Friday, 22 March 2013

Review: Tales of Graces F (PS3)

I must admit this is my first foray into the popular Tales series of games that I know has been running for years now, but it's not really my fault because very few of these games are released over in the UK and even when they do they never arrive in large stock numbers.

Still though I am glad I got a hold of a copy of this game for several reasons.  The first reason is that the combat is immense fun and such a change from typical JRPG systems.  I know other games such as Star Ocean has a similar sort of combat mechanic along with other systems, but Tales just seems to get it right.

The second reason is the fact you can play it with up to four players.  Admittedly I only play it with 1 other, but it's still nice to be able to designate tasks to each other for battles or setup characters based on how you want to play rather than be stuck with a character you don't really like.

The childhood prologue annoys some but I found it a nice change
The third reason is that the story is actually good.  The characters aren't all annoying emo angsty teenagers (although a majority of the characters are teens) and actually have some high moments and low moments throughout the game.  The character development is there and you actually enjoy watching them develop as the story progresses.

The premise of the game is that a young boy named Asbel Lhant and his younger brother Hubert discover a mysterious girl amongst a flower bed one day.  Asbel sort of adopts the girl and they begin to help her discover who she is eventually naming her Sophie.  The brothers and Sophie go on adventures and become friends with the ruling kings young son.  Well all seems well and good until tragedy strikes and the group is separated by circumstances beyond their control.  Flash forward seven years later and the story truly begins as the young cocky brat Asbel has become a skilled knight of the realm.

Explaining too much of the prologue section would spoil certain aspects of the overall story arc, but rest assured it is worth playing to see where these characters end up going.  Of course some aspects of the plot are a little cheesy and melodramatic, but that is part of the charm of JRPG titles because they are a departure from the grim and more realistic settings of western roleplaying games.

The meat of Tales of Graces is it's combat system which I mentioned earlier is very entertaining.  Battles take place in real time in a small arena with your party and the enemies you have encountered.  Combat is broken into two separate attack types known in game as A-Artes and B-Artes.  A-Artes are basically your standard melee or ranged attack types, while B-Artes are a mix of attack spells and healing.

Combat is fast and kinetic but sometimes a little confusing
A-Artes develop over time through experience and the use of titles (more on these later) but they aren't simply a single string of attacks.  By pressing a different direction on the analogue stick you can alter your A-Arte attack to be a spinning kick or roundhouse, or possibly a three dagger barrage.  Every character has a unique set of A-Artes that give each a particular style of play.  For example, Asbel is a sword user who utilises numerous kicks and scabbard attacks mixed with his B-Arte sword strikes, while Sophie is a straight up brawler who fights using metal gauntlets and flashy spinning attacks.

Your B-Artes are your heavy damage attacks that range from elemental magic attacks to heals or more specific character abilities such as Asbel's sword attacks that use elemental energy channelled through his sword instead.  B-Artes are unlocked through titles of which there are hundreds split between all of the characters.  Titles are unlocked through a mix of exploration, combat and story events.  Titles have 5 levels of completion with each level unlocking new effects.  Some are permanent stat boosts such as being able to do more physical attack damage, while others unlock new quirks for your A-Artes such as being able to charge your attacks or new B-Artes to expand your tactical options.

Titles are levelled up by acquiring SP from battles which comes down to grinding away at monsters.  When a title reaches it's max level you can then set a new one, but the unlocked abilities are still kept so it pays to pick and choose which titles you want to focus on early to get the best powers and stat boosts.

There is a limit to how many attacks you can make though before your character is essentially "tired".  CC or chain capacity is a pool of points that are used for each attack in a string so your first may cost 1 while your second costs 2 and so on.  Eventually you will need a CC pool of 10 to perform a full combo of A-Artes.  CC recharges pretty quickly outside of combat as as such you only need to wait a second or so between attacks to continue fighting.  I really like this system as it prevents the game from becoming a spam fest of A-Arte attacks and really makes you play strategically with your CC.

Other combat aspects involve blocking which can reduce damage and allow you to regain CC and slightly power up your next attack while dodging can become a invaluable tactic.  At the cost of a single CC you can evade attacks and set yourself up for a powerful counter-attack, it's really all about the timing.

The graphics still look great despite the age of the game
My only complaint with the combat is that there can sometimes be so much going on screen that you lose track of your character and end up getting hit sometimes, with this issue being compounded by adding extra players to the mix.  It's nothing major as most dungeon battles only last a few seconds before ending, while bosses tend to be singular affairs so keeping track of them isn't too hard.

The other aspect of Tales of Graces is the exploration side of the game.  Here is where most of your time will be spent.  Combat is initiated here by running into foes on the map so it's possible to avoid combat entirely and there are even items that get rid off monsters for a short time.  The map allows you to visit dungeons, buy and sell from towns and other vendors and collect discovery items which act as resource points.

Gathering resources is a big part of Graces since combining or "dualizing" items becomes a major part of crafting new weapons, armour and equippable gems for your characters.  There is a vast list of items to be found in the world ranging from foodstuffs which can be made into various dishes for your party to use as healing items, craft items that combine to become items for sale or for further levels of combination.  The combining of items is essential to create the best items for your party and as such you may need to refer to a wiki or walkthrough to find the items you need for specific tasks as the list is extensive.

Outside of the crafting and fighting there are numerous 'skits' as they are called in game to find.  Skits are basically little conversations between the characters as they discuss their situation or make comical digs at one another.  These really help flesh out the characters a little more as it allows the developers to add extra layers of depth where the story wouldn't normally allow for it.

Graphically Tales of Graces can look a bit dated if you have been happily plugging away at other RPG's for a while.  The time difference between the original Japanese release and the EU release is years and so the graphics never look as great as they could.  Still the characters are expressive and have plenty of impressive animation in and out of combat.  The anime style of the game still holds up well while the environments can be a bit bland at times.  Combat effects are varied and again look good but can become a little overwhelming when several characters all use special attacks at once, effectively filling the screen with effects for a second.

The dialogue is something that has received a mixed bag from reviewers and I personally don't find it to be all that bad.  The voices aren't stellar and sometimes don't match the characters mood or expression, but it stands up well enough and isn't any worse than your regular dubbed anime series.  Combat sounds are all suitably anime inspired so expect plenty of "shings" and other such sounds.  The soundtrack is probably the lowest point of the game with some tracks sounding like they are from the previous generation if not older, but again it isn't a deal breaker.

Overall Tales of Graces F is a really outstanding JRPG that I recommend fans of this genre run out and buy ASAP.  Tales of Xillia is out later this year so you may want to add that to your radar.

SCORE: 8.8/10


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