Developers: Namco Tales Studio
Publishers: Namco Bandai
The traditional JRPG has fallen relatively far from grace when it comes to Western opinion on the matter, as shades of momentous games from ages past dribble out of Japan to wend their way across continents, only to be met with disappointment and unfavourable comparisons.
But in many ways, the JRPG is a genre beset by critical contradictions.There seems to be a constant urge from Western audiences and their cultural arbiters for modernisation - cries for refreshed formulae, new gameplay mechanics, and an acknowledgement that time has moved on since the 90s heyday of the genre. Of course, such experimentation is then met with bafflement and comparisons to those pillars of the past from whose shadows these current-gen JRPGs are supposedly trying to escape.
The latest instalment of the Tales series might not seem to elevate itself above the pack at first. Having played through the first three hours at Namco Bandai HQ, a sceptic could be forgiven for letting out a slight groan at first. The game kicks off in the company of young Asbel Lhant - heir to the estate of that same name, and a headstrong pain in his father's backside. A rebellious youth and a truant, with a nose for danger and disobeying his parents, he forms the central point of focus in a group of childhood friends that includes his little brother Hubert, barely concealed love interest Cheria, and a striking amnesiac whom Asbel finds out on the cliffs one day.
The prologue sees royalty come to visit the Lhant household, and Asbel is bidden to stay out of the young prince Richard's way by his father - a command that Asbel naturally disobeys, ruminating that no one would want to be cooped up in a room all day long, and then attempting to liberate the prince from his chambers and take the young royal exploring. It's a plan that leads to a vicious betrayal, a terrible tragedy, and a whole heap of trouble for our wilful protagonist.
The obvious tropes and themes, and the melodrama of the action will surely put off some. But the fact that this prologue is couched in childhood makes all the difference: it makes sense. These characters look like kids, talk like kids, and act like kids. That they oscillate between flippancy and seriousness is excused precisely because of that, and the fact that we get to see childhood friendships established and developed rather than simply being told makes a key difference when it comes to wanting to know more and caring about these characters.
Strong stories have always been at the centre of the Tales series, and franchise staples such as the little context-sensitive skits return, producing snippets of conversation between characters, and allowing the player further insight into the happenings of the world around them, fleshing out characters, and injecting no small amount of whimsy and charm into proceedings. But it's the promise of further adventure in the company of this tight-knit band that creates a feeling of utter contentment. I could play this all day long, I say to a Namco rep. I'm told that the story jumps ahead in time by a few years following the prologue, and that showing these friendships form really was the deciding factor in including such a long introduction.
But, unlike Final Fantasy XIII, you're tossed into the action from the beginning. Being a kid doesn't mean you can't hold your own against the pesky little woodland creatures and assorted bandits out there. Macaulay Culkin would be proud Tales games have often boasted about their combat systems, but this one is probably the best so far.
Standard attacks are ditched in favour of two separate kinds of "Artes": A-Artes and B-Artes. The former category consists of light, quick attacks, performed with the X-button and flicks of the analogue stick, where precise timing and planned attacks can open up a progressive combo system that allows you to deal some serious damage. The B-Artes will perhaps be more familiar, housing the slower, more powerful attacks that can be deployed with a nudge of the stick and a tap of the Circle-button.
Each attack costs Chain Capacity points, with the more powerful blows requiring more points, and so the real-time battle system becomes rather tactical when facing multiple enemies of a fitting level. Successful attacks, dodging to the left and right, dancing backwards out of harm's way, and blocking enemy moves all serve to replenish CC, giving the game an element of thrust and parry. Defence is just as important as offence in Tales of Graces f, and although it might seem to be a system predominantly geared towards offensive play, well-worked balancing means that enemies will block and break your combos, though the early foes you face will yield fairly easily as you look to get a grasp of the systems at work.
There are also choices to be made when it comes to character upgrades and customisation. New skills and Artes are unlocked through Titles earned in battle, of which there are many. As characters can only equip one Title at a time, do you look to focus in early on for stronger rewards in a certain area, or do you look to unlock new skills and new abilities? Bonuses do carry over from the Titles that you've unlocked, so the game does encourage a certain amount of experimentation, and it's pleasing to note that the combat systems appear far deeper than some of the button-mashing elements found elsewhere in the genre (and indeed at times in this series).
Graphically, it's clear that some polishing has gone into this f version, with the PS3 helping the game's fairly predictable anime stylings to sparkle. Soft black lines help to give the cel shading some sense of solidity, and the watercolour backdrops are delightful to behold. It won't match up to Xillia, but then that was developed specifically for Sony's machine.
Tales of Graces f is already easy company, and there's enough familiarity about the game to fill Tales fans with comfort, whilst also offering up enough new material - particularly when it comes to the combat system - to prove refreshing. It's like hanging out with an old friend again, which is rather fitting considering the story's primary theme.Though there's some sense of familiarising oneself with the new aspects - much like catching up after time apart - it's an easy relationship, a comfortable engagement that will slowly suck you in and relieve you of all sense of time.
With Xillia already announced for localisation next, let's just hope it sells. Fingers crossed.