The culprit: Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360)
The Tales series is a notorious victim of patchy videogame export. I’m not sure why yet, as I’ve only played two of them so far, but my guess would be that 1) it’s not Final Fantasy, and therefore, export tends to just forget about it, 2) it’s a bit too anime-y for the general public. I can’t argue with that last one: both Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Vesperia suffer from several annoying anime clichés. But the Final Fantasy series, the big favourite of the JRPG world, isn’t exempt from those either, and yet, it’s the Tales series that usually gets the blame. Which is a shame, because it also has undeniable qualities.
Symphonia was a big hit, both in the US and Europe, and I was hoping for a similar experience when I bought Vesperia. ‘Similar’ is right, as Symphonia veterans will definitely get a ladleful of déjà-vu: Estelle, the heroine, is almost a carbon copy of Colette (even down to the French names), Karol is extremely reminiscent of Genis, Judith is a calmer version of Sheena, and Raven, a kinder Zelos. Many of the sidequests return (Fell Arms, waitressing, quiz, hot springs), the characters can still obtain titles and costumes as rewards for performing some of these sidequests (even though the titles don’t give them stat bonuses this time around), and some plot points are blatantly reused. But while this may not bode very well for the developers’ inventiveness, and while Symphonia still comes out on top by comparison–if only because it came first, and because it featured Kratos–, Vesperia is, nevertheless, lots of fun.
The most positive aspects of the game are the battle system and (some of) the characterisation. The former is the usual Tales fare: a party of four, of which you control one, the others being all up for grabs in multiplayer mode; otherwise, the game’s AI takes care of them, and does a pretty good job of it too (except for Estelle). You can give the AI suggestions with various Strategy settings, telling it to prioritise attack, healing, etc. Battles take place on a circular 3D field, where you can move the characters freely. Each character has their own weapon type, as well as oodles of special attacks, which are activated by controller shortcuts (A + a direction on the left stick for the controlled character’s moves, for example), and which they learn either by levelling up, from storyline events, or by using previously learned attacks a certain number of times. Each attack is associated with a colour: if a character uses that colour enough times, they’ll be given a chance to perform a Fatal Strike, which will instantly kill any non-boss enemy and grant the party bonuses at the end of the fight. Each fight is graded according to the characters’ performance, and the accumulated points can then be used at the end of the game to purchase stuff for subsequent replays. Characters also learn various skills from their equipment (think Final Fantasy IX). All in all, everything related to battle is a real pleasure: fluid, customisable, fast-paced and fun.
As for the characters, Yuri is a genuine breath of fresh air among JRPG heroes. While his appearance (dressed entirely in black with long black hair) may lead you to expect the worst, he’s actually not a brooding emo. Cynical, confident and level-headed, he never misses an occasion to dispense a smartass comment. He also has his own idea of right and wrong, and you might be a tad shocked when you see this in action; I know I was. The developers have undoubtedly made a bold choice by depicting him the way he is, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, and his voice actor is a very good fit.
The other big highlight is Raven. I thoroughly enjoy my comic relief when it’s well-handled, and he definitely delivers in spades. He’s no Jansen (of Lost Odyssey fame; the closest available comparison and the best comic relief I’ve ever seen in a video game), but dammit, does he try. Among his most noteworthy achievements is his take on the classic “our weapons are…” end of battle quote, which Symphonia players will most likely remember. And if the humour wasn’t enough, Raven also gets the best backstory of the lot, hands down. His only downside is the learning curve required to effectively use him in battle, if you’re ever inclined to control him yourself, as his fighting style is decidedly odd. This is a trait he shares with Judith, who, while nowhere near his level of awesomeness, or Yuri’s, is my third favourite among the cast, and is part of the rare breed of sensible, intelligent and independent female video game characters.
Now on to the less positive points. First of all, the storyline is rather uninspiring, stock JRPG fare. In its early stages, it also suffers from the characters’ indecisiveness: they keep trying to go their own ways, only to reunite, often instants later. They then decide on a goal and proceed to do scores of completely unrelated things before they remember what they were supposed to be doing in the first place. Fortunately, this improves somewhat by the end of the game.
Secondly, we have the rest of the cast. I frequently found myself wanting to smash Rita’s and Estelle’s heads together. Rita is a scolding hag, even though she’s only 15: she’s unbearably arrogant, her voice is annoying, and she gets angry on a regular basis, which is expressed by a healthy dose of yelling and smacking Karol around. I don’t like children in video games, but I kinda felt sorry for the poor kid as the story wore on. As for Estelle, it’s the same deal as with Colette: ENOUGH with the sickeningly naïve goody-two-shoes with whiny voices who constantly need rescuing, protecting and reassuring, I beg you!! Other than that, well, Repede’s a dog. A cool dog who fights with a katana, but still a dog.
And last, but not least, the terrible marketing strategy displayed by Namco Bandai (or Bamco). The game originally came out for Xbox 360…only to get a port to the PS3, which apparently includes not only two more playable characters, but also significant additions to both the storyline and the sidequests. Heck, from what I’ve seen, it’s almost a completely new game. And not only was this announced very shortly after the game was released, but the PS3 port is apparently never due to make its way out of Japan. I’m not particularly interested in the new characters, but a more fleshed out storyline could’ve been nice. Bad move there, Bamco, bad move.
All in all, though, I’m pretty happy with Tales of Vesperia. Despite its flaws (which include bland music), it’s entertaining enough to warrant seeing it through to the end and has replay value. If you’re looking for a good RPG for your Xbox 360 and have either already played Lost Odyssey or aren’t a fan of turn-based combat, look no further.