Reviewed: August 8, 2004
Reviewed by: Mark Smith


Namco Tales Studio Ltd.

Released: July 13, 2004
Genre: RPG
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen


Supported Features:

  • 2-4 Player Simultaneous
  • Memory Card (3 Blocks)

  • Tales of Symphonia is the second RPG I have played on the GameCube; the first being Evolution Worlds, the first RPG released for the system back in 2002. While both of these games share a striking similarity in their anime roots, creative doe-eyed character design, deep, involved, and twisting storylines, and traditional RPG gameplay, Tales of Symphonia breaks free from the normal confines of the genre to deliver an exciting mix of real-time 3D combat, strategy and cooperative multiplayer that promises to revolutionize the way we play RPG games.

    Tales of Symphonia is actually the third installment in a massive RPG series over in Japan, a series that never made it to the states unless you were into the “import” scene. Thankfully, no prior knowledge of the characters or the world found in Symphonia is required to enjoy the epic tale that is about to unfold in this 2-disc adventure.

    The opening movie introduces us to the world of Sylvarant, a dying world that is about to be reborn (or regenerated), a cycle that happens over and over with the help of The Chosen and the Tower of Salvation. We are then taken to a schoolhouse in a small village where we meet Lloyd, and several of his friends including Genis, and Colette.

    Then we have the Desians, which can best be described as a group of supremacists, almost like Nazis. They have “human camps” setup where they imprison humans for nefarious purposes, some of which are revealed quite quickly during an encounter with one elderly prisoner, Marble. Lloyd intervenes on behalf of Marble and the Desians quickly retaliate by burning the village and making him the most wanted person in the land.

    After some introductory exploration and more revealing cutscenes we learn that Lloyd is the human adopted son of a Dwarf craftsman whose mother was killed by the Desians. We also learn that Colette is the Chosen One, daughter of an angel and destined to save the world. Hunted by the Desians and outcast by the village elder, Lloyd decides to join Colette and her church-appointed mercenary bodyguard, Kratos on her mission to reach the Tower of Salvation and regenerate the world.

    This mission is no small endeavor and requires thorough exploration of two unique worlds, several trials, lots of combat, locating special seals, and unlocking special angelic powers. Thankfully, Colette has you, Kratos, and numerous friends who will join your party and help to restore balance to the world of Sylvarant.

    At the heart of Tales of Symphonia is a traditional RPG engine that has you wandering across maps fighting countless creatures in a never-ending level grind, only in this game the “grind” isn’t as tedious. Most games have you playing a central character and surrounding yourself with NPC’s to fill out your party. In this game each and every character is playable. You can assume direct control and make them the party leader. In fact, there are even some puzzles and events that can only happen when a certain character is the leader or onscreen character.

    While your party varies in size based on the story, most of the time you will have at least four members. While traveling across the world map or through towns or villages your party is compressed into the lead character. When combat ensues you have the option to have other humans take command of each party member or let the computer assume control. I applaud the effort to make this game cooperative, but the chances of finding two or more people willing to sit through what is typically a lengthy single-player game waiting for combat encounters (frequent as they are) are slim.

    Thankfully, Tales of Symphonia offers an intricate combat scripting engine that lets you pre-program the way your AI-controlled characters play. You can specify how each character moves, whom they target, whether they use melee or tech magic, and even set limitations on when to stop using magic. You can set their aggression, assign them to heal, or support weaker players, or do just about anything. There are several presets and you can even save your own setups and recall them for certain encounters or situations.

    It won’t take long before you realize this game is a team effort, and you will need to master the art of combat tactics and battle scripts to get past some of the earlier bosses. Characters are designed to complement each other. You have healers, magic users, fighters and other classes that when combined make a very formidable party. You can even execute special “unison” attacks that chain your entire party’s magical attacks in a single massive assault.

    As you fight and defeat monsters you will earn gold (or “gald” in this game), TP (mana), and experience. There is also another variable called Grade. This is a value based on a complex calculation that takes into account several factors from the previous battle. Your Grade score can be either a positive or a negative value based on your performance, so your overall Grade is constantly in a state of flux. You can spend your grade points to purchase Ex Gems from certain merchants.

    There is a complicated skill and magic system in place that is divided into technical and strike skills. This dictates the preferred tactics of each character as well as what weapons and armor they can use. Combat skills are assigned to the four directions on the left stick combined with the B button as well as the C-stick.

    Each character has four slots for Ex Gems and each gem can range from level 1-4. You can then pick from various skills for each gem that will enhance your characters performance or modify their attributes. This is just one extra level of customization and configuration for your characters and party.

    Cooking is yet another skill to be explored in Tales of Symphonia. Each character has a cooking skill and there are dozens of recipes to be discovered or learned from the traveling Wonder Chef. Each recipe requires certain ingredients and when successfully prepared will offer various and often helpful results. You will often obtain these ingredients through combat and when you have all of the required components you can “cook” in the post-combat screen.

    As you can see, there are a lot of gameplay components that all combine to create a very complex system, yet it all remains refreshingly simple to learn and even easier to master, allowing you to settle back and enjoy the ride.

    Tales of Symphonia has three primary modes of play that can be equated to three levels of zoom. At the furthest level you have the world map that has you wandering deserts, plains, beaches, and mountains. You typically travel on foot, but when a map marker is located you can then ride any available transportation. Wandering monsters are clearly marked on the map allowing you to avoid them (or at least try to) if you aren’t feeling up to combat. Keep in mind that these encounters are the core of the leveling-up process and if you skip too many you will find yourself deficient when it comes to boss fights.

    The next mode takes you into dungeons, towns, or even small settlements. Here, you can interact with the population, enter buildings, visit shops, spend the night at an inn, and do all that traditional adventure game stuff. There is even a massive ongoing side-quest for Colette to name every dog she finds in the game, and there is at least one dog in just about every location.

    Dungeons have some interesting puzzles that include mazes, elevator platforms, and “gasp”, block puzzles. There is one puzzle that features a giant GameCube in the center of a large rotating room, and another clever puzzle that requires you to kill creatures whose remains become the blocks you must move to complete a bridge.

    The final mode is the battle screen. This kicks in whenever you touch any of the crazy animated symbols on the map or dungeon screens. These often look like blobs of oil, or blobs of oil with legs, but sometimes it might be a charging sunflower, a dog, skull, or some other creature. The symbols seldom represent the actual encounter but the enemies are always logical to the location, so if you fight on the beach you will be fighting starfish and other sea creatures, while the desert is home to scorpions and poisonous snakes.

    There are some interesting mini-games scattered about the game, and while these could have easily become distractions or diversions, I found several of them to be quite engrossing and a great way to get free items. There was one symbol matching game in a fishing village that netted me (pun intended) more than a dozen potions, all for free.

    The final thing to discuss is the general mechanics of the game. You can save your game anywhere and anytime while on the world map. In the cities there is almost always one save point, normally at the inn, and in the dungeons you will often have to unlock a save point with a memory gem. While this all sounds good in theory there are often lengthy sections of the game where there is no place to save and these often lead up to devastating boss battles. Even with the daughter of an angel on your side, you will likely die and have to repeat lengthy sections of the game from time to time.

    Tales of Symphonia features, what is in my opinion, the best management interface in the history of the RPG genre. When you highlight an item in the store or in your inventory you are immediately shown via the character portrait if that item will increase or decrease that player’s abilities. You can then do a status check to see the actual numbers. You can cycle characters with the left and right triggers and bounce between windows doing all your buying, selling, and equipping from a single interface. This system works whether you are shopping at a store or simply using your Equip menu.

    The design of the world and the story keeps you from getting too far ahead too fast, but you still have the freedom to roam huge portions of the map and it’s all too easy to get into areas where the monsters are way out of your league. And unless you seek out and intentionally engage in combat for the sake of leveling up, you are likely to get into dungeons and boss fights before you or your party is ready. The general rule is that if you are getting pounded, go back outside and level-up with wandering monsters, then try again.

    I’ve already covered the basics of combat as far as weapons and magic, but the most engaging aspect is that all combat is in real-time, something almost unheard of in RPG games. This turns each encounter into your own mini fighting game where you can move, dodge, strike, and attempt all sorts of combos using a fluid and intuitive combat system.

    Playing as Lloyd for example, you have four basic attacks using the A button combined with a direction on the stick, then you have tech attacks that uses those same directions with the B button as well as a defensive move called Guardian. You can chain these moves together for elaborate combos that rival Namco’s Soul Calibur. The game even keeps track of your longest chain of hits.

    Regardless of which character you are playing, you can target individual enemies, and prioritization is often crucial in many of these battles as some enemies feed off lesser ones while others deliver more damage and need to be killed first. There is a surprising amount of strategy at work here and a fiendishly clever game design that exploits it.

    When I first saw this game at E3 I thought, “Oh great, an RPG for kids”, but that is not the case. While the anime design and emphasis on teenage school kids as adventurers makes this game look like the Tiny Toons version of Final Fantasy, Tales of Symphonia is a sophisticated game for experienced gamers.

    The first thing to grab you is the wonderful opening movie followed by the opening menu with slowly panning camera that takes you through a woods with a river running through it. Once you get into the game you are immersed in a beautiful cel-shaded world created by visionary designers and artist, Kosuke Fujishima.

    The game is in 3D but most of the time it is presented in a 2D fixed camera that follows the character. For interiors, the camera is often fixed and a large cel-shade character freely explores as you guide him or her with the stick. It is in these close-up views that the gorgeous and subtle details reveal themselves. Textures like wood and fabric are excellent and there is lighting and shadows and all sorts of details, most of which is strictly for appearance.

    Outdoors, things tend to get a bit simpler with some repeating textures and not a whole lot of variety in the wandering monster icons. Even so, the terrain is nicely modeled and populated with trees, dirt paths, sandy beaches, grassy plains, and rocky mountain trails.

    Presentation is excellent. Most of the cutscenes are handled with game graphics so the game just appears to take over for some of the narrative. Dialogue is presented in nice easy-to-read text and there is frequent use of emoticons (bubbles over characters’ heads) showing surprise, anger, etc. These icons are even used for one of the mini-games.

    There is also the clever implementation of Skits to flesh out character development. These are triggered at glowing locations on the world map or at scripted sequences within the game’s progression. When a skit plays out all the characters involved appear in portraits with suitable anime facial expressions to go with the text dialogue. Skits often have branching conversations that can influence character relationships.

    Battle animation is fluid and very enjoyable to watch. Weapon strikes all have suitable blurs and trailing effects and each tech skill (spell) has wonderful power-up animation with rotating rune symbols as well as glorious final effects when the spell strikes the enemy. Lightning streaks from the sky, fireballs arc through the screen, or stalagmites rise from the earth.

    The music is quite enjoyable but also a bit repetitive. It does change as you travel around the world to different environments but there is a lot of backtracking in this game, so plan on hearing the same music over and over.

    Sound effects are excellent and range from the subtle environmental effects like wind, waves, seagulls, or the hum of some strange technology, to the more traditional sounds of combat. You’ll hear your party announce any special skill attacks and there is also some taunting available. Spells have excellent sound effects that really enhance the visual elements.

    There is a lot of story and dialogue in Tales of Symphonia and while you get to read most of it, there is still a surprising amount of spoken conversation. You really never know when the voices are going to kick in but it’s a real treat when they do as the voice acting is really good, not so much in theatrical quality, but in keeping with the visual style of the anime.

    When you have these goofy wide-eyed characters you expect high-pitched shrill voices from the kids, overly evil villains, and deadpan serious baritone speech from adults like Kratos. Lloyd and Colette have some of the best dialogue and exchanges so it’s no surprise that they have the best voices doing the speech.

    Namco promises over 80 hours of gameplay and this is probably a modest estimate. I’m guessing more like 100 hours. The game comes on two discs, and the switch point is right around the 40-45 hours mark, but keep in mind that this is the game clock and doesn’t take into account dying, reloading, and replaying any part of the game.

    In this day of 8-12 hour games anything that can keep you entertained for 100 hours without getting bored is a masterpiece of creativity and the ultimate value, even at full price. The added support for simultaneous multiplayer in the combat encounters might attract a few hardcore gamers but Tales is primarily a deep and engrossing single-player game.

    I only play two or three RPG’s a year, and I am so glad I picked Tales of Symphonia as one of them for this year. Quite simply, you have never played an RPG like this. The 3D real-time combat sets this game apart from anything else in the genre and takes the edge off what is typically a grueling leveling-up grind of endless encounters and combat.

    The clever writing and dynamically evolving character relationships keep you engrossed in the story, a story rife with more story arcs, plot twists, and surprising revelations than anything I have ever played, or at least remember playing. When you have a game of this scope and complexity and find yourself unable to put down the controller you had better set aside the next month of your life, but it will be the best month you can spend with your GameCube.