Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Release Date: August 26, 2008
There are times when you're driving along and you really want a McDonald's hamburger. Sure, it isn't as filling or delicious as a steak, and there are times where you'll regret it, but the concept of fast food holds a certain sway for people simply because it's safe, dependable, familiar, and provides a way to fill your stomach between meals. The Tales franchise is the Japanese RPG equivalent of a McDonald's burger. They're not exactly going to change your life, fill your desire for deep gameplay or give you interesting characters. They'll give you a filling if cardboard-like meal to sate your RPG hunger until a Final Fantasy steak or a Persona prime rib comes along. Tales of Vesperia doesn't deviate from this philosophy. It isn't innovative, groundbreaking or even particularly memorable, but for Xbox 360 gamers who are hungry for an RPG, it's exactly what they need to satisfy that gnawing desire for swords and sorcery.
Tales of Vesperia tells us the story of Yuri Lowell, a former knight who wants to make the world a better place. When his hometown's Aqua Blastia, the source of their clean water, is stolen, he sets off on an adventure to get it back. Before long, he's embroiled in a series of adventures involving mysterious talking monsters, a corrupt empire, and a hidden secret that threatens all of mankind. There really isn't too much to say about Vesperia's plot. Like most of the games in the Tales franchise, it tends to rely heavily on cliché tropes instead of creative ideas, and there really isn't much to attract the gamer's eye away from other better RPGs. Yuri and most of the cast are as cookie-cutter as they come, and although they're amusing and enjoyable at times, they're never going to grab your interest.
There are a few interesting plot twists here and there, but they're usually bookended by clichés. You'll encounter everything from naïve princesses with magical powers to a silver-haired, red-eyed male with a mysterious pseudo-evil agenda. You'll travel from familiar location to familiar location without hesitation and sometimes seemingly without cause. You get a boat and pop into a Ghost Ship shortly before entering a tournament, never once deviating from the formula. It is occasionally enjoyable but not particularly interesting for those who've played RPGs before.
The combat system in Tales of Vesperia, as in all the games in the franchise, is a fusion of fighting game and RPG. All combat takes place in real time, with the player controlling one member of a four-member team. You can freely move around the battlefield and attack enemies by performing combos of regular moves and Artes, which are special attacks that let you do more damage, stun the enemy, juggle them or knock them over. An Arte costs Technique Points to use, although every time you hit an enemy with a regular attack, you regain one TP, so there's no reason to be stingy with the Artes. You can also issue commands and use items by pressing the Menu button, which pauses combat and allows you to issue commands to your AI partners. Combat lasts until all enemies are defeated or all four members of your party are down.
Beyond your regular moves, your team also has the ability to perform an Overlimit, which lets one character go into a super mode where he or she can use successive Artes without lag time, gain special stat bonuses, and perform special Burst and Mystic Artes for huge amounts of damage. In order to perform an Overlimit, you have to fight until your Overlimit bar is built up, at which point you can activate it at will with the d-pad. The Overlimit begins with only a single level, but as the game progresses, you can earn multiple bars, which allow you to put extra characters into Overlimit or a single character into a more powerful Overlimit. It's an incredibly powerful ability that can turn the tide of battle if used correctly. Be warned, however, that it is also possible for an enemy to perform an Overlimit, so the (dangerous) pendulum swings both ways.
The final crucial gameplay feature in Tales of Vesperia is the inclusion of Fatal Strikes. Beyond its various elemental attributes, every Arte has a "Fatal Strike" attribute that is either blue, green or red. Every enemy has a series of three "bars" that signify his defense against that particular kind of Fatal Strike attribute. When you use an Arte with that attribute, you lower that protection. Repeated uses of a red Arte cause the enemy's red Fatal Strike defense to lower. When one of the bars hits bottom, there is a brief flash of a Fatal Strike glyph over the enemy, at which point you can perform a Fatal Strike, or a one-hit kill, on the enemy, regardless of how much HP he may possess. A Fatal Strike also causes the foe to drop more items, and it can occasionally boost Experience. Bosses are resistant to Fatal Strikes, but they can be used to inflict a huge amount of damage and increase the already-substantial rewards. It's an interesting feature, although most enemies will die from regular attacks before you can pull off a Fatal Strike, so you'll usually pull them off in boss fights or against enemies you're particularly trying to farm for loot.
One of the most unique elements of Tales of Vesperia comes from the boss fights, which are average RPG bosses in that they're big, beefy, have lots of HP and damage-causing abilities. Most of the bosses have a hidden objective called a Secret Mission that can be completed during the fight. For example, one boss may require you to protect your party members from damage during the fight, while another might force you to damage a certain part of the enemy during a certain attack, and yet another may require you to lure the enemy into a certain part of the battlefield. When completed, each objective grants you bonuses, including an extra item and an Achievement. The Secret Missions are quite neat and provide a more substantial challenge to the usual boss fights, although they don't do anything to make the fights easier.
However, Secret Missions also suffer from a few serious problems. For one, the game doesn't tell you how to pull off a Secret Mission, so discovering how to perform one is almost entirely a matter of luck. Some boss fights provide a hint to the Secret Mission in the prior dungeon, but not all of them do. There are even a few boss battles that don't provide a hint until after you've defeated the boss! Another major problem is that there are quite a few Secret Missions that are built entirely around luck. You have to hope that a certain enemy uses a certain move in a certain position, and if he doesn't, you'll have to keep retrying the boss battle until he does. Getting all of the Secret Missions means replaying easy boss battles more than once simply because the AI was against you, not due to a lack of skill. While Secret Missions are nice in theory, the fact that they're so dependent on hidden information and luck means that they become frustrating instead of interesting.
One of Tales of Vesperia's biggest combat problems is that the AI for mages is rather lacking. Your mages, regardless of their strategy and AI settings, tend to not cast proper spells, cast spells slowly and ineffectively, and refuse to move away from enemies who are rushing toward them. However, if you take control of your primary mage Rita, she becomes an unstoppable death monster. The problem is that this means that the optimal strategy for boss fights is to let your melee fights be AI-controlled while you stand around as Rita and spam spells for an obscenely easy win. This only gets easier once you get Fatal Strike and Overdrives, since Rita's Fatal Strike can hit from just about anywhere and her Overdrive Artes can hit across the map. It hurts the Tales battle system to reduce combat to standing in place and pressing the A button instead of performing long combos and powerful techniques. Rita is even capable of performing obscenely long combo strings, with over 10,000 hits if you're careful.
Outside of combat, Tales of Vesperia sticks very closely to the average RPG mold. You travel from town to dungeon to town, talking to random folks, fighting random monsters and finding new and better equipment. To be fair, equipment is a bit different from the usual RPG fare. While it's possible to buy equipment in stores, that isn't the best way to upgrade your characters. Instead, you want to look into Synthesis, which involves collecting items dropped from enemies and trading them for new equipment. Synthesis equipment tends to be more powerful and more useful than non-synthesized equipment, and there are a number of pieces of equipment that can only be obtained through synthesis. This means you'll have to do a lot of farming for equipment materials, especially if you intend to make full use of the game's skill system.
Each character two kinds of weapons: a primary weapon and a subweapon. Primary weapons are swords, staves, spears and bows, while subweapons are unique to a specific character, such as a shield, a dagger, gloves or a dog collar. In addition to basic stats, each weapon also has skills, which are special passive abilities that enhance a character's powers in some way. Skills can improve attack power, yield extra combos, reduce the amount of TP that needs to be spend, allow you to perform attacks in mid-air, etc. When a weapon is equipped, that character automatically gains the effects of that ability for as long as the weapon is on. There may be situations where it is more worthwhile to keep worse equipment because it gives you better skills, or simply because the skills are so useful. Eventually however, you'll have to unequip the weapon, and that is where Skill Learning comes in.
As you fight, you slowly earn Learning Points (LP) for your equipped skills. Earn enough LP, and that character masters that skill, allowing him to retain the skill even if you remove the weapon. Skills can't be equipped willy-nilly; each skill has a Skill Point cost that you must pay in order to get that attribute. Characters have Skill Points equal to their current levels, so the further on you get, the more skills you can equip. Thankfully, skills can be equipped and unequipped at will, which means you can alter your character's ability for specific situations. This is extra important because certain combinations of skills unlock new attributes for your character, which can boost stats, change Overlimit capabilities, or even evolve Artes into new forms. Balancing the proper combination of equipped skills and weapon skills for your optimal abilities isn't really necessary to win the game, but it provides a little something extra for gamers who really want to abuse the system.
It's impossible to discuss Tales of Vesperia without bringing up the incredibly controversial Downloadable Content. Tales of Vesperia supports DLC by allowing players to pay real-world money for in-game things. You can pay $3.50 and your character earns 10 levels, $5 to get 300,000 in-game gold, or $3 for a set of 15 rare stat-boosting items. As long as you have real money to burn, you can spend it to instantly boost yourself. To put it bluntly, Namco-Bandai is asking you to pay real-world money for cheats. How much of a good idea that is depends on your own views, but as far as DLC goes, it's incredibly disappointing. Instead of including features such as new costumes for your characters or new dungeons to explore, they chose to go a route that adds nothing to the game.
As it should be for an Xbox 360 title, Tales of Vesperia is a really good-looking game, with a nice use of cel-shading in order to make vibrant and well-animated characters. You're able to customize your characters by giving them different uniforms and accessories, which carries over to almost all elements of the game. It isn't without its flaws, however, and there are a few cut scenes where the animation is way off. Use of stock models and off-screen animations sometime causes things to be slightly incoherent, explosion effects look absolutely awful, and some of the big action scenes end up falling flat simply because the animation is so awkward. Particularly hilarious are a few cut scenes where something will appear off-screen, and rather than animate it, the developers chose to have your heroes stare off-screen and talk about it, which takes away from the impact of a majestic reveal and makes it feel more like a B movie reject. Thankfully, the in-battle animations are smooth and fluid, and the gameplay is generally a visual treat.
Tales of Vesperia honestly has a surprisingly good dub. While it isn't perfect, most of the actors do a stand-up job of trying to give their characters personality. It's still surprising to hear characters in a video game actually try to emote, and the cast of Tales of Vesperia pulls their line readings off quite admirably. There are a few annoying voices, but they're fairly few and far between, and should do little to detract from your enjoyment. Perhaps the only "bad" voice is Repede, Yuri's pet dog, who they decided to cast an actual voice actor for instead of using actual sounds from a dog, which leads to some hilariously awkward "lines." The soundtrack is solid and catchy, although few of the songs are particularly memorable. It does a fine job of providing background noise for the game's many adventures, but won't make anyone run out and buy the soundtrack.
Tales of Vesperia is an RPG for Xbox 360 owners who are desperate for a good Japanese RPG. It's miles ahead of games like Enchanted Arms and Operation Darkness, but that is perhaps the most interesting thing one can say about it. The plot is dull and hits every single RPG cliché, the combat system is fun but flawed, and there is really nothing memorable about it. Tales of the Vesperia is the Japanese RPG equivalent of a McDonald's meal: It's cardboard and bland, but filling and occasionally satisfying. If you're looking for a 360 RPG to tide you over or simply don't mind a rather average title, then Tales of Vesperia will fit the bill. Just don't expect to remember it after six months.
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