By Mento 20 Comments
With that vaguely duplicitous pun title in place, it's time for an extended look at the Tales franchise. This is largely due to me playing nothing but Vesperia this week. So sue me.
The Tales franchise, originally created by Wolf Team and then picked up by Namco Bandai and given its own substrata development studio (that has unfortunately recently been closed down), is one that is happy to hit the same notes over and over to appease a dedicated fanbase. Perhaps to a greater degree than any other JRPG franchise, in fact. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, as the core gameplay involves a fairly solid real-time action combat system and affords anime fans some pleasingly conventional trope-a-thons with their plots and characters. In a sense, the franchise takes the Fighter game model on which it has based its frenetic combat and applied it to many more aspects of the games themselves: The rosters of distinctive personalities with their own unique fighting styles that the player is often able to switch between; a tradition of updating the combat in such a way that each iteration feels both new and familiar as well as a system for rewarding those who put in the time to master its more advanced features; the plentiful fanservice, though more in terms of cameos than being too creepily lascivious; and an emphasis on upbeat VGM and brightly colorful, striking graphics. It's perhaps something inherent to Japanese game design, and at this point is probably causing them more harm than good in the long-term as Western fans drop off, but knowing who your fans are and being careful to always do right by them first before making steps to approach a new audience is still an admirable quality for a game series to maintain, the lack of which is causing BioWare in particular no end of problems of late.
With the exception of granddaddy Dragon Quest, Tales is the definitive JRPG franchise to both the genre fans who dig its comfort food-esque familiarity and good-naturedness as well as the genre detractors who are prone to summarizing the entire domain as "ridiculous anime fantasy BS". Suffice it to say from someone with a completed JRPG list numbering over a hundred, I'm a total fan (and perhaps someone who needs to re-evaluate their free time). What follows is a list of the Tales games I've had the opportunity to play and what stood out the most from each experience.
As the progenitor, Phantasia perhaps deserves most if not all the credit for the direction every subsequent Tales game takes thereafter. It's responsible for all the major components of any given Tales game: An emphasis on characterization, either through the expansive script of the main story or through numerous, often optional scenes where the characters talk it out, that help flesh out the otherwise stock anime heroes; the distinctive real-time combat, complete with its customary Fighter game combos and special attacks mapped to specific button combinations; and the oft-revisited narrative concept of the meeting of two distinct worlds and how the protagonist needs to help everyone overcome cultural barriers to maintain global peace, which is usually threatened by one power-hungry (though occasionally misunderstood) antagonist in particular.
Though a primitive 16-bit precursor relatively speaking, Phantasia's formula was deemed good enough for a whole plethora of similarly-themed spiritual sequels. That alone has to be worthy of some acclaim at the very least.
Though sophomore game Destiny didn't so much crack the Phantasia mold, let alone break it, it's still clearly a fan favorite. You could credit this to its more likeable characters (preternaturally moody Leon Magnus receiving much of the fan appeal), a layered yet baffling plot which escalates to the emergence of a massive sky continent that blocks out the sun and the eventually standard practice of tweaking and enhancing the prior game's battle system. Advancing to the PlayStation 1 era with the customary boosts to graphical and audial quality, as well as allowing for some proper anime FMV cutscenes, no doubt helped its case to some extent as well. Personally? I think people were in the right mindset to accept something like this after Final Fantasy VII made JRPGs a household name again. Not that they ever stopped being so in Japan, but I imagine the throng of gamers looking for the next big RPG experience paved the way for the Tales franchise to take off like it did.
Destiny currently has a sequel, a remake and a remake of that remake. Of course, we never got any of those over here, but at least you can still play the original. I guess that's acceptable. What's of perhaps minor interest is how much the battle system had progressed between the original PS1 version and its PS2 remake. That one guy from Whitesnake can really throw down, it seems.
All things considered, Eternia's probably my favorite and, perhaps not coincidentally, my true introduction to the series. By this point, Tales had fallen into a comfortable groove with the way it balanced its encroaching apocalyptic melodrama and occasionally goofy sense of humor. We had two worlds again, a goodhearted but generally apathetic protagonist, an overly feisty heroine, a mysterious girl from the heavens, a nerd, an insane badass with a cannon and I guess a teenage girl pirate because why not. Anime. Honestly, JRPGs with a little brevity were still kind of refreshing back then. Grandia dedicated a few moments to joking around and FF7 was having fun with whatever crossdressing Three's Company situation comedy it found amusing, but Tales of Eternia felt like a breezy, serial cartoon adventure that was an utter joy to escape to. I got a similar vibe from Skies of Arcadia too. I'm not saying all games should be like that, but I'm often in the mood for a gaming experience that will cheer me up, rather than the usual downers that games will dole out for something resembling dramatic pathos or gritty realism. I guess this is a tangent best reserved for a different article, though. Or this recent one from Yahtzee, if you'd prefer not to wait.
Eternia also has Farah, who can best be described as a green-haired Chie. She has the same self-deprecating story arc too, poor lass. Perhaps the one universal trait of any RPG character is that you're going to be spending 30 plus hours following them around, which is why a good RPG will do its darndest to make you care about them and their foibles. Whether or not Tales manages to do that is up to the player, I suppose.
Symphonia took the leap previous long-running franchises had at the time been struggling to accomplish to varying levels of success in adding a third plane to its traditionally 2D combat system. Fortunately, since it has something of a Fighter game background, it had plenty of inspiration to draw from when venturing into that nebulous realm of side-stepping and circular arenas. Symphonia more or less nailed it and became a big seller for its native GameCube platform and yet another major window for fans to discover the franchise.
I've actually yet to come to terms with the 3D fighting system in the newer Tales games. I don't know why, because it's been around for quite some time now. I actually dropped out my first Symphonia playthrough because of it, only to come back some years later after playing Eternia through to completion and deciding it was worth another chance. I'm not that big a fan of Tekken or Soul Calibur either, come to think of it. Just seems like I spend all my time swinging at empty air. If that's not symbolism for something or other, I'd be surprised.
Tales of Innocence by itself is perhaps the least remarkable Tales game I've ever played. I've gotten a similar impression from what I've heard about the other two handheld iterations, Tempest and Hearts, as well. It probably explains why none of them ever saw an official translation. However, what stands out about this game is the loving fan translation it received from group Absolute Zero, which is indicative of two things: A) That Namco betrays their feelings about how insular the Tales franchise has become, occasionally outright refusing to co-operate with any localization efforts external or internal, and B) That its many Western fans disagree and have made this clearly evident by bonding together to complete projects like this, mirroring the work done to bring FF5, Mother 3 and Seiken Densetsu 3 to an ever-increasing group of internet- and emulator-savvy fanatics waiting for a way to enjoy them just short of learning the language.
Lo and behold, Tales has listened to the outcries and finally decided to release a localized update over here, in the form of Innocence R. Quite the victory, then, for a supposedly marginal group of weeaboos.
Yep, those who have noticed that I've skipped forward a bit should probably have figured out why I'm so down on Namco and their localization practices. In actuality, Vesperia is the next Tales game after Symphonia (or more precisely, it's awful sequel which I won't be discussing any further) according to the European release dates for the series. Though I'm only a few hours into the game so far (well, few dozen), it's shaping up to be the kind of rollicking adventure of thrills, spills and occasional cosplay fan service that I've come to expect and appreciate from this franchise.
Wait, that's kind of a sour note to end on, so here's a minor revision: It's about time... for some comics?
Tales of Vesperia
So all right, only one comic this week. It's in the vein of the "In a Nutshell" Tales comics I've peppered throughout blogs of the past. I'd recommend you track them down by reading my back catalogue of blog articles, but you're busy people and these are crappy stickpeople things on the internet, so perhaps you'd instead prefer to take the quick route and peruse their image gallery instead. Please enjoy, to a reasonable extent.
Those who actually dig these things can find this week's major contribution to the MS Paint artform in this thread over here. This one. You clicked it yet? Okay, I guess I can stop hyperlinking everything then. Once more just in case.