Review: Tales of Vesperia

Tales of Vesperia was one of the many hidden gems of 2008. There were so many high profile releases last year, many of which were also high quality, that a lot games fell through the cracks unnoticed. ToV was one of those games. The fact that it was released exclusively on a console that is not exactly known for catering to the RPG demographic probably did not help. However, none of that changes the end result. Namco’s 360 debut of its long-running Tales RPG series includes the cel-shaded and anime-influenced graphics from its predecessors, as well as the real-time combat that set it apart from Final Fantasy titles. Namco combines wonderfully-rendered animation with solid gameplay and an endearing story to produce a solid RPG that any JRPG fan will love.

Hit the jump for details.

Story
The story behind Tales of Vesperia revolves around a little something called “blastia.” These blastia are essentially programmable cores that grant the user significant power. The scope of this “user” and this “power” is fairly vast, depending on what they were programmed to do, and what they were placed into. Along with its jack-of-all-trades capability, the blastia also act as the driving engine behind the plot, as they provide many of the amenities within the in-game world, but have recently started to act up. The poster boy for the game is Yuri Lowell, a ruffian of types who used to be a royal knight, but quit after finding out it wasn’t really his cup of tea. He’s dragged into the plot at the beginning of the game by someone stealing a blastia out of a fountain, causing it to flood his neighborhood. Yuri sets out to find the thief, and reclaim the stolen blastia. And if you can’t guess what happens next, you probably have not played a Japanese RPG in the past 20 years or so. Our hero, and some friends he meets along the way, end up getting dragged into problems much bigger than stolen blastia, and take on a quest to save the world from destruction. The story follows the JRPG formula pretty well, and throws in the obligatory plot twist in the middle, although the twist is sort of disregarded soon after.

As with many of the games in the Tales series, there is always an underlying theme behind the plot. A “message”, if you will. Each Tales game has a “characteristic” name to accompany the fairly random name added at the end of “Tales of”. For Vesperia, this name is To Enforce One’s “Justice”. This ties into the first recurring theme within the plot, that deals with the morality and ethics behind what is the right way to exact “justice” upon those who do wrong to others. Another theme in the game involves the blastia and the abuse of blastia and over-dependence the in-game society had on its power. Obvious ties can be make to real life, but for the most part, these themes are fairly shallow, since it doesn’t really matter what the player’s opinion is on them, the game will make decisions for the player in order to move the plot along. After all, this isn’t KoTOR or anything.

The ending isn’t anything too dramatic, and essentially serves to drive the third and main theme home, which is that friendship can overcome all obstacles. How cute. Overall, we’re not looking at a Pulitzer Prize contestant here or anything, but complimented with excellent voice acting, the story will be endearing enough to keep you interested for the long duration of the game.



Graphics
The anime-influenced cel-shaded graphics are amazing. The world created for Tales of Vesperia is colorful and vibrant when it needs to be, and foreboding and gloomy when that serves the game better. The characters are well-animated; their movements and attacks looking natural and not forced. Spell effects are hit or miss. Some spells look plain, while others are very inventive and look stunning. The game world is animated in a way to make it look more three dimensional, and less cartoony. This is most noticeable as the camera will turn and “follow” your character as he moves around in the world, instead of staying in place. There are a select few segments of purely anime cutscenes which are a treat, but are few and far between.

Also, similar to Symphonia, skit prompt will appear through out the game. If activated, you will watch a short semi-animated comic book skit that fleshes out little tidbits of story, or involve just random musings. Most just come as you move the storyline, but some are triggered by the player’s actions. This one triggers if you do not have Judith in your party for an extended period of time.



Sound
The music score for the game is fitting, but after recently playing Lost Odyssey, I can’t say it is exceptional. It is well done in the sense that it fits the game and sets the mood. However, since I can’t currently think of anything especially memorable at this moment, it probably was not anything that blew me away. However, I’m not really one to pay attention to that stuff much, so it’s not a knock on the game or anything. The music serves it purpose well of setting the mood for the game, especially during battle. I wasn’t tired of the battle music at the end of the game, so I’ll give them that.

The sound for the game is also very well-done, especially the voice acting. You do have the requisite super high-pitched female voice actor in Estelle, but she did not get annoying like Colette’s voice from Tales of Symphonia. All the voice acting is believable and fits the characters well. The only one that may not really work is the one for Repede… the dog. Yes, one of your party members is going to be a dog. That uses a dagger with its mouth. And wears an eye patch. And smokes a pipe. Don’t worry, all that is explained within the game. Kind of. Anyway, they obviously just had a voice actor bark into their mic for Repede’s lines, so it doesn’t exactly sound realistic. But it’s a dog, so who cares? As with previous titles, the characters have many lines to say during and after combat. Each skill and spell will be called out every time you do it. This can get old, especially if you like to do the same moves over and over, but it never really bothered me. It also flows with the combat and there are no pauses during combat due to the calling out of spells and skills. One part of the combat from Tales of Symphonia that I liked was the spell incantations read out by casters when executing spells that require a long cast time. I thought it was a unique way of making the spell cast more exciting, instead of just having them stand there. That has returned in Vesperia, but the incantations are not nearly as long. Namco even added a little flavor to it. When casters go into overlimit (More on this later), their spell casts are always instant. Instead of taking the incantation out completely, Namco added a little humor to it by making the casters say things like “Blah, blah, blah” in place of the long incantations. Based on your party makeup, when combat ends, there will be a short bit of dialogue between the characters that participated in the battle. These are mostly humorous, but they will probably get boring if you have a Fav-4 team that you like to use a lot of the time.



Gameplay
Gameplay has not changed much in Vesperia from its recent predecessors like Symphonia. There are no random encounters within the game, as you can see all your enemies on the map and can either choose to actively avoid them, or actively hunt them down. They will pursue you though, and sometimes, there’s no way to avoid them. Unlike Symphonia, monsters on the world map actually show up as the type of monster you’d face, as opposed to indistinguishable black blobs. The plot formula is pretty standard fare. World map, town, dungeon, world map, town dungeon, with some small elements thrown in there. Dungeon crawling is essentially wandering around solving some puzzles in order to gain access to the place you want to get to, which usually is the location of the boss fight. Nothing in the storyline portion of the game is too difficult, including bosses. Trying to meet the “Secret Mission” requirements for each boss fight in order to get the respective achievements adds a layer of difficulty to the encounters, though. As with any JRPG, you will have a vast amount of sidequests to do if you so choose. This is really where you’ll find difficulty if you’re looking for it. The hardest puzzles and fights are all going to be found via sidequests, so they are definitely worth doing. One of the long sidequests will actually add another phase to the final boss fight, turning an otherwise forgettable encounter into one where you will definitely want to bring plenty of lube.

Combat in Vesperia is very similar to previous Tales titles. So if you disliked the combat from Symphonia, you won’t like it here, as it has not changed much. However, if you’re like me, and you enjoyed combat in Symphonia, you’ll love this. You’re still looking at real-time combat on a three-dimensional battlefield, with a two-dimensional movement plane relative to your target. However, small but noticeable changes have been made to the system that has given more depth to combat within Vesperia. First and foremost is the free run option, which can be activated at any time by holding down a button, allowing complete three-dimensional freedom of movement. This can be used offensively to get around frontline opponents to get to ones in the back row, or defensively to avoid attacks by running off to the side.

The attack system revolves around attacks called “artes”. These are equivalent to “techniques” from Symphonia. These artes are tiered, and intially you’ll only be able to perform a higher level arte after completing a lower level arte. For melee, these artes, added to standard melee attacks are your bread and butter. For casters, artes are the only real attacks they have. As you level, you will encounter new weapons and armor that have “skills” associated with them. When these weapons are equipped, the character has access to these skills. Using these skills, the player is allowed to customize their combat style. You can turn a character into an aerial expert, or one who can chain artes together endlessly, depending on your play style and choice of character. You can custom tailor your skills to match you favorite artes, giving combat some depth that was absent in previous Tales titles.

The artes system is a lot more complex than the technique system in Symphonia. Many artes are learned via a combination of leveling up and your usage of artes you already have. For example, you can’t get a certain tier 2 arte until you have used the tier 1 version 50 times and are level 20. This method of arte acquisition will give you a fairly good arsenal of attacks to work with. However, combining certain artes with skills will allow characters to learn “altered artes” which add another layer to your attack arsenal. Later on, certain skills will unlock finisher-like artes which can only be used during overlimit. Overlimit is not a new concept, having been well-established as the “Limit Break” in Final Fantasy games. Attack and get attacked to fill up the Overlimit gauge. The Overlimit gauge can ultimately be filled up four times to make for 4 levels of Overlimit, each level giving more power to your finishing artes. The player can choose the level of overlimit they want to use. If you have 4 levels built up, but only want to go into level 2 overlimit, it will only use 2 levels of the gauge. The remaining gauge can then be used for other characters or saved for later use. Each player also has an ultimate finishing attack called a Mystic Arte that can only be completed during overlimit level 3 or 4.

Overall, the combat system in Vesperia can have great depth. However, the depth is never really required. Yuri, which is the main character, is a fairly user-friendly character that is easy to pick up. However, even with Yuri, it takes some practice to master his artes and be able to chain long combos together for devastating damage. And that’s just for the character who is arguably the most button-mash friendly. Some of the other characters, most notably Judith, who is arguably the hardest character to play due to her unorthodox attack methods, takes a lot of practice to really master. Check out the video below of some combo exhibition from each of the characters, as well as some displays of the 2 tiers of finishing attacks.



Unfortunately, the game never really forces you to learn the full depth of the battle system. None of the fights are really challenging enough, and none of the monster encounters will even last you long enough to learn how to string long combos together. You’ll notice the damage the player in that video does is always 1. They have to do that in order to actually get off combos that large on monster, or else they’d die too quickily. This is really the game’s biggest tragedy. Namco developed a great combat system, but didn’t develop the game to make full use of it. You’re giving an enormous arsenal of artes to use, but you can only bind up to 8 of them. You’re almost forced into doing the same combos over and over simply due to the lack of keybinds. And what’s the point of knowing how to do 200-hit combos when most monsters do not live through a quarter of it? There are encounters in the game that are challenging, but not many. The Coliseum sidequest is one example, pitting one character of your choosing against wave after wave of monsters, with three tiers of bosses to go along with it. The Devil’s Arm sidequest will pit you against some of the hardest encounters in the game. And the EX Dungeon sidequest will offer some nostalgic fights against characters from previous Tales series. Aside from these exceptions, combat itself doesn’t really live up to its potential. Nevertheless, it is still very fun, and getting those large combos and Mystic Artes off never gets old.

Vesperia also stays true to the character setup of previous Tales titles. Each character will have their knack, similar to “classes” in RPGs. Yuri, for example, is a warrior whose expertise is in melee combat. He has no cast abilities, and he never will have cast ability. Similarly, you will have mage characters that are going to always suck with melee. Suffice it to say, this setup makes characters unique, and also can help determine which character you choose to be your main character, depending on your preference. Also, Vesperia introduces a character class that I’ve yet to see in other single player RPGs: an archer. For some reason, all ranged combatants in other RPGs that I’ve played tend to use guns. Nobody thought to use a bow and arrow. Probably because guns are simply easier to implement in combat. With the bow and arrow, Namco takes arrow travel time and trajectory into consideration, and doesn’t just give players a buy that they will always hit their target instantly. Want to shoot someone in the back row, but not hit the people in front? Better tilt your bow upwards and hope the target is not moving around sporadically. Just another layer of what is overall, a very deep battle system.

Replay Value
Similar to Symphonia, battle earn you “GRADE”. Essentially, the better you do in a battle, the more grade you get. Unlike Symphonia, this grade not seemingly random, and is actually explicitly spelled out for you if you so choose to review it. It will let you know everything you did that gained you grade, and everything you did that deducted grade. Upon beating the game, you will be taken to a Grade Shop, where you can buy perks for a new game using the grade you accumulated through combat. There are a lot of perks to choose from including retaining artes and skills learned, as well as things like 2X EXP gain. There are also options that will make the game more difficult if you’re looking for that kind of thing. It can make for an interesting second game. There are some achievements that will require a second playthrough. Also, the EX Dungeon can only be accessed on a second playthrough, given that you completed the prerequisite sidequest during the first playthrough. Beyond the EX Dungeon and the achievements, there’s really no further incentive to play the game again, except just for fun or to try out playing another character.

Recap
Overall, I would highly recommend Tales of Vesperia to anyone who considers themselves a fan of RPGs. I put in close to 80 hours into the game, and didn’t even touch a good chunk of sidequests, including some major ones. So there is plenty of game to keep you invested. I’d say if you went straight through the storyline without deviation, you could probably get at least 40 good hours out of the game.

Fun Fact: Tales of Vesperia is being made into a feature anime film in Japan, scheduled to release sometime this year.

Random Dirty Humor (Probably was much worse in Japanese):

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2 Responses to “Review: Tales of Vesperia”

  1. Mark, I think you should give Eternal Sonata a shot (if you haven’t already). Beneath the bizarre story there is a really sweet combat system and one helluva Bonus Dungeon.

  2. I played the demo, and it was a lot of fun. I just haven’t gotten to playing the full thing yet.

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