Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: 11/11/2008
When creating a game developers essentially have two choices, make something in the same vein as everyone else (and hope the public has the desire to climb into the space marine armor to shoot aliens, or play minigames on the Wii yet again) or they could break from the pack and try to fill an unsatisfied niche. That’s the route Namco went in 2004 when they took pity on RPG-starved Gamecube owners, giving them Tales of Symphonia, which turned out pretty well for them. Symphonia not only went on to become the best selling game in the prolific “Tales”Â series of RPGs, but inspired a rabid fan following. Flash forward to 2008, with the Wii still lacking any sort of decent RPG, Namco Bandai is attempting to replicate their earlier success with, appropriately, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. Will this game be the definitive RPG on its console like it’s predecessor was, or is it a Christmas present for fans only?
Dawn of the New World is a relative rarity for a Japanese RPG; a direct sequel. Most JRPG series reset everything with each new installment, tossing out only a handful of references and cameos from past games for the sake of continuity. DotNW (which we’ll call it from now on to save me from carpal tunnel) on the other hand takes place only 2 years after the events of the original game, with nearly every important place and character reappearing. This approach has benefits and drawbacks; the diehard Symphonia fans will eat it up, but it could be a barrier to new fans. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t strictly need to have played the first game to follow along, but you’ll definitely miss a lot of references and there isn’t a whole lot of effort put into reintroducing old characters (it’s simply assumed you already know and care about them).
Not every character is a repeat though, as the game’s three main characters are all new. In the last game Lloyd Irving and his pals brought the twin worlds of Sylvarant and Tethe’alla together as one, but while that may sound gosh-darned inspiring on paper, there have been some complications since. The combined world is going through radical climate changes as a result and it turns out the Sylvaranti and Tethe’allan people don’t much care for sharing a world and have gone to war with one another. You step into the role of Emil, a boy who seemingly witnessed Lloyd, hero to the world, leading a massacre that destroyed his hometown and cost his parents their lives. Bent on revenge, Emil sets out on a quest to bring Lloyd to justice with standard-issue cute anime girl Marta, and Tenebrae, a cat-like Centurion spirit, by his side.
The notion that the last game’s happy ending wasn’t so happy after all is an interesting setup, giving hope that this story will perhaps transcend the standard JRPG “good vs. evil”Â plot, but unfortunately it never quite lives up to it’s early promise. They never manage to truly sell the idea that Lloyd may have actually gone bad, and ultimately that thread is dropped fairly early on in the game. DotNW also suffers from a problem the first game had, that being they basically tried to stretch a 20-hour storyline over a 30-to-40 hour game. The result is there are far too many twists, turns and distractions interrupting the flow, resulting in somewhat muddled storytelling. The main character Emil is rather flawed as well as the writers give him a split personality, with one half being somewhat timid and weak and the other being harsh and aggressive (they’re opposites, clever huh?) Problem is, in order to contrast to two sides Emil’s “normal”Â personality is far too wussy (the guy’s whiny even by JRPG standards, which is saying something). I suspect Marta on the other hand will be the new character Symphonia fans really embrace, if only because she’s written to be every nerd’s wet dream (she’s a cute, inexperienced girl who for no particularly good reason desperately wants to get in the emo lead character’s pants).
Surprisingly if there’s one aspect of this game’s writing that definitely one-ups the original Symphonia it’s the little optional support-conversations that pop up from fairly frequently. It really seems as though the writers got bored and just had their way with these things, because this time around they’re actually pretty funny and at times just downright strange (plus they’re actually voice acted this time around). They were skippable last time, but worth checking out in the sequel.
Modes Rating: Good
Namco Bandai certainly believes in recycling, as a majority of the environments in the game are reused from the first Symphonia (a trick they pulled with Baten Kaitos Origins for the Gamecube as well). The original game wasn’t exactly a visual masterpiece even by 2004 standards, and these backgrounds have not improved with age. Thankfully the character and enemy models have received a significant boost. The bland cell-shading and super-deformed style of the original, which seemed out of place to me in a game filled with death and sexual innuendo, has given way to more detailed, more realistically proportioned characters (basically the characters now match the artwork on the box and in the anime cut scenes). Namco also thankfully made use of motion capture for this title, replacing the repetitive, robotic animation of the first game (in fact characters in this game often move better than those in the much higher budget Tales of Vesperia for the 360).
Graphics Rating: Good
Tales games have traditionally lacked the truly memorable scores and rousing anthems of other RPGs, instead going for a more laidback approach musically. The music in DotNW doesn’t deviate from this tradition (in fact Namco goes green yet again, recycling much of the first game’s music). The game’s score is pleasant enough and sets the right mood, but you probably won’t be left humming it after you turn off your Wii.
Based on my perusal of a couple Symphonia fan forums, it seems there’s a fair amount of controversy about DotNW’s voice acting. Basically in order to save a bit of money, Namco Bandai decided to go with non-union voice actors for this game, meaning most of the original cast had to be replaced. While a lot of the ‘Phonia fanboys are mortally offended by this, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I actually prefer the new voice actors (for the most part). They’ve certainly upped the volume of voice acting, with probably almost twice as much voice work as the previous game (aside from talking to random scrubs in town, basically every conversation is now voiced).
Sound Rating: Very Good
4) Control and Gameplay
If you’ve never played a “Tales”Â game before, they stick pretty close to the standard JRPG template. You visit cities, chat to folks, discover what your next mission is then hack through a dungeon, solving puzzles and killing monsters until you find the MacGuffin you were looking for, then it’s off to a new town to repeat the process. The Tales series unique claim to fame is it’s battle system, which basically combines RPG and brawler elements. DotNW’s specific variation on this system is called, no-joke, the “Flex Range Element Enhanced Linear Motion Battle System”. To put it in non-ridiculous terms, you can have four characters enter battle at once with you only directly controlling one of them. You can set the other 3 characters to follow various general orders (focus on attacking, healing, defending and so on), your flesh-and-blood friends can pick up a Wiimote and control them, or you can simply switch which character you’re directly controlling if you don’t trust your buddies or the computer AI to do the right thing.
New to the DotNW battle system is a greater range of motion, allowing you to attack enemies from all sides, the ability to change the battlefield’s elemental alignment (which will make attacks of the same elemental alignment more powerful) and most significantly, you can now capture monsters and use them in your party just like in a certain very popular Nintendo RPG series Namco swears they’re not ripping off. The reality though is that most of this depth doesn’t need to be mastered and most battles come down to simply slashing the crap out of enemies with Emil or Lloyd while occasionally casting healing or offensive spells with you magic wielding characters. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, DotNW’s battles are certainly less tedious than a lot of turn-based RPGs, but the depth is missed after a while.
Dungeons are well designed, with a smattering of Zelda-esque puzzles keeping things interesting and there are enough sidequests and mingames hidden in towns that they feel worthy of exploration. Control-wise everything works just fine. The motion controls in battle get a bit tiresome after a while, but you aren’t required to use them.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
This is a good mid-length RPG with a main quest that took me around 35-hours to complete. There’s plenty to keep you busy after that point as well (side quests, optional dungeons, collecting all the monsters, multiple endings, ogling Sheena’s boobs). Much like the original, those who really get into it could sink well over 50-hours into the game.
Replayability Rating: Incredible
This game’s difficulty curve is the reverse of what you’d expect it to be, with the first 3rd of the game probably being the most difficult due to your underpowered party having to rely largely on captured monsters for support. That said, the game never really becomes overly difficult (or easy for that matter). It maintains a pretty consistent level of mild challenge throughout, with the early game being only marginally more difficult than the rest.
Balance Rating: Enjoyable
The game’s only major addition is to blatantly rip-off the most popular RPG series of all time. DotNW does not exactly get a gold star for originality.
Originality Rating: Poor
DotNW generally did a good job of keeping my attention, although at times the game’s insistence on weighing you down with twists, fetch quests and distractions instead of just getting on with the damn story wore on my patience.
Addictiveness Rating: Enjoyable
9) Appeal Factor
Namco Bandai seem to be putting a lot less effort into promoting this game than they did with the first one, and most mainstream reviews have not been kind. This is a game for the fans first and foremost and they’ll gobble it up, but it’s very unlikely it will have the legs of the original Symphonia.
Appeal Factor Rating: Above Average
Namco were kind of enough to add a few things to the game as it made it’s way to North America. In addition to a greater range of motion controls, American gamers can pop a Gamecube memory card with a Symphonia save on it into their Wii and get some bonus items for DotNW. Small additions, but apprecitated nonetheless.
Miscellaneous Rating: Above Average
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Good
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Above Average
Final Score: Good Game
Short Attention Span Summary
Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is a good game, but it’s also a disappointing one. Namco could have built on the success and fan following of the first game, created a true A-level sequel and built this into a real franchise. Instead they took the shortsighted approach, producing a quick, low-budget sequel designed to appeal largely to fans only. Now if you are one of those fans then don’t hesitate to buy this game, the same solid foundation is there and you’re bound to get a big kick out of seeing all your favorite characters back again (which is an opportunity fans of most other JRPG series never get). For people who didn’t play or like the first Symphonia, I know it’s been a long haul waiting for Wii RPG worth buying, but there are actually a number of promising under-the-radar Wii RPGs coming stateside in 2009 such as Little King’s Story, Rune Factory Frontier and Fragile, so you may want to be a bit more cautious about picking this one up.