COURAGE IS THE MAGIC THAT TURNS DREAMS INTO REALITY
I wasn’t expecting things to go this way. Really. All I wanted was something to play with a controller after a repetitive stress injury in my right arm made playing Pillars of Eternity 2 (or anything else with mouse and keyboard) an actively painful experience. I figured, sure, why not try the bad sequel to Tales of Symphonia? Might as well put in a couple hours, get a basic grasp for why the fanbase hates it to death, and move on. But uh, as you might guess, that didn’t happen. For as much as I enjoyed Tales of Symphonia, it wasn’t so revelatory an experience that I’d feel the need to go on some sort of nightmarish journey through every other Tales game*. Sure, I was planning to eventually give Xillia, Vesperia, and Berseria (i.e. the ones I’ve heard generally positive things about) a shot, but the ones with more mixed/ambiguous reception like Graces F, Zestiria, and especially this one were going to be worth an optional glance at best. But, uh, around 30 hours of my life later, here I am. For once, my completion of this game wasn’t entirely the product of self-loathing and morbid curiosity. Tales of Symphonia 2 might be a bad game, but it’s bad and incompetent in the most fascinating of ways.
Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is a baffling thing. As the first direct sequel to another Tales game, specifically the first Tales game to get any sort of serious cult status over here in the west, it feels like a complete misstep (thus the part where mentioning it on the internet immediately draws the same kind of seething negativity normally reserved for the Star Wars prequels.) It feels like some people at Namco had some ideas for a JRPG, those ideas were tacked onto the idea of a Symphonia sequel, and then that sequel was given to a B-team to make something for the Wii (which, need I remind you, was still pretty hot shit in 2008) while the A-team worked on Vesperia (which came out a few months earlier.) That feels evident in the removal of any sort of overworld map, the number of recycled environments, a less visually striking art style, the somewhat floatier, less-responsive combat, and the inclusion of a Pokemon/SMT-esque monster taming mechanic, which I honestly think is one of those things that proves your JRPG sequel or spinoff has no interesting mechanical ideas. If I may be so bold, however, I don’t think those are really the biggest reasons why Tales of Symphonia 2 has the reputation that it does.
The closest direct analog I can think of is Final Fantasy X-2, which is not a flattering comparison unless you take delight in the suffering of certain Giant Bomb forum moderators. It’s a direct sequel in a JRPG series without many of them, and taking place after a fairly conclusive ending without a ton of dangling threads. However, while FF X-2 is well remembered for basically running roughshod through the characters, story, tone, and world of the previous game for the sake of making a quick buck and keeping Square afloat, Dawn of the New World comes off as doing the inverse. Rather than actively go out of its way to take a J-POP filled dump on the adventures of Lloyd and friends, the game is afraid of doing anything with those old characters or environments beyond remind the player (me) of a different game I finished a few months ago.
A large portion of Dawn of the New World’s runtime is devoted to our new (idiot) protagonists conveniently bumbling their way through most of the towns and dungeons of the first game for the most basic of reasons and bumping into various members of Symphonia’s main cast (sans Kratos) for what are essentially extended cameo appearances. It’s referential fan service of the least exciting degree, treating the original game with a level of undue reverence and disconnect that prevents this new one from doing anything interesting (or transgressive) with the returning cast and world. Lloyd and his friends have plenty of cumulative screen time, but very little of it is outside the context of their interactions with Emil, Marta, and Tenebrae (who I’ll get to) and reminders of their general state at the end of the last game. As someone who liked (most) of those characters quite a bit, some of those interactions still worked on me, and I was even happy to see the likes of Colette and Regal show up. This is all made even weirder by the notable absence of most of the original game’s English voice cast, which lends a certain bizarre tilt to all of this, as if they’ve been replaced by a bunch of adequately talented doppelgangers.
For a series that I’m to understand often hits and misses based on the strength of its ensemble casts, the surreal way this game treats its returning characters as static objects has the effect of firmly putting the burden of character development on the new dinguses who we’re supposed to like. I won’t dance around: Emil is a garbage boy with a split personality who spends most of the journey alternating between quivering meekness and violent sociopathy (I’d make a joke about cucks and alpha males here, but honestly I’m sort of exhausted with that kind of stuff right now) and Marta is the enthusiastic, adoring love interest whose affection for him starts to unintentionally resemble that of a battered spouse by the end. They’re the kind of bad, adolescent anime cliches that might survive as supporting characters in another, better written Tales game, but since they (alongside the shadow spirit Tenebrae, who is totally okay at his job of being stuffy, offering exposition, and making sardonic quips) are almost entirely in the spotlight, their dumb, bad relationship is given ample screen time to make you roll your eyes and wish you had more characters to play as. This is made even dumber as the original Symphonia cast starts to play a bigger role in the plot and the game desperately tries to integrate those two as “part of the gang.” It, uh, doesn’t work. It’s not the fault of the voice actors either. Johnny Young Bosch and Laura Bailey do their darndest to earn those paychecks by delivering those lines at maximum anime, but hot damn do they have nothing to work with.
Speaking of nothing to work with, Dawn of the New World has a story. It exists. Between the comparison to Final Fantasy X-2, the way returning characters and areas are paraded around for fan service, and the unfortunate main duo, you’d be right in assuming that the plot is both flimsy and profoundly stupid. I don’t need to spend too much time on it because it doesn’t matter beyond being a way to convey the characters from location to location. All you really need to know is that Emil and Marta spend half the game cursing Lloyd because they think he murdered a bunch of people (something any player over the age of 10 would immediately know he didn’t do), there’s some vague motions towards conflict between the worlds that were united at the end of the first game (but barely any of it is shown), MacGuffins are chased after and obtained, the villains are ineffectual and cartoonish, lost memories are revealed, the final boss is a well-intentioned extremist who wants to destroy the world because he’s sad, and of course, “Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality.” Really, I think that kind of sums it up. It’s the sort of inane, obvious JRPG nonsense phrase that probably sounds better in Japanese, and it’s repeated by the cast ad nauseum because there’s a little too much talking happening at all times.
It’s understandable if, given the words I’ve written, you’d assume I utterly hated my time with this game. Surprisingly? Not as much as you might think. For one, the combat is still alright despite being objectively worse than Symphonia and only giving you two characters to really develop and mess around with (the returning characters have locked equipment and don’t level up.) Emil eventually gets the ability to juggle foes in the air for absurdly long periods of time, and Marta’s easy, spammable multi-hit combos mean that you can abuse the generous bonus XP granted for high hit totals. The monster mechanics… are at least very low maintenance and can be shoved aside after a certain point. The incredibly linear pacing and lack of world map at least meant that I was never really bogged down. But more importantly, I hope I’ve conveyed how practically everything in Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World feels like a catastrophic misstep or a downgrade. It’s a near-perfect confluence of mistakes that loops around from weird, bad sequel to “academic poster child for everything to not do in a video game sequel.” That’s not to say any sane person should actually play this, no. There are like a bajillion other Tales games one could likely play instead to scratch that itch, and I’m led to believe almost all of them are better than this one. But, buuuuut, as far as my intentional playthrough of a bad RPG for the year is concerned I don’t hate myself and the world around me like I did after Mass Effect Andromeda last year.
*This is not to say that a “I play all of the Tales Games” nightmare scenario/feature is something that couldn’t happen. I’ve watched almost all of the Fate/Stay Night anime series this year for no good reason, so I’m not above this kind of bad decision making. I think these games are pretty fun, and if this is the worst of them then I think I could theoretically tolerate something like Tales of the Abyss’ dipshit protagonist.
So, in a totally different direction from this whole blog, I’d like to quickly talk about a game I’ve genuinely adored my time with. A Hat in Time is the throwback collectathon platformer that I wanted Yooka-Laylee to be. It’s admittedly a much tighter, smaller, and more structured game compared to the sprawling, directionless levels of Y-L, but what it loses in scope it makes up for in charm and variety. There are only 40 hourglasses (your star/jigsaw equivalent) but each of those hourglasses is behind an unique scenario or part of a platforming challenge hidden in one of the levels. It’s the kind of zero-bullshit, low-filler experience that didn’t insult my time and genuinely delivered on the promise of making an idealized, modernized representation of a type of game from my childhood, rather than (as Yooka-Laylee did) kinda just making a prettier version of a game from 1998. It also helps that the game has tight, responsive controls on top of how good it looks and sounds. Can't really recommend it enough.