Tales of Graces f tells the story of Asbel Lhant, who is a normal young man — whose father rules the town of Lhant. While adventuring outside of town, Asbel and his brother Hubert discover a girl named Sophie. She has amnesia, and he promises to protect her. Shortly thereafter, he forms a friendship with the Richard, the crown prince. Asbel, Richard and Sophie promise to be friends forever, but a tragedy occurs that leaves Sophie dead, Hubert taken to another family, and Richard a bitter and lonely individual. Asbel runs away from home and becomes a knight. The story picks up seven years later when a mysterious girl, who looks identical to Sophie, shows up.
Tales of Graces f has a by-the-numbers plot, so you can probably figure out every plot twist long before it occurs. The game goes out of its way to drive home plot points to make sure you don't miss anything. The cast is relatively charming but is unfortunately filled with jerks — out of necessity. Asbel running away has his friends and family has embittered them, and it takes a long time before the party isn't giving him the silent treatment. The game is also relentlessly silly, even when it shouldn't be. It's tough to go from a scene where a friend butchers the corpse of a slaughtered enemy to one where they make silly jokes. If you have a fondness, or at least a tolerance, for the wacky antics you see in anime or cartoons, you should find things in the plot, which is reasonable, if not very deep.
Tales of Graces f is the first Tales game to use the "Chain Capacity" system. In previous Tales titles, the gameplay was focused on "Technique Points," which were basically the same magic points in RPGs. You can use regular attacks or use TP for special attacks. Every character has a Chain Capacity meter, and the amount of CC is fairly small and exists in a range. At the start of the game, Asbel can have 4-6 CC, and as the game progresses, you can hit double digits. If you want to attack, dash, perform a special move, or anything similar, it has an associated CC cost. It's replenished by defending or avoiding attacks, and it does so very quickly when you're not attacking, so you can use moves freely. You build CC by performing combos without taking damage.
There are also other ways to generate CC through solid play. Every attack has elemental types, which, when used against enemies with corresponding weaknesses, do more damage. Performing a combo that hits every enemy elemental weakness can replenish a huge chunk of CC, allowing you to continue the combo for longer. This discourages the "use one good combo" tactic seen in older Tales game. If you're not frequently switching up your combo, you're at a disadvantage. You can also replenish CC by dodging or blocking at the proper moment. While you can spam the dodge move to avoid attacks, it's better to save it for the right moment. This replenishes CC and allows you to go from a dodge into a counterattack.
The CC system completely changes how gameplay feels. Instead of simply spamming moves, you have to consider your actions and their related CC costs. Combat goes from a conservation-based system like MP to something a lot more free and accessible. If you spam attacks without thought, you may find yourself unable to dodge or move when necessary, causing you to lose CC by taking damage. You have to think about the elemental properties of your attacks in addition to their damage and combos.
You now have two kinds of attacks: A and B Artes. "A" Artes are regular attacks, but they don't function the same as they do in other Tales games. You begin with a single "A" Arte, which is your basic attack and costs one CC. From there, you have four different 2CC Artes. Each can be chosen by pressing a direction on the analog stick when comboing from your 1CC Arte. From there, you can combo to one of four 3CC and eventually one of four 4CC chain arts. This means a full A Arte chain takes 10 CC. You have to learn how to combo together the various moves to best hit weak points. There are also B Artes, which are like special moves in that they cause greater damage and are unique to each character. Asbel performs sword attacks while Malak uses magic spells. You can even chain together A Artes and B Artes for special effects.
One of the coolest features of Tales of Graces f is how each character's A Artes and B Artes fight style is distinct. No two play similarly, so it's fun to switch up who you're controlling. Asbel is built around his sword-sheathing mechanic. His A Artes involve him beating enemies with a sheathed blade, and his B Artes have him draw the blade and use special moves. When you unsheathe Asbel's sword, he gains a temporary defensive buff — until you sheath his sword. Sheathing and unsheathing the sword can reset the buff, but while your sword is unsheathed, any damage you do is collected. If you manually sheath your sword after doing damage, Asbel regains HP depending on the damage done. If you take heavy damage, which causes Asbel to automatically sheath his blade, you don't get the bonus. Fighting as Asbel involves balancing his sheathing and unsheathing and deciding if it's worth sheathing the blade to reset the buff and regenerate HP or to keeping it out to build up more regeneration.
In comparison, his brother Hubert uses "dual blades," a twin-edged sword to beat up enemies with his A Artes. His B Artes involve separating the dual blades, which turn into twin pistols. Building up his CC takes time and involves balancing between ranged attacks for damage and getting up close to perform combos. Cheria is a ranged fighter who throws daggers and casts magic spells. Building up a combo with her daggers allows you to cast magic spells with less casting time. Each character is different, and that helps prevent the usual Tales problems of picking one or two characters and sticking with them for the entire game.
There are other combat matters to take into account. One is the Eleth Mixer, which is this game's version of the popular Tales cooking system, but it's quite an improvement over any that appear in previous games. The Mixer is basically a magical replicator. You fill it up with magic energy at any store, and it replicates items you stick inside. Some of these items have a set probability of replicating when you're walking around. Others, usually food items, can be created in battle. When you set a food item into the mixer, it has a certain activation requirement. This can be anything from "get below 30% HP" to "perform a 20 hit combo" to "survive the battle without taking damage." When you hit that requirement, the food is automatically cooked, and you get the effect. This is almost always HP restoration, but there may also be a passive buff or bonus to your experience or SP gain. You can even equip items that alter the effect of the mixer, such as increasing the length of the passive bonus.
Titles are special names you can get for your character, and they have some minor impact. In Graces f, you're basically swimming in Titles, each of which has associated skills and stat boots. An equipped title offers a special boost to make you stronger, improve your stats or unlock new abilities. When you equip a Title, it levels up as you earn SP from battle. Every Title level you gain gives a permanent boost to your character. The amount of Titles in the game encourages you to do everything because practically every task yields a Title, such as spend enough time walking around, talk to people, watch skits, fuse items, etc.
Unfortunately, outside of the combat system, there isn't a lot to Graces. It is a traditional JRPG from start to finish, featuring straightforward dungeons with a few simple puzzles. It has towns, but they're mostly filled with NPCs who chatter about meaningless things until you find one who gives a side-quest or two. You get an airship, you battle evil, and you're not going to find anything particularly new or surprising. This isn't bad if you're looking for something in that vein. The world is bright and charming enough, and there's always something to do.
Tales of Graces, prior to getting the f added to its name, was a Wii release, and unfortunately, it really shows. The graphics are really unimpressive, and while they were clearly updated for the PS3, it isn't enough to disguise that it's a port from a much weaker system. The character models are stiff and frequently look unintentionally silly. The anime-style artwork keeps them from being too off-putting, but most of the time, they look like weird marionettes. The environments are similarly simplistic, and there's not a lot that looks, well, good. The voice acting is reasonably well done, although it contains most of the same small sample of anime voice actors that you'll hear in pretty much every dubbed JRPG. They do a solid job with what they're given, and there are some genuinely funny moments from time to time. The soundtrack is quite good and also contains a number of hidden tracks you can unlock by using special costumes.
Tales of Graces f is a by-the-numbers JRPG with a top-notch battle system. The characters, dungeons, plot and world are about as cliché as you can imagine. Your tolerance depends on how much you enjoy friendship speeches and cheerful heroism. What really makes Graces stand out is the combat, which is fast, frantic and fun; it has enough depth and style to keep players on their toes for random battles. Tales of Graces f is far from flawless, but it does a lot more right than it does wrong, and it has so many strong points that it's easy to overlook the weak parts. If it looked a little better and the plot were less clichéd and melodramatic, it would easily be one of the best JRPGs. As it stands, the gameplay is great, and it's tons more fun to play than other JRPGs, like Final Fantasy XIII.
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