junior_ain's Tales of the Abyss (Nintendo 3DS) review

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Good port of Tales, keep 'em RPGs coming

The primary focus of re-releases is giving the opportunity to people who have never had the chance to play the game to go ahead and actually play it. This Tales of re-release for the 3DS has been bashed by critics for not containing any new feature, but that's the point in some sense. I, for one, have never had a Playstation 2 which was the console which served as home for this title originally, so I missed it. Now with this release I can experience this Tales installment that although released for a fairly popular console—arguably the most well-known and successful console of all time—but still just a single one, and if you happened to be a Nintendo fanboy at that time, you probably haven't played it. Now's a good time to recover the lost time.

I wasn't actually sure that this wasn't a game made specifically for the 3DS but I had my hunch. After connecting the cartridge and playing it for the first time I had little doubt. The graphics seemed outdated in the sense that old technology was used to craft them. Square-shaped characters, cheesy animations and so on. You could never say it's dated, it was released fairly late in the PS2's life-span. It's also a handheld game which was formally a console one. That's more than I could ask for.

If Zelda Ocarina of Time was released for the Nintendo Wii U in HD it would look extremely outdated, when released for the 3DS with sloppy 3D features, it looks glorious. Tales games hardly look glorious and this one's not an exception. I have to say the cel-shaded style for Tales of Symphonia is much more pleasing on the eye. I have yet to see how Symphonia would look in a small screen though.

It's all regular Tales here. The story unfolds in a very slow manner. Generally so many stuff happen in-between, sometimes it's easy to forget what was the actual primary objective. Twists happen all around. Something I could notice that differs from a game made today is how death seems part of it. I don't remember other Tales or any recent RPG take death seriously. Hundreds die and it's simply left to desensitized view of everything that happens off-screen stays off-screen, off the heart. The characters seem not to take it lightly.

The overworld looks very sterile, that's basically something every Tales game features. When you enter a city you're much better suited but still, almost every city or general locale in the game isn't particularly big, nor worthy of closer inspection. There's not a vast amount of side-quests to delve into neither. As always, the experience is immensely story-driven, even though the battles are somewhat action-filled and oppose to several upon several minutes of talking. When they do talk is a plus, I feel the skits—which provide much needed insight into their mundane views, and more importantly, their daily basis relationships—should have been dubbed as well.

For a game of this caliber, the voice-over is pretty unimpressive. The main characters have sufficiently bearable voice-actors—though the outcome is not constant—, the secondary actors though could use a much better job. We're not exactly talking about a game released in 1995, Tales of the Abyss came out initially on the verge of closure of the glorious year of 2005. If not entirely an asset to immersion, it could squeeze a laugh or two out of sheer silliness once in a while.

Learn the story, relate to characters, gather them to save the world and battle. You'll do quite a lot of battling. The real-time action system is similar to Symphonia's, which functioned amazingly well. As always—and pretty much why this is called an RPG—you start weak and progress toward strengthening mind and body. There's a few number of ways to do that, it might take a while to fully understand the whole set of mechanics available.

Some stuff are quite basic though. You level up as you battle and get money, named Gald in the game. As you gather the precious Gald you are able to afford newer, better equipment. Better stats let you fight stronger monsters and advance in a less cautious manner. Several items serve the player well in aiding like HP and TP recovers and so on. The fact you can have up to 6 party members and 4 of them can participate in a battle at a time demands a decision. Which ones will make the cut?

Of course, we have the general differences in RPGs where some characters wield swords while others cast magic; some have better defenses while others are more well-suited for attacking; some are close combatants while others use ranged weapons like bows. That's all fine and all. Your party members aren't constant though, sometimes one or two, or maybe all of them are unavailable either because they were defeated in battle or the story unfolded in such a way that the group and said characters parted ways, either temporarily or for good. The player has to deal with that.

Knowing what each character is capable of as well as the type of enemy you're about to face off is important. Not so much for monsters in the wild but bosses and semi-bosses can be quite tricky if you're not prepared. The battle system has great depth, though players unwilling to go deep in its learning curve will do just fine. You can execute complex combos for insane number of hits, but since you highly depend on other CPU-controlled characters to do it things can easily go wrong. Still, most of the time you can simply go ahead and slash your enemy relentlessly for a win. In tougher enemies items will give a hand.

As I mentioned the TP—which stands for Technical Points, or magic points if you will—it's worth mentioning that there's quite a selection of special attacks to perform in-battle. Newer attacks are unlocked by using the ones you already have and leveling up; sometimes as you use two specials they mix together to form a combined double special attack. Special attacks are called Art in the game. There are Base Artes and Arcane Artes. The former is simpler and generally linked after the initial combo, for then unleash the final arcane Art. The pattern is pretty grindy. Smash buttons for initial combo, use a base Art, use an arcane Art. It wields pretty good results.

There's much more to it but sometimes it feels like luck plays a way too major role in all this. The magical circles for example, every time an elemental art is used—water, fire, wind, earth, light, dark—a white circle is created on the ground where it hit, if the same element is used frequently in the area the circle will become the color of the element enhancing any Art that matches the element of the circle; a different number of casts are needed depending on the special attack. This easier said than done. Moving around the battlefield is cumbersome and can prove to be quite difficult in the heat of battle, it's rare for the circle to become colored—especially at the beginning of the adventure—, knowing and having an Art to match the circle adds to the difficulty. Most non-hardcore players will see enhancements born from sheer luck, I'm afraid.

Still, one can't say the system doesn't have a simple yet functional method of working, while still giving players opportunities to go beyond and add complex strategies. In the original Playstation 2 release you could play multiplayer during battles, playing with other people makes a lot more sense when it comes to this kind of strategy. I'm not saying the computer gets in your way when it comes to battle, most of the time it simply keeps you alive by casting healing spells, but you can't count on it to follow what you have in mind, even after meddling with the built-in strategy features.

There are three sets of player control; manual, semi-auto and auto. Auto lets the CPU control your character, handy when you're tired of battling lesser enemies. The manual won't have anything to do with what you make your character perform on-screen, you have full control. In semi-auto every time you perform an attack, and you have complete control of what you want to do, the machine will automatically go after the enemy you have aimed guaranteeing the attack to reach the target.

When you deal a hell of a lot of damage you fulfill another special bar called Overlimit. Whoever has played later games in the series know that this feature has been improved upon but here it serves little purpose. You won't be staggered while in Overlimit and will be able to use the last and final level of Arts, Mystic Arts. In later games it lets you attack indefinitely without stop through the duration of the effect. This is simply not true for this title, and since you get Overlimit at level 15 but only has access to Mystic Arts at level 30—let alone the fact it's not the easiest of the attack modes to be triggered—most players will go through the game without fully comprehending why they're performing Overlimit.

I'm not going to try explaining the story in its fullest, I wouldn't make a scratch. As I've said it comes and goes as it sees fit. The role-play is intense because you're sure to have a twist at every corner. Basically there's a guy named Luke who's been imprisoned inside his own house for 7 years, he has a sword master that teaches him how to fight. Luke is engaged to the princess Natalia, daughter of his uncle, who happens to be the king. Due to a series of occurrences he embarks on a journey unknowingly of how important and decisive his role in all this really is.

During his journey he meets up with several other people. The world surrounding the whole story is pretty interesting, and quite complex. Apparently everything that exists—from humans to stones—are composed of Fonons. Fonons are the basic particle that compose all matter. It's sort of a Membrane theory of high-fantasy. These fonons are sound waves that emit the tiniest form of matter. Depending on the frequency and natural type a different type of matter is formed to compose everything there is.

Fonists are the people who study these differences and use them to craft advanced Artes. There are, as I've said, 6 types of Fonons which can create 6 types of Art types—water, fire, wind, earth, light and darkness. There's also a seventh type of rare Fonon which is not completely understood by current technology. The seventh fonon users are called "the scorers", they're also mostly healers. Luke, our main protagonist, is one of these rare individuals who can use this seventh fonon; and there's more, he's got some inherited power that allows him to create a hyperresonance. Normally a hyperresonance can only be reached through the interaction of two seventh fonon users, but Luke has the strange ability to use it by himself, which makes him a very interesting individual.

The story can go over our heads pretty easily, but at least they seemed to get how hard things seem at first, so everything is thoroughly explained over and over again. The personalities of the characters are interesting and live up to Tales's good set of characters over the years. There's one small thing that gets me though. Why in the world would anyone name their character Guy? That's the name of Luke's best friend and it infuriates me how someone would just think about Guy for a name and go through with it thinking it's a good idea. It's absolutely not a good idea. Not that it makes too much of a difference anyway, but still.

See, the Tales series is always pleasing on the eye. A Japanese-styled—I hate that terminology—that isn't stuck on old dilemmas on how full of old ways a genre must be. Still, there's nothing really different from other Tales games. Is that a bad or a good thing? I now think it's a good thing since you can't expect a revolution on every genre from every game that will ever come out until the end of time, what you might expect is an adventure that at least tries to fix old problems while maintaining whatever worked in the past. If anything, improve them. Not a lot has changed over the years in Tales, it's debatable whether that was called for, but what worked in the series is certainly to be found here in decent degree. The overall result should please old time fans, but especially those who aren't familiar with what Tales has to offer. There's certainly a few surprises here and there to those unfamiliar to the series, good surprises.

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