Tales of Phantasia
Namco brings American gamers the origins of the Tales franchise. How well does it stand up to modern RPGs?
Let's have some fun. Read the following, aloud, in your best (read: worst) 16-bit digitized speech voice:
"If there is evil in this world,
it lurks in the hearts of man."
And thus begins Tales of Phantasia. Don't let the laughable voice "acting" right off the bat fool you - this is a really great game.The Force was strong with the Japanese RPGs of the 16-bit era, and they lived on the Super Nintendo. One of these gems that's been absent from American shores for far too long has been this one. The game was originally released in 1994 in Japan right at the tail-end of the SNES' lifespan, and for whatever reasons it wasn't considered to be worth bringing over to the U.S. A real shame, but at long last us American gamers get to lay our grubby paws on one of the most memorable RPGs ever.
The first in Namco's Tales series, Tales of Phantasia sets players in the role of the hero swordsman Cress. The story is admittedly cliche (not even by today's standards, but in general), with him setting off on a quest to rid the world of evil after his home village is attacked and his parents are murdered. Though derivative, the story is presented effectively enough via some well-localized dialogue that keeps it entertaining and engaging enough for you to want to keep things moving onward. You're definitely going to see some very formulaic and traditional elements right off the bat and consistently throughout, but the wrapping around them is charming enough to allow you to look past them.
Tales of Phantasia's most unique element is the manner in which it handles combat. Like most RPGs, you wander around and find yourself thrown into random encounters, but instead of a turn-based approach to battles it's all done in a real time action-oriented format. Moving from left to right on the battle plane, you primarily control Cress, and attack enemies using three basic methods: slash, thrust and high attack. Each attack has its own strengths and application towards the different enemies you come up against, and can be strung together to form some pretty basic combos. As Cress levels up, he can learn new skills entirely as well us combo-upgrades to the techniques already at his disposal the more he uses them.
Though most of the battle has you focused primarily on Cress, the party members you recruit during your travels do a decent job of backing you up with their own attacks and support, whether it be offensive or defensive. The healer in your party takes care of you when injured, magic users cast spells to dish out some added hurt when necessary, and their behavior is customizable. In addition, you can also set a few hot keys to take advantage of their abilities when you need them on the fly. Party attacks are all pretty basic, so there aren't any serious issues with AI, but sometimes you find yourself doing a bit of frustrating babysitting on some of the harder battles.
Combat isn't only unique, but it's the strongest element of Tales of Phantasia. It's incredibly addictive, and even with the occasional level-up grinding sessions it stays pretty fresh. The keyword here is gratifying - actually seeing your characters lay the hurt down in real-time and giving you such immediate control over their actions is pretty rare for RPGs of this caliber. What takes some getting used to, though, is the imprecision in it's execution. The combat in Tales of Phantasia isn't straightforward twitch-based action, and it takes a lot of plan-ahead in casting spells and using skills. Also, you don't have direct control over Cress - the moves have a certain degree of auto-pilot to them, which results in battles sometimes being far too unpredictable.
The presentation isn't impressive so much technically, but in the details. Tales of Phantasia is one big delicious aesthetic hamburger - all elements come together really well. The environments are just full of little touches like wildlife and atmospheric sound effects, while the game's music really stands out and compliments what's going on in-game. Sound effects are tolerable, but nothing spectacular. The game has a bit of charm with the digitized voices used, if they don't annoy you first. Cress and friends cry out all their moves and attacks during battle, which is a mix of amusing and irritating. "First aid! First aid! Swallow Kick! First aid!" Ugh. Sometimes it'll crack a smile, sometimes you'll hate it. Luckily, the speech can be turned off independently from the rest of the music and sound effects, so the fuzzy-sounding voice work can be silenced if it really starts getting to you.
I'm confident enough to say that any RPG fan is going to love Tales of Phantasia - it's a really just a damn good game. It might be able to reel in some non-RPGers, but it's not advisable to pick it up without at least trying it first. It's a good thing North American gamers can finally get to see how Namco's Tales series is rooted, because it's arguable that the first is possibly the best even compared to the modern installments. The game shows off what is to some the best era of the Japanese RPG genre - where the staples you see in games today really started fleshing themselves out, and does a great job of keeping you entertained along the way.
What's Hot: An impressive an engrossing RPG, even by today's standards
What's Not: Combat, while the game's shining point, can be frustrating and awkward at times