As much as I hated to be cynical about the subject, I never thought we would see another Tales game in North America again. The franchise has a rather large following in Japan, and despite how vocal the fanbase is in the rest of the world, the franchise has never really sold as well outside of its home country. It’s really a shame too, as I personally haven’t gotten into the series until recent years, but I find them to be a pleasant, if a bit clichéd at times, series of JRPG’s.
I’m not sure if Namco Bandai is taking a chance on the series again, thinking they may actually turn a profit, or if they are just buckling under fan pressure. In either case, we have not one, but two Tales releases this year, as Tales of Graces f will be releasing on the PS3 next month. Until then, we have a 3DS port of fan favorite Tales of the Abyss to tide everyone over. The PS2 version remains a fan favorite, but how well does a six-year-old game translate to today’s handheld market?
Tales of the Abyss is about a prince named Luke fon Fabre who, aside from not having any memories older than the last seven years and being forbidden from leaving his manor, lives a pretty average noble life. That is, until a mysterious woman named Tear tries to kill his mentor, Van. In an attempt to defend him, Luke locks swords with Tear, only to cause what is called a “hyper resonance”Â that sends them both to a mysterious place. What follows is a quest of self-discovery and a struggle against defying destiny.
I didn’t get too far in Abyss’ PS2 release, and my biggest concern was that a six-year-old storyline wasn’t going to hold my interest compared to other games on the market. I’m happy to say that while some of the terminology used in this game’s universe is a bit overwhelming, the overall plot is one of the better ones in the franchise. Be warned, it does take quite a while to get off the ground, but when it does, it’s hard to put down.
Another concern of mine with this game’s tale was that the main character, Luke, starts out so unlikable. He’s a spoiled teenager, completely unrelatable, and is an arrogant jerk to everyone he meets. Other characters, such as Tear or Guy, lack personality or individuality in the early going, save for Guy, whose phobia of women is an entertaining character quirk throughout the duration of the game. And yet, somehow, Tales of the Abyss manages to add layers of depth to all of these characters as they go along, making believable heroes and villains with understandable motivations. Even Luke, who you spend almost a third of the game loathing, suddenly matures into a character who you root for and enjoy playing as.
Story/Modes Rating: Great
Since this is basically a port of a 2006 PS2 game, it’s hard not to make comparisons to other games that had been released at that time. The two that immediately come to mind are Final Fantasy XII and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which in my opinion were far more stunning in that era. Tales of the Abyss doesn’t really stand out as much as these two games, though for what it’s worth, it’s far better looking than its predecessor, Tales of Legendia. This isn’t to say that it’s an ugly game. The character models look fine, and the environments are varied enough that you won’t tire of them, even if they aren’t particularly detailed. The expressions on the character models’ faces in particular are amusing, putting on display the kinds of emotions you’d find in your typical anime.
While graphically the game looks much the same as it did on the PS2, the performance of it is so much better. One thing I remember from the original release is the excess of loading times that you had to contend with, and those are long gone with the 3DS version. You can still tell when a huge cutscene is going to happen, as there’s still a delay in the screen transition when it’s about to occur, but it’s nowhere near the nuisance it used to be. There are also anime cutscenes that play from time to time that look quite good on the small screen and don’t appear to hinder performance either.
Graphics Rating: Good
One of the biggest problems with RPG’s that have a longer than average play time and involve random battles is that no matter how good the music is, it tends to grate on your nerves after a few hundred battles. I’ve noticed that with Tales games, once you’ve hit a major turning point in the game, the battle music changes to something else, and Abyss is no exception. On top of the that, the soundtrack is quite good, though not quite as memorable as Legendia, whose tunes got stuck in my head for weeks following completion.
Tales of the Abyss has put together one of the better voice casts in recent memory, rivaling that of the very well done Tales of Vesperia. Yuri Lowenthal voices Luke, who many anime fans might recognize from his role as Sasuke Uchiha from the Naruto series, and manages to stay consistent with the character through all of his personality changes. Johnny Yong Bosch, who I’ve joked to many people is in everything (seriously, look him up), does a very bang up job as the role of Guy. In fact, I can’t think of one character who I thought had poor voicework, which can sometimes be rare in an English dub like this one.
Sound Rating: Great
If you’ve never played a Tales game before, Abyss plays out like standard RPG fare. You journey from town to town to purchase supplies and gather information. As you wander around the map or in dungeons, you’ll see monsters spawn near you and begin to make chase. When they come into contact, you’ll be taken to a separate screen where you are in control of the party leader (usually Luke) while your teammates are controlled by the game’s AI. The PS2 version of the game allowed other players to take control of your teammates during combat if you wished, though that feature is absent in the 3DS version.
Battles have more in common with fighting games than they do turn based RPG’s, as you move on a 2D plane and combinations of the thumbstick and the A button will give you different kinds of attacks. You can also map special attacks called “Artes”Â to your B button that can be utilized in limited supply to help create combos in conjunction with your other attacks, or simply cast spells. The X button will bring up your menu and allow you to use items, run away, or give orders to your teammates. If you want to move on a 3D plane to get around your enemies, you can hold down L and move around the battlefield freely. You can change targets with R, block with Y, and use the directional pad to change your control type, activate over limit, and deny item requests. You can even use the touchscreen to map even more attacks, or store cooking shortcuts for healing purposes post-battle. Most every button has a function tied to it, yet it somehow manages to not feel overwhelming.
Many of the weapons, spells, and attacks that you acquire have elemental properties tied to them called Fonons. Sometimes during battle, little circles will appear on the battlefield with an elemental symbol hovering above them that represents what they are. If you use certain attacks while standing in these circles, or “Field of Fonons”Â as they are called, you can transform that attack into one that matches that element. It’s an interesting idea in concept, but I felt only the computer really knew how to properly take advantage of it. The fields don’t stay around for long and you have to know which attacks are actually going to produce a specific elemental attack if you want to use it properly, not to mention the enemy has to be standing in the right place.
Capacity Cores can be found during exploration that are able to dictate character growth. Each Capacity Core can boost one of six stats during every level up, which I thought was a great addition. If you have the same one equipped for awhile, sometimes passive traits called AD Skills will unlock and can be enabled or disabled at your leisure. The characters have specific roles they are generally meant to play, but it was still nice to have the freedom to focus on some stats above others. Plus, Capacity Cores found later in the game are generally better than the ones you start out with, so it’s worth your while to tinker with these when you can.
Your Artes can be equipped with items called Fon Slot Chambers. These chambers add an effect to an existing Arte depending on the color of the one equipped. They’re not all consistent either, as a red chamber may strengthen an attack or it may simply do nothing for that ability. If you find yourself using specific Artes over and over again or just want to reduce to cost of one that’s more powerful, these are useful to have. Much like the Capacity Cores, these chambers can be located in treasure chests scattered throughout the game, though there’s a chance you may pick them up off enemies as well.
On your characters’ status bars, there is another bar that slowly builds up as you receive and deal damage. Filling this up to maximum allows you to unleash an Over Limit. You take less damage when in this mode and don’t get knocked around by attacks like you normally would. You can also utilize an ultimate attack of sorts called a Mystic Arte that is somewhat cinematic in nature and deals a ton of damage to the enemies that get caught in it.
As a whole, all of these features work well together, making combat fast, fun, and frantic. Many of the attacks string together quite fluidly too, making the experience as a whole feel a lot less clunky than Tales of Legendia did. It makes sense that everything adapted so well to Nintendo’s handheld, as it isn’t the first time the series has been on a DS system, though it is a first for North America.
Control/Gameplay Rating: Great
The game has a respectable length for a handheld RPG. It took me almost 40 hours to complete, and that was when doing minimal sidequests. In fact, I’d almost call it too long if I wasn’t having so much fun with it. If that’s not enough, there are tournaments you can take part in to earn rewards, some of which end in battles with characters from previous games in the series. There are dungeons and side areas that you aren’t even required to visit as part of the main story to explore, and there are Artes as well as some of the best weapons in the game that are only unlocked by doing sidequests. There’s a ton to find, and some of it can’t even be discovered until the second playthrough.
As is standard with JRPG’s and anime in general, you have a cute furry companion that accompanies you on your adventures. Your furry companion in Tales of the Abyss, a cheagle named Mieu, can be used outside of battle to set things on fire or smash into obstacles obstructing your path. Later, you can partake in sidequests that will unlock optional powers for Mieu, like the ability to levitate or shoot fire even farther than before. You can then revisit older areas in the game in order to discover previously inaccessible items or secrets, giving you more reason to dwell in the game’s universe even longer.
Replayability Rating: Incredible
Despite the variety of things that Tales of the Abyss allows you to do in battle, you can honestly get away with button mashing your way through most of the game. Some of the features that the game takes time to explain to you, including the Field of Fonons concept, I never even had to utilize in order to be successful. In fact, I never saw a game over screen once until the final boss battle, and even then, it was only one time. This isn’t to say that the game doesn’t have its challenging moments. There are several optional battles that can really work you if you’re not properly prepared, and like most RPG’s, being under-leveled for a particular area can spell trouble. This is all referring to the normal difficulty, of course. You can also set the battles to hard right from the get go, plus an even harder setting unlocks once you finish the game, so players of all skill levels should be fairly pleased.
Balance Rating: Very Good
Tales of the Abyss is the eighth entry in a series that has a total of 13 games in the main series, and that’s not including all of the spinoff titles. Many of them play similarly too, save for some of the earliest ones, so one could safely say that if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. I personally like the series enough to be okay with this, as my enjoyment of the gameplay eclipses the fact that so many of them are made. Especially since a great deal of them never make it to North America anyway.
The rest of the series aside, this version of the Abyss entry is not much different from the PS2 version. The loading times have been cut down and you have the option of turning the 3D effect on, but the base game is almost identical. So if you already own that version, there’s not much incentive to upgrade unless you want to take it on the go.
Originality Rating: Poor
While the story may be one of the better ones in the series, most of your enjoyment from this title is going to be proportional to how much like you like the battle system. Especially since it plays very similar to the way Symphonia and Vesperia did. I didn’t even notice the hours fly by as I traversed dungeons and went from battle to battle. The game began to falter a bit towards the end once I had to start backtracking through dungeons I had already been to or spend considerable blocks of time jumping back and forth between towns I had visited on prior trips just to speak to certain NPC’s or get a cutscene to unlock. Being able to instantly jump to places at that point helped save a little time, but the final leg of the game seemed needlessly padded out in some places.
Addictiveness Rating: Incredible
While Tales games aren’t the success that they are in Japan, I don’t think sales are as poor as everyone believes. Tales of Symphonia did very well on the Gamecube, selling almost a million copies worldwide with only half of those being from Japan. Those other sales had to come from somewhere. Also, Tales of Vesperia managed to get a reprint after demand drove the after market prices through the roof. This series has a market that will buy it, Namco Bandai just has to handle the franchise in the way that other companies that deal in niche games handle theirs, such as XSEED or NIS. Even something so small as not dubbing the “skits”Â in the game, like what they did with Abyss, or even not dubbing it at all would save them a ton in localization. Most anime fans clamor for the original Japanese voices anyway.
As of this writing, Tales of the Abyss on the 3DS is sold out at a number of major retailers like Amazon and Best Buy. This is likely due to a low print run on the part of Namco Bandai, but if you have any plans on picking up this game at all, you’d best do it soon. In fact, if you want any hope of seeing Tales of Xillia localized at all, you’d best pick up this and Tales of Graces f when it releases in March.
Appeal Rating: Good
If you planned on picking up this game exclusively for the ability to play it in 3D, then I’m sorry to dash your hopes. Yes, it’s there, but the effect is so minimal it might as well not be. Even cranked up to its highest setting, all it manages to do is make it appear as if you are peering into something with the status bars popping out at you. It doesn’t make any effort to make it appear as if attacks are launching towards you or any other craziness that would make having the 3D enabled worthwhile. I actually turned it off for almost the entirety of the game just to save battery life.
While I thought the skits in the game were great for characterization and adding some fun humor, there were just waaaay too many of them. For the unfamiliar, these skits will appear at random points during the game for you to watch which display character portraits of those involved speaking to each other about what just happened or something you may have just done. They don’t serve any purpose other than to sometimes give you more background on the characters or gather what their thoughts are in any given situation. It seemed like after a cutscene there would be prompts for two or three of them, and even though they are optional, I felt obligated to check out at least part of them to see if they were relevant. Very few of them were, and they just seemed to interrupt the flow of the game. Outright skipping them just seems hard to do when you are afraid you may be missing out on valuable plot information.
Now I know most people probably won’t care, because it seems like a nitpicky thing to get bent about, but I was disappointed by the barebones manual. It does cover some of the important things, but most of it is located in a pdf document that you have to access from the main Tales website. The reason I pick on Namco Bandai a little bit on this is because this is supposedly a niche RPG title. People who buy these generally expect extravagant packaging that makes it feel like a collector’s item, much like what Working Designs used to do. I’m not saying that they would have to go to that length for this game, but it’d have been nice to at least get the full manual. Again, minor details, but consider it tough love.
Miscellaneous Rating: Enjoyable
Balance: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Good
Final Score: Very Good Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
While it hasn’t changed much since its PS2 iteration, Tales of the Abyss remains as one of the better entries in the Tales franchise, and the entire package holds up well even after six years of dormancy. The story is a very coming-of-age tale that manages to weave multi-layered characters into a universe full of unique terms and concepts and the gameplay is very addictive if you enjoy fighting game style action mixed in with your random battles. If you’ve already own the PS2 version, there isn’t much incentive to upgrade unless you want your Abyss fix on the go or no longer want to deal with excessive loading times, as the 3D effects are nothing to write home about. Still, if you’ve never played it or any other Tales game for that matter, this is an excellent place to start. Not to mention a great way to whet your appetite for the upcoming Tales of Graces f.