Developers: Namco Tales Studio
Publishers: Namco Bandai
As a child, particularly when it comes to those troublesome teenage years, you often find yourself looking forward, wishing you were a little older so that you could have more fun. But the formative years of one's life are important, even if they could be construed as lacking the opportunities afforded to the young adult generation.
It's an outlook that sits at the heart of Tales of Graces f, a Western release of (and considerable upgrade to) the Wii game that never quite made it out of Japan. You spend the best part of five hours toddling about with eleven year old Asbel Lhant and his childhood friends, disobeying parents with headstrong abandon, getting into scrapes and scraps, and trying to work around the limitations that have been set upon you as the young, childish heir to a provincial seat.
It's a ll a bit tedious at times, to be honest, but it's a hit that the Tales Studio take in order to further narrative immersion and impact later on in the story. You're constantly looking forward in those opening hours to a time when you'll be let off the leash (well, as much as you can be in a relatively linear JRPG), and if you can make it through Asbel - the childhood years, you're in for a treat later on.
Of course, many won't. It's nowhere near as frustratingly obtuse as FFXIII, and the combat system (we'll get to it) is far more engaging, but there are some towering cliches that will no doubt put of those who managed to make it through the cloying intro music video. There are classic character tropes such as the dethroned monarch, an idealistic hero and his underappreciated brother, a magical female powerhouse in the form of an amnesiac 14 year old, and a loud, kooky charming/irritating genki girl.
If you loathe JRPGs, then Tales of Graces f may appear to be little more than a collection of everything you hate. But you'd be wrong.
For starters, Tales of Graces deals with a much more personal story than JRPGs are necessarily used to. Instead of slotting these rather familiar characters into a grand narrative that's completely inexplicable and needlessly convoluted, Namco root the story in a more focused setting of feudal corruption, political upheaval, and civil war. Though perhaps a little long-winded, the prologue does at least serve to firmly situate the action, and establish the game's world, introducing the three feuding nations of Windor, Strahta, and Fendel. We learn of the warring fiefs in Windor, the whispers surrounding the throne, and the dissatisfaction with a number of the border barons, of which Asbel's father is one such noble.
Across the game's path, with features all three of those aforementioned natures, we are always focused on Asbel and his friends, and the changing nature of those relationships in the midst of this backdrop of tumultuous strife. Additionally, although you might be able to think up a number of similar characters for their well-worn backgrounds, the extreme alternative - trying to create a host of quirky and original characters - could well have been a disaster. It's a solidly-written adventure with some excellent localisation, and because of the greater, more personal emotional focus, having characters that are easy to identify with is important. The script is also surprisingly funny, and commendably self-deprecating at times, unafraid to subtly make occasional fun at its own expense.
The pacing issues, don't go away, and how for you get into the game, and indeed whether or not you finish it, let alone tackle all of the extra content that Western audiences have received, will be case of balancing out your narrative curiosity with a patience for how slowly such curiosity is satisfied. Thankfully, however, this game has another string to its bow: it offers one of the best combat systems we've ever seen in a JRPG.
On the battlefield, everything happens in real time, and each character has two main types of attack: A-artes, and B-artes. The former come in the form of physical attacks with your weapon, with directional input determining which attack you use, and a possibility of chaining attacks together into some furious combos should you have enough chain capacity points in the bank. Keeping your CC points continually topped up, obtained by guarding, landing hits in weak spots, successfully evading attacks, and generally being awesome, is utterly essential.
The B-artes typically take the form of magical attacks, and usually cost a few more CC points to execute. The flow of battle, and the speed with which you'll win, rather depend on the nature of your attacks - both elemental and physical - and the weaknesses of your opponents. Although the game's first few hours ease players into the battle system, allowing you to become familiar very quickly with the freedom you're given, it's not until the difficulty suddenly spikes as Asbel reaches adulthood that you begin to realise the depth that this system affords. As well as trying to deliver chained combos that take advantage of your opponets' various susceptibilities, consistent hitting and well-worked dodging with fill a meter that, when it reaches its peak, allows you to engage Eleth Burst mode - which lets you pull of B-arte attacks with merry abandon, without loss of CC points.
Though the numbered levels you'll reach and pass are easily ignored, the Titles you'll earn in battle are worth nothing. Each character can amass huge numbers of Titles that, when equipped, channel experience points into a five-stage upgrade avenue. You can swap them out at any time, but as with most upgrade systems, specialising in a few, and obtaining the Level 5 artes that they hold, may well stand you in better stead.
Tales of Graces should be commended too for its Dualising mechanism that allows you to collect and craft new items by mashing bits and pieces that you'll pick up together. Some of your creations will only serve to be sold on for profit, but other might well help to augment and enhance your weapons, or provide useful healing or resistance bonuses in combat. On top of that, a feature known as the Eleth Mixer allows you to spawn items out of thin air, with the probability of recouping some freebies rising the more that you use it.
That the combat is so damn engaging and the story a well-balanced affair means that it's relatively easy to forgive the rather dodgy pathfinding. In spite of the game's linearity, it can be difficult on occasion to see exactly where to go next, with the game's dubious hint system (mapped to L1) offering little help. On one occasion it literally reads "What next?!" much to this writer's consternation. But the quibbles are shortlived, mainly due to the game's relaxing nature. While some games may look to overload your senses and constantly stimulate you into attentive focus, Tales of Graces lulls you into a dreamlike playstate, that's more sedate but no less engrossing. It's inherently nice, a timesink of languid pace and disposition; but with moments of genuine surprise; plot twists that pull at the heartstrings; and a personal, character-driven journey that frames a JRPG looking to change a few things.
That in itself is rare enough, that it succeeds is something special indeed.
- Fantastic combat system
- Titles offer great level of character customisation
- A more personal narrative manages to move beyond cliche...eventually
- Some nasty difficulty spikes
- Slow pacing may put some off, particularly in the prologue
- Graphics are obviously nothing to write home about
The Short Version: Tales of Graces f is a rare beast: a traditional JRPG that manages to spring a few surprises. Though many may find its slow pacing and simmering melodrama unforgivable, others will surely delight in a fantastic combat system , deep customisation and crafting, and a script that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's taken a while to get here, but Graces is one of the best games in the series to date.