When you say the acronym RPG to any average day gamer, each will have something different come to mind. Most will immediately think of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises, arguably the most popular in the industry. Then you have your niche crowds for the Golden Sun, Xenosaga and .hack series along with others. But no matter whether in Japan or North America, there is another series that isn’t quite as popular, but ever more equally beloved. This happens to be Namco’s Tales series. It has sold several hundreds of thousands of copies with each iteration, and this next one may prove no different.
Strangely though, the Tales series did not gain its beginning popularity with the birth of the console industry. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest both started on the NES, but Tales did not. Its first game happened to be Tales of Phantasia on the SNES. It actually happens to be a game recently voted ‘ Namco game of all-time’ from readers of Famitsu. It was this very game that started the entire franchise, and the one that Namco just recently published to the Game Boy Advance in Japan.
But instead of having this just be ‘another port’, Namco decided to go one little step further. Tales of Phantasia for the GBA is based not only on the original SNES title but the remake that was released to the PlayStation during that era. Namco having done this brings about the positive aspects of both titles while retaining the excellent gameplay presentation. Aspects brought back from the PlayStation remake are the toned down battle encounters as well as some small tweaks battle engine. The actual presentation that came with the SNES still holds true though. The GBA title doesn’t have the polygonal design of the PlayStation version but rather the mode-7 style map from the original game. Making it even nicer though, is the possibility of new events, dungeons and even brand new dialogue sequences in our version.
The story of ToP is a very simple one. You take on the role of Cless Alvin. He is a young seventeen-year-old swordsman who lives in the town of Totus. The game’s plot begins with Cless and his friend Chester as they head off on a hunting expedition in the town’s southern woods. Upon return, they discover a tragedy has befallen their home, and this serves as the core starting point.
Those that loved Tales of Symphonia may be excited to know the gameplay engine is virtually identical to that in ToP. The same action packed “Linear Motion” battle engine is utilized here. All fights take place on a 2D plane in which you simply move your character back and forth with the D-Pad. That’s right, there is no ‘stand-still party’ to give commands to. There aren’t even any menus to access, as everything you do is done by simple button and directional inputs. As stated, you move back and forth with the D-Pad, but the real fun is when you actually attack, obviously. One of the cooler combos you can pull off is a jumping slash followed by dashing away from your opponent if it’s not defeated. This is done by simply going forward, pressing A, A again and then A one more time when your slash is executed.
Also in battle, you can have up to three friends battling along with you. These fellows are controlled solely by the AI in the game in accordance to how you set them up in the battle menu. You can change how your party is formed at the start of the battle too, even if it’s not always entirely relevant. Along with predetermining their formation, you can customize what they actually do in battle. You can tell them to protect themselves or you at all cost, use magic as little as possible, focus attack on the centre of the battlefield and so on and so forth.
Unfortunately, the very term AI tends to spell trouble, as most developers never really seem to get it perfect. There are certainly some issues going on behind the scenes. Like many RPGs that have AI controlled party members, they often do stupid things. Often these stupid moves result in their dying, and sometimes even worse, your own death. Later games in the Tales franchise allow for more than five or six battle strategies to be allocated to each party member, so we’ll have to see if the furthered strength of your friends proves to balance this out later on.
In making the transition to the dominating Nintendo handheld, ToP hasn’t really lost or gained much in terms of content. In a very pleasing situation, it still retains the full voice work the original games had, including the great song at the beginning of the game. The graphics are still very well-done and animated, making battles as enjoyable as they once were. The character models also sport lovely detail, bringing them to life to aid the emotional experience. The only unfortunate circumstance here is the view of overhead dungeons and towns seem to lack elaborate color, the game doesn’t utilize the GBA’s hardware to its fullest.
Another slightly nagging feature is the interface that didn’t get any kind of an upgrade. The small screen of the GBA makes things hard to read, especially when shopping for items and other necessary goodies. A lot of the time certain blocks of text will overlap others, making it hard to decipher just what it is you’re looking at and about to select. This makes is somewhat difficult to determine which items boost your stats and which you should just leave as ‘window shopping’ items. Hopefully, all these shortcomings will be given nice polish before the final release come March.
It looks like Tales of Phantasia will be another nice addition to the GBA’s library of RPG titles. It may not end up being stellar like games such as Golden Sun or Fire Emblem, but it will be something fans of the Tales series should be able to appreciate. It retains the core experience and feel of the original while combining the more positive aspects the original and remake held. It’s not like this is the first time we’ve gotten a game based on two previously similar ones, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you liked Tales of Symphonia, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why you wouldn’t like this as well.