Tales of Arbitraria (and other dubious uses of time and money)

Dad of War will not be the subject of this internet blog. I think it's quite good. Maybe not
Dad of War will not be the subject of this internet blog. I think it's quite good. Maybe not "Game of the Year" good, but absolutely worth a look.

Oh hey. I guess it’s been a while since the last one of these, huh? You can blame a couple of factors for that. The first and most obvious is that, for as much as I’d like it to be otherwise, my amateur blog about video games simply doesn’t demand priority over the myriad other concerns I have to juggle in my life. I’m not going to pretend I’m some sort of fabulously responsible adult with a wife and a salary, but I think it’s fair to say that I can’t quite dedicate the time to both play a bajilliondy games and write 1500 word blogs on them the same way I could 5 years ago.

A less boring/depressing reason for me not writing anything in the last handful of months has to do with most of my dedicated gaming time in 2018 being spent on stuff that wouldn’t make for interesting reading. That’s another way of saying I don’t know if I really need to write a lengthy dissertation on something like the new God of War. It’s a genuinely great game that you probably already know is great, and/or are probably sick of hearing about. I don’t know what else I could say about it other than “I think it has some pacing issues” and “I don’t think I need stats and equipment in my character action games.” I’ll fully admit that novelty plays a certain part in what motivates me to write, which is probably a holdover from when I pretty much exclusively blogged about older games and semi-obscure CRPGs. It’s only fitting then, that my first dumb internet blog for 2018 is a Gamecube RPG from 2004.

Tales of Symphonia

Worth mentioning that I played the PS3 version, which adds some stuff but I guess has some weird technical hangups?
Worth mentioning that I played the PS3 version, which adds some stuff but I guess has some weird technical hangups?

You can likely find years worth of evidence of me saying some variation of “These Tales games really seem like they’d be up my alley” on this very website. I’m partial to RPGs with crunchy mechanics, I like involved combat, and if the last year and a half are anything to go by, I clearly am also a big fan of anime bullshit. After some amount of encouragement from my roommate, I finally bothered to take the plunge on the Tales game that is universally held-up by the fanbase as being one of the “good” ones, and… yeah. Yep. Tales of Symphonia is a good game that I enjoyed my time with. It has problems, but as far as introducing and selling me on Namco’s long-running cash cow, it did its job.

It probably speaks to my narrow JRPG experience that a “traditionally” structured Japanese RPG (complete with overworld map, a linear progression of towns and dungeons, and the inevitable airship equivalent near the halfway mark) managed to actually be novel in its own way. It’s certainly been a bit time since I’ve played something that starts off with plucky group of idiot kids on a fantasy quest to save the world and banish darkness or something. It’s some cliched, adolescent, anime-ass JRPG melodrama that I spent hours making fun of, but it’s at the very least earnest in a way I can respect. Even at the end, when speeches about the power of friendship are made and we learn that fantasy racism is bad, I still was having a pretty good time.

I think a lot of that had less to do with the plot (which ends with our heroes fighting an androgynous angel man from the ancient past who wants to destroy the world because he’s sad or something) and a lot more to do with the strength of Tales of Symphonia’s main cast. On paper, they’re all plucked from the JRPG manual of archetypes, but in execution are often given enough time and complexity to grow into interesting, likeable sorts. They’re not all created equal, and that doesn’t extend to the supporting cast, mind you. Protagonist Lloyd Irving is every bit the exact kind of hot blooded, idealistic dingus these sorts of stories always throw to the forefront, but even he has a coherent, logical character arc where he learns from his mistakes and becomes a better person for it. However, as someone over the age of 14, I found myself gravitating more towards the “adults in the room,” willing to temper Lloyd and Colette’s idiot optimism with a certain level of logic and cynicism. Even someone like Zelos, who initially comes off as a borderline-intolerable ladies man becomes a worthwhile addition to the group once you learn more about him and what his deal is.

Our protagonist in a nutshell. At least he's more interesting than blandly sweet, exceptionally dull Colette.
Our protagonist in a nutshell. At least he's more interesting than blandly sweet, exceptionally dull Colette.

It’s good that I liked the characters, because they manage to hold things up when the game’s pacing and momentum become wretchedly slow. Telling stories in video games is hard, and trying to stretch out a story over the course of dozens of hours can be exceptionally difficult. Symphonia’s story will occasionally give major plot developments barely any breathing room, then follow those up with lengthy diversions or macguffin hunts. The worst example of this might be a false climax right at the end of the game, complete with heroic sacrifices and triumphant speeches before revealing… there’s another 5 hours to go. I wonder if I’d even be complaining about this if I didn’t think the dungeons were on the sloggish side of long. They all traffick in a certain brand of inane, trial-and-error puzzle design that occasionally borders on clever but more often feels like an attempt to take as much time as possible. The only moments that reminded me more that I was playing a game from 2004 were the sheer number of weird, optional, and missable secrets and random bits. Unlike the dungeon design, that’s not an entirely bad thing, since I live in a world with easy access to a strategy guide and YouTube. Zelos gets a title if you have him talk to every single female NPC in the game! Genis gets a title if you don’t use Gels for like 20 hours! There’s a hidden affection rating for each character that determines if you get some optional scenes near the end! That shit is both really dumb and also kinda great! Oh, it’d be a nightmare if I was going for the platinum trophy, but I’m not, so it isn’t.

The combat can occasionally descend into chaotic nonsense, but thankfully you only have to worry about controlling one character.
The combat can occasionally descend into chaotic nonsense, but thankfully you only have to worry about controlling one character.

That leaves the much vaunted bread and butter of the Tales series, the combat (LIMB systems? You’ve got that right, there’s tons about LIMB systems!) Throwing in action-y, fighting game-esque mechanics into real-time RPG combat is basically all of my stupid checkboxes in one thing, so it absolutely makes sense that I enjoyed the hell out of Symphonia’s combat. It maybe takes a little too long to get going, but by the end I was chaining together like 4 attacks and 3 artes to stunlock bosses and was having a lot of fun doing it. It does get less challenging as things go on (Lloyd feels like a win button at points, given how fast his attacks are and how easily they combo together) but that also meant I had plenty of space to experiment and mess around with all of the characters and their abilities. If I have an actual bone to pick, I think Symphonia’s weird 2.5D combat plane feels really janky, especially if you have multiple human players trying to fight different monsters. I know they moved to full 3D pretty quickly afterward, so I guess I’m looking forward to seeing what that looks like.

Yeah, so I guess I should say Tales of Symphonia left a positive enough impression that I’m absolutely interested in seeing what else the series has to offer. While I’ve seen recent JRPGs with better stories (i.e. watching my roommate play through Xenoblade Chronicles 2) and would have probably preferred this one ending 10 hours earlier than it did, I’m all down to add yet another pile of lengthy-ass games to my already depressing RPG backlog. I already own Symphonia’s universally detested sequel and both Xillia games, so I think I’ll end up checking those out sometime before the heat death of the universe. But, uh, Pillars of Eternity 2 comes out on Tuesday, and I’m sorry, but my RPG heart will always be with mouse and keyboard, D&D-ass isometric computer bullshit when push comes to shove.

Random Endorsement:

Hey, perhaps you’ve heard that I like the Heroes of Might and Magic series? Oh, you haven’t? Well, you’re in luck, because I finished the campaign for Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia recently, something that I’ve never done despite being “that guy with the Might and Magic avatar” for something like 9 years. It was a good reminder for why Heroes III is often considered the high point of the series (something I might be willing to debate depending on the day of the week) and also helped remind me of some of Heroes III’s minor nitpicky shortcomings, from the uselessness of certain skills (Air Magic is king, Eagle Eye is not) to the AI’s predictable quirks, to the way that offensive magic scales poorly into the late game.

In that vein, I’m giving away a GOG code for this game, partially because I need to start offloading these GOG codes I've acquired over the years and partially because I think this game is good and people should play it. I'm not going to ask for any sort of weird contest, just have at least 100 posts or a Giant Bomb premium membership (so I can tell you're not some weird carpetbagger or key reseller) and leave a comment. I'd prefer if you put some effort into it (maybe commenting about your favorite Tales game or something! Childhood favorites that still hold up? Start an edition war discussion between Pathfinder and D&D 5e?) but I'm not picky. I have a couple of other GOG codes if Heroes isn't your forte. I know all of you are itching at a chance to play Wizardry 8 as we speak.

13 Comments