F Is For Fun
Epic console JRPGs seem few and far between these days, but NAMCO Bandai has just quietly released a doozy into our midst: a new entry in the popular Tales series of action RPGs. Tales of Graces f is the extended version of the original Tales of Graces, which came out for the Wii in Japan. It includes a number of changes to the game including HD graphics and a “future” story arc that happens after the end of the original game. Since this is the first time we’ve seen Graces in English, though, we can just consider the game as a full package.
Graces starts off a bit slowly, with the main characters as children. When noble siblings Asbel and Hubert discover an amnesiac girl on a hillside, their pastel-colored innocent childhood gradually gives way to tragedy and loss of innocence. The game then takes off as time flashes forward seven years, finding the grown-up characters having to deal with the aftermath of that childhood incident. Naturally, this soon leads them on a quest to save the world and discover the true meaning of friendship along the way. If it sounds fairly typical for a JRPG, it is, complete with heavily telegraphed plot twists. It’s not a story that will inspire deep thoughts, but it’s decent Japanese Magitech fare.
The main characters can be a bit obnoxious at first, but grow increasingly likeable as they mature over the course of the game. Leading man Asbel in particular starts off as a bit of a putz, with a gigantic naive streak that causes him to inadvertently hurt the people around him. This character weakness is handled well, however, as Asbel needs to find a way to get back in the good graces of the people he’s wronged. The love story between Asbel and requisite healer-girl Cheria is refreshingly peppered with typical teenage bickering rather than the usual seeming indifference that puzzles and annoys Western players. Mysterious amnesiac Sophie starts off creepy, but becomes quite loveable as she learns about being human. Asbel’s brother Hubert provides much-needed cynicism, and the cast is rounded out by nutty engineer Pascal, middle-aged hunk Malik, and handsome prince Richard. It’s not the strongest cast found in the Tales series, but the characters at least experience strong growth and change throughout the story, and it’s not hard to become attached to them.
With a likeable but not spectacular cast and a fairly unremarkable storyline, the true stars of Tales of Graces f are its world and its stellar battle system. Unlike many modern RPGs that have characters adventuring in small segments of a larger world, the player travels through all of Graces’ world on foot, seeing the sights and meeting the people along the way. There’s no out-of-proportion overworld as is common in Tales games. Instead, the towns and dungeons are connected by “fields” that show off the ecology of each of the game’s areas (don’t worry, there’s quick travel provided once an area has been explored). There’s a discovery system that rewards players who check out landmarks with a snapshot and a voiced skit. Each of the game’s human kingdoms have a very different culture and government system as well. These things come together to bring about a real attachment to the world in Graces, making it feel like a world that’s worth saving.
While out exploring the world, there are plenty of monstrous and human foes who have it in for our hapless group, which is where Graces’ excellent combat system comes into play. While all Tales battle systems have similar action RPG foundations, this is the most interesting and compelling iteration of that system to date. Each character has two sets of chainable combat abilities (called artes) that are operated using a combination of the X and circle buttons and a direction on the left analog stick. These A artes and B artes operate differently depending on the controlled character. For example, Asbel’s A artes are strike-style melee attacks, while his B artes are also mostly used in melee, but do slashing and other special kinds of damage. Hubert, on the other hand, alternates between melee A artes and ranged B artes. With each character having different kinds of A and B artes along with different reasons to switch between the two, there are a ton of combat styles for the player to choose from.
Combat is far more than simply stringing these different artes into effective attacks, however. Characters have a limited amount of energy that depletes while attacking and rebuilds while blocking or moving. The player will need to learn when to charge up shields and when to sidestep or dash in and out of battle between executing combination attacks. This can be an even more rewarding process if playing with friends, who can plug in a controller and assist in combat as any of the four active combat characters at any time. On top of all these considerations, getting the advantage over enemies requires analyzing and exploiting their weaknesses, requiring the player to switch up the kinds of artes that are used, particularly in the often-brutal boss battles. Easy to pick up but difficult to master, the combat in Graces combines action-packed combos with strategic choices in a very addictive manner. The system only gets deeper the longer the game goes on, and when it “clicks” and the player really sinks into its rhythm, it feels amazing.
For anybody who enjoys side activities and complex systems in RPGs, Tales of Graces has them in spades. Character growth is accomplished by collecting titles, which grant new artes and bonuses to characters as they are equipped and mastered. Titles are earned through a wide variety of activities, from progressing the storyline to battling to participating in minigames and side quests. There’s also a rewarding item creation and customization system called “dualization,” based on combining ingredients found through exploration and battle. Dualization provides loot to sell for cash, dishes to cook and be used in battle, improved equipment and accessories, and quest items that can be turned in for rewards at the local inns. It’s a many-faceted but easy-to-use system that can be quite addictive. Along with these major systems are smaller activities like a collectible card game, several minigames, the usual gladitorial arena challenge, and side quests such as collecting flower seeds and cheering up a small child with stuffed animals.
Unlike many lengthy RPGs which drag on after a while, the various elements of Tales of Graces f come together to keep things fresh and interesting even after many hours of play. Whether mastering the battle system on the different characters, seeking out new combinations of things to mix together via dualization, searching the world for minigames and side quests, or collecting titles, there’s something in the game to hook just about every kind of player. Graces even avoids the usual series pitfall of hiding tons of content behind missable side events. Although there are a few missable side events and skits, most are fairly easy to find and close to the relevant story area at the time they appear. There is no need to backtrack through the entire world, scouring towns for side quests after every major plot point. Now there’s a trend I hope the series continues.
Visually, Tales of Graces suits the PS3 well. Though it only goes to 720p, the graphics were clearly given a much greater overhaul than the typical Wii upscale. Looking very closely at the graphics can reveal occasional rough edges, but most players should be quite satisfied with how the game looks. The frame rate is smooth and there are never slowdowns in battle despite the number of particle effects being tossed around.
Musically, Graces is a bit of a mixed bag. There are stirring orchestral pieces, but there are also areas in which the same tiny, uninspired progression of notes is set on endless repeat. The voice acting is better and far more subtle than it seems at first. The characters start off sounding highly stereotypical, but as they mature, the voice actors do an excellent job of reflecting that maturity into their performances. For example, Sophie starts off with a completely flat affect, but gains more and more expressiveness in her voice as she becomes more human. Similarly, the sneering superiority in Hubert’s voice slowly melts away as he begins to understand his companions’ value. Pascal is the only character whose voice casting is likely to be controversial, but it must have been very difficult to figure out how to voice her dialog and personality properly.
As is typical for the series, Tales of Graces f features an addictive combat system, tons of complex side systems to explore, and a quest of epic length for the player to undertake. While it doesn’t have the strongest cast or story in the series, Graces makes up for that with an extra heaping of fun infused into the entire experience. With the best series battle system to date, a beautiful world to explore, a truly impressive number of things to do, a playable epilogue to the story, and the usual Tales New Game + system on top of all that, Tales of Graces f is an adventure that provides incredible play value. Fans of the Tales series in specific and of JRPGs in general should consider this one a must-buy.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Lovely hi-res 3D graphics that look far better than a simple Wii upscale. 4.8 Control
The battle system controls smoothly and responsively. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is a mixed bag, but the voice acting is quite good and more subtle than it seems at first. 5.0 Play Value
The amount of things to see, do, earn, discover, and create in this game is truly impressive. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best