Giant Bomb Talesbag: Fizzy Vesperia Edition

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.

Phantasia

Mad ponies, bro.

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.

Destiny

It's a testament to Leon's popularity that he replaced Stahn as the box art model. Yeah, that's a guy. Yeah, I know.

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.

Eternia

The indomitable sword and belly shirt combo. Yeah, I know x2.

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

I wonder if the "heroine looking up on box art" trope is worthy of a concept page?

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.

Innocence

Detecting a pattern with all this action pose box art. Maybe I should try a screenshot next?

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.

Vesperia

Nah, even more pictures of dudes with swords should suffice.

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.

But I guess I can now pick up Tales of the Abyss 3D and Tales of Graces F should I'm ever hurting for more. A brave new world for European Tales fans. It's about time.

Wait, that's kind of a sour note to end on, so here's a minor revision: It's about time... for some comics?

BONUS COMIC!

Tales of Vesperia

Not pictured: Stripper elves.

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.

19 Comments
20 Comments
Posted by Mento

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.

Phantasia

Mad ponies, bro.

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.

Destiny

It's a testament to Leon's popularity that he replaced Stahn as the box art model. Yeah, that's a guy. Yeah, I know.

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.

Eternia

The indomitable sword and belly shirt combo. Yeah, I know x2.

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

I wonder if the "heroine looking up on box art" trope is worthy of a concept page?

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.

Innocence

Detecting a pattern with all this action pose box art. Maybe I should try a screenshot next?

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.

Vesperia

Nah, even more pictures of dudes with swords should suffice.

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.

But I guess I can now pick up Tales of the Abyss 3D and Tales of Graces F should I'm ever hurting for more. A brave new world for European Tales fans. It's about time.

Wait, that's kind of a sour note to end on, so here's a minor revision: It's about time... for some comics?

BONUS COMIC!

Tales of Vesperia

Not pictured: Stripper elves.

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.

Moderator Online
Posted by Video_Game_King

Since I'm planning on doing something cool for my 20000th post, are you doing anything special for your 666th post? Or is it only going to be a reply that undercuts any perceived importance?

Edited by Phatmac

Some more Tales love is awesome. I'm a fan of some of the games that I've played, mostly Vesperia. It's due to Yuri which isn't like every single JRPG protagonist. I also like Symphonia and Abyss. Still, I wish they'd make a sequel to Vesperia. Mostly just to continue being a badass.

Edited by Mento

@Video_Game_King: Don't worry, I'm definitely not going to waste it on a reply.

@Phatmac: Yeah, I like Yuri a lot. Like many Tales protagonists, he's of the "Chaotic Good" school of getting things done in spite of (and often to spite) the antagonistic authorities. Unlike most Tales protagonists however, he's quite intelligent and takes the time to think things over. I also like how they eschewed the usual "zero to hero" arc and just made him a badass swordsman from the offset.

Moderator Online
Posted by Commisar123

If I want to start somewhere which one should I choose?

Posted by Mento

@Commisar123: I'd say Vesperia. It's on XBL's Games on Demand so it's pretty accessible, and I'm enjoying it so far.

However there's one for pretty much every system right now. Graces F for PS3, Symphonia for Wii (GameCube, technically) and Abyss 3D for 3DS all seem good.

Moderator Online
Posted by ZombiePie

Tell me 'bout the LMB system.

Moderator
Posted by PixelPrinny

Nice write up, and I definitely agree with Innocence feeling the least remarkable of the franchise. I never managed to get through it, it was just so bland and uninteresting, but props to the team that translated it. Maybe I'll go back and give it another shot sometime. I really would like to go through the franchise as a whole again one day; although I won't be playing the Super Famicom version of Phantasia again. My gods, the random encounter generator in that was so incredibly broken.

Also get through Vesperia so you can move on to Graces F :P Although Vesperia has the better characters and story (Yuri, especially), Graces F is a great game in its own right.

Posted by BisonHero

@Mento: For starters, I've only played Symphonia. I was reading through its TV Tropes page a little while ago, and apparently everybody on TV Tropes is convinced that the Tales series is constantly deconstructing all manner of JRPG tropes.

Would you agree, or disagree? My own stance is that people are choosing to see brilliance because that's what they want to see (because they like the series so much). Sure, they offer a simple JRPG setup in the first couple hours, and then it turns out to be more complicated than that, but I don't think that automatically counts as deconstructing every JRPG trope ever.

For example, the whole "Chosen One prophecy turns out to be a giant sham, and that angel dude actually isn't a good guy, Colette ends up having it pretty rough" thing is something they would consider a deconstruction, but I would consider a few simple twists you could see coming from a mile away. I guess you could say Symphonia deconstructed the tropes you might see in like early Dragon Quest games or something, but in light of all the RPGs that have been cynical and dark since FF7, Symphonia's "morality is all about shades of grey" stance seems pretty by-the-book to me.

But then, I am super biased, because I got rather bored of Symphonia by the time I reached the end.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

That's a really great write-up of the series, Mento. I've played Tales of Symphonia and Vesperia. Unfortunately, I owned a Gamecube for only about all of a month, so I missed out on the very last bits of Symphonia. But having played Vesperia through, I can safely say I really enjoy the series and hope to pick up Tales of the Abyss 3DS and Graces soon. I'm not familiar enough with the series and its European releases to understand the bitterness at the end, but maybe it's talked about in the comments or the franchise's wiki.

Also, have you played the Star Ocean series? The Last Hope in particular really reminded me of the Tales series, but for my money, I think Tales of Vesperia was way more entertaining.

Moderator
Posted by Mento

@BisonHero: Not much deconstructing, though I see what they mean about playing around with tropes. Tales tends to adhere to as many tropes as it subverts though.

I will say the stories in the Tales games I've played were fairly well told, and crafting a good story means not utilizing every tired cliché and predictable story beat in the book. It'll have betrayals, antagonists with sympathetic goals and can mess with your expectations at times. And it will occasionally lampshade a trope if it's particularly old-hat. But it's definitely not some satirical deconstruction of the genre, it generally tends to play it straight.

Moderator Online
Posted by ArbitraryWater

I rented Tales of Symphonia once, back when i was at an age where I rented games and back in an era where renting things was still possible and commonplace. I can tell you literally nothing about it, other than that my 11 year old self didn't really get it and that I'm not a big fan of generic anime tropes if they aren't used well.

Online
Posted by AdzPearson

I really need to get round to the Tales series at some point (like a lot of things...the list goes on...). I've only played Eternia so far. I liked what I played of it, despite not usually being keen on real-time battle JRPGs. It had an interesting storyline and pretty nice music.

A lot of people have been recommending Vesperia, so I'll probably jump into that when I can get round to it. Not sure when that'll be, but hey...XD

Posted by Canteu

Eternia is also my favourite, by a mile.

I don't care if the Tales series hits a lot of tropes or clichés, because no other JRPG does characters as well as tales does (even Persona imo).

I actually laugh out loud at a lot of the skits or random conversations in a lot of the tales games just because they're so natural and well written.

This is the sole reason I love Tales more than almost every JRPG series (I prefer Star Oceans' real time combat).

Posted by ahoodedfigure

I had Symphonia for the GC but never finished it. I guess I was a bit disappointed that its 2P cooperative system was a bit borked. Now I'd not be afraid of trying it, since I'm actually itching to play a "J"RPG game, at least to cleanse the palate after so many grimy dungeons.
 
What I've heard of Xenoblade makes me salivate, cool to see you reminding people about it...

Posted by LordAndrew
@ahoodedfigure said:
I had Symphonia for the GC but never finished it. I guess I was a bit disappointed that its 2P cooperative system was a bit borked.
I never had the chance to try the multiplayer. What was wrong with it?
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@LordAndrew: I don't remember how flexible it was for the main player to play, but the second player's character was forced to run in a straight line, either backwards or forwards, and I remember during one battle my partner was pushed off into a corner, unable to help out. I don't think the game was designed with 2P in mind, so it felt under-developed.
Edited by Scrawnto

@LordAndrew: I played Tales of Symphonia with three friends, over one weekend (Possibly a long weekend. I'm not quite sure). That was about 60 hours of playtime. The main problem is that the other players only have any control during combat. The rest of the time it's only the first player driving. That said, it was still a lot of fun.

@ahoodedfigure: All the players move in a straight line. That's why it's called the LMB system for Linear Motion Battle. You just target different enemies to change the line you are running along.

Posted by LordAndrew
Yeah, the Free Run apparently debuted in Tales of the Abyss. And it's not available until you reach a certain level, because Luke had such a sheltered life that he doesn't know how to run around things.
Posted by RetroVirus

I really liked the battle system in Tales of Symphonia. I thought it was cool that your special attacks would evolve into one of two attacks based on how you used them, and the combo attacks with party members were really cool. Sadly, I never finished it.