A timeless classic.
When Tales of Symphonia: Chronicles for PlayStation 3 was first rumoured, than teased, then confirmed last year during its 10th anniversary, the fanboy in me couldn’t help but get ridiculously excited. A copy of the 2003 Gamecube classic is hard to come by these days, so getting a chance to play one of my favourite JRPGs of all time -- along with its 2008 Wii sequel, Dawn of the New World -- with an HD touch-up and some extra features from the Japanese-only PS2 version, well, it’s a JRPG fan’s dream.
Even after 11 years, it’s hard not to be so nostalgia stricken with Tales of Symphonia. It was the first major Tales game of the Gamecube era, the first with a 3D overworld and character models, and the first to establish the long-running franchise as a household JRPG name. It holds out today as one of the best titles in the genre and series, thanks to its ageless cel-shaded art style, engaging combat, deep story and character relationship system.
The brilliance and depth of Symphonia’s main story is masked by an initial cliche introduction. The world of Sylvarant is in perpetual decline due to the imbalance of Mana flow, an energy force which is the basis of all aspects of life -- from crops, water, health -- as well as magical abilities. The world face constant danger due to the Desians, an organisation led by half-elves who view humans are inferior beings. They run human “ranches”, facilities where humans are enslaved and tasked to manufacture Exspheres -- items which grant the user certain powers but with a hidden cost -- and plague the world in murder and despair.
Symphonia carries a surprisingly mature tone, exploring complex themes of faith, identity and racism. While the typical Japanese silliness and humour is present, there’s also a seriousness not usually forthright in such tales of saving the world.
The people of Sylvarant hold onto an age-long prophecy of the Chosen, a human messiah of the Goddess Martel who is tasked with undertaking the Journey of World Regeneration and regenerating the world. The protagonist, Lloyd Irving, is a naive but courageous young man who happens to live in a remote village with two of the only non-Design half-elves, Genis and Raige Sage, and this generation’s Chosen herself, Colette Brunel.
It all sounds like typical Japanese fan-fare, and in a lot of ways the game is. But there’s more to the narrative than a rag-tag group of colourful personalities wanting to save the world. Symphonia carries a surprisingly mature tone, exploring complex themes of faith, identity and racism. While the typical Japanese silliness and humour is present, there’s also a seriousness not usually forthright in such tales of saving the world -- and it’s definitely welcome.
Symphonia does what few JRPGs show enough of and acknowledges the severity of taking a life. Lloyd and his group are forced to defend themselves and kill other people to protect Colette and instead of brushing it off, the narrative embraces the fact that most of these guys are ignorant teenagers and shows some really well-executed character development that is both entertaining and endearing - and part of the reason why the cast and the story is one of the most beloved on the long-running franchise.
The other part is because the original English voice actors are great. Scott Menville (Teen Titan’s Robin) who voices Lloyd does a great job of conveying his gradual development from naive, stupid teenager to a young man and brilliant leader and in the quieter moments, his distinctive voice shines. Cam Clarke does an excellent job of voicing the mysterious Kratos with his gravelly, authoritative voice and ridiculously awesome and quotable one-liners. Other big names like Jennifer Hale as ninja assassin Sheena and Tara Strong as Presea also do their characters justice. One minor niggle that bothers me to this day is the overworld skits - anime segments where the characters talk - aren’t voiced and it seems like a waste for such a strong cast of VAs. Even if you don’t like the English VAs, Namco have included the Japanese voiceovers with English subtitles -- to all of the purist’s delight.
Another big reason Symphonia is well remembered is its battle system. The Multi-Line Linear Motion Battle System features real-time combat rather than turn-based movement, and pits you and three other party members on a 2D plane against a wide variety of enemies and bosses. Fighting is fun, frantic and fluid thanks to a deep combo system and heaps of special abilities (“Artes”) and playstyles for each character. Lloyd’s dual swordsmanship is designed to be easy to use but difficult to master, but many of the other characters are great alternatives if you prefer fighting from afar or with magic.
Unfortunately, Symphonia still didn’t have the more in-depth customisation options for A.I. behaviour later Tales entries are known for -- and often at times they die of stupidity. If you have a friend or two over, they can jump in seamlessly for four-player multiplayer fun and make the harder battles more bearable -- one of the unique features of Tales games seldom seen in any other JRPG series.
One of the best features of Symphonia the original release never got enough praise for is the affection system. Throughout the game, you’re given several opportunities as Lloyd to respond in one of two ways and gain either the respect or the ire of your eight fellow party members. At first glance, these dialogue choices seem minor - the game gives zero indication of how it matters - but you’ll soon come to realise certain characters will grow closer to Lloyd and significant dialogue changes soon occur. Certain cutscenes play out differently and unheard battle cries start occurring. In one special case, a party member can permanently leave or re-join you later, depending on their relationship with Lloyd, completely changing the remainder of the main storyline.
These branching paths also extend to exploration. Depending on the order of areas you visit, the story progression is altered slightly - and the difficulty, in some cases. Combined with what is seemingly a random generator which determines if certain events unfold earlier or later and you’ve got a great deal of replayability if you’re game to see all of the different dialogue changes and shuffling of storyline sequences.
The High Definition touch-up spruces the anime cutscenes and areas such as Lake Umacy to ultra crisp and colourful renditions of the original SD versions. The overworld itself is still as bland as ever, with blobs representing enemies and large amounts of rough-textured green grass fields, but it’s still charming and fun to explore.
2008’s Wii release, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is the rougher part of the package -- despite having a more recognisable visual touch-up from the HD remastering. It continues the story of the original with a new set of main characters along with returning favourites, but the narrative is let down by one of the worst leading protagonists in JRPG history - Emil - and several inconsistencies in tone from the original.
Whiny, weak and unsure, I hated nearly every moment playing as the androgynous Emil and only with the return of favourite characters from the original is what pushed me through its inferior storyline - though with all but two of the original voice actors replaced, their return to the story had less impact and actually feels like it restricted the story from introducing its own memorable cast. The combat system, at least, is still engaging as ever, and the addition of a free-run system to move out of the 2D battlefield plane is welcome.
Along with a less serious and convoluted story, the gameplay, too, took a hit with several downgrades. The overworld map from the original, while not incredibly detailed, is replaced by a series of locations accessible through your menu. The affection system is also gone, which seems like an odd choice to omit from the sequel -- though it is known the original team left to create Tales of Vesperia during this time. Instead, we’re given a monster-catching system which lets players capture and raise a huge range of monsters to fight as party members. Its unmistakable depth might click with some, but it felt out of place as a fan of the original.
The Final Verdict
The original Tales of Symphonia carries the Chronicles HD package, with its less than stellar sequel Dawn of the New World a bonus for the most hardcore Symphonia fans. While it’s not as memorable as its predecessor, it rounds off a great HD collection that I highly recommend to all fans of JRPGs, the Tales series and great games in general. Symphonia is a timeless classic and this PS3 re-release reminds us of that.