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Tales of Symphonia
Published by: Namco
Developed by: Namco Tales Studios
ESRB Rating: T for Fantasy Violence, Mild Profanity, and Suggestive Language
For: Nintendo GameCube

Japan?s RPG scene boasts several prominent franchises, including many that never make it America. Tales of Symphonia is part of Namco\'s \'Tales\' series, which hasn\'t been seen much in the West despite being both popular and prolific in Japan. In an effort to change that, Namco has opted to market this newest Tales offering on the barren role-playing landscape known as the Nintendo GameCube. Historically, the Tales series ? including the recent Tales of Destiny games ? have garnered only lukewarm praise from reviewers, but Tales of Symphonia seems primed to break that mold. Far from being just a genre-filler for a starving console, Tales rightly stands on its own as an outstanding role-playing experience, although it also suffers from some of the appropriateness concerns that seem to be the standard fare among traditional Japanese RPG?s.

Game Play:

At first glance, the plot in Tales of Symphonia sounds suspiciously like Final Fantasy X. A young boy named Lloyd Irving is part of a group assigned to escort the Chosen One as she seeks to sacrifice herself to save the world. It would be easy to dismiss Tales as ?derivative? at this point, but don?t expect things in the world of Sylverant to go quite as planned. The plot takes at least a few dramatic detours, and while it won?t be remembered as the greatest plot in gaming, it is nevertheless solid. Not to mention, you can re-familiarize yourself with the game?s plot at any time by using the game?s ?synopsis? option, so putting the game down for long spells is not necessarily fatal. Like many role playing games, Tales relies on dialogue among characters to flesh the major plot points. The game also offers purely optional ?skit? scenes (triggered by the Z button) that supplement the plot and help develop the personality of your party members. Additionally, there are numerous side-quests in the game, ranging from some rather pedestrian mini-games to several steeply challenging optional boss battles. The plot, while progressively engrossing, admittedly isn?t revolutionary. The real heart and soul of Tales lies in the battle system. Battles are fought in real-time in a Zelda-style fashion; you control one player at a time, with the remaining members of your party under the control of the AI. The computer generally does a good job of controlling your party members, and the game offers considerable options for customizing the specific attack patterns and skills you would like your compadres to employ. So if you want your magic user only using water attacks, or your melee fighter going after your opponent\'s magic user, such is easily accomplished. Most battles are short - the average fight will be over in thirty seconds - and they will leave you wanting more. In stark contrast to many role playing games, you will actually find yourself running to your enemies rather than from them. Yes, the battle system is that addictive. And that brings up one of the great virtues of Tales of Symphonia: NO RANDOM BATTLES. Your enemies are right there in front of you on the screen, and you can decide whether to engage them in combat or not. The fact that you can evade enemy encounters most of the time means that you can fight on your own terms, which only serves to enhance the addictive fun of the battle system. Tales also offers multiplayer capability for up to 4 players. The multiplayer format can be accessed simply by plugging in additional controllers and making a quick change in the in-game menu. Although the game is at heart a single-player experience, it is fun to have friends over to play with you, if only so they have a chance to experience the game with you. And, although the AI is quite good, sometimes having a friend or two along can be just the remedy for a stubborn boss. One unique (and quite useful) oddity in the Tales series is the cooking system. During the course of the game you will come across various recipes for meals. After every battle you have the option to cook up a predetermined meal by pressing the X button. Different recipes will have different effects, ranging from health recovery to poison cures. Given that you will occasionally have back-to-back boss battles, this system can actually be critical in progressing through the game.

Graphics:

Tales of Symphonia is crafted in traditional anime style, with artwork custom-designed for the game. If that isn?t your style, give this game a chance anyway. Simply put, Tales gets cel-shading right. The character models are colorful and memorable, much like the heroes and villains of Capcom\'s Viewtiful Joe. Like most Japanese RPG?s, expect liberal quantities of spiked hair and some stylistic outfits. I really appreciated the color and diversity that artist Kosuke Fujishima gave to the characters, whether they be the absent-minded professor and her walking stick or the demure child and her giant axe. Graphically, the game really sports three different fields of view: the overworld view, the town/dungeon view, and the battle view. The overworld view is used when traveling from town to town, and it is a bit on the rough side, if functional. The town/dungeon view is a closer, more crisp perspective, with generally great graphical detail. The battle system in Tales is where the game really shines. The chaotic action of several characters at once is conveyed at a brisk 60 frames a second, despite the appearance of mighty spell effects later in the game. (I did experience a few incidents of brief slowdown when several large spells were being cast at once, but it is a relatively rare occurrence and in no way disrupts Game Play.) More often than not, gamers will find themselves staring in awe at some of the massive special effects even as they try and keep their characters alive. It is a true spectacle that cannot be adequately conveyed through screenshots.

Sound:

Tales of Symphonia is one of the few GameCube games to feature extensive voiceovers, as evidenced by the two discs needed to contain the game. Namco did a spot-on job in localization, incorporating American expressions almost seamlessly into the game. (The two Lord of the Rings quotes, in particularly, will doubt get a chuckle.) Namco then went out and got some of the most recognizable voices in the business, and although some of the voice work is better than others, the overall quality is solid. In particular, Scott Menville (Robin in Teen Titans) as Lloyd, Jennifer Hale (Bastila Shan in Knights of the Old Republic) as Sheena, and Cam Clarke (Liquid Snake in Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes) as Kratos give outstanding and convincing performances. As for the music? When I first heard that ethereal menu theme, I knew I was in for something special. Some of the pieces hearken back to the scores of role playing games of old, while other works have that sort of catchy Skies of Arcadia feel to them. Some can be really haunting themes, while some others even take their cue from some of the hard-rock leanings of recent Final Fantasy games. All of them, however, do a good job of capturing the emotion of a given locale, and none of would qualify as annoying or grating. Even the main battle themes ? which are heard a good deal ? seem to hold up well over the long hours.

Control:

The control system in Tales is easy to use and responsive. In combat situations, the A button controls standard attacks, the B button activates special attacks, and the C-stick can be preset to issue specific orders to your party members on the fly. The Z button triggers unison attacks, which allows your entire party to attack an enemy at once, usually to devastating effect. Other buttons allow you to block, change targets, or delay spells, but the game allows you to customize your controller layout if the default configuration doesn\'t suit you. The Y button also allows you to pause in the heat of battle to manually dispense items, issue commands, or change equipment. Outside of combat, the controls are pretty simple and context specific, like most role-playing games. The out-of-battle menu interface lets you customize your party?s equipment, formation, and strategy, among other things.

Longevity:

The quest in Tales of Symphonia is a meaty one; it will take the average gamer between 50 and 70 hours to beat the game. (This reviewer finished it in just over 60.) What?s more, Tales offers decent replay value. In a nod to Square-Enix?s Chrono series, Tales offers a sort of ?New Game +? option that lets you use a currency called Grade to buy bonuses and extras for your second time through. Tales also offers hard and extreme difficulty modes for veteran players who want a steep challenge.

APPROPRIATENESS ISSUES: Violence:

As would be expected from a traditional RPG, there is a lot of fantasy violence in Tales, with plenty of hacking and slashing. There are deaths in the game, including a couple of instances of widespread destruction. There is no blood or gore.

Language:

There is a fair number of light and medium profanities scattered throughout the game, moreso than one is used to seeing in a traditional T-rated game. There are also some non-sexual vulgarities and humor in the game.

Occult Themes:

Typical to fantasy RPG?s, there is a fleshed-out magic system in the game based on the common Japanese convention of a world powered by that magical essence known as mana. Magic users in the game will often utter some sort of incantation or prayer before executing one of their mid-level or advanced-level spells, and spirit summoning is also one of the combat options available. Ghosts, spirits, and the undead all reside in various regions of this game?s world as well.

Sexuality:

There are some suggestive themes in the game almost exclusively surrounding the character Zelos, who is portrayed as something of a Don Juan. There are several situations where Zelos will make suggestive comments toward at the women around him. Sheena, whose wardobe is a little on the low-cut side (to say nothing of the game?s unlockable swimsuits), is often the target of those comments. Overall, there isn?t a great deal of sexual content in this game, but there is more than there should be.

Moral/Ethical Issues:

This game deals with some theological and moral issues that will be of specific interest to Christian gamers. Issues related to faith and salvation are explored throughout the game (albeit through an Eastern lens), as well as issues surrounding the meaning behind living and dying. Organized religion gets major attention in the game and is given a mixed assessment. Other moral themes also get major attention in Tales. Loyalty and betrayal, love and bitterness, mercy and revenge ? all of them are explored in due course. One other major issue dealt with in the game involves character. Namely, many of the game?s characters are morally complex entities; ?good? characters often have significant character flaws, while many of the ?bad? characters are nevertheless morally conflicted. And there are many characters who show enough shades of gray that you never quite figure out whether they?re good or not. The characters, while somewhat realistic in this regard, can nevertheless be unsettling.

Closing Comments:

I will freely admit that Tales of Symphonia was one of my most anticipated purchases of 2004. With such expectations one of two results usually follows ? supreme satisfaction or major disappointment. The fact that I logged in more than a hundred hours on two playthroughs should tell you which category I fall into. As a reviewer, I will also freely admit that Tales is not a perfect game ? the overworld map could have used some polish, the skits could have used voiceovers, and the game would have been better off without some of the crude language and sexual humor ? but there is little doubt that this will be remembered as one of the GameCube?s best games. With its addictive fusion of a deep role-playing experience and real-time combat, Tales of Symphonia is a very good RPG that is worth looking into for gamers 13 and up.

Final Ratings:
Game Play: 9/10 Graphics: 8.5/10 Sound: 8.5/10 Control: 9/10 Longevity: 10/10 GAMING TOTAL: 45/50
Violence: 7/10 Language: 7/10 Occult Themes: 7/10 Sexuality: 7/10 Moral/Ethical Issues: 8/10 APPROPRIATENESS TOTAL: 36/50
Overall Score: 81%

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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