For many JRPG fans, Tales of Symphonia was their great introduction to Namco Bandai’s Tales series. It was the first fully 3D polygonal Tales game and the first Tales game that was widely popularized in the U.S. Heck, it even had its own Tales development team named after it, Team Symphonia. It was well received, but had a few flaws if only because Namco Bandai was still figuring out the 3D Tales formula at the time. Now it’s back with an high-def facelift, along with it’s sequel Tales of Symphonia 2: Dawn of the New World, in the newly released compilation: Tales of Symphonia Chronicles. It’s a great remake that reminds us why we fell in love with the Tales franchise in the first place.
The first thing you’ll notice is Tales of Symphonia’s new graphical style. The original Tales of Symphonia was heavily cell shaded, with thick black lines surrounding all the character models. Tales of Symphonia Chronicles, however, does away with those heavy black lines, fleshes out character textures, and even smooths out the lighting engine. As a result, character models actually look quite different than they did in the original, more like 3D video game characters than flat 2D anime characters. Some purists are going to call travesty on this change, but I personally think they look better.
While character and enemy models are the most noticeable, and also most welcome, environments didn’t fare so well. Ground textures, though higher resolution, look depressingly flat, and battle backgrounds look painted on. You can tell that the team put a lot of effort into improving the visual presentation, but it’s near impossible for a Gamecube-era game to not show its age. When graphically compared side by side with Tales of Xillia, or even the included Tales of Symphonia 2, Chronicles doesn’t even come close.
Regardless, Tales of Symponia has aged remarkably well. The game is still tons of fun, despite its somewhat primordial real-time battle system. There’s something quite enjoyable about having simple rules for attacking and using skills. There’s no link system like there was in Tales of Xillia, or field system like In Tales of the Abyss. There’s just HP, TP and Items, and that’s honestly enough. The only thing I really missed in the Symphonia battle system was the free run option, but the game plays perfectly well without it.
The story is also kind of dated but still holds up. There really isn’t much of a moral grey area here. You are a spikey-haired protagonist on a journey to save the world from an ancient evil who wants to destroy it. There are a couple surprises along the way, including a few notable “Luke. I am your father,” moments, but you never really stray from your straight path of world saving glory. Nevertheless, I care about these characters. Lloyd’s determination feels believable, as does Collete’s internal conflicts and even Genis’s comic relief. They feel like real people, or at least real anime characters, which is something modern day RPGs, and even modern Tales games have struggled with.
The music has been remastered, but it’s largely the same soundtrack that we have heard before. Once again, this is a good thing even though it feels dated. It brings you back to an age of RPG music with blaring trumpets and soft pan flutes. It’s a blast from the past right down to the classic Tales victory fanfare that plays after you win a battle. Heck, I didn’t even know I missed that fanfare until I heard it again.
It all feels simple in a delightfully retro sort of way, and that would be enough, but Namco Bandai went an extra step further and included a bunch of brand new content, much of which references modern day Tales games. For example, every character in the game gets new costumes. This may not seem like much, but seeing Collete run around in a Rita costume (from Tales of Vesperia) is actually pretty cool. In terms of gameplay, characters have new artes and skills to fool around with. There aren’t many, but there are enough to make the game feel fresh.
Finally, Namco Bandai has fixed a lot of errors that plagued the original version. Battles don’t slowdown anymore, and spamming high level spells no longer has a chance to freeze the game. The camera actually obeys in battle, which means you don’t have to fight blind, especially when multiple players join in. Exploitable glitches, like the cast/cancel bug which allowed you to spam spells with zero casting time, are still included, allowing you to break the game to your heart’s content. However, the rest of the bugs have been taken out. The game is so much more playable in this format, and I’d go as far as to say this is the definitive version of Tales of Symphonia.
Tales Symphonia 2, on the other hand, doesn’t fare so well. Graphically, it is the more impressive remake because it is a more recent game. Textures look better, characters are no longer super deformed, environments look suitably HD, and the user interface is vastly improved. Overall the game is much more visibly pleasing than Tales of Symphonia. However, that’s the only way the game is more pleasing than the original.
You see, the story of Tales 2 is stale and melodramatic. All those interesting and human-like characters from Tales of Symphonia one are now mostly uncontrollable NPCs and a background characters. Their hopes and dreams and personalities have been overwritten by basic RPG stereotypes. The plot involving a dire quest to save the universe is replaced with some wonky story about being possessed by a dark god and controlling monsters. The new main character, Emil, is an insufferable whiny little wuss who spends the majority of the game complaining about being an RPG protagonist.
The classic Tales battle system has both been simplified and made more complicated. You only really have two characters, and then two empty character slots which you fill with captured monsters. It’s trying to be Pokemon, but it’s nowhere near as fun. You’ll spend hours trying to get the right monsters and teach them the right skills and it’s just a huge chore all around. At points, classic Tales characters join your party, but they can’t level up and they don’t stick around for long, so it’s basically just a tease. Battles themselves are easier and you can pretty much spam your way through all of them. It’s just a mess.
It also feels like more love and care was put into the original Tales remake than the sequel. Tales 2 has way less additional content and some environments, though they look better overall, barely look changed from the original version. I’m not even sure that the sound in the Tales 2 remake has been remastered. The biggest change is that it’s on a PlayStation system as opposed to the Wii, so you don’t have to use Wiimote waggle controls.
Even though Tales 2 pales in comparison to it’s predecessor, it doesn’t make Tales of Symphonia Chronicles a bad compilation. The remake of the original Symphonia is worth the price of admission alone. Fans will be happy to replay the classic first entry, and despite its faults, Tales of Symphonia 2’s inclusion should please those who never had a chance to play it. Tales of Symphonia Chronicles is the best version of Tales of Symphonia out there, and when you're done playing, Tales of Symphonia 2: Dawn of The New World is an okay distraction until Emil’s whining makes you stop, and go back to the original once again.
This review was based on a purchased copy of Tales of Symphonia Chronicles for the PlayStation 3.