Thursday, January 23, 2014


As part of working through my "last gen" backlog (doesn't seem that long ago when that would have referred to me playing PS2 games,) I've been trying to finish off some of the games I've had sitting around with every intention of playing. Most of those games are on the PS3 side; I was far more active on my 360 last gen than I was with the PS3, though the PS3 had enough interesting exclusives that I've built up a little pile of games I've always wanted to play. By contrast, almost all of my 360 games are either a) fighting games, which can't really be "completed," or b) action games, which are pretty easy to wade through.

My collection of PS3 games is kind of interesting. All of my friends have 360s, and those that also have a PS3 primarily play on the 360 when it comes down to a choice between the two platforms. So whenever a bigger budget/AAA game came out, I'd buy it for the 360. That leaves the PS3 as the console where the "oddball" games collect: typically Japanese games that weren't ported to the 360, or primarily single player experiences that I don't mind giving up my friends network for.

One such game is Tales of Graces f. The previous Tales of game, Tales of Vesperia, came out on the 360, but for whatever reason (I'd guess mediocre sales, but I remember Vesperia being decently well received) that was the first and last Tales of game released on a Microsoft console. Tales of Graces f was released only on the PS3 (having been upgraded and ported from the Wii,) Tales of Xillia was a PS3 only release (and the sequel is expected to stay exclusive as well,) and the upcoming Tales of Symphonia Chronicles is also PS3 only. In short: if you like the Tales of series, I hope you have a PS3.

I've been a fan of the Tales of series ever since I played Tales of Destiny II (the English port of Tales of Eternia) way back on the PS1. Its a series that alleviates the main issues I usually have with JRPGs: the combat systems get dull pretty quickly. Once you figure out an optimum approach, aside from a few variations, the average JRPG devolves into repeating that pattern as many times as possible until you either win or run out of resources. That can be interesting, depending on how the game is designed, but I play video games for novelty so I usually end up bored before I can finish the damn thing.

The Tales of series does away the traditional JRPG approach to combat - the party lines up against their foe(s) and murders them via menu commands - and handles it in more of a "beat-em-up" fashion: you have two attack buttons, which allow you to perform chains of attacks. There's still an important back end of numbers, but an important part of playing a Tales of game is being able to react to the enemy, time your attacks properly, and build up long combo chains. It's way easier than something like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but it's also light years more active and interesting than your average JRPGs menu system (not that those aren't good in some ways, but developers usually don't go deep enough with their design to keep me interested for 60 hours.)

Tales of Graces f is a game that I read a fair bit about before purchasing. The common review went something like this: "the best gameplay of any Tales of game, but the story is super anime." After playing through a big chunk of the game - I've sunk 40 or so hours into the main story, and I'm at the final dungeon - I can mostly agree with that review.

The gameplay is extremely fun. The mechanical change from previous games is that instead of having a finite combo or set of attacks, your attacks cost CC (can't remember the technical name, but they might as well be "attack points") and you can keep stringing attacks together until you run out. Recharging CC is fast (though not instant) and ties into the other mechanic where guarding buffs up your next set of attacks, so it naturally flows together in a smart way. The end result is a combat system that is constantly moving, but has natural ebbs and flows with a minimum of forced downtime. Even after 40 hours of combat I'm still running into random encounters on purpose just to clobber enemies to death; it's just flat out fun to play.

The story is, indeed, anime as hell. If you're familiar with common anime troupes, this game hits pretty much all of the notes and it doesn't really surprise in that regard. It's also kind of a slow story to start up, so it's a fair chunk of time before the story really gets weight behind up.

What I think helps the story out a good bit is the characterization. Again, it's nothing really remarkable or surprising if you're familiar with common anime story beats, but the writing and voice acting does a fantastic job of adding nuance to the characters and making them feel much more rounded. A lot of this characterization comes from the skits in the game, and the game peppers plenty of them throughout the journey so that by the time you get to the end of it these characters are way more interesting and endearing than they would be otherwise.

So even though the story is "really anime," I've enjoyed it thanks to the characterization adding more to the overall package. Combine that with the awesome gameplay and I'm really pleased with the time I've spent with Tales of Graces f. It's pretty light and breezy by usual JRPG standards, but there's a lot you can sink your teeth into if you're so inclined (not one but two post-game tasks.) I don't know that I'm gonna dig that deep into, but I'm definitely going to finish out the main story, and I'm excited to come back to it after a break. And then there's Tales of Xillia to try...

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