Tales of the Abyss for Nintendo 3DS
The ‘Tales of’ series of JRPGs are absolutely huge in Japan, yet never really made a huge splash over here in the West. My first experience with the series was the wonderful Tales of Symphonia, released in 2004 on the Nintendo Gamecube and the PS2. Symphonia is easily one of my top JRPGs I’ve ever played (alongside Chrono Trigger, Skies of Arcadia and Xenoblade Chronicles), featuring an incredibly compelling story and combat which was closer to Super Smash. Bros than Final Fantasy. Following games in the series have either been released on consoles I do not own, not localised in the West or quickly become prohibitively expensive in the case of Tales of Vesperia for the Xbox 360. It was therefore with great excitement that I picked up the remake of the originally PS2 exclusive Tales of the Abyss for 3DS, hoping that it would capture what it was that I loved about Tales of Symphonia. Sadly, in almost every area Tales of the Abyss fails to match up to the quality of its predecessor, although is certainly not a terrible game if taken alone.
In the typical JRPG Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest tradition of each game taking place in a new world with all new characters, Tales of the Abyss bears absolutely no story connections to previous games in the series. The protagonist of Tales of the Abyss is Luke fon Fabre, the son of a noble house in the nation of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, engaged to marry Princess Natalia, daughter of the King. Whilst training with his sword master Van, a mysterious young woman named Tear appears and inadvertently teleports herself and Luke halfway across the world. Luke and Tear find themselves in Malkuth, a nation on the verge of war with Kimlasca, and decide to attempt the arduous journey back to Baticul, the Kimlascan capitol and Luke’s home. Along the way Luke and Tear are joined by a motley array of characters, from the Machiavellian schemer Jade Curtiss to the Luke’s former servant and best friend Guy. Of course, this being a JRPG, the plot thickens considerably, and actually raises some pretty interesting questions regarding predestination. The entire world of Tales of the Abyss is ruled by an ancient prophecy known as The Score, and almost all decisions are made in an attempt to bring it to fruition. The villains of the story seek to end The Score and revive true human free will by destroying the world and rebuilding it through a technology known as replication, a cloning method which can recreate people and even continents. Of course, is their path to bring about free will in itself predetermined? Is everything the player does meaningless in this grand tapestry pre-woven thousands of years before? These are big, interesting ideas, and in true JRPG fashion they are bungled horribly, instead focusing upon an endless stream of meaningless jargon and angst. The angst is no worse than any other JRPG, but the jargon is possibly the worst I’ve ever encountered. After sinking fifty hours into this game I still only had a rudimentary understanding of what the characters were talking about. The game is far too long, with a huge amount of meandering between the different towns, particularly during the middle act. There are literally hours of gameplay which simply involve getting into your flying ship, heading off to a previously visited town or city, talking to someone…and repeat. The story is certainly functional, and I was invested in the fate of the characters. As is often the case with JRPGs, it’s really the beginning and end that shines. I’ve played worse game stories, and I was invested enough to care what happens, but compared to many other JRPGs I’ve played the story feels rather staid and cliché.
The big draw of the ‘Tales of’ series has always been the combat, eschewing random battles or turn based/ATB-esque systems in favour of engaging and active combat mechanics. Even through stats and strategy are still the most important factor in winning a battle, the players ability to string together combos, block and time attacks based on the foe’s attack patterns play a significant role. The combat is filled with systems which seem like they should be fun, but don’t quite…work. Perhaps the best is the FOF (Field of Fonons…whatever that means) system whereby the casting of an elemental spell creates a ring, within which is another special move is used they can combine and create powerful elemental attacks. Pulling one of these off never failed to be satisfying, and can turn the tide in a tricky boss fight. There are several poorly explained systems which I simply opted to ignore, and got on just fine without them. The game is actually singularly bad when it comes to introducing and explaining game play mechanics. The combat is nonetheless pretty fun, and certainly remains one of the more engaging JRPG battle systems out there. Outside of battles there’s very little in the gameplay that could be called dynamic, particularly the return of the Sorcerer’s Ring from Tales of Symphonia, which allows you to shoot a little burst of fire. Clunky and rather pointless in Symphonia, it has only been made worse in Tales of the Abyss by the fact that each usage is accompanied with the high pitched squeal of the obligatory annoying furry JRPG sidekick. This probably sounds awfully negative, but it’s really not that much worse than any other JRPG, and is actually better than many others. The worse crime committed by this game is one which has caused me to stop playing other games, such as Baten Kaitos on the Gamecube; unskippable cutscenes. If you lose to a boss, you are taken back to the previous save point, and every single time you will have to watch the proceeding scene, some of which are really rather long. It’s one of those baffling design flaws which always astonish me when they appear; a simply issue to remedy, yet so prevalent and infuriating. Perhaps the streamlined glory of the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles has ruined other JRPGs for me.
The game looks pretty great, with the excellent character design the series is known for on full display here. The environments are rather hit and miss, and at times it can seem to be going through the motions of the typical JRPG locales (desert town, snowy town etc.) There are some utterly beautiful locations, such as the beautiful Malkuth capitol Grand Chokma and the atmospheric Tower of Rem. The 3D is completely useless, you’ll turn it off almost immediately, but that doesn’t really take way from the experience. The voice acting is up to a fairly high standard, with very few of the voices truly grating (with the notable exception of the aforementioned furry sidekick Mieu) and some coming through as genuinely enjoyable, such as the sardonic Jade and the gynophobic Guy. The music is rather good, and whilst not necessarily all hugely memorable, does a good job of capturing the locations they play in and the events they underpin . This is a game where you’ll want to keep the sound on the whole time.
This review reads very negatively, but this game isn’t truly terrible, or even bad. The story is rather compelling, the combat is exciting and the characters are likeable, making it worth persisting with despite the myriad flaws. It’s a good game, one I do believe is worth playing if not for the sticky issue of the price. Due to a highly limited amount of stock released in the UK, this game is rather rare and accordingly expensive. I’ve never seen it sold for less than £40. The only reason I could afford to buy it was because I picked it up in Sydney at a shop which I always visit due to it selling rare games at a reasonable price. It’s a shame really, there’s really nothing else like Tales of the Abyss out yet for the 3DS, but the quality of the game simply doesn’t justify the price. If by some miracle you spot this game for around £20 or so, don’t hesitate to buy, but that seems something of a long shot.