It’s hard to believe that the original Tales of Symphonia came out a decade ago. While many games show their age after ten years, there are a few exceptions out there that simply withstand the test of time. Where does Namco Bandai’s latest HD re-release, Tales of Symphonia Chronicles, fall? It’s time to find out.
For starters, Chronicles is two Tales games in one; comprised of both the original GameCube adventure, as well as the Wii sequel Dawn of the New World, this package is jammed pack with content. For those who have played through either one of the games, there won’t be a lot new to see, but that shouldn’t matter much in all truth, as what is presented in this bundle package is a testament to quality roleplaying experiences. Taking a look at the first game, Tales of Symphonia is one of those timeless masterpieces that managed to impress when it first came out, and has been regaled ever since. Part of what makes Symphonia such a charming game is its tendency to stick to tried-and-true storytelling conventions and compelling characters that all feel unique, and by proxy, exorbitantly interesting. Think of Symphonia‘s tale as a sort of JRPG-101; a narrative that is set against a typical save-the-world backdrop, with a cast of personalities to really bring to life the drama that could have otherwise fallen flat.
Essentially, our leading man for the initial game is Lloyd Irving, a teenage boy who acts as the centerpiece of the narrative, though he is flanked by a supporting troupe whom are all on the expedition with him. Naturally, our hearty hero falls into taking up arms in order to protect the “chosen one” — Lloyd’s childhood friend Colette. Being tasked with saving the world, Colette is a big deal, and as such requires many hands to help her along her weighty journey. But at the end of the day, Lloyd, Colette and the rest of the party must embark upon a grand crusade to replenish the world with vital, nurturing energy called ‘Mana.’ Naturally, there are a slew of plot unravels and daring climaxes along the way, but take note that Symphonia‘s tale simply isn’t anything Earth-shatteringly new. But it’s the expert-pacing and quality storytelling, which includes some fantastic cliff-hanging moments and criminally enticing plot hooks, that keep players wanting to move forward in their adventure.
Where most of the story takes place, though, is not within long-talking custscenes where important points are revealed. Sure there are those, but like any good Tales game, players are privy to conversations that exist as they explore the world itself, thanks to talking segments called Skits. There are several moments when folks can engage in a conversation between party members while walking the game’s many dungeons, towns, or even the world map; and it’s in these moments that the curtain is pulled back on each character’s history and motivations for tagging along in the endeavor. These instances are more intimate than the big, narrative crescendos, and yet they know how to have fun when need-be, too. In fact, the story in both games is dire in its circumstances, but still manages to eek out a lighthearted here and there, just to round things out.
The 2008 sequel, Dawn of the New World, isn’t as tight in its storytelling, however. In fact, the second game’s overall plot simply is not on par with the first’s whatsoever. It feels uninspired and, for lack of better phrasing, just plain boring both by comparison and on its own merits. That being said, for those invested in the game’s world and characters, New World does an effective job of acting as a continuation of sorts for Symphonia, giving players a deeper glimpse into how the world has changed since the events of the original outing. To that end, it deserves some points — the problem, though, lies in its inexplicably uninteresting characters that feel more like cardboard cut-outs than fully fleshed out people. As a result, the cast comes off as painfully cliché, meaning the game can’t even rest on its character laurels like the first. So in turn, we’re left with humdrum characters and a pedestrian story at best.
That being said, Tales games have always been “come for the story, stay for the gameplay”; and to that end both are very accomplished in their own right. But when we say “stay for the gameplay,” we really mean, “let’s praise the ever-living hell out of the combat system.” The battle setup in both Symphonia games occurs in real-time, and in usual series style, plays like a turn-based RPG crossed with an action game. Players plunge into battle with four party members, controlling one member and having the others managed by some very competent AI partners. Thankfully, you can set up parameters for said AI to act before combat, and they actually stick to the plan more often than not. The intuitiveness of a Tales’ combat engine is what makes it so enjoyable by practically anyone, veteran or newbie. Thus, on the surface the battles can go down quickly and without much forethought — at least early on. But eventually the difficulty ramps up a bit and makes playing with a tactical mind more of a necessity. Hence, enter “Unison Attacks,” which are entire-party barrages that can only be initiated after delivering a certain amount of damage. But these assaults aren’t the only facets that augment the combat beauty. There are of course special skill attacks to consider, too.
When all is said and done, both Symphonia games do not try to express their fighting prowess by way of intricate systems that are meticulously nuanced. But it’s the games’ ability to practice restraint in this regard that makes the combat such a frenetic, fluid experience that keeps the lengthy adventure from ever becoming mundane. This is of paramount importance as well, because Symphonia and New World are grind- and dungeon-heavy games; ergo, having a battle setup that is both entertaining and mechanically sound is absolutely vital to the overall product.
But the combat isn’t Chronicles‘ only colorful component. Namco Bandai’s HD remastering has done the games wonders in terms of bringing them into the high-def era. Often times high-definition does nothing for the graphical fidelity of a particular game — especially those that weren’t all that visually-pleasing to begin with. Fortunately, each Symphonia title looked fairly solid upon their initial release. Therefore, polishing them with that ever-so-sweet HD shine has only made the games all the more vibrant. With that in mind, the visual improvements here do seem surprisingly inconsistent at times. Texture work is where this is observed most often, with certain portions of the game looking as if they were practically glossed over entirely in the porting process. On the whole, the game is served well by the graphical upgrade, it’s just a shame that Namco’s efforts weren’t universally competent.
That aside, and while not enhanced by any fancy technology, the sounds of Chronicles are still worth mentioning. Although the voice-acting hasn’t been altered in any way, each game now has a Japanese audio option, which is recommended for playing through the sequel as its voice cast is hardly something to write home about. Thankfully, Symphonia‘s voice artists deliver reliably solid performances throughout the 40-60 hour excursion. While on the topic of aural presentation, we’d be remiss to skip over praising the original title’s charming soundtrack, which ranges from glorious to emotionally stirring. Yet again, the follow-up’s OST drops the ball in a big way, giving us some recycled tunes in addition to new ones that rest somewhere between yawn-inducing and merely adequate. The localization work hasn’t seen any kind of upgrade in this HD package. Consequently, the games are still prone to some grammatical issues, typos and the occasional clunky bit of dialogue. These qualms are just that, minor issues that aren’t deal-breakers by any measure. However, with an HD re-release one would hope that these small problems could be cleaned up.
There are a few other extras for this compilation, and may be enough to invite back older players who have already played through the games. There are now new Mystic Arte Cut-ins, new costumes, titles, unison attacks, techniques, events and monsters. That’s quite a bit of new content, albeit nothing as enticing as say new story segments or some kind of quests that extend the overall campaign. Still, it’s a nice addition that one can’t complain about.
Chronicles is a quality HD port of at least one absolutely fantastic game. Tales of Symphonia is arguably the best game in the series, providing an endearing roleplaying experience that is chock-full of character. From its lovable cast to its endearing save-the-world story and engaging combat engine, the game is a wonderful showcase for the JRPG genre. Unfortunately, its paint-by-numbers sequel is anything but memorable. Simply put, it’s a woeful game on its own, lacking any kind of intrigue or fascinating qualities, but especially so when put up against Symphonia. The forgettable characters that seem hellbent on making it impossible to form any kind of emotional connection to or level of empathy toward, and the even less remarkable narrative make it almost not worth playing at all, even for folks who love the established world. Overall, though, this is a bundle worth its price of admission for the first game alone, especially because it’s been taken care of so well by Namco in this remastering project.
Platform: PlayStation 3