As much as Final Fantasy takes most of the credit for popularising the Japanese role-playing game, many fans of the genre have grown tired and weary with the franchise. For some, the series lost its key selling point of maintaining individuality by producing not one, but potential two sequels to their last main game, Final Fantasy XIII. Namco Bandaiís Tales series has garnered somewhat of a cult following in the West with scattered releases such as the Gamecubeís Tales of Symphonia and the Xbox 360ís Tales of Vesperia. As the twelfth title in the Tales series, Tales of Graces f has a lot of ground to cover if it intends to steal the title of worldís most beloved role-playing game franchise
In typical JRPG fashion, the long drawn out prologue of the game sets the scene and introduces most of the key players. Asbel Lhant is a cocky and adventurous youngster who also happens to be the heir to Lhant throne. Exploring with his nervous younger brother Hubert one day, he stumbles upon a purple-headed amnesiac girl with all the social graces of Mr. Spock. In an attempt to find her family, he brings her back to his hometown of Lhant on the same day as the arrival of the nationís prince, Richard. After proving his worth as a knight by saving the prince from a traitorous bodyguard, it becomes clear that the fates of Asbel and his mysterious new amnesiac friend are intertwined, in a storyline that picks up seven years later when the fate of the kingdom lies in their hands.
The game, as you can imagine is heavily story-focused. From the prologue you have to be ready to absorb quite a lot of dialogue and running to-and-fro between different non-playable characters. In fact, with the exception of a few side-quests, the game feels rather linear, almost forcing you to follow the story. So while weíre on the subject, the storyline leaves a lot to be desired. Itís long winded, unoriginal and doesnít leave any room for playerís imaginations to run free. Obviously being from Japan would make it difficult to transform this sort of game into an open-ended experience, but it would have been nice to see a few alternate endings included, or storylines that werenít predetermined.
Like most role-playing games, Tales of Graces f has players take controls of one lead character for the most part of the game, navigating a large world map and each town that lies within. Conversing with townsfolk is a nice way to learn more about the gameís mythology, and can sometimes lead to side-quests. Shops in each town are vital for restocking your equipment and supplies. Still, the whole experience feels a bit flat, especially when compared to the huge open world exploration of Skyrim, or the online connectivity of Dragon's Dogma. Tales of Graces f just feels like another tired role-playing game, with gameplay ideas recycled from the previous instalment. It may have limited appeal for Japanese RPG enthusiasts, but anyone looking for a challenging and fresh experience may find it hard to get excited by the game.
Customisation is also rather limited, when comparing to the character creation segments more common these days. Weapons and items can be bought to help improve your character, but the real big addition to this game is the inclusion of titles. Titles come with four special moves included which can be trained up to add on to your character, a little like the system used in Final Fantasy IX, where characters would learn their moves according to the weapons they handled.
Breaking tradition for most Japanese role-playing games, the Style Shift Linear Motion Battle System (to give its full title) in Tales of Graces f is rather more free-flowing from your typical turn based affair. In some respects, the battle system is probably the strongest aspect of the game as you arenít restricted to wait your turn and at the beginning, is rather easy to get the hang of. By aiming the left directional stick in the varying directions, you can unleash different special attacks in order to quickly make mincemeat out of the vast and colourful rogueís gallery. Blocking is also an option as the square button can be used to counter one of your enemyís attacks, or take a side-step in any direction in order to avoid them. The option is there to switch characters, with the AI taking the reins for the rest of the battle, but generally sticking with your strongest character is the best way to take down your enemies and rescue your teammates. Itís not an all out action RPG, as battle sequences have the arena style that these games are famous for, with health bars, experience points and all the rest of the trimmings, but is still the most refreshing part of the gameplay.
The battle system also introduces a number of challenges along the way such as defeating your opponents in a set time limit, or using a particular set of special moves to get the job done. The reward for doing so is usually extra power-ups or bonuses that can be used to increase your health, strength or make your attacks more potent. However, donít mistake this for a button basher, as soon youíll have to adapt to the increasingly difficult waves of enemies and get used to forming a strategy quickly on the battlefield. The ďArtesĒ system comes in two forms, Burst and Assault. Burst Artes are a series of combos selected by the player in the middle of battle, whilst Assault Artes are predetermined, and perhaps the easier option for those, like myself, who are still struggling to get to grips with the game even a few hours in. Moving around in the battle arena also isnít quite as freeform as the game would have you believe either, with your character often locked to fighting one enemy at a time until you consciously use the R1 button to switch when the time calls for it. Itís a refreshing change of pace from the standard turn based affair, but still one that requires a lot of patience to get to grips with.
Despite being a Wii port initially, the clean up operation has done quite a few favours for the game. Bright, bold, and rich in colour, Tales of Graces f is an absolute eye-melter. However, it still falls short compared to most other titles in the PlayStation 3 catalogue. The battle sequences are fast-paced and fun to watch, even if the backgrounds do get a little repetitive, while the character models could have been plucked from any obscure Japanese role-playing game and players would be none the wiser.. Most cut-scenes are usually made up of conversations between characters, requiring the player to tap X to move the dialogue along and there are points in the game where players can choose to watch small, fun interactions between the cast that perhaps donít do much for the storyline except flesh out the personalities of the characters. The most engrossing part of the gameís graphics are probably the animated anime sequences, probably enhanced by the blu-ray capabilities of the machine. Still, with all the enhancements in gaming graphics, one wonders if itís about time for Namco Bandai to up their game in terms of graphics in order to keep up with some of the gorgeous motion capture experiences coming from their western rivals.
When it comes to Tales of Graces f there is clearly going to be no middle ground. Fans of traditional Japanese role-playing games and the anime culture that surrounds them will adore the game for its crystal clear, brightly coloured graphics and deep gameplay ethics. However for those who are a little more choosy with their role-playing games, this is a title that is quite difficult to get engrossed in from the outset, with its rather annoying prologue and typically cliched storyline. Tales of Graces f almost feels like a step back in the progression of the genre and, as with its predecessors, this will have limited appeal unless youíre an anime-niac or an obsessive video game collector.