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Retro Review: Tales of Symphonia

tos-logoAs I browsed the aisle of my local used game store (it’s a 2nd and Charles that just opened up) I found myself losing hope of finding anything decent to play over the weekend. Apparently this store had decided to become a museum for every possible copy of Madden 2003 ever made for the ps2. Rows upon rows of crap titles for any game system you could imagine sat waiting to join copies of E.T. in the local trash heap. No luck, I thought.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a cart sitting between the endless aisles of sports simulations with a couple dozen games on it. These were the titles that as of yet hadn’t been loaded to the shelves. I had a look. And there, sitting in the midst of some Wii games was a total gem: Tales of Symphonia on the Gamecube. The cost put a smile on my face: $9.

Go ninja Go ninja Go! Sheena is my fav.

Go ninja Go ninja Go! Sheena is my fav.

It was, quite literally, the perfect moment for a treasure game hunter like me. A somewhat obscure game for a third of the online retail price? Sweet! I bought it along with a couple punk rock albums that I snagged on my way out (Can you ever own enough Weezer albums? Rhetorical question. The answer is always no.).

So I spent the weekend hooking up my Wii to a Gamecube controller and memory card I picked up for a few bucks at another used games store, and fired up Tales of Symphonia. (Yes, I did go to more than one used games store over the weekend. I was depressed. We all have vices people.)

For the uninitiated, ToS is a fantastic game, and in many peoples opinion, it is the best in the series. I personally would place it behind Tales of Graces f (for obvious reasons) as well as behind Tales of Abyss (for one reason: the free run battle mechanic in ToA). But it really is a fantastic game! I had played some of it before on my friends Gamecube, but this was my first time really digging in. So after wading my way into the characters and world, here is a Tales of Symphonia Retro Review:

Yes. The main hero of this game wears suspenders and dual wields huge swords. Kind of a plus minus situation...

Yes. The main hero of this game wears suspenders and dual wields huge swords. Kind of a plus minus situation…

When I review a game, I always try to discover what it is that really makes a game tick. Every great game will usually have one specific element that works so well it elevates the game above all the competition. And while ToS does a lot of things right, I think I have finally managed to figure out why this game is so easy to get hooked on. But before I get to that, lets talk game mechanics.

The battle system is pretty standard Tales of style. After engaging an enemy in a dungeon or on the world map, you enter a battle screen in which you have full control over your character. Once you lock onto an enemy you run up to them, and perform a basic attack/special attack combo. While the battle screen is completely 3D, you will notice right away that you can only move in one of two directions; toward the enemy you are locked onto or away from him. It works, but the battles would have been seriously enhanced with the addition of the free run technique players of Vesparia, Abyss or Graces f are familiar with. Free run is basically the ability to strafe around your enemy for a side attack, which adds a nice variety of strategy to each battle. ToS makes up for it by providing some really interesting blocking techniques, but I still prefer free run. This is not a dealbreaker however.

Combat looks and feel great

Dwarven Vow Number 13: You really should play this game.

Other cool elements of the battle system are the EX skills you can equip after finding gems which provide skill or stat boosts, your battle GRADE which can earn you cool items or skill gems, and the Unity Attack, which is your team attack that can be launched when you build up the Unity bar. Each of these different mechanics add lots of depth to each battle. Oh, and after your fight you can cook up a snack to restore some TP just like the other Tales games. Classic. Where will the Wonderchef be found next?!

The music is quite good. I’m not sure I would go out and say it’s my favorite rpg music ever, but it may very well be my favorite Tales music. I don’t hate the world map tunes as I am often led to, and the battle music is fast and fun. ToS is really solid in this area.

The story is probably the second best element of Symphonia. Yes, it gets super strange at certain points, but lets face it, Tales games tend to do some crazy stuff, so you can’t judge Symphonia too hard for the late game craziness. I will say though that I really enjoyed the early story arcs that deal with so called “Human Ranches” which are basically places humans are raised like cattle. This was a thought provoking concept and really got me fired up to kill the baddies.

Ok, finally, the reason I think this game gets all kinds of love: the character interaction. To say that the cast of Symphonia is good would be an understatement. I really like this group. But what really elevates the characters themselves is the fun and meaningful ways in which they interact. This is one of the VERY few rpg’s that created a deep enough relationship between cast members that it will actually make you feel something when you play. Lloyd’s plucky personality is fun to follow, but it’s his relationships to Genis and Colette that really flesh out these characters. I’ve watched anime in which I felt the characters had less chemistry. Great writing that includes humor, sorrow, hurt and joy all coming together as part of this group’s journey really put a spark in this game that most jrpg’s are lacking. Bottom line, you will enjoy the cast so much, you won’t even mind the long story sequences and occasionally annoying battle. With a fun and deep character roster you will rarely feel that “lull” lots of rpg’s can lead to. Every time I started getting antsy some hilarious cut scene would start to keep the pace moving.

Great cast. Did I mention there's a ninja and a guy with his hands permanently tied?

Great cast. Did I mention there’s a ninja and a guy with his hands permanently tied?

Ok time for the rundown:

How hard is this game? You can’t beat it with your eyes closed, but if you pause to level up just a tiny bit on occasion and keep stocked with healing items you will be fine. I don’t recommend hard mode on your first play through though. It kicked my butt so I went back to normal.

Do I need an FAQ for this game? I strongly recommend you stay away from any spoilers. Any miss-able quests or items are much less significant than the great plot moments you will discover. Play without the guide for a first play through  then guide up for a hard mode run and find all the goodies. If you just can’t help yourself Alex on GameFAQs has a pretty decent spoiler free guide that I referenced on occasion.

How well does the multiplayer work? I didn’t mention this earlier, but yeah you can play with up to four people if you have enough controllers. It works really well! I’ve only played multiplayer once before, but it was a lot of fun.

What is the best way to experience this game? I played on a Wii because HD cables for a Gamecube are stupidly expensive, plus only Gamecubes made before 2004 have possible HD hookups. I picked up HD cables for my Wii for about $5, and Gamecube titles look much cleaner via a Wii with HD hookups. Really sharp. But if you only have a Gamecube it will still look great.

Should I play this game? Yep. Unless you hate Tales games, jrpg’s or yourself. I really do recommend it. Good times. Here’s the intro vid to get you amped to play.

Retrodragon OUT!

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3 comments on “Retro Review: Tales of Symphonia

  1. I have many good memories of Tales of Symphonia. As someone who played Tales games in the order they came out in the U.S., this game was really a step up from the previous two that it’s hard to recommend playing the previous two entries. And it’s a great game for people to try if they are wondering why other people are fans of the Tales series.

    • Totally agree. I’ve been putting some time into Tales of Destiny 2 on the psx as well, and I actually have found that to be pretty solid. It has a really fun retro feel which I love. Gotta say though, that ToS is possibly my favorite Tales game. I like the battle system in Graces f more, but really it has such a great cast that it’s way up there. Fun times!

  2. Sport games sell by the bucket load every year, but no one wants last year’s (or 2003’s) edition.

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