Asked to list the modern ‘greats’ of Japanese RPGs, you’d probably get the same standard responses – Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and possibly a Shin Megami Tensei or Mother if among particularly indie circles. However, there’s one series which has never quite broken into the big time. The ‘Tales of…’ games have been going since 1994 and the latest instalment to hit our shores, Tales of Graces on PS3, raises one simple question: Why don’t you own this yet?
For one thing, the game is an incredibly good deal. For £37.99 (slightly less than a standard boxed release) you’ll receive a copy of what might well be the defining RPG of the generation, as well as a ‘making of’ DVD, a soundtrack CD and a lovely (and quite well put together) art book. While there are cut backs to adjust for price (the CD and DVD are included in the game case rather than their own packaging; the art book is paperback rather than something you’d pay £12.99 for on Amazon) these concessions are made up for with the free included DLC content (costumes for the lead characters identical to those from Tales of Destiny – a nice bit of pandering to fans, while providing an incentive for newbies to play the older games).
It’s rare that a publisher apologises to audiences so thoroughly, though in this case it might be justified. Tales of Graces was originally released for Japanese Wiis way back in 2009, was ported to PS3 the same time the following year, taking until March 2012 to see a Western release – and nothing in Europe until the end of summer.
Mind you, it’s well worth the wait – there’s a reason there’s been nothing in this review about the game, and there’s a reason for that. The whole thing is some fifty hours long, and yet it never becomes tedious. To describe the whole story would be mind numbing and probably make you leave, but suffice to say it’s your typical JRPG story done perfectly. The player guides Asbel Lhant, son of a minor nobleman, through his childhood as a mischievous boy, becoming a royal knight and an epic tale of betrayal and friendship that, breaking the fourth wall for a second, kept me hanging on every word.
It’s very typical stuff, but basic plots exist for a reason, which is that if done right, they’re great stories. Tales of Graces doesn’t take itself terribly seriously either, breaking with the pretentious melodrama so despised of JRPGs and presenting a cast of distinct, likeable, though sometimes questionably voice acted characters. Wherever there is angst and drama, there is always a silver lining provided in the form of a humorous conversation, either in cutscenes or one of the many optional skits, in which one sees the characters when they aren’t at their most serious. It walks the line between serious plot and hilarious anime hijinks, and walks it with a finesse only the most honed acrobats can manage.
The sheer level of polish three years of localisation and ports brings is pretty astounding graphically as well. Rather than trying to create ‘realism’ by making everything brown and dusty, Tales of Graces takes the anime style used in the previous titles and enhances them with higher frame rates, detailed models and small touches like physics on the characters’ hair. It works excellently, to the point where only the text boxes and camera angles will remind you that you’re in a game.
That said, combat in anime doesn’t usually take place in circular arenas with a combat style more suited to fighters than RPGs. Instead of everyone lining up in rows and taking it in turns to beat numbers out of one another, the Tales games use a real-time system that can only be described as semi-controlled brawling. The player takes control of one of the four party members, while the other three stick to AI actions (customisable of course) – unless you’re the sociable type, in which case your friends can join in during combat to assist. The combat is intuitive enough to only need a few short tutorials, while your strategies can be deep enough that (should you choose) you can fiddle with menus to your heart’s content.
The less controlled, live-action system actually feels more natural and fluid than most things out there, and though the battles take place in a little walled-off arena, the transitions are quick enough that it never slows you down. Outside of combat, random encounters are represented on the field by actual avatars of the enemies involved, a nice change from the teleporting enemies of Final Fantasy games and the non-descript blobs of Tales of Symphonia. A leaf well plucked from Earthbound’s book is always welcome.
Soundtracks are something a lot of JRPGs do well, and this game is no exception. From a relatively quiet start exploring a village and the surrounding hills, the range of different locales all have a fitting musical theme to them, and not once does it stop being impressive. The J-Pop tune playing over the opening video can and will become grating after the first dozen times you start it up, but frankly it’s nothing a dose of the skip button won’t fix, allowing you to enjoy the rest of the game undisturbed.
All of this isn’t to say that Tales of Graces is perfect (no game ever can be, or the industry would stop) but what flaws are present (the occasionally weird voice acting, the glitch which makes the overworld model hover along the ground) are so minor as to amount to little. Here’s a personal aside to attest to the quality of this game – I died just after finishing a dungeon, lost my save file and had to re-do an hour of gameplay. I still enjoyed it as much as the first time through.
Tales of Graces rightly deserves a place in the pantheon of JRPG greats. Its flawless gameplay, graphics and sound all work to create one of the best games you’ll play this year. 9.8/10.
Does your opinion differ? Think I’m a pocky-munching weeaboo or a blind Sony fanboy? You’re wrong, but feel free to yell at me below. Or, you know, you could also like this game.