STAFF REVIEW of Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360)

Saturday, October 25, 2008.
by Stacy Code

Tales of Vesperia Box art Namco Bandai?s newest release in the long-running Tales series of role playing games is here, and this time around, the tenth release ? Tales of Vesperia ? is an exclusive to the Xbox 360. Following the formula of Tales Of the Abyss and Tales of Symphonia, Tales of Vesperia is a Japanese-style role playing game with a focus on story, character and plot, and with combat unfolding in full real-time. Vesperia boasts some of the most eye-catching graphics in a long while, in that the game seamlessly blends anime-style cutscenes and animated sequences with the game graphics, which are identical in style to the animations. The effect is, for the player, a gorgeous 40 hour long playable animated feature.

The game?s story is typical quest-fare, although there are some interesting plot twists and developments that surface later in the story. The plot follows young Yuri Lowell, the main character controlled by the player, an ex-Imperial Knight and a rogue constantly one step ahead of trouble. The story begins with trouble in the capitol city of Zaphias, and a stolen blastia core sends Yuri from the poorer Lower Quarter into the heart of the city to find the thief and return the core to restore his neighborhood?s water supply. Blastia, as it is explained, are machines left behind by an ancient civilization that has since moved on. The most critical use of the blastia are to power energy barriers that protect the inhabitants of towns and cities from the monsters which have overrun the world and who roam in packs beyond the safety of city limits. Yuri quickly finds himself arrested at the beginning of the game, and in the process of breaking out of the Imperial jails, meets the first of many travelling companions who join his party ? Estelle, an Imperial heir and a sheltered noble who has never left the capitol city. As the journey to catch the blastia thief (and to catch up with Yuri and Estelle?s mutual friend, a knight named Flynn Scifo) takes Yuri and his companions around the country, they are joined by other characters ? a foolish young boy who fancies himself a monster hunter (Karol), a headstrong young mage with a caustic disposition (Rita), a grizzled hound who smokes a pipe (Repede) and others. Character designs are by Kosuke Fujishima, who has been the character designer for the last five games in the series.

For those who haven?t played a game in the Tales series before, the gameplay will seem completely typical until the first combat sequence. The story is very linear and easy to follow, and the characters keep a journal accessible from the menu screens, so players will never be at a loss to decide where to go next or what needs to be done. Players can interact with people encountered in the towns and cities visited, and typically there will be some problem that needs to be solved before the story advances further and the players are permitted to move on. Exploration is important, although the level designs in the game are quite linear and almost feel ?on rails? Where Tales Of Vesperia and its predecessors differ from other Japanese RPG?s is in the unique real-time combat system that is a trademark of the franchise. When the main characters encounter a monster or a group of monsters, the battle takes place in real-time with the player using a combination of physical weapon attacks and special ?Artes?, learned skills and special attacks which are more powerful. Other party members are controlled by AI, although it?s possible to exert a great level of control over the other fighters, assigning them levels of aggressiveness or defensiveness and even assign them points on the battlefield to stake out and hold. The combat feels a lot like a weapon-brawler such as Soul Calibur, and many battles will require patience and a level of strategic control of your party members. Refinements to Tales Of Vesperia?s use of this battle system include encounter links ? the party can be attacked by more than one group of monsters at the same time, so caution must be exercised when slowly travelling through heavily monster-infested areas. Monster boss fights will also have ?secret mission? components, wherein if certain secret conditions are fulfilled (killing a monster using a clever trick, or using some element of the battlefield to defeat a monster) the player will be rewarded with lots of extra items and money after concluding the fight. Also, Tales Of Vesperia still uses the grading system in its battles, in which the player is graded on their performance during a fight ? rewarded for things like speedily defeating the monsters, finishing a fight without losing any health, or performing special strikes. The points earned from the performance grading come in to play after the game has been finished ? players can purchase upgrades and improvements for their character to be used in a second, subsequent playthrough of the game. The game also features a cooking system, in which players can learn recipes, and after gathering required ingredients, can make their own food ? similarly, there is an item synthesis system where if a store does not have an item the player wishes to buy, it?s sometimes possible to fashion it together from some components to be gathered.

Overall, the gameplay is fairly straightforward and nothing new to RPG players - the real-time combat adds a bit of excitement to what used to be a fairly tedious turned based back-and-forth affair ? seeing a melee erupt with four party characters brawling in real-time with a half-dozen monsters is very cool. Managing the other party members during a fight can be frustrating, however, and when you?re actively fighting in the field yourself it can be a bit of a chore to try and micromanage or babysit other party members who might not be working to their own best interests. The remainder of the game play ? exploring the world map, investigating towns and cities, solving problems, looking for clues, and interviewing and talking with the citizens of the world ? is exactly what you?d expect in a Japanese RPG, and there are no surprises waiting there. What the game does have going for it is a good story, with some talented voice actors for the North American localization, and some great music.

Where Tales of Vesperia shines the most is in the graphic style. The game opens with a stunning music video sequence by Production I.G. (the animation studio that brought us Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, and many other top-billing anime series) which sets the standard for the game?s visual style ? the in-game engine is made to look like a living, breathing three-dimensional version of the animation. Though most cutscenes are done using the game engine, there are also traditional anime sequences produced by Production I.G. for significant events in the store, all blending together to give the player the feeling that this is a 40 hour anime feature film. The character designs are quirky and interesting and reflect the personality of the characters well ? Repede?s old war-worn face and trademark tobacco pipe, Estelle?s completely impractical and very showy Imperial gown, a telling mark of someone who has never left her home city and led a sheltered life ? Karol?s oversized weapons and enormous, baggy clothes trying to hide his general insecurity ? all of the character designs are visually strong. The environment and level graphics are pretty, though a bit inconsistent at times ? the world map screen in which players go from one part of the country to another is very bland compared to the actual towns and environments, and some areas ? underground ruins, dungeons ? are a bit more simplistic and repetitive than some others, such as the smaller towns, which are often gorgeous. In all, though, the main selling point of Vesperia is a strong, distinctive anime style overtop of a good story.

The game features a ton of recorded voices for the characters, and though there are some dialogue sequences where characters in conversation simply communicate with word balloons, the characters are all voiced for every cutscene, and anime fans and gamers alike will probably recognize many of the voices in the game, further giving it the feel that it?s another new animated show on The Anime Network or Teletoon. The style of the voice acting is light and breezy, and cutscenes are always a delight, and often funny. The general audio of the game is nothing particularly noteworthy ? sound effects in combat are not necessarily repetitious or irritating, although the character callouts for using ?Artes? do get tiresome ? hearing Yuri shout ?Azure Edge!!!? thirty times in a single engagement, for example. The music is good, with Motoi Sakuraba and Hibiki Aoyama contributing a music score which is fairly light in keeping with the visual look of the game, and Bonnie Pink contributes the catchy opening theme which serves as the basic melody for many of the cuts of the soundtrack.

The game features co-op play for the battle sequences, although recruiting friends to play battle sequences who then have to sit idle during exploration or dialogue sequences may be a bit of a challenge for some gamers. There?s also lots of downloadable content available on Live Marketplace for purchase, though gamers will be delighted to find that there are some free items available right away to kick-start your progress early on in the game. Gamers may also be a little frustrated with the lack of achievements awarded early on in the game to players ? after I?d rolled past the first ten-hour mark in the game, I?d yet to unlock anything other than the first achievement. Returning the Aque Blastia back to your old neighbourhood gives the first significant achievement with a nice 100 point padding on the gamerscore, and the game gives two more large awards and achievements before the story is through, rather than give a dozen smaller awards spread out over the story or one big fat award at the very end of it.

All in all, Tales of Vesperia is a nice treat for RPG fans, and the first title in the long running series to be an Xbox 360 exclusive. Outside of the striking good looks of the game there?s nothing here that?s going to shock or surprise you, but if you?re looking for a game with a decent story and a fresh combat system to tide you over the next few weeks of autumn, as the days grow dark and we wait for the rest of the season?s releases, you might want to sink a few dozen hours into Tales of Vesperia.

Overall: 8.2 / 10
Gameplay: 7.8 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 7.7 / 10


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