I was initially planning on writing a review for Tales of Graces F but decided that what I had to say about the game fits a blog post more than a review since, well, I’m not particularly great at writing reviews. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the game after about 160 hours of playtime and two playthroughs.
The story in JRPGs generally trend toward the cliché/cheesy and while Tales of Graces F doesn’t fit the latter, it certainly fits the former. While there are some heartwarming moments during the story, I definitely didn’t feel the plot itself was particularly compelling. However, I would say that I’m glad that I (with the help of a guide) saw all the skits in the game. I’ve always felt that the skits in the Tales series (which are ostensibly optional) were more interesting than the actual main plot and this is no different in Tales of Graces F. The skits range from whimsical to cute to serious to hilarious, but are never boring. In fact I would say that I felt far less desire to skip through the skits than I did through some of the story or side-quest dialogue (especially the voiceless dialogue which continues to be a thing in many JRPGs despite it being 2012 and the game being released on a Blu-Ray disc). The skits also bring color, humor, and a hint of romance into the mix as well (in fact, much of the romantic subplots in the game are really only elucidated in the skits). Still, despite my lack of enthusiasm about the main story, I still feel that it brings up some interesting themes that you don’t typically see in some other JRPGs.
Characters wise, aside from Asbel and Cheria (both of which irritated me throughout the game), the main cast is overall pretty great. My favorites of course have to be Pascal & Sophie. I won’t spoil anything, but Pascal just an amazing (amazingly hilarious that is) character while Sophie is just so darn likeable. Hubert & Malik aren’t bad either, each of them having interesting back stories of their own. I’m also quite impressed with the voice acting in the game, which is much better than some of the other JRPGs out there (though expectedly good for a Tales game).
As always, the main draw of Tales games is the combat, and I can say without reservation that the combat in Graces is the best that the Tales series has had to offer so far (with the exception of Xillia, which I have not played). Though the combat is still relatively simple, it has a surprisingly amount of variety and also requires smart tactics and quick reflexes on the harder difficulties. The combat isn't really tough for the most part, especially if you’ve leveled properly, but some of the boss battles can get quite tense, especially when they start busting out their Mystic Artes. Unfortunately the AI for your party members ranges from decent to terrible which means that depending on which characters you decide to use, you may need to step in and manually control some of your other three party members during some battles. In any case, the fantastic combat makes the grinding during later portions of the game (and post-game) actually enjoyable. Finally, the way the game incorporates titles into actual stat bonuses and skills for your characters instead of just as extras (as they were in some previous Tales games) is an interesting way of handling that aspect of the game. However, I have to say that it also means that if you want to acquire all the skills/abilities for all your characters, it’s gonna take a long time. In fact, if you feel like S-ranking this game, you're definitely in for the long haul.
I also felt that there was too much backtracking, which is a problem that plagues many JRPGs. This can be especially irksome since many of the game’s skits do not unlock until you progress past a certain portion of the main story, meaning you will often have to backtrack to previous towns, fields, and dungeons if you want to view all the skits (which as I mentioned previously, add a lot of flavor to the story). Of course, I played through the game with a guide in hand so I ended up not missing anything important, but I can imagine that it would be frustrating if you were just trying to find and do everything on your own. Then again, this is kind of par for the course when it comes to JRPGs and the Tales series in particular.
The Tales series of games has always utilized a more cartoonish, anime-like art style rather than aim for realism in its visuals. You could argue that for a PS3 game, Tales of Graces F looks distinctively last-generation (though considering it’s an upscale of a Wii game that shouldn’t be a surprise). But I’ve never had an issue with stylized visuals over realism, especially in the JRPG genre where it’s a much more common occurrence than other genres. Low-res textures aside, Tales of Graces F still looks pretty good with its colorful palette and impressive-looking spell effects. And though the skits consists basically consists of a series of anime-esque 2D stills, they are certainly well implemented. The few fully 2D animated anime cut scenes are also well implemented, though I kind of wish there were more of them. As previously mentioned, the voice acting is fantastic, and the music is also quite catchy (well as much as BGM can be anyway.) I even quite enjoyed the opening theme by BoA, though I would have liked an option to listen to the original Japanese version, especially since she sings both versions (as was offered in Tales of Vesperia)
Though it certainly has flaws, I can say right now that Tales of Graces F is my favorite game so far of 2012, and certainly one of the best JRPGs I’ve played in recent memory. It’s by no means a reinvention of the genre, but it’s not just a rehash either. It’s also a another great example of why production values aren’t as important as gameplay or storytelling. Let's hope that it sells enough copy here in North America so that Namco will release Tales of Xillia here as well.