenever Asch is in the vicinity. How a humorless grump like that guy fell in with a bunch of gaudy Pirates of the Caribbean extras with their own Namco Bandai theme park hideout is anyone's guess.
Pantheon Position: It's odd you never get to fight the Black Wings, because the idea of a group of comical villains who are really only looking for ways to get rich quick than try to conquer the world has been around for ages, both in and outside of Tales. I brought up Team Rocket earlier, for a classic example, but these guys reminded me a lot of the flamboyant and oddly technological Scorpion Army from Secret of Mana, right down to their leader's vaguely dominatrix get-up.
Abyssal World Tours: Gaze Into Our Group Deals, And See What Gazes Back
Finally, I just want to take you on an around-the-world trip through Auldrant. Sometimes the locations have as much personality as the cast, and Tales usually never disappoints when it comes to at least a couple of interesting high-concept towns and cities. Usually, though, they usually rely on a few archetype templates and shift a few elements around to make them fit into the new world's style and history.
It's surprising how often they do this, in fact. Characters and locations both.
"Not a Pokemon"
Baticul is the capital of the Kimlasca-Lanvaldear kingdom, and is home to Luke, Natalia and Guy. The city is built upon a cylindrical man-made structure that sinks deep into the earth, and was originally a smaller town built around an enormous crater caused by a falling fonstone - the immense glowy crystals that float in the sky and are instrumental to how the world's technology works. Baticul's a vertical city, which is a great visual metaphor for a nation with the haves and have-nots (though the divide isn't quite as pronounced here as it is in, say, Vesperia's Zaphias) as well as just being an impressive sight in general.
Baticul contains the game's obligatory Coliseum: the home to optional bosses and some of the best weapons in the game, designed to test the limits of the player's fighting prowess. The cameo battle, in which a group of characters from earlier Tales games fights the present group, is both a trial by fire and a symbolic passing of the torch. Can the new heroes hold a candle to the old guard, or will they get burned? How many more flame puns can I make before I'm fired? From, uh, blogging?
Like many of Abyss's place names, Baticul is a word associated with the Jewish Kabbalah (or at least some of its apocrypha), though oddly it refers to the "vice" of atheism. Its title is "The Capital of Light", though with much of it being in a big hole in the ground I'm not sure it's an apt slogan. Probably a tourism industry thing.
"Try Our Chokmah Chicken"
Grand Chokmah is the capital of the Malkuth empire, a gleaming marble city surrounded by a man-made waterfall. The port is built like a fortress, and can completely shut down all of its borders in times of emergency, which is great for the city but not so great if you need to get in for whatever reason. It's because of this that it's one of the last locations the party gets to visit, but the Malkuth capital is rather instrumental to the plot for obvious reasons.
Grand Chokmah's like Baticul in that it's set up as an ideal place to live, and the gem of that particular empire's crown. Grand Chokmah, as with most of the Malkuth Empire's architecture, is far more reminiscent of Ancient Rome than Kimlasca's relatively modern steampunk trappings: both nations have an equal technological level of advancement, of course, or else it would be too much of a hard sell to convince players that their war has been in a stalemate for an untold number of years prior to the game. It just seems like Malkuth hides it better, or at least that would be the case if it didn't build enormous fortress-sized tanks and let them roam around the countryside.
Chokmah, or Chochma, is one of the ten Sephirot or "virtues" of Kabbalah and represents wisdom. It's definitely one of the chillest cities in the game. Its title is "The Floating Capital", referring to its unique artificial structure.
"The Peaceful Theocratic Nation of Daath Does Not Welcome Daath Invaders"
Daath is an immense cathedral that houses all the members of the Order of Lorelei, the game's central religion, with a smaller city built up around it that really only caters to the clergy and those passing by on pilgrimages. It's an austere place, though the cathedral itself is so immense that there's a running joke of having priests everywhere ready and willing to escort visitors back to the entrance should they become lost. Anise and Fon Master Ion reside here, as do a significant proportion of the God-Generals and Oracle Knights.
Because the Order of Lorelei isn't quite as materialistic as the Catholic Church, thus more befitting a fictional religion based somewhat on a form of Jewish mysticism more akin to Buddhism, it's rather dull and ascetic in nature. The cathedral's not exactly fun to visit due to all its plain corridors, and the rest of the town's just a single road of street vendors leading up to the cathedral.
Daath (or Da'at, or Daas) is the eleventh Sepirot, usually kept off the diagram for whatever reason. It represents the culmination of the other ten, and thus is the holiest. Daath is simply referred to as the Headquarters of the Order of Lorelei; it doesn't really need much more than that. Dull place, but understandably so given the circumstances.
"We're Just Farmers. Sorry."
Engeve is that evergreen RPG staple of the peaceful tiny village where most journeys seem to start. Though the story really begins in Baticul in Luke's manor, the game only kicks off once Tear accidentally teleports Luke and herself halfway across the world. Engeve is the source of most of Malkuth's food, and is an agrarian settlement of very little importance. It's only really here to sell the party some cheap basic armor and to set up a chance meeting between Tear, Luke (a Kimlascan noble deep in enemy territory) and the Malkuth military (which is when Jade shows up, naturally).
Engeve's a stone's throw away from Cheagle Forest, where the party acquires Mieu and is the first real dungeon of the game. Most of Engeve's problems are related to the wild creatures in the forest as well as the cheagles themselves. Other than that, it's just your basic starting town. Can't beat the classics, I suppose.
Engeve's name doesn't have any obvious relation to Kabbalah, at least none that wouldn't be a stretch or a severe localization mishap. Maybe it's simply too minor. It's referred to as The Grocer's Hamlet.
St. Binah's a bit more interesting. Just as Engeve is the source of the Malkuth Empire's supply of cooking ingredients, Binah is the home to most of the curative herbs and medicines. Because the game has an interesting (if underexplained) ecology feature where completing side-quests and solving problems in certain locations drops the prices of specific export goods, each of the early towns has a link to one sort of purchasable item. In St. Binah's case, this includes all the healing consumables. St. Binah's otherwise a lot like Engeve: peaceful and dull, at least to begin with.
St. Binah also fulfills the requisite "town built around a giant tree" JRPG trope, which I believe might be a Shinto thing. I'm not saying it's not a factor in Western RPGs (Icewind Dale's Kuldahar immediately springs to mind), but there's so many towns like it in a wide range of JRPGs I could name off the top of my head. Vesperia's Halure, for instance, or the Nopon Village in Xenoblade.
Binah's another Sephirot, and one that represents understanding and empathy from what I can tell. The town's referred to as The Citadel, which might give the wrong impression. I mean, unless the tree is the citadel. Can trees be citadels?
"The Happiest Demilitarized Zone On Auldrant"
Kaitzur's not so much a town as the name of a region that includes one of the two official land borders between Kimlasca and Malkuth (most of their territories comprise of entire continents, and the only other shared border is the autocratic merchant city of Chesedonia, below). It's a fun place that's very much just two military camps right next to each other, but it's also where you can see the divide between the two architectural styles most clearly.
Kaitzur is one of those apocryphal vices of the Kabbalah I mentioned earlier, this time for ugliness. I'm not sure that's a particularly fair "sin", but perhaps they mean ugliness of the spirit too. Or the ugliness of war and hostilities, which I suppose would be more the case here. There's a long side-quest involved with two enemy military officers that fall in love that doesn't go anywhere fun, one of which is stationed in Kaitzur, so that might tie into that "war is pretty crappy, you guys" definition too. Kaitzur's title is simply "The Border Fortress". A lot of these titles are far more straightforward than I remember them being.
"It's Not Easy, Being Chese"
Chesedonia's a central hub for commerce and one of those locations you'll be revisiting a lot due to the amount of goods available there to purchase. It's also a separate nation, of sorts, perhaps a bit closer to Hong Kong given its autonomy and focus on trade. It's also your requisite desert trader town, back during a more innocent time when the worst thing we'd associate with the Arab world was occasionally getting ripped off on a counterfeit Persian carpet in a dusty bazaar.
Chesedonia's home to Din's Shop, among other locales. Din's Shop is a recondite trading simulation type affair that Final Fantasy XII would eventually borrow, to a slightly more intelligible degree. You simply drop off all your trade goods there, each contributing points to different types of product (consumable, sword, helmets, accessories, etc.) and upon hitting an invisible number would "unlock" a new tier of item you could purchase. You would then pay a small or large optional amount to improve the quality of the payout, and be given items dependent on how many trade goods you donated and the money you paid. It's super convoluted and absolutely requires a guide, but it's also where you can get some of the best items in the game, some of which are available way earlier than they ought to be. I'd say it represents one of Abyss's more interesting one-off contributions to the series, though it's possible some form of it existed in one of those obscure Japan-only entries like Rebirth. Hell, I've still got plenty of the ones that actually got localized left to play before I start jumping into the fan translations.
Chesed is a Sephirot that represents mercy, lawfulness and kindness, and Chesedonia is referred to as "The Center of Trade". Also noteworthy to a lesser extent is the Desert Oasis: a small settlement deep in the Zao desert adjacent to Chesedonia which also has a handful of amenities.
Keterburg's your classic Christmastime village, a cosy little Malkuthian vacation resort up in the mountainous and snowy continent of Sylvania. It's the town in which both Jade and the Emperor grew up, and Jade's sister Nephry is currently its governor. Keterburg's an odd place for a number of reasons: It contains the only casino in the game, a Tales staple often prone to exploitation; it contains a pair of odd wealthy twins with color-opposite interior decoration who never feature in the story or any side-quests whatsoever; it contains a four-floor luxury hotel with a hot spring and a famous restaurant, which only exist to give female characters swimsuits and waitressing mini-games; and if you bother to dig up the ludicrous 200,000 Gald investment fee, you can bankroll your very own "Labyrinth House": a mini-game that plays a lot like Tower of Druaga, but curiously isn't the one classic Namco game represented as an optional dungeon (see Nam Cobanda Isle, below).
I like Keterburg a lot. It's not a novel construct, as it's almost identical to Symphonia's Flanoir, but it's a town with a lot of mystery and amusing interludes. The rest of the continent of Sylvania is no joke, with one of the most confusing dungeons and the game's optional superboss, but Keterburg really feels like a calm resort town away from the terrors and politics of the world.
Keter, or Kether, is the first of the Sephirot and represents where humankind is closest to God. It's the northernmost Sephirot on the diagram of same, importantly, just as the arctic Keterburg is the town furthest north (and thus is presumably supported by the most northern Sephiroth gate). It's known as the Silver City, which a tourism slogan if ever I heard one. Precisely what I'd expect from a fantasy Aspen.
"You Want Airships? We Got Airships!"
Sheridan's one of two functionally identical towns belonging to Kimlasca which researches and develops technology based on fonstones and fonic artes. Sheridan's the more practical of the two, constructing various machines and vehicles that run on fonic power. It's here that the party acquires the Albiore II, the game's obligatory airship, and befriends the salt of the earth community of elderly mechanics and builders.
Sheridan's home to some of the stranger side-quests in the game, such as tracking down "music discs" that you can play in a house built around a giant stereo, and investing a million Gald (which is a lot no matter how you slice it, in case you thought late-game inflation would make that amount trivial) in order to build a bridge between Sheridan and Belkend which you never end up seeing. It's otherwise just a town full of Cids, to break it down for Final Fantasy fans.
Sheriah is one of those vices again, seemingly the naming convention for any territory of the Kimlascan empire (the name Kimlasca itself is one too). Sheriah refers to rejection, which is always a bummer around Valentine's (or almost every day if you're unemployed). Its title is "The City of Craftsmen". Hey, they're saving all that creativity for their actual work.
"Joke Deemed Too Easy After First Draft Edit"
Belkend's the sister city of Sheridan and is more focused on research and development. They also have an enormous labyrinthine laboratory where most of the discoveries are being made, and was also the headquarters for Van and the God-Generals for part of the game. Importantly, this is where we learn a lot about the world's science as it pertains to fonons and the like, and where most of the pertinent information regarding replicas can be found. Belkend is often affectionately referred to Expositionville, by no-one but me.
I also like the look of Belkend. I posted a list a short while back about cities that feel like they're made entirely out of steel, and Belkend has a lot of iron walkways and metallic structures for little other apparent reason other than that they look cool. It's a bit of a chore coming to this place, since the guy you always want to speak to is at the back of the laboratory, which means passing through the whole town and then through several identical-looking rooms until you find the guy you want.
Belkend doesn't have any obvious correlation to one of the Kabbalah vices, at least not without some potentially specious guesswork. It's title is "The City of Fon Machines". Guy really likes coming here.
"Not Named After the Brunette from t.A.T.u. Not That Anyone Would Think That."
Yulia City's the classic example of a hidden city, where the most secluded and concealed town in the world is somehow also the most knowledgeable and savvy about the rest of the globe. Usually these towns are filled with elves or ninjas, or elf ninjas, but in this case it's a subset of the Order of Lorelei that keeps records of the Score and its interpretations, away from prying eyes. It's situated in the Qliphoth - the name for the immense toxic sea that became the world after the core destabilized, and the reason why the ancients of the Dawn Age elevated the landmasses away from the venomous atmosphere that rises off that endless ocean of pollutants. Yulia City was left behind as a sort of shielded monitoring station, keeping tabs on the underworld in case things ever sorted themselves out. Since then, it's been the most carefully preserved remnant of that ancient era and something of a mythological enigma to those living obliviously thousands of yards above.
Yulia City's where Tear was raised, and features a lot of translucent walkways and people dressed in flowy robes. It's that sort of place, generally speaking, like Final Fantasy VIII's Esthar. There's also very little to do here except pop by for a bit of exposition about the ancients now and again. It looks cool, at least.
Yulia City's name isn't based on Kabbalah but rather the in-game world's own mythology. Yulia was the legendary scholar and priestess who originally translated the Score, and regarded as the most powerful fonic arte user of all time. The city was named in her honor as a bastion of ancient technology and wisdom. Its title is "The Watcher's Home".
"The Mining Town, Where You Can't Tell Your Akzeriuth From a Hole in the Ground"
Akzeriuth is the ill-fated mining town that causes the central plot of Tales of the Abyss to kick off after becoming infested with miasma. The miasma is a side-effect of the planet being a bit colicky, and its evacuation and investigation becomes the first big political cooperation between the two empire-nations in a long while. Luke inadvertently blows it up after Van tells him to. I mean, shit, nobody's perfect.
Needless to say, you aren't in Akzeriuth for very long, and there's not a lot there you can see and do with it being a simple mining settlement. After the first act, it simply ceases to exist.
Akzeriuth possibly comes from the Kabbalah term for cruelty, the vice. Its fate is certainly a cruel twist. Its title is "The Mining Town" (and presumably "A Big Hole That Used to be a Mining Town" from then on).
Nam Cobanda Isle
"We're Not Subtle"
Nam Cobanda Isle is Abyss's Tales-specific recurring in-joke town, usually named for the publisher that brought the game into existence (that would be Namco Bandai). There's no stores or anything plot-relevant here, it's just a place where various people dressed like cats and cows (or are actual hybrid creatures of some sort; the game leaves this to the player's imagination) build weird homages to Namco properties. You can ride down an elevator that resembles Pac-Man, play a mini-game that greatly resembles the Namco side-scrolling arcade classic Dragon Buster, watch the game's anime cutscenes through a "memory device" or marvel at the clockwork depictions of Mappy and Xevious. It's a little (all right, a lot) fanservicey, but these hidden locations are always fun for the obsessive types.
In case you hadn't figured it out, Nam Cobanda is Namco Bandai with the space moved to the left a bit. There's no grand Kabbalah inference here, though I'd be a little terrified at the coincidence if there was. In Japan, the island has the even less subtle moniker of Namcot Island, referring to Namco's old name for its home console development division. It's simply referred to as the Hidden City, though "city"'s pushing it. It's more like a cave filled with Namco dioramas.
"Vacationing South of the Border"
Choral Castle is a summer vacation home of Duke Fabre that was summarily abandoned once the peace between Malkuth and Kimlasca broke down, as it's only a handful of miles away from the Kaitzur border. When the party wander into it, it's become a home to all sorts of monsters and ghosts and is one of the game's handful of puzzle dungeons. It's also implied to be the place where Luke was kidnapped from as a child. Still, though, you'd think they just leave a few servants behind to keep the place in good condition, rather than abandoning it to the elements just because Darfur was about to go down a little ways to the north.
Isle of Feres
"Closed For Repairs"
The Isle of Feres was destroyed before the game begins and was home to several characters during their childhoods. It's resurrected late in the game as a replica landmass and given the ability to float, which allows it to act as Van's mobile HQ for the latter half of the game. It also has Malkuth's trademark Greco-Roman architecture, so when you visit it in its dilapidated state it kind of feels like you're walking through the ruins of Pompeii. It's also a horribly confusing mess of burned out buildings and crumbling pillars and I hated it. I hate a lot of things.
"Foreboding Floating End-Game Dungeons? In My JRPG? It's More Likely Than You Think"
Finally, we come to Eldrant, the final location of the game. To say too much about it might be telling, but like so many final dungeons in the Tales series (and Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana, if we're really being inclusive) it dramatically rises out of the sea and kind of floats around being ominous until you're done with all the side-questing and just decide to finish the damn game already. Eldrant is supposedly the name of the ancient promised land, sort of like an El Dorado for Auldrant (I can only assume that's where the name comes from), but is a similar case to Feres in that it's actually the destroyed island of Hod semi-resurrected through replica technology. It's a bit lackluster compared to other final destinations of Tales games, alas, though they certainly don't make it seem small and insignificant.
Anyway, that's probably more about Tales of the Abyss than needed to be written for a "What I Played Recently" blog. It's just... when you spend so many hours on a game, getting to know it thoroughly, it kind of feels like you have to go the extra mile when discussing it. I dig the Tales series a lot, but they don't half build these things to last you a while. I believe I've overindulged enough for right now, so I'll probably be back to covering Indie stuff and other smaller titles for a spell after this. Thanks for learning all about the wonderful world of this nine year old JRPG? I guess? See you soon.