I guess it’s a weird coincidence that both Sarah and I were playing a Tales game when this whole thing began, but our tastes only really seem to run parallel when there’s Eggbears to threaten or balls to love.
That said, I recently finished my first playthrough of Namco Tales Studios’ perhaps most widely well-received entry in their long running Tales franchise: Tales of Vesperia. Following the adventures of a former knight turned vigilante, Yuri Lowell, as he brings together a ragtag team of oddballs and saves the world from some vaguely threatening sky jellyfish thing (though not the friendly sky jellyfish thing that carries the city of Myorzo around). I guess that’s not particularly descriptive, given the similarities to every JRPG ever, but it’s not really the story that drives these games. I’m of the mindset that, if you want a good story, you might want to check a bookshelf. Not to be too reductive, of course, since the medium is still developing, but Tales and the other superior RPG franchises tend to exceed in areas that books cannot follow.
Which is to say, Tales’ strength is in the player agency of developing their characters: Each have their own little side-quests and backstories which you, as the player, can choose to chase down and complete. You see little conversations play out after certain story beats, but also occasionally to congratulate themselves for a task well done or a particularly difficult move (such as the series’ overly grandiose Mystic Artes). There’s something rewarding about having your team of JRPG archetypes (I kid; they play around with some very standard concepts, let’s say) discuss what just happened, or what you just did. It’s a staple of the Tales series that you can get as much or as little commentary from your team as you wish, in those optional little “talking heads” moments.
The other staple being, of course, the LMB System, which finds itself updated (or simplified, in the case of the handheld iterations) in every new Tales game. The LMB System – short for the Linear Motion Battle System – is how Tales presents its combat: It’s a real-time brawl set in a Fighter game type mold, where you and your target share the same 2D plane (it helps if you consider that you and the opponent are standing on the same tangent cutting through the 3D playing field) and you can pull of special moves (or “artes”) by combining the special attack button and an analog-stick direction. You can fully customize what artes are assigned where, as well as some degree of real-time control over your teammates, either by setting their general tactics beforehand or having specific artes of theirs mapped to the other analog-stick. Though the fights are fittingly chaotic, there are a suite of options presented to personalize your chosen fighting style, which you are given ample advancements towards thanks to a plethora of mostly passive skills, which the character learns from weapons they’re attached to much like Final Fantasy 9’s spin on learning new abilities. While it sounds complex, it’s a system these games have used since their very inception, so anyone who has played a game in this series can easily get to grips with any changes. If all else fails, you can run forward and mash the attack button: It’s more effective than you’d think. It’s advice that’s served me well whenever I find myself playing Tekken, at least.
Vesperia is probably the longest I’ve ever spent with a Tales game (it’s also the newest one I’ve played, so maybe there’s some correlation there), so that’s probably a commendation in and of itself. But let’s try a little harder than that: The mark of a good JRPG is one where you are fully engaged in the experience – whether that’s watching a gloriously rendered anime cutscene or rolling through a dungeon mostly free of any sort of narrative element. It’s a tough juggling act: Without a worthy narrative, the fighting is without context and feels pointless; without decent combat, the story is just too much of a chore to bother pursuing.
While Tales rarely leaves its comfort zone, never having the sort of wild swings that the Final Fantasy series might from game to game, it has created and perfected a model that works. It’s a fantastic series that I never mind revisiting from time to time.