I finally decided to start playing Tales of the Abyss this week. I am a huge fan of the Tales series of games, having first played Tales of Destiny on the PS1 when it was first released, and having played all Tales games released in the US since then. The Tales series is Namco's Final Fantasy, but has never reached the popularity of FF or Dragon Quest either here or in the east. Tales of Symphonia for the the GameCube is my favorite of the series, and was followed up by Tales of Legendia for the PS2, a game that was an enormous disappointment. Legendia wasn't BAD really, but the characters were very quirky (in a bad way) and over the top, and the fighting engine was not as polished as previous games in the series, and the story was rather lacking as well. My huge love of Symphonia and my disgust with Legendia made me somewhat hesitant about getting into Abyss (Abyss made by the Symphonia team) but I am glad I did.
The Tales games take your normal RPG conventions such as leveling up, buying items and weapons, learning magic and abilities, and combines that with a fantastic fighting engine. Instead of selecting a command from a menu, then waiting for your enemy to do the same, you have complete control of your characters movements and attacks. In Abyss's case, you move around the battle field with left and right, block with Square, press X to use a standard attack (up, down, and left/right give you different variations of the standard attack) and O lets you use your Artes, or special abilities (with up, down, left/right selecting different Artes). All of this is done 100% real time, no loading or waiting, and makes every battle something fun. Think of Final Fight meets Final Fantasy, or Street Fighter meets Dragon Quest.
Many battles are avoidable, as you can see your enemies as you travel around in the game. This is a great addition to the Tales series, and one of my VERY few complaints about Tales of Symphonia (my favorite of the series). When in battle, you are accompanied by up to 3 other party members, who take actions on their own. You can set up strategies for the other characters in the menu, and select specific actions from a menu during battle, but very rarely will you find yourself needing to tweak the other characters battle settings (except for Guys over use of Artes).
My only true complaint about the gameplay is the Artes system, or the shrunken list of abilities to gain. Symphonia had a long list of abilities that you could unlock, and the way to unlock most was to use the same abilities over and over again to unlock the ability. While this is done as well in Abyss, it is greatly lessened. Only about 5 abilities require you to level up existing Artes, and the overall list of Artes is not that great. Even the original PS1 Destiny and SNES/GBA Phantasia seem to have a longer list of abilities to unlock. Yes, you can upgrade each Arte to make them stronger or have special attributes (a tutorial my copy of the game refuses to load), but this felt tacked on more than anything. One of my favorite things to do in Symphonia was unlock these new abilities, and new Artes are not as common here in Abyss. While this does not hinder the gameplay in anyway, it would have been nice to see more abilities.
This is a story driven RPG, so even though there is a lot of action in the battles, this is still an RPG first. Tales of the Abyss tells the story of Luke, the son of noble blood, who is stuck living in his parent's mansion. He was kidnapped 7 years prior, and not allowed to leave the mansion since returning. One day, a pretty young girl named Tear comes along to try and kill her brother Van, who is also Luke's mentor. Luke and Tear clash swords, and somehow get transported halfway around the world. The main theme of the story is Luke learning about the world, as he has been kept sealed up in his house for seven years. There is your normal political intrigue, and good guys who are really bad guys stories too, but the main story follows Luke and his experiences. The characters Luke meets along the way are what set this game above others from the genre. Every character has a lot of personality, and is voiced extremely well (does Johnny Young Bosch live in a recording studio?). The story won't win any awards, but it is told very well, even if it insanely confusing for the first 4 hours or so.
Another award Abyss won't win is in the looks department. Generally, the Tales games are very heavily anime influenced, and the opening for the games (at least the 5 I have played) featured a fully animated anime opening. While the 2D sprite work and character and level design is top notch, the 3D engine is something that could have been seen 5 years ago. While superior to Legendia's ugly character models, everything is still very blocky and old looking. The three year old Symphonia has better visuals than Abyss, and while the engine had to be remade or tweaked to go from the GameCube to the PS2, I am surprised that the game does not look as good. I was not expecting Final Fantasy XII, but I am disappointed that the level of detail, especially with the character models, is so low. The visuals are not that important, but after playing games like Okami and Final Fantasy XII and Shadow of the Colossus, I expect more from late generation PS2 games.
My only other complaint is load times. On average, battles last between 10-20 seconds, and when it takes several seconds after a battle to load the game again, that is a pain. Also, saving takes a long time, up to a minute some times! Also, moving from one room to another, or scene to scene causes loading too, so add another 3 seconds there. Its is not much, but enough to get annoying when trying to explore. This loading tends to be worst on the overworld map, which is the worst overworld map I have seen in a long time. The camera moves SOOOO slow that you often get attacked by a monster running from off screen, and it is impossible to see where you are headed until you are there. I had to fight the urge to explore, because I was so easily lost, despite maps and a compass. Pulling the camera back and up would have made it better, but it is still the ugliest and most annoying part of the game.
At the end of the day, despite some graphical faux pas and a slightly boring soundtrack, Tales of the Abyss is a great addition to the series, and represents what Legendia could have been. Anyone who has yet to play a Tales game should pick up Symphonia on the GameCube first (or Destiny on PS1 if you can find it (you cannot borrow my copy)). While not the best in the series, Tales of the Abyss is a wonderful adventure that never gets dull. The plot moves at a good pace, you are never upset when it is time to enter a battle, and Luke and Tear will stick with you even after the game has ended.
Overall score: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Images courtesy IGN and Namco.