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

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Posted by ArbitraryWater (15697 posts) -
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.

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#1 Edited by shivermetimbers (1706 posts) -

I feel like Pillars of Eternity 2 is coming with little fanfare. I wasn't even aware it was a thing until a month or so ago. I still have to play through Original Sin 2 (which I haven't touched yet) before I think about picking it up. I haven't played much of the Tales series. I think the methodical way they introduce their combat and systems turned me off (which is the downfall of a lot of JRPGs for me). I've played a fair bit of King's Bounty, not Might and Magic (unless you count Legacy X, the one Ubisoft published, in which case I played a bit). I'm not interested in a GOG code if you're considering me btw, I have too much on my plate gaming wise as is.

I don't have a huge amount of free time either, only a set few days a month to myself, so setting time off for a 50-100 hour CRPG, or any RPG for that matter, is kinda out of the cards when these days I just want to relax with slightly less nuanced games. Yakuza is my main jam right now. I might check out God of War later this year, but I'm not a big fan of the series. Funny how I played a lot of RPGs in college, but now I play very little RPGs besides the more mainstream variety.

Childhood favorites...hmmm...I'd like to stick to the theme of the thread (JRPGS/CRPGS), so I guess the first 2 Fallout games count. I was so used to console games that the idea of playing this overwhelmed me. The manual basically was plastered in 'SAVE OFTEN'. When I first started out, I remember going back to the overseer all the time b/c I couldn't get out of the cave. I had no idea what action points were or what character development was. Obviously, I learned how to play, but that'll stick to me as a fond memory. This was back in the good old days of Windows 95, my dad got one of those PCs bundles which included Cd-ROMs such as Julia Child FMV recipes and a bad Clue FMV game that I spent too much time in. Oh, and I might've been one of the few people who owned Microsoft Bob. Fallout came later on. I was impressed to see voice acting and cutscenes in games.

I should get into Tabletop gaming, but my Roleplaying skills are terrible. If I ended up rolling a stat that didn't match what I want, I'd be grumpy. It sounds like fun if I can get over it, tho.

Edit: That Clue game isn't on Giant Bomb. I know it exists! It was kinda like a prototype Myst in a way.

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#2 Posted by generic_username (943 posts) -

As someone who has spent way, way too many hours with this game, I definitely find myself overlooking the pacing issues. Even having played through the game fairly recently, I completely failed to notice them. That's more because I play this game at least once a year and know all of the beats by heart than because it doesn't have them. But I now play through the game in weird ways, either going for specific titles or just tackling things in ways that I'm less used to, so it's pretty easy to be blind to pacing problems.

That said, that bit at the end is weird, and even stood out to me when I played through it the first time, though I was probably 12 and had infinite time and finding out there's more game in there felt like a positive back then rather than the bizarre, tacked on bit that it was. In a game that did not need to pad out it's length (it's already long enough) that part feels completely pointless. Though I know why they did it, it's basically the game coming to a screeching halt and saying "this next part is gonna suck, go do sidequests for a while." But then even that doesn't really hold up, because a fair amount of the endgame sidequests require you to have gotten to the room before the final boss before they can be completed at all. It's a weird section of the game.

I have about a million things to say about this game (as you already know after reading my own blog posts about it) but I'll keep myself restrained and just say that I'm totally on-board with everything you've said here. As far as "traditional in every sense of the word" JRPG games go, (as you mentioned, it hits all those notes down to the "flying airship halfway through" bit) I think this game is one of the best.

The sequel is rough. It exists solely for fan service, and then fumbles all of it, thus making its entire existence meaningless. Xillia is also kind of a low (in my opinion.) I think Vesperia is probably the next best after this one, though you mentioned not platinum-ing this game... Vesperia has some of the worst achievements in the entire 360 library. There's an achievement that literally requires you to move on the world map for aboooout 8 hours straight. It's pretty obvious that they accidentally added a zero to the amount you had to travel to unlock it; it's unbelievable. But Vesperia has a really rad protagonist, and also plants some of the seeds for the stuff I really like about the most recent Berseria. It also has a similarly vibrant color pallet, which is something that just sort of passively makes Symphonia more pleasant to play.

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#3 Edited by Mento (4244 posts) -

Welcome to the Tales Train. Just fifteen more core entries to go after this one. You could turn it into a series like ZP and Final Fantasy! Or you could just play Xillia, Vesperia, and Berseria and get most of the highlights.

Also, every 3D Tales operates on a similar "2.5D" system, as you put it, snapping to whatever plane the targeted enemy is on to make it easier to combo/juggle them. That's what the "Linear" part of "Linear Motion Battle System" indicates. However, future games from Abyss onward at least allow you to hit a button to "free run" if you need to reposition yourself or escape in a hurry.

I am politely declining your generous GOG giveaway for Heroes of Mad Stackz™, for the record, but I will mention that this World of Xeen playthrough is going swimmingly so far. I'm reminded just how weird these M&M games could be, both structurally and in terms of its occasional bouts of "humor".

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#5 Edited by generic_username (943 posts) -

@loamlife: There is actually a GBA rerelease of that game that totally made it out in English. I could probably find my copy of it right now if I wanted to, though I don't own a platform to actually play it with anymore. I never finished it, personally, but other people on the internet say it's a good game.

They also apparently remade it for mobile at one point, and it was a disaster. A weird, microtransaction-infused disaster. It is no longer available on mobile platforms and honestly there's not much of a record that it ever existed in the first place, but I remember reading about it when it came out.

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#6 Posted by NPCDi (583 posts) -

I recently decided I needed to play alot of JRPGs recently. I'm also playing my first tales game but it's Berseria and I'm really loving it.

I'm also playing FF7 FF10 and FF12 though so it's slow going.

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#7 Posted by ArbitraryWater (15697 posts) -

@npcdi: That's a LOT of JRPGs to go through at once. I don't know if I could handle that!

@loamlife: Yeah, was a backer, so I don't have a great picture of how aware normal people are of Pillars of Eternity 2. Then again, I backed The Bard's Tale IV like 3 years ago and am at the point where the semi-regular updates are a weird reminder of that thing's existence. Looking forward to seeing that and Underworld Ascendant be real games in my steam library instead of vague concepts that I was excited about in 2015.

@mento: I've vaguely considered going down a ZombiePie-esque Tales nightmare hole where I intentionally play the ones no one likes, but I feel like my quotient for bad anime bullshit is already being fulfilled by my quest to watch (a decent amount of) the various Fate/Stay Night anime series out there. That'll... probably end up getting talked about in some future blog, because anime is bad and also great.

@generic_username: In regards to other Tales games, I actually just picked up Berseria because it was like $20 on PSN. The thing I'll say about the Tales fandom is I feel like there's at least a pretty established hierarchy for the series, in stark contrast to how every single Final Fantasy game from IV and onward has its share of advocates and opponents. At the top there's Symphonia and Vesperia, which are the "good" popular ones, then there are the ones with positive-to-mixed reception (Xillia, Abyss, etc) the ones that even diehards admit are merely "okay" (Hearts, Graces, Zestiria) and then there are the ones that everyone seemingly hates (Dawn of the New World, Tales of the Tempest) scattered among the ones that no one has actually played (all of the Japan-exclusive ones.)

It's a pretty easy bookmark to see what's worth my time, though I'm still going to have to at least check out the first few hours of Symphonia's sequel. I don't think I need to finish it, the same way I "needed" to finish Mass Effect Andromeda, but I at least would like to understand why everyone hates the shit out of it.

@shivermetimbers:Yeah, if you've played the modern King's Bounty games, you've basically played Heroes of Might and Magic. The format is a little different (KB is a lot more of a RPG) but the tactical combat is a pretty strong progression on what Heroes was putting down. I've only managed to actually finish one of them (Armored Princess) but actually finishing RPGs is something I've never been amazing at. I still have a save 30 hours into Divinity Original Sin 2 that I need to get back to, though I might just end up restarting instead of trying to parse out what I did and didn't do in that game. The good thing about that is I can mess around with even more of the ridiculous, somewhat frightening build variety it rolls with.

Yeah, I can imagine Fallout 1 being an intimidating experience for a kid (didn't play it until I was in my mid-teens, right before Fallout 3 came out, so I had some CRPG experience.) I definitely have my share of vague memories regarding pack-in games that came with my family's windows 95 computer. I know I played a decent amount of Civilization II when I was like 6-8, despite having ZERO idea how to actually play Civ II.

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#8 Posted by sparky_buzzsaw (8862 posts) -

@arbitrarywater: The biggest problem with binging Tales games ala Zeep and Final Fantasy is that the Tales games are all pretty much the same thing, with only relatively minor tweaks made between games. Don't get me wrong, those tweaks can add up to some serious highs and lows for the series, but you've got a lot of similar archetypes, joke notes, settings, villains, etc. In any case, it sounds like you're leaning away from doing that anyways, so I'm probably saying that needlessly. They're good for what they are, and I definitely like keeping one or two around for when I get the itch, but plowing through all of them would be... woof.

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#9 Edited by doughnutwarlord (20 posts) -

I started going down the Tales hole myself over the past year, having played Xillia and Berseria and generally liking both. Xillia felt pretty... straightforward, I guess I would say, but it worked well enough as a first Tales game for me.

Speaking of good casts, I found Berseria’s to be pretty great: they all have really great chemistry, and I found some of their skits and interactions to be genuinely pretty funny at points. It was far and away my favorite part of that game, and honestly one of the better casts I’ve seen in a JRPG (not like I’ve played a ton or anything).

My biggest bone to pick with the combat in both games is that it felt like the combat arena just needed to be bigger, or something. I never felt like I had a ton of room to maneuver or anything, and it made the combat feel kinda mash-y and messy at times. Maybe I’m just a crazy person who likes turn-based combat.

Still, I’d be down for more Tales games; I’d like to play Symphonia or Vesperia at some point and find out how ‘top-tier’ Tales compares to my experience, especially after reading this.

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#10 Posted by Slag (8157 posts) -

Nice blog AW!

I thought Symphonia did a god job of being a simple story with simple characters without being boring. Harder to do than it sounds. And I liked the combat system that you covered

That being said, if you never play another Tales game, I don't think you are missing that much. I bounced off Legendia super hard and Tales fans seem to think that was a "good one" from what I can tell.

Thanks for the GoG offer! I already own a copy of that game however, so I'll pass. Hopefully somebody take you up on that though.

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#11 Posted by ArbitraryWater (15697 posts) -

@slag: I guess I'll see if I end up bouncing off more Tales games in the future. I will say, for as much as Symphonia has its pedestal near the top of the series, it does have some things I sure as hell hope are more modernized in later entries. I know Japanese RPGs aren't exactly known for their stellar UI design or tutorialization, but man I wouldn't mind a game that doesn't require me to look up what the actual difference between "T" and "S" type abilities are, or why I'd chose one over the other.

@sparky_buzzsaw:Is it weird that I actually kinda want to start another Tales game despite being more than a little done with Symphonia by the end of its run? That might be a bad idea. Maybe I'll just get into Dawn of the New World so that I at least will put that energy into something I have no real intention of finishing. (it's probably also because console games aggravate my current carpal tunnel pain a lot less than PC games do, which has been a bummer for me and Pillars of Eternity II)

My biggest bone to pick with the combat in both games is that it felt like the combat arena just needed to be bigger, or something. I never felt like I had a ton of room to maneuver or anything, and it made the combat feel kinda mash-y and messy at times. Maybe I’m just a crazy person who likes turn-based combat.

I'm normally all for as much turn-based combatting as possible, but I think the style of combat these games go for works for them (well, based on the one Tales game I've played). Certainly, I can say I wouldn't mind Symphonia being either a little more straight-up action or a little more controlled, but at that point I think it would also become a different thing. I'm to understand that the various nuances and tweaks to the combat systems are one of the biggest differentiators between various games in the series, so I'm looking forward to seeing what else works for me.

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#12 Posted by sparky_buzzsaw (8862 posts) -

@arbitrarywater: That might be a good way to go about it. I haven't played that one but the stories I've heard put it on a level with Xillia 2 in terms of its unnecessary-ness. Sorry to hear about the carpal tunnel pain.

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#13 Posted by Oscar__Explosion (2980 posts) -

The only Tales games I have ever gotten into were Symphonia, Abyss and Vesperia. The later games in the series adds way to many layers of combat systems that is completely overwhelming to me.

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#14 Posted by Slag (8157 posts) -

@arbitrarywater: I think that's probably a fair criticism to could apply to quite a few of the old JRPG classics. Don't blame ya. Would have been nice if they improved that in the PC port, but I bet they didn't.

One thing I've wondered about why Symphonia is so well regarded is that I think it was most American's first Tales game. I think a couple before it had been localized for the west, but Symphonia was the first time I heard of the series and I doubt I was alone there. Be interesting to see if that's how you end feeling after playing a few more.

dunno if this would help with you Carpal Tunnel (or would be viable in POE 2, dunno if that game is real time), when I have wrist pain I'll switch the mouse to my off hand. Might be worth a try, even if it's just to give your hand a breather every once in a while.

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