Review: Tales of Graces (**** stars)

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NOTE: This lacks a review of the “f” portion, simply because I haven’t finished it yet. Lineages & Legacies will receive its own separate review, as it’s a borderline sequel given the length and time.

NOTE 2: There will be no Second Opinion on this review, mostly due to its fifty-hour length making such a task difficult.

The hope of the righteous is gladness,
But the expectation of the wicked perishes.

Proverbs 10:28

Tales of Graces, though certainly a “rout” Japanese role-playing game, has a lot of heart. If there’s one thing you can rely on Namco Bandai’s episodic franchise to do, it’s make you fall in love with a scrappy bunch of young guns who save the world after fighting a lot and solving a whole bunch of mysteries. The occasional philosophical musings don’t hurt either! Something about this series pushes all my stupid enjoyment buttons: the sappy melodrama, the incredibly predictable tropes, anime characters talking about exposition, political themes in half-fantasy and half-science fiction settings, techno/magic babble spoken with the utmost of seriousness, and the common theme of FRIENDSHIP CONQUERS ALL. Seriously, it does. Tales of Graces contains such a positive message of tolerance, difference, and the shared cause of humanity in making the world a better place that it supercharges you into a strange dynamic where you agree!

Asbel’s your typical anime protagonist: kind, loving, a bit of a dumb lunkhead who gets into situations far above his abilities. His determination in spite of all else and dedication to the power of friendship makes you hope you could remove the veneer of cynicism always present in our modern context. Hubert, his brother, represents the other side of the coin: endlessly working towards perfection and rigorous dedication, he criticizes everyone else at the drop of the hat but finds that, perhaps, their flaws make them who they are. Cheria’s your traditional love interest, equal parts strong and “girlish” (a Japanese thing, I assure you) who wears skirts far too short for her own good. Sophie’s your standard “amnesia mystery person”, in this case girl, although the game goes really out of its way to make it unique. Richard, on the other hand, is your atypical boy prince, royalty who doesn’t get royalty, and he finds himself in a cynical position from the start. Regardless of the tropes, they all come into their own as the game progresses. Each one displays equal bravery, fear, and self-doubt that they need to overcome in order to make friendships and deal with greater threats. Actually, becoming better human beings actually resolves the final conflict without…well, fighting. Which, I must say, is incredibly remarkable. Even the villains of the piece just feel misunderstood.

Some call this the weakest cast the series ever had. Well, if that’s true, I can’t wait to play Xillia, that’s for sure! What makes this so special isn’t necessarily the plot machinations themselves, which will never become a hallmark of the Tales series but that you first play all the characters as children for the first five hours or so. Yes, children are annoying, I should know because I was one, but this allows the developers to establish the important characters right from the start, as well as adding to the inexplicable mysteries (which I won’t spoil). Suffice to say Pascal, lady engineer who’s absentminded, and Malak, grizzled old (read: 35) veteran soldier with a sordid past (didn’t see that anime trope coming) also add a little flavor to the proceedings. In short, Tales games always strive for relationships and character development over setting and theme, and this one’s no different. If you like Japan’s simple narrative trope of nakama, that of the story regarding true companions in a strange sort of surrogate family dedicated to the end, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

Everyone knows that Tales games continue to provide excellent combat experiences, but there’s plenty of sidequests as well. I know that I didn’t even scratch the surface of all the secrets, special segments, optional bosses, and post-game content that I could find just from a cursory glance of GameFAQs. Add the tournaments which force you to play (and master) one character against waves of enemies into the mix with a constantly shifting postgame dungeon of doom (and grinding) with rewards to match and you could theoretically play this to total mastery. Me? I’m fine with beating the fitting and challenging last boss, a great climax to a game filled with wonderful battles.

It doesn’t hurt that Namco Tales Studio crams excellent crafting into the mix, making the simple act of walking from point A town to point B city a fascinating and exciting one. Our crafting system for this installment, called “dualizing”,  makes the process of buying items at a store nearly obsolete. In dualizing, you combine two compatible materials together (hence the “dual” part) to form new items, weapons, armors, or to just enhance said weapons and armor from their base forms. Unlike in most games, where getting to a new town means an obvious trip to the Equipment vendor, here the process becomes quite difficult. New weapons tend not to provide huge upgrades after, say, your Rare Sword hits a +11 upgrade level. The base level of equipment will determine its overall strength as it continues to gain extra stats, but this requires using an inferior weapon or one with stats not quite as beneficial to a character.

Usually in JRPGs you grind continually to obtain new items and then nonchalantly upgrade at the next item stop, but there’s actually a decision-making process here. Who’s gear should I upgrade? Should I upgrade person X over Y, based on usage (since you only four party members in battles)? Dualizing’s a cost-heavy process for the better items; rare materials exist in slight quantities, so you better make good decisions based on your current information. Like any good game, it won’t break your ability to finish battles, of course, but it’s a system that forces decisions on your part that actually matter.

You can certainly grind if you wish, but it’s not entirely necessary. It is helpful if you wish to dualize equipment, as you can only “temper” dualized equipment in battles, then dualize it with another gem on another piece of equipment to upgrade said piece. Of course, Tales’ most notable feature means that you will want to grind, and that comes from its innovative, fast-paced, and absolutely BONKERS real-time battle system. The Japanese call it the “Linear Motion Battle System”; think of a three dimensional arena with the ability to move linearly towards foes while allowing for sidestepping and dashing. You can switch targets on the fly to examine their health, stats, and weaknesses (incredibly helpful in this game). Add in combo attacks, special moves, and magic attacks strung together provides one intense battle after another. All maneuvers operate on a certain number of CC,  an energy currency that regenerates when you’re not doing anything (or blocking). Dodging and dashing also cost CC, so planning your attacks/dodging in advance helps a great deal…even if said planning happens on the fly.

Each character forces a unique set of problems onto you that create optimal party combinations. Playing as Asbel provides you with the most powerful melee attacks in the game, and he often functions as a tank directing enemy attention from other characters (hence, why my WoW tanking skills worked out well here!). Playing as Hubert turns you into a damage machine with long form melee combos and ranged gun attacks, but you’re also a glass cannon with high recovery time; get hit a few times, and Hubert hits the dirt. Cheria plays as a pure ranged caster/healer, but can also function as a mid-range melee attacker if you can space the heals. Sophie specializes in stunning enemies and unleashing quick fist attacks while buffing other players (she’s also exceedingly good at destroying Nova shields, which becomes the biggest issues in the latter stages of the game). Malak’s completely ranged approach and AoE normal attacks will devastate most foes from afar (he has high stamina and defense to compensate when things get ugly), while Pascal’s unusual ranged attacks and (weird) melee spells remain the most powerful spells in the game, if not the most difficult to utilize. Comboing into spells will reduce cast times, so it’s optimal to attack with A artes (normal attacks) and switch into your desire B artes (spells and specials). You’ll design a party around your preferred playstyle; Asbel’s the easiest to play, of course, but I took the chance to play every character extensively just for variety’s sake; the AI doesn’t play them optimally, but you can learn a lot by taking a new role.

A “super” meter exists in the form of Eleth Burst, represented by a meter on the side of the screen. Taking damage, or dealing it out, increasing the Eleth of one side or the other; if either reaches max, you’ll Burst, causing all attacks to cost zero CC for a set period of time, prevents enemies from stunning you, and allows you to unleash super powerful attacks limited by a stock of 3 (hence the fighting game comparison). These elaborate moves remind me of Final Fantasy’s summon spells, although much more punchy and integral to ending an Eleth Burst with high damage (as the supers don’t use up your time). Of course, the flip side comes from enemies using this system too, and a lack of caution from you or your AI allies (more on that in a minute) may bring you to your knees. Bosses, especially, restore their Eleth Burst at a high rate and use their own damaging supers, so watch out!

On that note, the bosses will kill you. Most standard encounters will simply test your skills in a mild way, familiarizing yourself with enemy types and exploiting their weaknesses. Each enemy’s weak to a variety of different attack types, running the gamut from the traditional elemental weaknesess to Nova enemies, which can stun and place a shield on themselves at the same time. Of course, your party also gains abilities that run the gamut in elemental types, so careful analysis of your attack options in both the menu screens and in the heat of battle remains paramount. For bosses, you’ll need to do this on the fly AND avoid their attack. Successful evades at the last second, as well as hitting every elemental weakness of an enemy, will give you additional CC to continue combos. Trust me, when you stun a boss for the first time, you’ll want to maximize your damage; the longer the combo, the more damage each hit will do. Bosses will continue to change their patterns at certain health markers, introducing more dangerous attacks as they come closer to death, so keeping them in stun lock remained the best option in most cases.

If there’s one thing at issue with the combat, the difficulty progression remains suspect for two reasons: the difference between normal enemies and bosses, as well as the easily changeable difficulty setting. The former makes boss fights an impenetrable wall of death if you’re not willing to learn the boss patterns, set your friendly AI companions in helpful ways to win (healers and casters should stay away from the boss and heal, for example), and simply figure out the battle system. You could, though, take the easy way out and just drop the difficulty level. I noted the strangeness of this system in another article, and I still retain ill will towards the idea. Harder battles offer better items, but it’s rarely worth the effort unless you actively prepare for postgame dungeons in JRPGs – I don’t. Here, then, the designers can let the task rest on the gamer’s preference rather than the developer’s carefully crafted choices, and it’s a shame. My recommendation? Just play the game on one difficulty and stick to it so you don’t drop it back down like the Dispater fight forced on me. Doing otherwise will skew the leveling curve of your game, making it more/less difficult, depending. If you follow this, each fight will present a rigorous challenge and not mess up the careful balance (or force grinding).

Even through all this, I can’t help but say that the game put a quickness in my step and a lightness in my heart. Things get serious, of course, but never to the point of spiritual exhaustion. Every dire situation, in-game or in-cutscene, always had a solution as long as you were willing to tough it out and learn the game. I spent 45 hours and I regret nothing. This fairy tale at heart really encapsulates what G.K. Chesterton said about them:

If our life is ever really as beautiful as a fairy-tale, we shall have to remember that all the beauty of a fairy-tale lies in this: that the prince has a wonder which just stops short of being fear. If he is afraid of the giant, there is an end of him; but also if he is not astonished at the giant, there is an end of the fairy-tale. The whole point depends upon his being at once humble enough to wonder, and haughty enough to defy. So our attitude to the giant of the world must not merely be increasing delicacy or increasing contempt: it must be one particular proportion of the two–which is exactly right.

We must have in us enough reverence for all things outside us to make us tread fearfully on the grass. We must also have enough disdain for all things outside us, to make us, on due occasion, spit at the stars. Yet these two things (if we are to be good or happy) must be combined, not in any combination, but in one particular combination. The perfect happiness of men on the earth (if it ever comes) will not be a flat and solid thing, like the satisfaction of animals. It will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance. Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them.

Tales of Graces feels like a game designed as a modern fairy tale. All the games in the Tales series follow a basic template of wonder, of the unexplained, of fascinating new worlds, and of people who inhabit them that explore beyond their comfort zones (by choice or by force) and become better people as a result. They are, fundamentally, journeys of hope in joy and suffering, love and pain. No matter how poorly told, they keep revolving around the same precarious balance of faith in ourselves to have adventures, and doubt enough in ourselves to enjoy them.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.