Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Release Date: October 10, 2006
Tales of the Abyss is the story of an amnesiac young man named Luke fon Fabre. Luke has spent at least the last seven years since his memory loss confined to his uncle's mansion. His uncle is royalty, so that wouldn't be too bad, except that Luke is incredibly bored. He spends his days slouching around the manor, carrying on illicit friendships with the common people, sulking in his bedroom and occasionally practicing sword work with the captain of the Oracle Knights, Master Van. Luke himself is the ultimate spoiled rich boy, snotty to his friends, worse to his enemies, and prone to whining in shrill tones about any perceived injustice available.
Into his sheltered life walks a young woman named Tear. Specifically, she walks in and uses her mastery of the Seventh Fonon to sing a magical spell that causes the mansion guards to fall into a strange sleep. She's there to kill Master Van, and Luke springs into action to deflect her sword. Quicker than you can say "Resonance Cascade Failure," Luke starts to glow, and the music of Tear's spell takes on an atonal quality just before the pair are mysteriously blasted to another continent by a Hyperresonance Fonon Reaction. Forced to work with the woman who tried to assassinate the leader of the Oracle Knights and thrust into a world he has absolutely no clue about, can Luke make his way home in one piece? More to the point, do we want him to? He's kind of a wanker, after all.
You can call Tales of the Abyss a lot of things, but if you call it a mundane "been there, done that" type of game, you quite possibly deserve to be looked at funny.
Part of the reason for the unique feel is the world-building the Namco/Bandai team did for this title. Every town, dungeon, and world-roaming screen feels handcrafted rather than pre-rendered, as if they specifically placed details germane to the lives of the people who live in the hut through which you're wandering. This ties into the graphical look of the game, which is also rather gorgeously done. An earlier offering in the series, Tales of Symphonia, managed to put together a flat-shaded sprite-esqe look to the anime-inspired character graphics. Tales of the Abyss takes that flat-shaded anime look and makes it 3D again without losing anything in the process. Character graphics look extremely vivid, right down to the facial expressions; backgrounds are crisp, clean, and gorgeous.
This game is almost fully voice-acted, and here's our first downside. The English voice acting is beyond "passable" and right into "awesome," but it doesn't extend all through the game. Important dialogues get a voiceover, which is good. Unimportant dialogues are just text, which is all right. However, we also have the option to push the select button to view "skits," little inter-party dialogues that reveal more about the personalities of the characters. These aren't voice acted, just subtitled in very small text, which really hurts the immersion level of the game. With the anime-esqe artwork that pops up for these skits, voice acting is just screamed for.
Back to the positive side of things, we have the characters themselves, which is where Tales of the Abyss stands out in particular. Anyone who's played a Japanese RPG in the last few years knows that you'll assemble a team of quirky characters who become fast friends and help each other to achieve their goals. In this case, however, you'll assemble a team of characters from various opposing factions, and you'll have to deal with situations such as the shaky relationship between Tear and Luke, the trials of having generals from opposing countries on the same team, religious differences, and political arguing. Possibly the best feature of the party in Tales of the Abyss is that you've assembled a crew of people who genuinely do not like each other most of the time and have no qualms about saying so. Yet they're mature enough to realize that they have to work together for the common good.
(I am trying so hard to not spoil anything major in this preview. Can you tell?)
Where there is an RPG, there will be battles. Abyss brings back the Linear Motion battle system, which is a fancy-pants way of saying that you fight in real time by moving back and forth in 2D fighting game style, racking up combos and beating the snot out of monsters. With Abyss, they've gone a step further and finally made use of the awe-inspiring third dimension (recently discovered by scientists). You can now move back and forth and into and out of the background. I sound mocking, but it really does add an extra, uh, dimension to the battles to finally be able to sidestep magical beams or to gang-beat enemies from all around them instead of just in front and back. Button response in the battles is the fastest we've seen in a Tales game, and racking up combos and air juggles is fast and fun.
Other long-standing subsystems of the series make their return. You can chain together Artes (special moves) into longer super-combos, and you can have your characters cook to raise their stats and to see goofy messages. You can use a special item/party member on the dungeon map to hit objects with fireballs, revealing extra passages or just annoying monsters with fiery blasts. Additionally, in battle, you can use the residue of the Fonic Artes (magic, in other words) to hypercharge your normal Artes. Using the proper elemental residue to power-up a charging attack can end a battle in just a few seconds, giving you a nice high grade. (Yes, you get graded on how well you did in a fight. Grade points are for extra experience, as far as I can tell. After about 15 hours, I haven't found a use for them, but the game is still springing new stuff on me.)
This preview is already running long and I haven't even touched on the Tales of the Abyss soundtrack, which I can only describe as "butt-kicking," or the anime cut scenes that appear for special moments, or ... uh, wait, that one's a spoiler. Anyway. If you've enjoyed any of the prior Tales of games, you'll probably want this one. If you've never played a Tales of game, this is looking like the best place to start off. Tales of the Abyss shows up in stores October 10th, and I think it's going to impress quite a few RPG fans when it hits.
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