Reviewed: December 6, 2008
Released: November 11, 2008
For the 10th anniversary of Namco's generally well-regarded Tales of... series of action-RPGs, the videogame giant has released a few new games in the series more or less all at once. Their Wii offering, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, is a direct sequel to the great GameCube and PS2 title, Tales of Symphonia, rather than an entirely new game with familiar elements, as is usually the case.
Dawn of the New World takes place a few years after the end of its predecessor, and follows the story of a young man named Emil, whose parents were apparently slain by a now-vicious Lloyd, the hero of the last game, who is seen putting Emil's hometown to the torch and sword in the name of the Goddess Martel. Upon seeing this, Emil undergoes some sort of schizophrenic transformation and wanders the city looking, and acting, like a badass, which is when he first meets the game's heroine, Marta. Although the normally timid Emil doesn't recall any of it, when he and Marta chance to meet again some time later, she swears that he somehow saved her life that time. Soon, the two become inseparable, and their journey begins in earnest.
Marta is on a quest to restore power to a being called Ratatosk (after the squirrel who runs up and down Ygddrasil, the World Tree, in Norse mythology, heckling the serpent Nidhoggr). Ratatosk is apparently the lord of all monsters, and it is his dormancy that has been causing monsters to aggressively attack humans. By awakening Ratatosk, Marta hopes to restore balance to the world and help monsters and humanoids to live in relative peace side by side.
As the story unfolds, implications that there may be larger and less-altruistic powers at work in the background begin to show up. After all, working to help monsters is not the sort of thing most humans would choose to do. Nonetheless, Marta is a sweet and well-intentioned woman, as well as being hopelessly (and humorously) devoted to Emil, who she regards as a personal hero.
Dawn of the New World's sense of humor is one of it's strongest points, as with most games in the series. Miniature events with dialog between the characters in Emil's current party can often be activated after larger story or dungeon events, by pressing the C button when an icon appears in the lower left corner of the screen. These events are often the funniest parts of the game, and even the ones that obviously only translate with great difficulty from the original Japanese script still manage to entertain. They also serve the additional purpose of quickly filling in details left out of the main dialogs, making personalities more nuanced and providing backstory about events and locations. For players who just want to get right to the gameplay and skip over the backstory, the dialogs are not at all essential to playing or enjoying the game. This system, though not a new feature, remains a nice touch, allowing expedited play for the impatient as well as more depth for escapists and completionists.
As in previous Tales games, combat in Dawn of the New World is more or less active. Spells can be interrupted and postponed by relentless physical attacks, and position on the battlefield can often make the difference between taking damage and being missed entirely. Holding down the Z button allows Emil to be moved in three dimensions around the field, sidestepping an attack or just getting out of the way of a crowded situation (although he is extra-vulnerable to attacks that do hit him while in this mode).
Special attacks are equipped to directional controls and performed by pressing the B button in conjunction with the appropriate direction. As before, friends can help you out by taking direct control of one of Emil's otherwise A.I.-controlled teammates. Up to four people can play at once, although only player one gets to do anything outside of combat. With a few friends who know what they're doing, this can make difficult battles quite a bit easier.
The game's A.I. is, as always, somewhat customizable, but although it usually works well enough, the system has nowhere near the depth or customization options of, say, Final Fantasy XII. Of course, when playing with friends, make sure that your healer knows he's supposed to be healing, or you'll have an even worse bloodbath on your hands than before. Whichever way players choose to fight, it's always a bonus when game companies try to allow for multiplayer elements in the traditionally one-player world of console RPGs.
As far as the cosmetic production values of Dawn of the New World go, I can find very little to complain about. The voice acting is particularly great--even though it isn't the very highest quality of any game on the market, all the important voices are done with such spot-on conviction that the personalities of the characters spring to life in a way that text alone could never make them do. Emil, for example, is so timid and nervous at the beginning of the game that his voice often hits a pitch normally reserved for such characters as the Powerpuff Girls. However, when in battle, the spirit of Ratatosk takes him, and his voice becomes rough and manly as he ruthlessly mocks the weakness of his enemies.
The same voice actor does both sides of Emil's personality, and manages to make each side convincing and believable. Dawn of the New World also has excellent music--traditional RPG fare, but full of great, memorable melodies and tight compositions. Sometimes I even leave the game running and turn the TV off, so that I can listen to the music through the speakers while doing something else for a while.
The graphics, while not highly detailed, are smooth throughout, with fluid, believable character movements and background environments. As with other recent Tales games, Dawn of the New World basically looks like a player-controlled anime series. Character designs are also a high point: all the main characters are immediately recognizable and have a memorable style to them. Of particular note is Tenebrae, the Centurion (a sort of magical ally) who helps Emil in his quest. Tenebrae appears as a sort of svelte, jackal-influenced black dog with what appear to be coattails on his back. The way he is animated varies: sometimes he pads along the ground like a panther, while other times he floats in the air in a crescent position. Combined with his cultured voice and cool design, the varied positions Tenebrae appears in add to his believability as an otherworldly, magical character. This sort of care and attention to small details is evident throughout Dawn of the New World.
Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is not a perfect game--it doesn't advance much from previous titles in the series in terms of gameplay, and occasional spikes in difficulty can be quite frustrating, especially without friends around to help Emil's party rise more effectively to the challenge. On the other hand, it is one of a very, very small number of RPGs available for the Wii. Add in the fact that Dawn of the New World would be a pretty damn good game on any system, and the game becomes a definite must-have for Wii-owning RPG fans. It doesn't advance the art or science of role-playing games, but it does what it does very well.
The game also clocks in at a very respectable 40 or so hours to complete the main story, with perhaps an additional 15 for the completionist. Again, this aspect of Dawn of the New World's value is augmented by the dearth of RPGs that have been released for the Wii. Additionally, the bright, anime-influenced design and easy-to-understand basic controls, as well as the active nature of combat, make this game a good bet even for people who don't play RPGs often. It is definitely one game that most gamers will not regret spending $40 on. If you own a Wii and use it for more than just Wii Sports, you owe it to yourself to pick this highly entertaining game up as soon as you can.