Intense, button-mashing combat and cartoon graphics make for a great role-playing game
The plot of just about any Japanese Role-playing Game (JRPG) involves a group of plucky youngsters teaming up to embark on some long and convoluted quest across many continents. This latest title in Namco Bandai's long-running Tales series has, it seems, already been through such a trial just to make it to Europe – it arrives here almost three years since the original Tales of Graces went on sale in Japan.
This very-late, rather quiet launch is in sharp contrast to the blaze of worldwide publicity afforded to the last big JRPG releases, Square-Enix's Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. And, appropriately, the contrast between the two is as sharp as night and day. Where Final Fantasy uses cinema-like graphics and a script that leans past serious into po-faced, Tales of Graces is a beautiful cartoon with a relatively light-heated approach to its characters.
The script is, of course, pure JRPG hokum: as one Asbel Lhant, heir to a the provincial kingdom of the same name, you must gather a group of assorted stereotypes (grizzled warrior type, hyperactive genki-girl, and so on) to stomp around with weapons, learn life-lessons about friendship and save the world. This story is at its most cloying in the fairly long prologue section in which you are introduced to several key characters as children.
Get beyond that prologue, though, and into the game, and there's much to enjoy here. Like its predecessor, the Xbox 360's Tales of Vesperia, Graces conjures up a huge and beautiful cell-shaded world to explore, complete with all the usual locations (desert, ice field), but also artfully drawn towns and cities to explore. It's notable that the graphics from the game's engine are significantly prettier than the occasional animated cutscenes, not the other way around.
But more importantly, the combat system is almost perfectly formed. Whereas traditional JRPGs allow you to fight by queueing up a list of commands, the Tales series has always leaned towards kinetic button-bashing, and the implementation in Tales of Graces is brilliant.
Fights occur in real time, with only one character controlled directly and the others obeying a strategy that you set. Your character can deliver two kinds of attacks – one physical, one more specialist such as magic or sword moves – and each using up a certain number of 'CC'. Blocking, dodging or performing other tricks increases your CC gauge, so the trick of combat is to hurtle into enemies unleashing a chain of attacks, then dodge away to recover before repeating.
This is, in the prologue, a little tedious – you'll do a lot of hitting monsters with what is, essentially, a plank of wood – but get stuck in and you'll soon be piling attack on beautifully animated attack using gamepad-bending special moves. It's Street Fighter II meets Final Fantasy, with most fights lasting fewer than 30 seconds, and very rarely does meeting a monster to fight seem like a chore.
The other RPG elements are also well done. Although your characters do level up, this is almost entirely transparent and not something you'll have to check or worry about. Instead, the game allows you to channel character growth by learning, switching between and enhancing different 'Titles' – this can be handled automatically, but it's fun to tweak for the best combat tricks and effects.
The Dualising system allows you to combine game items together, and is used for both enhancing weapons and – in a staple of the Tales franchise – combining ingredients to cook meals which have special restorative effects. The ability to spend as much time fussing over recipes (Salisbury Steak, anyone?) as you can over magical swords is strangely charming.
And in fact, 'strangely charming' seems a good summary of the whole game. It's not quite perfect – the plot isn't as good as the one in, for example, Tales of Vesperia, the childhood prologue is offputting and it's a shame there's no Japanese voice track, for example, but for fans of the JRPG genre or anyone else who wants to get stuck into a long story with great combat, there's plenty to like here. And if it sells, maybe Tales of Xillia – out in Japan last year – will have an easier journey to these shores.
Tales of Graces F is now on PS3. PEGI: 12
Read more reviews
Beautiful graphics and intense combat make this great fun for any RPG fan
Combat system is near perfect, great cell-shaded graphics
Plot is standard fare, but prologue is cumbersome
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