September 12, 2008
Tales of Vesperia is the latest in a long line of "Tales" titled games, all of which have prided themselves on great storytelling and a unique free-action battle system. My only previous experience with the franchise was the 2003 offering "Tales of Symphonia" on the Gamecube, but that alone had made me a fan of the series. When I heard about this 360-exclusive release, I immediately pre-ordered and began the waiting game. A wait well worth it, as it turns out.
As I mentioned, the Tales franchise has always been great at providing a rich story and great characterization. Everything helps to drive the story along and convey the characters' emotions and personalities, from the actual plot points to the battle celebrations and "skits" that can be activated by pressing the Select button at various times. Vesperia focuses (as most RPGs do) on an unlikely group of travelers brought together (seemingly by fate) that eventually have to save the Princess and ultimately the fate of the entire world depends on them. Nothing groundbreaking on that front, but the way everything unfolds, who the villains turn out to be and what twists are in store are all a pleasure to experience nonetheless.
The main hero Yuri is a disaffected ex-knight who lives in the poor area of a large city. The blastia core (magical stone, essentially) that powers the water supply is stolen one day so he heads to the wealthy section of the town to find the man responsible. The man escapes, while Yuri is imprisoned and subsequently also escapes, only to meet the mandatory Princess who keeps that secret close to her chest. From there, the journey begins at simply recovering the blastia core but then you start to realize that what you are being dragged into is much, much bigger. Again, the story isn't all that new or refreshing, but the way it is presented and the character interactions make it a fun ride.
I also mentioned the free-action battle system, previously seen to a different degree in publisher Namco Bandai's other RPG on the 360, Eternal Sonata. While the two systems are similar, the actual execution is very different. Vesperia focuses primarily on stringing attacks together for higher hit counts. You begin with normal attacks (B button) and a few weak "Arte" attacks (A button) that use up your TP gauge. Any attacks you land or attacks you receive will fill your Overlimit gauge which can be upgraded throughout the game up to level four. When activated, this allows you to attack continuously, whereas normally you would pause between combos or after each arte attack. It also enables you to eventually activate your Burst and Mystic artes which will deal an extraordinary amount of damage, the Mystic Arte launching a flashy cutscene to boot.
As you progress through the game and level up, you will learn more artes and unlock additional features of the battle system. A new aspect to this system is the Fatal Strike. This is where those long combos come in handy. If you are able to string a good combo together, a red, green or blue symbol will flash over your enemy, giving you a second or so to pull the right trigger. If you get it in time, anyone ready to attack (not staggered or in the middle of a different attack) will perform a quick strike, dealing extra damage to bosses and killing most normal enemies immediately, ignoring how much health they have left.
The skills system is also very important to the battle scheme. Various weapons have skills attached to them that will be available for however long you use the weapon. If used long enough however, the skill will be learned permanently, allowing you to move onto a different (usually better) weapon and most likely a new set of skills to learn. As you level up, you will have more skill points to assign skills with, each skill costing a different amount to attach. These skills can raise attributes, add time to your Overlimit feature or even alter some of your artes, creating completely new attacks.
The battles are not random like in "classic" RPGs, but instead you are able to see all enemies on the screen and attempt to avoid them if you like. This is tempting but if done too often you may be under-leveled when it comes time to face a required fight or boss. Once you do run into the enemy, a battle screen is launched (and more enemies appear than just the one you saw roaming the field or dungeon) with a large circle to mark off the battlefield. You are able to "free run" around the area by holding the left trigger, allowing you to position yourself behind or to the side of an enemy for maximum effectiveness. You can also switch between enemies at will with the right bumper.
Each battle will be "graded" (on Normal difficulty or higher) depending on how well you fight. Bonuses are given for speed, combos, fatal strikes and various other factors. Your "grade" can indeed be negative, with points taken off for damage taken, player deaths or uncured ailments. At the end of the game, you can use your overall grade to purchase certain perks for your next play of the game. These range from simply allowing your items, records and skills carrying over to giving ten times the normal amount of experience or even one half the normal experience. These perks give the game excellent replay value, allowing the option for speed runs or bigger challenges, each of which tie into achievements in the game.
To go along with the fun battle system, the game looks and sounds pretty good as well. The graphics are another thing reminiscent of Eternal Sonata, though I feel it is a bit muted in comparison. Whereas Sonata pulled no punches in the color department, Vesperia does not explore the entire spectrum, instead relying more on the primary color schemes. The cutscenes tend to punch it up a bit, but the normal gameplay doesn't have the same pop that really drew me into Sonata. The cutscenes are also done in a much more traditional Anime feel, giving the game two distinct feelings which is never a good thing for me.
The voice acting and dialogue is very well done, something that always can be an issue when games are translated and redone for a new market. Some of it tends to be cheesy and the young kid can be annoying, but that is something we've all come to expect in this genre and it fits in that respect. The battle sounds, spell chants and the like are all good, but sometimes the human enemies make strange noises when they are hit. Something like "quart" seems to be said. I don't know that I'd make that noise if hit with a sword. The in-game music is composed very well, but the best part is the song during the cinematic that plays before the game's menu comes up. I actually found a copy of it and put it on my Zune.
Achievement-wise, you're looking at a long haul if you want the full thousand from this one. As of this writing, I have put in about 45 hours and have not finished all the side-quests required for many of the character titles, weapons and items that all have associated achievements. I would estimate 80+ hours easily, and only if you don't miss any events during your first play of the game, of which you will most likely need two or three minimum. About half the points are simply given through story progression, the other half requiring many hours of grinding to acquire all the unique character titles, weapons, and items. There are also twenty-three 5-point achievements for successfully completing a hidden requirement during various boss fights, such as attacking while they are taunting or surviving long enough without killing the boss that they will use every skill they know.
Good voice acting that genuinely conveys the emotions and situations, decent battle and spell noises and an excellent soundtrack.
A little underwhelming compared to Namco Bandai's previous offering on the 360 (Eternal Sonata) and the Anime cinematics feel out of place, but the overall effect is good.
The battle system is very fun, though a little intricate for new users. The game gradually adds aspects to it and as you progress it becomes very fluid toward the end. The load times are impressively short and the game runs very smooth.
A somewhat traditional story with excellent characterization and a great battle system. It really might have been something special if the story was a bit more unique.
We've come to expect nothing less from an RPG these days. The list is nice and it is even somewhat easy, but it takes half a lifetime to finish.
Tales of Vesperia is what we've come to expect from both a free-action RPG and publisher Namco Bandai in general. The graphics are a little under what I'd hoped and the story isn't as fresh as I'd have liked, but the battle system and the overall execution are excellent. This is a good addition to the Tales franchise, as well as to the 360's RPG library.