Monday, May 14, 2012

Tales of Graces f

Despite rarely gaining as much attention as other JRPG classics like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Namco’s Tales series is actually quite prolific.  The series’ claim to fame has always been exciting combat coupled with a colorful cast and strong character interaction, rather than deep stories or unique visual elements.  Unfortunately only a fraction of the Tales games are available in English, but Namco Bandai has seen fit to add one more to the stateside roster; Tales of Graces f.

Tales of Graces f is actually an enhanced port of Tales of Graces, a Wii game.  This PS3 version includes new gameplay features, but most importantly, adds an epilogue to the main story, known as “Lineage and Legacies”, or the “Future arc” (see where the “f” comes from?).

Every Tales game’s story tends to revolve around a central theme or concept.  With Tales of Graces, it’s friendship.  The narrative begins in the childhood of our main character Asbel Lhant.  Asbel and his younger brother Hubert live in the peaceful town of Lhant, whiling away their days exploring.  During one of their playful expeditions, they come across a young girl lying in a meadow.  The girl is revealed to have amnesia, having no idea who she is or where she came from.  The group takes her back to town, and while deciding what to do with her, settles on the name “Sophie”, after the sopheria flowers they had found her lying in.  Sophie and Asbel become fast friends.

When the young Prince Richard comes to Lhant, Asbel and friends sneak into his room and invite him out to play.  Richard is suspicious at first, explaining that everyone who’s ever been friendly to him only did so because they wanted something from him.  But after a day filled with fun and adventure, Asbel and Sophie convince him otherwise.  The three form a friendship pact, vowing that whatever happens, they’ll always be friends.

This prologue, while perhaps a bit too long, lays the groundwork for the game’s main story arc, which takes place seven years later.  Asbel is now a knight-in-training, and a skilled swordsman.  When Prince Richard goes rogue, it’s up to him to find out what happened to his best friend.  So begins an epic quest in the name of eternal friendship.

While it has its moments (the friendship pact scene was surprisingly moving) the story in ToGf won’t win any awards for its complexity or level of engagement.  Many of the plot twists can be seen coming from a mile away.  Fortunately, the plot is saved by its characters.  Not all of the cast is perfect—Asbel is as generic as you can get—but you can expect some great personalities.  Special notice should go to Pascal, a young female engineer who manages to be dumb as a doorknob, brilliantly intelligent, and hilarious; often all at the same time.

Where the plot falls, skits and a veritable horde of sub-events pick up the slack.  Skits, a Tales series staple for some time now, are basically small optional cutscenes where you watch the characters chat about all manner of things (often not relevant to the plot in the slightest).  This usually leads to silly things happening like Hubert getting his pants in a twist over Cheria’s skirt length, and Pascal and Richard plotting to make a law that requires every citizen to eat natto for breakfast.  Though they probably aren’t for everybody, skits help flesh the characters out immensely, and keep the atmosphere fun and lighthearted throughout the game.  In short, they’re great.

Tales of Graces f’s real shining factor, however, is its combat.  As mentioned before, Tales has always been known for its combat, and Graces delivers on this more than any game in the series so far.  Essentially, each character has two fighting styles (known as A and B artes) that you switch between on the fly mid-combat.   The A-artes are linked together into a single combo tree, not unlike an action game or beat ‘em up in the vein of Bayonetta or even God of War.  B-artes are more traditional, allowing you to map several arts to the Circle button (in combination with the left stick).

For example, Asbel is a straightforward melee attacker, who uses a sword.  In his A-arte tree, he fights with his sword sheathed, in a series of focused, quick strikes.  With his B-arte tree, he draws his sword and gains access to wider range attacks that are more powerful.  Hubert uses a blade staff (think Darth Maul) and dual pistols as his A and B artes, respectively.  Sophie uses fast, acrobatic hand-to-hand martial arts in her A-arte tree, but switches to powerful light-based magic with her B-artes.

Each character plays vastly differently, due in part to subtle quirks that are unique to them.  When Asbel draws his sword, for instance, he is unable to be staggered for a certain number of hits.  The hit counter resets however, when he sheathes his sword again.  However, depending on how many hits he dished out with his sword unsheathed, he also gains a health boost when he sheathes.  Thus you find yourself thinking of the best ways to switch between sheathed and unsheathed frequently, mid-combo while maximizing your benefits.

Sophie and Hubert are melee attackers much like Asbel, but whereas Asbel benefits from an aggressive approach, Hubert can back out of close quarters to spray an enemy with gunfire before dashing back in to slice them up with his dualblade.   Sophie’s attacks, on the other hand are powerful but often fast and wild.  Some of her most potent attacks travel very far, leaving her out of the fray and forcing the player to think about how to follow up if they don’t want to lose their combo or end up in a vulnerable position.

Combat takes place in a 3D arena, but you move on a 2D plane.  You can hold L2 to Free Run, but it’s slower than normal movement and you can’t attack.  Otherwise, you change your “alignment” by sidestepping, dashing, and backstepping.  Of course, this is also how you dodge attacks.

Most of your actions in combat, whether it’s attacking with a B-arte, A-arte, or even dodging, are governed by a single resource known as Chain Capacity, or CC.  This manifests as a large number beside your health bar.  There is no TP, or “mana” bar.  Only CC.  Each attack costs a certain amount of CC to execute (generally, the more powerful the attack is, the more it will cost).  Once you’re out of CC, you can’t attack until it recharges (which happens rapidly).  The first step in becoming an effective fighter in Tales of Graces f is learning how to manage your CC, squeezing as much out of your allocated amount as possible.

I have to say, Tales of Graces f might have the most fun combat system I’ve ever experienced.  It’s difficult to explain in words, and it takes a pretty long time before you’re really allowed to stretch your legs (you don’t have B-artes at all throughout the couple hour-long childhood arc and not enough CC to experiment with combos until around 10 hours in, at least).  However, once the combat hits its stride, it never stops getting better.  Just when you think you’ve got everything down and you think your enjoyment is plateauing, the game introduces or suggests a new mechanic or facet to keep things fresh and engaging.  Once you wrap your head around switching between A and B artes, then you have combos to learn about.  Once you learn combos, you have mystic artes (flashy super moves you can pull off under special circumstances) to toy around with.  Once you’ve learned a few mystic artes, you have attributes to consider.  Even after the main arc has finished and you’ve started the future arc, the game throws another mechanic at you in the form of Accel mode.  And that’s if you only play one character throughout the entire game.  Every character has a completely different A-arte tree, a completely different set of B-artes, and often requires a different approach as well.  There is a learning curve to each character (some more than others), but it’s fun to experiment and see which ones suit your play style most.  I personally rotate between Hubert, Pascal and Sophie regularly.

The fun only multiplies when you add in extra players.  Like most other Tales games, Tales of Graces f supports 4 player co-op, with each player controlling one character.  You can also switch between characters mid-combat on the fly using the D-pad.  Unfortunately, it takes a while to get used to this game’s combat, and there’s no place especially designed for co-op (even the ‘coliseum’ in the game is restricted to one character at a time).  I haven’t had the best luck finding friends willing to sit down with me long enough to really get into the game’s combat like I have, but best of luck to you.

When you defeat enemies, you gain two resources: XP and SP.  As in most RPGs, XP increases your level once enough is gained, which in turn increases your HP and base stats.  However, much of your character progression in Tales of Graces f will also be handled by SP and Titles.  Titles are somewhat like achievements that you can individually equip on each character.  There are dozens of titles to unlock for each character for doing a range of things, from using certain skills often to simply talking to a certain number of people.  Of course, you’ll also unlock a number of titles simply as you progress through the story.  In addition to an active perk gained from having the title equipped, each title has five levels you can progress through by gaining SP.  With each level comes a new skill, benefit or even a new A or B arte to use in battle.  Most titles even come with stat buffs that you can gain from them.  The benefits you gain from a title are permanent, even after you unequip the title to work on another one.  In this way, the title system drives character progression even more so than the traditional levels gained from XP.

Titles and XP are one way to give yourself an edge in battle.  The other way is Dualizing.  With Dualizing, Namco has managed to consolidate the traditional cooking, crafting, and upgrading systems often present in other JRPGs into one.  The premise of Dualizing couldn’t be simpler.  You take two items, put them together and they become one new item.  Sometimes those two items are ingredients to a pie or cooking dish.  Sometimes they’re crafting materials.  Other times they’re a weapon and an upgrade shard.  What matters is that you only need two compatible items to Dualize.  The Dualizing system has a lot more to it than meets the eye (especially once you get into making gems), but like with many of its mechanics, the game encourages experimentation rather than dumping information on you expanding on the system’s intricacies.

When it comes to production values, Tales of Graces f is mostly average in every way.  Much of it probably has to do with the game’s origins as a Wii game.  The visuals, while very colorful (whether it’s the environments, the characters or their flashy moves) aren’t technically great.  The animations are stiff and simple, but serviceable.  The areas and dungeons are large and varied, but empty and sometimes bland.  Generally, the game runs at a steady clip and has been completely devoid of any glitches so far, but later on in the game where everyone has access to high level artes, you’ll find that the game’s engine sometimes has trouble rendering so many special effects at once, resulting in a dip in framerate.  The game’s plot is bolstered by several anime cutscenes in full HD, at least.

The music is nothing to write home about; there’s even one instance where I’m certain the BGM is being looped every few seconds.  The dubbing is pretty good overall, though I imagine some people will find Sophie’s voice grating.

There’s no denying that in a lot of ways, Tales of Graces f isn’t much more than a typical JRPG.  You’ve got your colorful cast, generic theme, and JPop opening.  There’s even a beach segment.  But if you’re okay with all that, you should know that you’re in for one of the most entertaining JRPGs the PS3 has to offer.  An 8.5/10