Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tales of the Abyss

Tech Info

Developer: Namco Bandai Games
Genre: RPG
Release Date: Oct 10, 2006
ESRB Descriptors: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Language

October 11, 2006 - Even though they may not receive as much mainstream attention as other RPGs, Namco Bandai's Tales franchise has just as rabid a fanbase as other popular titles. Regardless of whether the games are beloved by all (like Symphonia) or wildly debated (like Legendia), it can easily be said that each title in the Tales series is highly anticipated. Tales fans, take heart: the latest chapter, Tales of the Abyss, lives up to the enthusiastic hype with an extremely deep and expansive RPG.

The game centers around Luke fon Fabre, a sheltered young nobleman from the Kingdom of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear. Sheltered is perhaps a bit too tame of a description: spoiled is perhaps a bit more accurate for Luke -- he has no concept of how the outside world works or how to properly interact with people outside of his castle. As a result, he simply expects that people will assent to his will because every other servant and suspect has done so for his entire life. At least, what he remembers of his life. See, Luke was violently kidnapped when he was a child, and the trauma of the event completely erased his memory. As a result, Luke was confined to the "safety" of his castle until it was deemed safe for him to return to the normal world. So Luke remains cooped up in his castle, interacting with his closest servant Guy, receiving sword training from his teacher Van, and generally being bored senseless.

However, one day Luke's safe existence is completely torn apart when a mysterious woman named Tear invades the castle and attempts to kill Van during one of his training sessions. As Luke confronts her, a rare warp known as a hyper-resonance occurs, transporting them deep into the Malkuth Empire, an enemy country that has a very terse peace with Kimlasca. Finding himself out in the real world for the first time and potentially in danger, Luke attempts to make his way back to the safety of Kimlasca. However, his path back to his homeland is tied to events foretold by the Order of Lorelei, an ancient order that holds a mystical prophecy known as the Score (which governs just about every facet of life) that speaks of a time when a chosen one will arise and lead the world into prosperity. However, this prosperity is also threatened by impending war and a potential plot by the most unlikely conspirators of all. Of course, Luke and the assorted characters that he gathers find themselves trying to avert disaster on a global scale.

While this may sound like a generic, even clich¿d premise for an RPG -- particularly the chosen one concept that you've seen in tons of other games -- Tales of the Abyss manages to veer away from these standard pitfalls with a number of twists and turns to the plot that keeps the game moving in unexpected directions. (For instance, the chosen one idea is actually turned on its head about halfway through the game.) Abyss also has a number of memorable characters that will join you in your quest, such as a sacred animal known as a cheagle who has a knack for setting things on fire, a young girl that uses a massive stuffed puppet as a weapon, and an infamous necromancer in the service of the military. You'll also face off against a group of unforgettable villains, many of whom have some serious character quirks -- Dist, I'm specifically thinking of you as an example! But perhaps one of the more interesting facets of the game comes in Luke's perception of these characters and the rest of the world. I'll admit, at first, I hated his character: his constant whining about what he missed from his comfy, sheltered world, his refusal to understand that the world didn't revolve around him and his overly simplistic views. However, as the game went on, I found myself overlooking his stupid social inadequacies in favor of placing myself in his shoes, learning more about this strange new land as he did.

Fortunately, a number of standard features from the Tales franchise make this exploration at the same time of the main story. Players can literally spend dozens of hours collecting raw materials for trade in towns, track down and perform favors for NPCs or other tasks. While that may seem like busy work, you'd be surprised how much performing some of these jobs actually engaging for players, particularly the number of the side quests and secondary stories going onchanges some aspects of the world, such as stores that open in cities. You probably won't find every single job available to you in your first play through, which only furthers the replay ability of Abyss. The only downside that does crop up to performing quite a few of the side quests is that some sections of the game can be extremely linear, preventing you from going into some towns at certain moments in favor of moving the story along. This can be particularly disappointing especially when you know where you need to go to fulfill some task, and yet you know that you'll just need to hold on till later to complete the goal.

You'll also find classic Tales elements such as cooking to restore health and skill points (known in Abyss as TP) makes a return, and various characters will be radically stronger at certain recipes than others, even adding new twists to generic items like sandwiches. Players will also go through various mini-games, such as casino games, stealth puzzles, and even battle arenas to improve your party. Players will also find that skits are included as well to give you further insight into the minds of party members at specific times during the adventure. Even though they're not voiced over like the cut scenes, they really fill in the details of the story and add a secondary level of depth to the plot that you wouldn't experience simply from a cut scene after a massive battle.Speaking of battle, Tales of the Abyss features a revamped battle system. Characters have both a regular and special attack available to them, as well as the option to guard from incoming attacks. The guard isn't provided to completely escape damage; instead it lessens the impact of a strike that you receive. However, past these general moves comes the option to also move around on the battlefield, positioning your characters to the side or behind monsters to inflict more damage or set up combination attacks with your party members. As time goes on, you'll also discover new abilities called artes which you can assign to one of eight shortcuts that can be used in battle, and special gems that you can equip in places known as fon slot chambers to boost the effectiveness of an activated arte. You can also strengthen your party members with the use of Capacity Cores, special items that augment your character stats like the power of your strikes or your magical defense. Once again, you probably won't unlock every Capacity Core or arte, giving you even more of a reason to replay the game to collect stronger attacks and abilities.

For the most part, you'll be pounding both the regular and special attack buttons, landing strikes and protecting yourself with guards from incoming attacks. However, there's one other feature known as field of fonons, based around the concept of six elements (earth, wind, water, fire, light and darkness). During a battle, one of these fields may manifest itself with a specific elemental focus, allowing you to trigger a special attack on a targeted opponent. However, there are a few catches to the FOF setup. First of all, the amount of space that these fields will often occupy will be so incredibly small that you'll need to be in the right place at the right time to pull off the attack. This can often result in missed opportunities to trigger these strikes. What's more, you'll need to wait until these fields have a color that aligns with its particular element. If they appear and they're colorless, they are useless to your party. However, the majority of fields that crop up wind up being colorless, further reducing your chances to actively trigger an FOF attack. In fact, you may find that relying more on the artes and your basic attacks are a much more dependable way of killing opponents instead of waiting for a fonon field to align itself.

You'll take any one of your four party members into battle, and while you have the opportunity to have up to three other friends control the other party members via multi-tap, you're not really going to use this feature often, simply because your friends would merely be sitting around until you run into a fight. In their place, you'll rely on the AI of the computer and various settings that you'll place on your party members to fight alongside you. For the most part, the computer will do exactly what you want it to, attacking or using their skills effectively. However, there are moments when you will want to shoot them because they'll run directly into harm's way, not use an item or skill to heal themselves, or stand around ineffectively. You'll also wish that there were some fights that you could have the game skip or fight for you, because the loading screens between battles can sometimes take longer than the actual fights themselves. Finally, and perhaps one of the most confusing facets of the battle system comes in the fact that you'll be exposed to certain elements of it before it's cleanly explained to you. I stumbled my way through using fonon fields and specific arts for more than 10 hours before I had all of them cleanly explained by one character in the game. Why the game decides to handle combat in this manner is anyone's guess.

Fortunately, the visuals are relatively decent -- as far as the character models are concerned. Designed by Kosuke Fujishima, (who worked on both Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Phantasia, as well as the manga series Oh My Goddess and Sakura Wars), players will easily get a sense of the personalities of the characters, particularly within the various skits and cut scenes. This is bolstered by the solid voice acting found within the game, which is impressive considering the sheer amount of spoken lines in Abyss. Unfortunately, a number of the environments that you'll adventure through are relatively plain. Battlefields in particular are extremely generic, which really stand out in contrast to the character models of your party, the enemies that you face off against, or the effects from special abilities.

Tales of the Abyss is one of those games that should please die-hard Tales fans and win over a number of newcomers to the series. Lots of memorable heroes and villains, tons of missions and side-quests, and lots of goals that you won't exactly discover or finish on the first play through helps add to the game. However, some linear plot directions, long load times and a quirky battle system that sometimes degenerates into button mashing bogs down what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable RPG.

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