Developers – Namco Tales Studio
Publisher – Namco Bandai Games
Platforms – PS3, Wii
After having played Tales of Vesperia a few years back I’ve been waiting with bated breath for a chance to review another Tales game on The Geek Clinic, and that time has finally come. The “Tales of” series has been running since 1995 over a number of consoles, with its 14 main titles generally standing separately from one another while maintaining a focus on storytelling, characterization and real time combat in a fantasy setting. After having experienced just two of them, I can quite confidently say that the series is a must-play for JRPG fans. I’d still love to recommend it to gamers who aren’t yet a fan of the genre, though, and this review is where I try and convince you all to give it a go with Tales of Graces F as an example. While it may not be perfect, it maintains the high quality “Tales of” games are known for and is a great entry point into the series.
As with anything, even friendships must pass. Having found a mysterious girl alone in a field of flowers during his childhood, Asbel soon came to care for her as a friend. Along with his brother, Hubert, their friend, Cheria and Richard, prince to the throne, he remembers the days they were together with Sophie fondly. After the girl’s tragic death 7 years ago, however, Asbel still struggles to find his place in the world, in isolation from the people he was once so close to. He’s a little surprised, then, when he finds Sophie looking not a day older in that same field as their first meeting. Though she doesn’t remember a thing about the past, she may yet be the catalyst for Asbel’s friendships, and his passion to do the right thing for his country and the world, to reignite. In the midst of civil war, strangely advanced technologies from the past and, of course, a threat to the world itself, those bonds might be the only things that can keep him going.
Tales of Graces follows that classic fictional formula of starting small and ramping up until everyone and their grandma, as well as her kitchen sink, are at stake. While it does come across as a little generic, and I’ll admit that there weren’t many points where I was dying to find out what was going to happen next, there are enough unique ingredients to make the experience feel fresh. For one, as with all Tales games, the setting in which the story occurs is highly developed and intricately woven into the series of events you’re shown. The level of integration between environment, human politics and emotions, and everything that displays on your screen is fantastic. While most of the individual plot threads have been done before they haven’t been done in Tales of Graces’ combinations or style and that keeps things interesting, even if it doesn’t quite keep you on the edge of your seat.
The real reason this series shines, however, is because of its characters. With a huge variety of cutscenes, unique sequences know as skits (more on those later) and even battle dialogue, every single facet of these characters is explored to a stupefying degree and I guarantee that you will care about them before the game is over (if only because it takes over fifty hours and Stockholm Syndrome is a thing – har har). Even within the overarching plot each one of them has their own interesting tale to tell and that’s great. As I’ve just mentioned, the Tales series has a special feature called skits that I haven’t really seen implemented elsewhere. Periodically (read: frequently), as you advance in the story, beat an optional monster, craft a new item or even just speak to a random NPC a small notification will pop up on the screen allowing you to view a skit. These visual-novel-esque affairs more or less consist of character sprites showing up on screen and having a conversation. They’ll change expressions, move around the screen, have unique art and generally give you a glimpse into the personality of each of the characters involved. Ranging from topical and serious to downright hilarious, these skits are what make the franchise so wonderful.
Onto the gameplay! The Tales games utilise a real time battle system, though each title has its own unique spin on things. In Tales of Graces you can control any of the characters in your party while the AI deals with the rest, and each party member has their own skill set and playstyle; it’s almost like an MMO class system, so if you ever get bored with one you can change to another and the entire experience is modified. You’ll fight using a combination of two different types of artes (abilities) arranged into combos and get various rewards depending on how skilled you are, and the number of artes is massive! After having finished the main game and epilogue, I still hadn’t learned them all! Rather than mana, you will have a resource known as chain capacity (CC) which limits how many abilities you can use in a row and will increase over the course of the game allowing for more elaborate combos and more powerful artes to be performed. It can take a while to get used to but once you’ve played with the system enough you can get some marvellous attack sequences going.
One of the things I think Graces does really well is its balance between extra content and the main game. You can get all the way through the story with only a basic understanding of the mechanics involved, but if you’re really into things then there’s a whole bunch extra for you to play around with as you make your way through. There’s a crafting system allowing you to improved your weapons, create accessories and cook meals that give you buffs during battle. Add onto that the depth that the combat system has to offer (which hasn’t been covered in full here), and you’ve got a huge range of complexity to suit just about any player. There’s no grinding required whatsoever (on normal difficulty, anyway) but if that’s your kind of thing then there’s plenty of extra stuff to do after and even during the main story. Unfortunately, the way in which this extra content is delivered forms one of my major complaints about the game. Forgetting the extra bosses and dungeons, since they’re not important to anyone that’s not going to specifically hunt them down, a huge number of the bonus skits you can find (and I mean at least a hundred of them) will most definitely not be found by the normal player. You would literally have to revisit every area after each new event in order to find them, and for a component of character development that’s ridiculous.
Graces has both strengths and weaknesses in its technical department. For one, the visual style the Tales games use suits their overall feeling perfectly. Environments and enemies look wonderful (with a fair amount of variety), combat movements and abilities are smooth and dazzling, and that same quality continues to just about everything in the game…as long as you don’t look too closely. When it comes to the large number of cutscenes scattered about, the character models – especially their facial expressions – look quite dated. Their movements don’t flow well either and that can have a sizeable negative effect on immersion. In the voice acting category much of the English dub is done very well; voices fit their characters and sound like you imagine they should in the context of the game. Unfortunately, some of the actors (though not many) fail to use the right inflection in their phrases and that can be off-putting in the middle of a skit or story sequence. Finally, I can say that the BGM does a good job of representing each area it’s used in while not being particularly memorable in itself (though the OP is great!).
Summary – Tales of Graces is a very solid JRPG experience. While the story doesn’t reach the highs I would like, it’s novel and different enough to keep you wanting to play and is more than made up for by expert characterization and overall personality. The gameplay is fun and offers a huge amount of variety for both casual players and completionists, and remains interesting despite the length of the game. The visual style used fits the Tales of Series well, and is very appealing for the most part, but could do with some work when it comes to cutscenes, especially considering how important those scenes are to the experience as a whole. All-in-all, JRPG lovers must play the Tales of games and Graces is as good a place as any to start.
Score: 8.5/10 – Good