Review: Tales of Vesperia (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Tales of Vesperia
Genre: Role Playing Game
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: 08/26/08


The Tales series of RPG’s is one of those RPG franchises that got over huge in Japan, but never really managed to get any traction in the US until the last generation of consoles. For whatever reason, Tales of Symphonia got the franchise going in the states, thanks to good critical reception and a general dearth of RPG’s at that point for the Gamecube, and since then, we’ve been seeing about one or two of the games a year from Namco Bandai, each of largely variable quality. At their best, the games are often good representations of the genre, blending standard RPG conventions with action-oriented gameplay and generally engaging quests, but at their worst, the games exemplify the genre’s stereotypes to a ridiculous degree, plot-wise, leaving the experience feeling more like a “me-too” game than something special. Tales of Vesperia, aside from being the first 360 game in the franchise, certainly looks to be one of the best games in the series, as well as another potentially great exclusive for the 360, but looks can certainly be deceiving. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here; Tales of Vesperia manages to do more than enough right to make it worth owning, though it does have its fair share of flaws.

The game centers primarily around Yuri Lowell, former knight and present resident of the lower quarter (AKA the poor neighborhood) of the imperial capitol, Zaphias. As the story begins, someone has stolen the blastia (a gem that has magical properties and, depending on the type, has various different effects) from the fountain in the lower quarter, which causes said fountain to go completely haywire and spew water everywhere. Yuri chases down the thief, only to end up in jail, which ends up acquainting him with Estellise, a young woman living in the castle who wants to escape so she can warn Flynn Scifo, one of the knight captains (and a friend to both Estellise and Yuri) of some impending danger. Yuri and the newly nicknamed Estelle, along with Yuri’s dog Repede, decide to head off together to warn Flynn of the impending danger, making all sorts of friends along the way and, of course, becoming interlocked in a quest to save the whole entire world and all that sort of expected silliness that is common in such games.

But, surprisingly enough, despite the stereotypical plot elements and characters (jerk with a heart of gold, sheltered mysterious girl with strange powers, virtuous knight with love for his country who is disillusioned by the way things are done, rude socially inept bookworm who develops feelings over time), the plot in Tales of Vesperia somehow, against all common logic, actually works. The characters are endearing without being overly dramatic or corny, the events of the story are often well-paced and fitting without being entirely expected, and in a few rare instances the plot goes in directions you might not immediately expect. Some of the plot elements are so obvious Stevie Wonder would see them coming, and the ending isn’t particularly satisfying in comparison to the tens of hours of plot preceding it, but by and large the story is more good than bad, and is surprisingly fresh and interesting all around.

Visually, Tales of Vesperia is very, very pretty all around. The game world is bright, vibrant, and lively, whether traversing the overworld map, running around a town, or poking around in the depths of the dungeons, and it’s generally very pleasant to look at across the board. The character models are all cel-shaded and stand out nicely in contrast to the more traditionally rendered game world, which brings a bit more life to the visuals of the product otherwise. In-battle animation is occasionally a bit stiff, but not so much that it negatively affects the product, which is all in all marvelous on a visual level. Aurally, the music and sound effects are generally quite good, and they do their job nicely, but the real star in the sound department is the voice acting. Simply put, Tales of Vesperia has one of the best vocal casts this year, with excellent vocal performances from (if the internet is to be believed) Troy Baker (Dr. Markus Vaughn from Trauma Center: New Blood), Hynden Welch (Starfire from Teen Titans), Michelle Ruff (Reiko Hinomoto from Rumble Roses XX), Julie Ann Taylor (Aisha from Rumble Roses XX), and of course Wendee Lee (who has done about a billion voice roles, including, comically enough, Anesthesia from Rumble Roses XX), among others, which also helps to really sell the plot as something important.

As Tales of Vesperia is a role playing game from Japan, you will perhaps be unsurprised to note that it retains a lot of the traditional elements of other, similar products. You will spend most of your time running around the overworld map, traversing towns of various sorts, and delving into the depths of dungeons of various sorts, all the while fighting regular and boss monsters to gain experience points. You have a party of various characters, of which you can have four active at any given time in battle, though your secondary members continue to earn experience points and such when not in combat (though they do not earn the bonus EXP your main party members are eligible for except under certain conditions). Everyone has various items they can use, from your typical healing and magic restoring items (called Gels here) to your various stat boosting and ailment curing extra items, and they all have various items they can equip, from armor and helmets to primary and secondary weapons, as well as one accessory each. Most standard RPG fans should be able to jump in and feel at home with these mechanics right away, as they’re simple to learn and make a lot of sense all in all.

The rest of the gameplay is what warrants a bit of explanation.

First off, all of your battles are action oriented, with your team of characters whipping up on the opposing team of foes. How this works is simple enough; the first person in your party formation is who you control in battle, and from there, you can simply either set them up to control automatically (meaning the CPU controls them) or manually (meaning you dictate their every move). You’re given one button to unleash your standard combination assault, which can be changed up by holding a direction while you’re pressing the button for different attacks that might knock a foe down or launch them into the air, for example. You also have an Artes button that generally works like a magic command of sorts; by pressing either the button with a direction on the left stick, or by pressing a direction on the right stick, you unleash an Arte (a special attack), either as a direct attack or by way of casting a spell, with the former occurring instantly and being usable at the end of combination attacks, and the latter taking time to cast (and yes, both use magic power). You can also block incoming opponent attacks, which reduces the damage inflicted, or attempt to move away from attacking opponents, either by simply backing up or by holding a button to go into 3D movement to escape in a different direction (by default movement is on a 2D plane, but holding the left trigger, by default, allows you to move in any direction on the battlefield). Your remaining allies are controlled by the CPU, though you can give them general indications of how to perform in battle (IE to adjust as the battle improves or worsens, to play defensively, to go all-out, and so on), and through a pop-up menu you can dictate to them to use specific Artes or items, as well as use items yourself, though as a way to avoid item abuse, there is a cooldown period between item usage periods, so that you can’t use two healing items or two resurrection items in a row, for instance, making battles more strategic than one might first think, especially boss battles.

There are a few other tools you have available to you in battle, by way of the Overlimit Gauge, Burst Artes, and Fatal Strikes. As you engage in battle, either by being hit by enemies or by hitting them, you build up the Overlimit Gauge on the left side of the screen. By pressing any direction on the d-pad, you enter Overlimit Mode, which allows you to spam Artes repeatedly for a brief period of time, as well as allowing for other, more powerful attacks of various types (depending on the Overlimit level). You can also use a Burst Arte by chaining it after a regular Arte while in Overlimit, and as expected, Burst Artes are obscenely powerful offensive assaults that severely damage opposing monsters. Each of your Artes is typed to one of three types of directions (forward, up or down) in addition to whatever elemental charge it carries, and as enemies take Arte attacks of each direction, they become weakened to that type of directional attack. When an enemy has taken enough directional Artes of one type, a symbol appears over them, and by pressing the right trigger, you unleash a Fatal Strike on them, which significantly weakens boss monsters and kills normal enemies outright. Using these techniques in tandem is a necessity for many battles, as various boss monsters can also use Overlimit and also have all sorts of powerful attacks and such at their disposal, and you’ll need every advantage you can take. Many boss fights are also designed with certain puzzle elements built in to add to the challenge, with one boss fight featuring bridges that allow additional enemies to come into battle, another featuring torches that go out which allow the boss to summon a clone to add to the damage, and more that will test both your quick thinking AND your battle capabilities.

Outside of battle, there are other things that make Tales of Vesperia more than just another RPG. For one, all of the monsters you can potentially engage in battle appear on the world map, whether in a dungeon or in the overworld, meaning you can attempt to avoid combat or try to influence it to your advantage (think Persona 3). You are provided a Sorcerer’s Ring fairly early on that works in dungeons as a way to potentially stun enemies; you can either incite the enemy to attack you, freeze them in place, or stun them (thus making them stunned when you start battle, thus offering you a free hit), though the actual way it works isn’t particularly intuitive, as you have to be fairly close to do this effectively and it doesn’t always work as intended. Your characters also have various skills they can learn, each of which has various functions in battle, from boosted hit points to reduced or increased attack damage to added combat moves to the ability to share bonus EXP earned in battles even if not an active party member (as noted above) and beyond. Each of these skills is learned from various weapons, and will remain active at no cost if it said weapon is equipped, but otherwise will need to be assigned from the Skill Point pool of the character the skill is equipped to. You can also synthesize various things, from weapons (which often requires other weapons, meaning you’ll want to keep your old weaponry, just in case) and armor to consumables to odd little special items that can allow you to change your leader in battle or allow for other odd novelties. There’s also the matter of cooking, which is something of a staple in the Tales series, where you can have one of your characters cook a meal (one between each battle, basically) that can boost your health and magic, improve your stats, or other things, as well as lead to learning other recipes… if you succeed; if you fail, you get a minor health and magic boost, and you can try again after your next battle.

For those who are all about the content, Tales of Vesperia delivers; the core game is in the general vicinity of sixty hours long, and aside from offering the option of multiple battle difficulties, also offers side-quests, bonus dungeons, and huge monsters to hunt down and slay for those looking to do it all. Further, there’s also the option of a New Game Plus, though in an odd twist, you can only carry over or improve what you boost through use of Grades. After each battle, on any difficulty but Easy, Grades are assigned to your performance (counting up things like combos, damage taken and inflicted and so on) which earn you points you can spend to carry over various things as well as to boost up your maximum item carry limit and so on, meaning that there’s not only a reason to play on anything above Easy that actually gives you rewards for doing so, but there’s also a reason to play the game over. There are also some novel costumes to unlock as well as XBL downloads to learn skills, improve your money situation and level your characters (though some of these things cost MS Points, a few which are actually useful in the beginning of the game do not, making the early going easier at no cost if you’re new to the series). You can also play with two players at one time, as in other games in the franchise, which can make battles significantly easier if you’re having a hard time (or just want to get a friend involved in general).

So, yeah, lots of play and replay value, deep combat, and a generally decent amount of options across the board. Sounds great, right?

Not always.

For one thing, Tales of Vesperia features plenty of arbitrary limitations that, while they are common to this genre, are excessively antiquated in this day and age. For one: Save Points. You can save at any time on the overworld map, but in dungeons and towns, you can only save at designated save points. Why? It’s two thousand and eight, people, and we have these wonderful things called HARD DRIVES in our consoles. This “save at designated points at certain times” crap is outdated and has been for years, let it go. For another, Item Limits. You can carry around one of everything in the entire world (including several hundred different types of weapons and armor) but you can only carry fifteen gels. Why? Why such an arbitrary and small number? On Normal difficulty you won’t need that many of said items to progress through a dungeon, but if you find any additional of said items while traversing said dungeon you either need to use them up or leave them where you found them, and there’s not really any reason for that when a higher number would be significantly less limiting. Again, limitations for the sake of being limited that only make sense when one realizes that “this is what the developer wanted”, but don’t make sense given the nature of present technology and the design of the game itself.

But, okay, fine. These are limitations on the genre, and despite all common sense and rational thought, they will continue to exist, presumably, until the end of time. On the other hand, some of the other mechanics of the game don’t work the same way. For one, weapon synthesis, as noted above, mostly requires you to carry around old weapons in order to forge new ones. This is asinine on three levels; for one, it means you’re eventually going to be going through a list of twenty or thirty weapons PER CHARACTER just to find a new weapon to equip, not to boost attack power, but to learn new skills; for two, the game doesn’t bother to tell you about this until about ten hours into the game, long after you’ve sold off a bunch of weapons, meaning you either need to backtrack to re-purchase them or you need to give up on re-acquiring them; and for three, it means the age-old mentality of selling off old gear to help finance the cost of new gear is thrown by the wayside, which often means hours of grinding just to afford new equipment… or, you could log onto XBLA and buy 300,000 bucks to alleviate the problem.

And as an aside, while I don’t disapprove of the idea of developers offering up such things online, doesn’t it kind of seem like they’re saying “hey, in case you stink at this game, you can pay us a bunch of cash to help yourself out”? I mean, I always assumed that the reason things like the Gameshark hadn’t popped up for the current generation of consoles was to prevent people from cheating at online-enabled games, but if the real purpose is to allow developers to charge us money to cheat at our games (and lord knows this isn’t the first time; Rumble Roses XX and Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 allow for downloads of items it would take forever to unlock for something around five dollars apiece), well, I’d sooner pay money ONCE to a small company than pay money OVER AND OVER AND OVER to the big companies who, one would believe, should be making games balanced enough that I should not HAVE TO grind OR cheat in order to progress in a fairly reasonable manner.

Further on the limitations of the product, the game presents you with enemies you can see in the battlefield, thus allowing you to avoid battle entirely if you wish, and a ring to stun them if you want, but it doesn’t seem to understand how this should work, and as a result, often doesn’t do it properly. Being able to see encounters is good in the sense that, yes, it does allow the player to prepare for them appropriately, but if most of the dungeons take place on narrow walkways, what’s the point of making the enemies visible when the player can’t even avoid them in the first place? Further, aside from the fact that the Sorcerer’s Ring doesn’t seem to really consistently work as one would expect, the fact that it seems to be nearly impossible to hit flying foes again begs the question of why you would even bother incorporating such an element into your game when it doesn’t work particularly well. And while the battle system is generally neat and works well enough, it’s often unbalanced; regular battles can basically be breezed through by spamming the main attack combos and a few Artes until everything you meet is dead, but boss battles often require you to use your Artes, Overlimit Gauge, and other techniques to their maximum potential, as well as work around various challenges in the battles, in order to succeed. This is perfectly fine, but it’s not the same thing as needing to bust out your top-tier spells in a typical RPG, thanks to the action-oriented nature of it, especially when bosses go into Overlimit, start spamming exceptionally high-damage attacks, and simply stop selling your damage entirely, and some sort of compromise where regular battles are more capable of teaching you how to properly use said techniques might have been worthwhile.

Tales of Vesperia ultimately is a good, solid JRPG that’s generally well designed, though not without its flaws, and if you’re a fan of the genre, it’s worth checking out. The presentation values are high quality across the board, the gameplay is fun for the most part, there’s plenty of depth to the experience, and if you’re willing to deal with a few odd gameplay issues, it’s one of the better entries in the series, as well as a fairly decent game in its own right. That’s not to say that it’s perfect; aside from the fact that it clings to archaic genre conventions that are long past their point of expiration, there’s also a significant amount of grinding and hoarding required to access some of the skills in the game, the idea of charging real-life money for in-game enhancements is a little bizarre, combat is a little unbalanced at times, and some of the mechanics of the game don’t work as well as they should. Frankly, though, Tales of Vesperia is still one of the better JRPG’s to come out in years, odd issues aside, and whether you’re the serious player who doesn’t mind all of the grinding and balance issues or the casual player who doesn’t mind playing on Easy to avoid so many of these issues (at the cost of losing out on bonuses in a New Game Plus), you’ll find Tales of Vesperia to be a worthwhile investment.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

Final Score: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Tales of Vesperia is a good, solid addition to any JRPG fan’s lineup of games, and is honestly one of the best entries in the series. Between the mostly outstanding story, the excellent presentation, the mostly solid gameplay, and the large amount of depth, options, and replay value in the game, it more or less justifies its asking price nicely. There are some noticeably archaic gameplay elements, as well as a few odd balance and gameplay flaws here and there, and the idea of selling increased levels and skills for characters online seems a bit suspect, and this might be a little awkward at first to newcomers. If you can get past those issues, however, Tales of Vesperia is an enjoyable experience overall that’s well worth the asking price for JRPG fans of all types.

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