Tales of Vesperia (360) – Review

Namco’s first venture of the Tales series onto the current generation of consoles, Tales of Vesperia, will feature little surprise to those that have played the series before, not that this is a problem; the few touches on gameplay changes make for a familiar, yet new, experience, and the advantages of the new hardware help to make the presentation nicer.  For those that haven’t had a chance to experience the series, the game is very accodating to new users and is a good introduction to the series.  It still, however, has the usual stereotypical elements of a JRPG and is not going to convince those with an aversion to them to reconsider.


Story: B-

Vesperia takes place in a world where the population has become dependant on magical stones called blastia left by an ancient civilization, and currently engaged in a power struggle between the Empire and the various Guilds.  Yuri, an ex-Knight of the Empire, encounters princess Estelle as she is trying to escape from the castle to find their mutual friend Flynn as they chase a blastia theft across the lands.  As they gain members, the group comes to realize there is a more sinister plot afoot involving the blastia that could lead to the destruction of the world, and only their group can stop it.

The plot is pretty stereotypical as well as the characters, though there are a few nice elements to it, but it does get convoluted.  Story is told by a lot of voiced and some unvoiced cutscenes as well as skits throughout the game, with a handful of anime shorts.  A major nit with the story is that it leads to a false climax; you’re all geared for a final battle but then the story takes a turn that requires another act to complete; not that this is necessarily bad, but the false finale is so strongly implied that to find there’s more after it feels like a cheap add-on to the game.

Gameplay: A

Vesperia‘s core gameplay will come as no surprise to anyone already familar with the series or with JRPGs in general.  As the story progresses, you move between towns, passing through the overworld on foot, by boat, or by airship, and then entering various dungeons to find artifacts and other useful information.  There are, of course, monster encounters but they are all visible, and you can also attempt to link two or more monster encounters for a more difficult fight.   The game features a limited day/night and weather system approach, in that the type of monsters may change depending on these factors, at least in the overworld.

Combat continues the Tales series tradition of a real-time combat system, with a handful more features that start to make this act like a beat-em-up game.  You control one character (though the game seems to push you towards Yuri most of the time), and given the monster you’re aiming for, you can move back and forth in a line with it; however, off the bat, you can also hold down a trigger and run anywhere on the field, allowing you to easily evade certain attacks or position yourself better.  Attacks can be standard melee combat or a variety of “artes”, special attacks or magical spells, which deal more damage but also consume your “mana” tracks as TP points.  While TP regenerates during battle by landing regular hits, you’ll find that wasteful use of artes can lead to some close situations.  In addition, once you’ve learned certain skills, you can block, sidestep attacks, recover while flying in mid-air, and a number of other moves that you’d normally expect to see in a game like Street Fighter, and thus may start to appeal to those that play these types of games.  Of course, it does get repetitive, as is the case with JRPGs, so this is likely not going to tip you all the way.  An Overlimit meter fills up with successful hits from your party, and, once full, you can activate it to string a large number of attacks in a row without pausing for a short while, though your TP will still be consumed.  It’s also possible later in the game to coordinate the Overlimit with party members for a limited time.

Artes come in a number of types, eight of which you can assign to quick thumbstick flips to make their access easier.  Certain artes, once learned enough, will lead you to learning new artes; some also are learned as you gain levels, after certain plot points, or after learning certain skills.  These artes can then be worked into attack combos that lead to you being able to unleash more devesting artes, including each character’s unique “Mystic Arte”.  Fortunately, if you are a terrible button masher like myself, gaining mastery of manipulating artes, attacks, and blocking is not needed to win the game, but only makes it easier to complete.  It does help, however, to know how artes can be learned, which is one of those constants that are part of the series but not well-spelled out in the general documentation.  Most artes also have a special direction of damage that they do (up, to the side, or down).  Pulling off enough artes attack on an enemy with the same damage will cause that enemy to become susceptible to Fatal Strikes; hit the enemy again and for a brief second a special indicator will flash.  While this is up, if you hit the right trigger and the direction indicated, you will immediately finish any non-boss character, while doing damage to boss ones.  Using Fatal Strikes can significantly up the rewards you get from battle.  It took me a while to get use to the Fatal Strike timing, more often then not calling up the in-battle menu instead of the right attack.  However, it does prove to be a useful tactic for later battles.

You aren’t alone in battle; up to 3 of your party will join you. A detailed strategy table can be used to highly customize their actions in battle, as well as having a number of different strategies saved for quick recall as the situation changes.  But, by default, the AI for the characters perform well, though you many need to turn off weaker artes for them as they learn their more powerful artes.  While you can’t switch out during battle, those that don’t participate are still going to be able to gain experience and other benefits from battle.  As each has an area that they can be better at than others (two, for example, are better against aerial enemies, while one is strong with attack magic), you’ll be able to get your party right for the areas you explore.  The only caveat is that they need to be active battle members to learn new artes, but this is not a significant problem to overcome if you swap out and around every so often.

The “twist” in this Tales game is a skill system which works very much like Final Fantasy IX‘s abilities.  Each weapon and certain armor has a set of skills that can be learned by characters that can equip it.  You gain that skill with the weapon equiped, but if you use it long enough in battle to earn enough skill points, you’ll be able to learn that skill without equipping the item.  Thus, much of the game’s management is to continually make sure you collect weapons (including via synthesis) and keeping track when each character learns a skill so that you can swap in a new weapon as to get them to develop new skills.  Of course, the number of skills you can get is large, and you only have a limited number of skill points to allocate to these skills (these grow with level, but it is still a limit).  These skills come in a variety of areas; some increase your attributes, some give you new commands while in battle, others can help modify artes, and so on.  These can get difficult to manage, though if you fail to take steps to manage them on the other characters, they usually default to fair settings.  While the system items is not new, it is a good way of adding a bit of extra customizations to the characters.

The usual cooking aspect is here in the; you can learn recipes to restore party health and TP one time after a battle (you can do it either from the battle completion screen or the menus), providing you have the right ingredients.  The game also adds a synthesis element.  All enemies drop loot that can be combined at stores to make basic goods, armor, or help improve your weapons to advanced versions with new skills to be learned.  There’s also special items, some which are more decorative, but others that are quite useful in battle, such as increasing your Overlimit level.  Fortunately, you’re told what materials you need to make each and where they can be found, so that if you’re itching for a particular weapon or item and lack the resources, you’ll have a way of getting them.  That said, there are a lot of synthesized weapons that can be made in the game, and while the game helps to track which skills you’ve extracted weapons from, this only helps when you have your full party; as the game separates you from the others several times, you can’t see what skills they have learned while synthesizing and thus you’ll either have to wait till they rejoin or make your best guesses on what they lack.

From the standpoint of the overall game, it’s decently structured; the first third of the game, you’re pretty much fixed on a linear path with a few small side quests; in the second third you gain a ship and then shortly thereafter an airship, and your freedom to explore the world opens up a lot more sidequests.  Mind you, there is a period in the third third where you are stripped of your airship for a brief while, but the fact you get to taste what it feels like and knowing you’ll get back to it helps.   While this is typical of most JRPGs with the same world structure, the game feels like it opens up earlier than others.  That said, one of the more annoying parts of the game is that there are several points where your party of 7 will be missing one or more members due to the story line.  Normally, not a big problem, but one of these extended periods includes your primary healer; by this point you do have two other characters that can heal via artes, but their effects are not as strong as the healer, and this can make the boss fights during this period rather difficult.  Fortunately, you have the ability to alter the game difficulty before battle for less reward.  However, the number of times characters switched in and out did get a bit frustrating.

Value/Replayability: A-

The game clocked in for me at 45 hours – mostly playing the main story.  My only nit here was that when I was approaching the 40 hr mark with the characters preparing for the “final battle”, there was a twist in the plot that added another 5 hrs of play to it, making it feel like a sluggish ending.  As with most Tales games, throughout the game you earn Grade from battles, and thus when you start a new game after completing one, you have the opportunity to spend Grade prior to the game to unlock “cheats”, such as the ability to retain items, money, skills, artes, etc to the next playthrough, or to earn experience or Grade faster, and several other cheat-like type approaches.  Normally, this can make the next playthrough more interesting, but as the game is intergrated with the Xbox Live, there are now achievements to be earned, some which you get through the normal story line, but most requiring a couple playthroughs to earn.  Of course, as you get more Grade, your playthroughs can start to become incredibly shorter since your characters start more powerful and can wipe out monsters without too much problem.  This seems like a nice combination of the Tales approach and Achievements and thus gives some good replay incentive to the game.

Graphics: A

On the 360, Vesperia‘s graphics shine nicely.  The game is given an anime cel-shading approach, similar to Crackdown‘s comic book style, and they flow well on the console.  There’s still issues with characters mouths not lip-syncing as well with the text, but we’re getting closer to that.  The background environments are beautifully done, and there’s a grand sense of scale in many areas.  The battle screen is nicely compact to allow you to focus on the battle while still having key HUD elements in view.

Audio: B

Music and voice acting-wise, Vesperia is just fine: the music is of the same mood as past games, maybe not as sweeping as Final Fantasy but still a good element, and all the voice actors are pretty good for their roles (despite the poor lines they’re given).  Skits are finally fully voiced, which helps to make them more interesting to play through.  But, and this is where my grade comes from, a number of in-game conversations are not voiced fully.  Certainly interactions with NPCs are reasonable to not provide this, but there were several scenes, only between the main group of characters, where the previous scene was voiced, the scene following was voiced, but the middle scene, just as important to the plot as either its neighbors, was not.  This inconsistency was rather annoying.  I understand the need to avoid something like Oblivion where having every character voiced ends up making the game seem like only three voice actors are behind it, but Vesperia is nowhere close to this point, and could have used with more fully-voiced scenes.

Overall: A-

Fans of the Tales series will well appreciate the fact that Vesperia is a fine continuation of the series onto the next generation of consoles.  The core elements of the series are still there, with appreciable new gameplay elements to make it still a fresh approach, and the graphical boost from the new hardware helps a lot.  There is a bit of triteness with the stereotypical story and characters, but that’s an aspect to come to expect from the Tales games.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to try one of the games from this series and you lack an aversion to JRPGs, you will do yourself good to pick this title up.

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