It has been nearly four years since the North American release of Tales of Vesperia, the last mothership Tales game to be brought outside of the Japanese market. Between then and now, Japanese gamers have had the opportunity to enjoy three more mothership Tales games: Tales of Hearts, Tales of Graces, and Tales of Xillia. English-speaking fans could do nothing but look on in despair as their opportunity to enjoy one of their favorite video game franchises was constantly denied.
But then, the seemingly impossible happened. After years of patiently waiting in agony, one of the most loyal fan bases in all of gaming was finally rewarded. Over two years after its original Japanese release, Tales of Graces was set to be brought over to the starving English speaking fans. Now, about three weeks after Namco Bandai has shown us its good graces, we must answer one question: Are we satisfied?
When compared to most major JRPG franchises, the Tales series has one of the most unique battle systems around. Other than the transition from 2D to 3D in Tales of the Abyss, the battle system hasn’t really been able to evolve. Tales of Vesperia perfected what Tales of the Abyss created, but it was essentially more of the same with minor tweaks that only slightly improved upon small things.
However, Tales of Graces f finally manages to take the iconic Tales battle system to a whole new level. Coming from someone who thinks Tales of Vesperia is one of the greatest games of all time, I can safely say that Tales of Graces f completely blows it away in terms of gameplay. Instead of running on the TP system that all previous Tales games used, Graces uses a new system called the “Chain Capacity” system, or CC for short. This system was used in the Japanese-only remake of Tales of Destiny, but this is the first time we have been able to see the new system in action.
While there is nothing wrong with the TP system, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the amount of possibilities that the CC system does. If you ran out of TP, you would have to recover it by using an item in order to continue using special attacks. Also, pretty much any fight could be won by strategically spamming artes while recovering your TP with items from time to time.
The CC system, on the other hand, requires a ton of skill and dedication to master. Like TP, CC is what allows you to use your artes. However, CC does not need to be recovered with items. Instead, it is recovered (and increased) by how well you are playing. Each weapon grants a character a minimum number of CC points at the beginning of the fight, and will always quickly regenerate when your character is not attacking or dodging. While battling an enemy, you can increase your CC points through filling the Critical Gauge. The Critical Gauge is filled by pulling off long combos, effectively dodging and guarding against enemies, and exploiting enemy weaknesses. This adds a ton of strategic elements that previous Tales games just couldn’t offer, but still keeps the core gameplay mechanics of the series intact. It also allows for a much faster-paced and action packed experience as opposed to most other JRPGs out there. This may very well be the deepest and most rewarding JRPG battle system that I have ever seen.
The new Chain Capacity system in action
But what really makes Tales of Graces f stand out to me is the “playability” of each and every controllable character. In previous Tales games, most playable characters were only effective at one, maybe two things. Most characters were assigned one specific role, and trying to use that character as something else was often a bad idea. For example, in Tales of Vesperia and Tales of Symphonia respectively, Yuri and Lloyd are your main attackers, Estelle and Raine are your healers, and Rita and Genis are your spell casters. Other characters were combinations of each different role, but simply weren’t as effective as the characters who were dedicated to one in particular. Characters like Raven and Zelos can be both attackers and healers, but aren’t great at being either one. They were frustrating to control because they weren’t great at anything specifically, which made Yuri and Lloyd that much better. While these characters can be great in the hands of a good player, they just aren’t as “controllable” as Yuri and Lloyd, which makes playing as them pretty much pointless.
On the other hand, every character in Tales of Graces f has the potential to be great when controlled by the player. This is because the complexity of the CC system doesn’t allow for just one effective role to be good enough. For example, Cheria is your best healer, but her good spells require a lot of CC to use. Therefore, she needs to get her hands dirty by physically attacking enemies in order to increase her CC, which allows her to use her spells more often. While her attacks aren’t as strong as Asbel or Sophie’s, Cheria has the ability to maintain her combos while dodging enemy attacks, allowing her to keep a safe distance while continuously dealing damage and raising the Critical Gauge. Also, incorporating spells into her combos drastically reduces the amount of time needed to cast them, which adds a whole new layer of strategy to controlling her. She is also given a few extremely powerful offensive spells that she can use when the rest of the party doesn’t need to be healed, making her one of the most versatile characters in the game. If Cheria is busy increasing her CC or casting offensive spells, Sophie or Hubert can temporarily take over her healing duties. Each and every character is versatile in this way, which makes controlling each of them an absolute blast. Each character can be controlled in a way that fits everyone’s play style, which makes Tales of Graces f the best in the series in terms of gameplay.
GAMEPLAY SCORE: 10/10
The Tales series has always had some of the best casts of characters in the video game industry. The lighthearted tone of each game allows for some hilarious character interaction that other games just can’t offer. Yet, the personalities of each character are often very cliche and archetypal, which is rather unfortunate.
For the most part, Tales of Graces f is more of the same when it comes to characters. While I do like every character in the game, I can only say that I love two or three of them. What made Tales of Vesperia so great was its unique and interesting characters. Yuri Lowell was much more of an anti-hero than the typical Tales protagonist, which made him a very entertaining character to watch. Tales of Graces f’s protagonist, Asbel Lhant, is just your idealized hero who’s hell-bent on protecting everyone around him. Asbel is by no means a bad character, but he does fall short when compared to the other protagonists in the Tales series. He lacks the unique factor that Yuri has, and just doesn’t receive the kind of development that Reid, Senel, Lloyd, or Luke do.
Tales of Graces f’s supporting cast is hit and miss for the most part. Sophie is basically Meredy from Tales of Eternia without the weird language, but is also somewhat funny due to her ignorance and robot-like nature. Richard is one of Asbel’s friends, and eventually becomes the game’s main antagonist. Richard redeems himself in the future arc, but is a rather boring character for the most part. Cheria Barnes plays the role of Asbel’s love interest, and isn’t much more than the typical JRPG female. However, her girlish nature often makes her the butt of the joke, which makes her rather funny as well. Malik Caesar is the wise old man of the group, and is often the one who gives the other characters the advice they need to grow and develop. I didn’t like Malik at first, but the way he acts in the future arc makes him perhaps the funniest character in the game. That is… except for Pascal, who is one of the characters I really did love in this game. Pascal functions as the primary comic relief character, but is taken to the highest extremes possible. She’s one of those characters who is so ridiculous that you just can’t help but love her.
Character interaction in the game’s skits is outstanding, and allows for some hilarious things to happen
That leaves Hubert Oswell, who is probably my favorite character in the game. Hubert is the younger brother of Asbel, but was given away by his parents at the age of 10 in order to avoid a power struggle with Asbel for the position of lord of Lhant. Hubert starts off as a shy and timid little kid, but eventually turns into a very arrogant and serious man due to the horrible decision his parents made. When Hubert and Asbel are reunited seven years later, Hubert has become much stronger, which sparks a rivalry between the two brothers. While Hubert is cold at first, him and Asbel eventually regain their brotherly bond. Hubert is one of the only characters who actually develops as the story goes on, making him one of my favorite characters in the game.
I don’t care what anyone says, I love me some Hubert :D
As for the overall story… I can’t really say that I liked it. Then again, with the exception of Tales of the Abyss, none of the stories from the Tales series have been able to hook me in as well as other games have. The Tales series prides itself more on the strength of its characters than the overall storyline, so I can give it a little bit of a pass.
The story revolves around Sophie, the mysterious amnesiac who Asbel and his friends met at the beginning of the game as young children. Most of the game is spent trying to learn more about Sophie’s past, while also trying to find out why Asbel’s old friend Richard has turned into a complete Dick (Get it? Because Dick is a nickname for Richard? HURR). This makes for a pretty typical JRPG storyline, but suffers even worse from some serious pacing issues. It takes a good 30 hours to find out who exactly the villain is, and another 20 hours until Asbel and company actually find a satisfying way to stop him. Without revealing too much, the way the story comes to a conclusion is just… well it’s straight up silly and irrational.
But wait! Then there’s the future arc! The future arc is an additional 10 hour epilogue that occurs six month after the ending of the main game. While the future arc does wonders for character development and interaction, the story is equally silly and cliched. But this time… nothing really happens. It just felt like they created a new villain just for the sake of explaining a poorly executed ending.
Basically, Tales of Graces f is your basic “friendship” JRPG that you’ve already experienced a dozen times, but even more ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, the characters still make this a pretty entertaining game, but the story leaves a lot to be desired. That being said, the main draw for the Tales series, for me at least, is its casts of colorful characters. While the characters may not be as good as those in Vesperia or Abyss, they are still relatively solid.
The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” perfect summarizes the graphics in Tales of Graces f. The first thing that we should consider is that this game is basically an enhanced HD port of what was originally a Wii game. With that in mind, I really enjoyed Tales of Graces f’s colorful visuals, even if there were some hiccups along the way. In my eyes, the use of color is absolutely beautiful, especially in battle. The HD graphics allow for a lot of detail, especially when characters are using their bigger and more powerful attacks in battle. As long as you don’t expect to be blown away like you would if you were playing something like Final Fantasy or Uncharted, you should be able to appreciate this game’s graphics.
Cheria’s Mysitc Arte “Garden of Innocence” displays the game’s beautiful use of color
GRAPHICS SCORE: 9/10
Now… this is where I’m really conflicted. The Tales series has always had some of the best soundtracks in the industry. In fact, Tales of Symphonia is widely considered by fans of the genre to be one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time. The music in Tales of Graces f is just kind of… boring. Where the hell are my epic tracks like Beat the Angel and Fury Sparks? Where is the awesome world map theme like the one from Tales of the Abyss? Why do all of the tracks used in each town sound the exact same? The soundtrack for Graces just feels empty when compared to those of its predecessors.
There are a few tracks that I like… but not many. The track that plays in Lhant, the game’s first town, is pretty nice. The game’s main theme is catchy, but still pales in comparison to “Ring a Bell” and “Karma.” However, the ending credits orchestrated remix of the main theme is actually pretty amazing. I’ve come to expect more from the Tales series when it comes to music, so I have to say that I was significantly disappointed by this game’s music. I can’t really say that it’s bad, but it could be SO much better.
As for voice acting… I am once again conflicted. The game has 7 major characters of which only two or three stand out as being particularly mentionable. Bryce Papenbrook is the perfect example of an average voice acting performance in his role as the lead character, Asbel Lhant. David Earnest has a few notable moments as Richard, but is pretty bad for the most part. The quality of Cassandra Morris’ performance as Sophie is hard to judge given the stoic nature of Sophie’s character. Steve Staley and Jamieson Pierce’s performances as Hubert and Malik respectively are very solid, but are nothing spectacular. Laura Bailey turns in yet another excellent performance as Cheria Barnes, but even she has a few hiccups, most notably in her character’s in-battle quotes. But Kate Higgins as Pascal is the one who really steals the show. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how hard it would be to live up to such a fun and quirky character like Pascal without making some mistakes, but Higgins does an absolutely spectacular job. I would put her performance as Pascal right up with Kirk Thornton’s performance as Jade Curitss and Troy Baker’s performance as Yuri Lowell as the three best examples of outstanding voice acting in the Tales series. But, I still can’t help but feel that there was such a huge waste of potential when it comes to this game’s voice acting, which is really unfortunate.
VOICE ACTING: 8.5/10
- Easily the best battle system in the Tales series, which is saying A LOT
- One of the most complex and deep battle systems in the history of JRPGs
- Every single character is an absolute blast to control, which is something previous entries in the series lacked
- Every character is genuinely likeable, with a few of them (most notably Hubert and Pascal) being exceptional
- Beautiful, albeit a bit outdated, graphics
- Excellent character interaction and dialog
- Solid voice acting performances. Kate Higgins’ performance as Pascal is particularly great
- The story suffers from some very serious pacing issues, and is rather dull and predictable overall
- Some characters are a bit boring due to how cliched they can be at times
- The soundtrack is boring, dull, and repetitive
FINAL SCORE (not an average): 9/10
Tales of Graces f is one example of a game’s gameplay being SO GOOD that it completely overshadows everything else. Even though I said some pretty harsh things, and this game does have its fair share of flaws when you try to examine it as an overall experience, the gameplay alone makes this game outstanding. This is the one game in the Tales series that I am most likely to replay just for the sake of playing a fun and enjoyable game. While I vastly prefer Vesperia and Abyss as overall packages of entertainment, I would have to say that Tales of Graces f is a much more “fun” game. Thank you, Namco Bandai, for finally letting us loyal fans play this gem. So, how ’bout dat Tales of Xillia next?