Some (Tidal Wave) Blah Blah Blah About Tales of Vesperia

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.

Case in point.

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.

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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.

JRPGs never skimp on spectacle, do they?

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Sarah
April 22, 2012
I'm glad that you enjoyed it, though I have to agree that the story in Vesperia definitely isn't the strongest. It needs more gigantic continent-boats and otters that raise ninjas, both of which are references that you won't get because PLAY TALES OF LEGENDIA ALREADY
May 11, 2012
A few quick (maybe) comments. First, I think you asked an inieresttng question in your post: "And are reviewers still assuming they write for an audience who's also intimately familiar with those systems?"Although somewhat (entirely?) tangential to the larger topic you are discussing, the issue of who is the audience for game reviews is really inieresttng to me, especially as a developer. I feel like there is a growing disconnect between game media and game development at this point in time, as developers push further and further (albeit falteringly) towards a mainstream, casual audience, while game reviews continue to be written for and consumed by a gaming intelligentsia that is not representative of the audience for which many of the games are created. I wonder at what point game journalism either redefines itself or becomes largely irrelevant? Of course, one could say the same thing about print journalism generally, I suppose.To get back into the ACTUAL discussion at hand, I wanted to suggest another factor that might be at play in the shifting perceptions about Japanese game development: the current state of the Japanese game MARKET. With the Japanese console market largely stagnant at the moment, many Japanese developers are looking at overseas markets much more seriously than they have previously. The fact is that Japanese games have always been something of a niche. It's just that, historically, that niche was much more representative of the game playing population as a whole. As the Western game audience has expanded, that niche portion has come to represent a smaller and smaller subsection of the overall market.So now, Japanese publishers and developers are thinking more seriously of Western markets as their growth opportunities and not just as ancillary markets where they can sell a few extra units after satisfying the demands of their domestic audience. And I think this is leading to a look outward and self-reflection that many Japanese developers haven't traditionally done, but which Western developers have been doing for a long time. I think that's a good thing, overall, but all that introspection may be leading to a more "down" assessment than is really warranted. =)Lastly (did I say this was going to be quick?), on the subject of hours sunk into games, I think the portable nature of the games you both mentioned figures into that directly. DS games, many Live Arcade games, etc. are less demanding of our time over a long stretch, but, as a result, we can actually PLAY them MORE. I can think of countless times when I had a few minutes to kill and knew I wasn't going to be able to sit down with [Big Game of the Moment], but I had time to beat up a few guys in "Castle Crashers," or play a round or two of "Puzzle Quest." Maybe that alone helps explain the rise of "casual" games: they're games "normal" people have time to play!
Sarah
May 12, 2012
I'm almost certain that this is actually a spam comment, but I approved it anyway just because damn, that's some in-depth spam =P

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