Unless you’ve been imprisoned in a vault cut-off from all electronics, or living in an Amish community, any gamer who dabbles in role-playing games should be familiar with Tales of Symphonia. Published by Namco for the Nintendo GameCube, the game received high critical acclaim and ranked 24th in Game Informer’s list of “Top 25 GameCube Games.” The other entries in the Tales series though, while moderately successful, were eclipsed by other RPG juggernauts like Final Fantasy. As such, Tales of Phantasia, the first entry in the Tales series released for the Super Nintendo in 1995, was hardly noticed until Symphonia garnered gamer interest eight years later. Tales of Phantasia deserves its dues for more than just laying the framework for Symphonia; it’s a classic in RPG entertainment with that 90’s appeal.
The game opens with a cinematic flashback, leading into the initial plot centering on Cress Albane, the main protagonist and one of only two frontline fighters in the game, who seeks revenge for the destruction of his village along with his friend and fellow survivor Chester Burklight. As they progress through their journey and acquire more companions they become entangled in a plot to revive a powerful sorcerer named Dhaos featured in the opening flashback. Dhaos is revived and the heroes (minus Chester who decides he can deflect death magic with his face) are sent back ninety-four years into the past. The plot expands from there as the heroes attempt to return to the present. As a whole, the plot suffers from some predictability and clichéd themes but the uniqueness of the characters and their interactions with one another more than make up for the faults to create an engaging story.
The gameplay is mostly traditional RPG fare: an expansive overworld map, random encounters, level grinding, weapon and armor upgrades, and treasure hunting. What the game does best though is that it finds a balance between all of these standard components such as working level grinding aspects to advance further in the game, whether it’s a gauntlet of enemies or hunting down a specific kind to collect a necessary dropped item. The game can still present a challenge for the player as many of the battles require some strategic planning to overcome and the dungeon puzzles offer the right amount of brain-teasing a gamer expects in an RPG.
The battle system is the game’s main appeal as it strays from the turn-based system and focuses on real-time play. The games Linear Motion Battle System, or LMBS, is played out on a two-dimensional plane that expands the width of the screen and scrolls from left and to right depending on the position of characters and their opponents. Before and during battle, the player can arrange the characters into a battle formation along the linear terrain and assign them to automatically perform specific tasks related to their class such focusing on healing, spell casting, or conserving their attacks to save technical point (TP) consumption. These commands can also be accessed on the pause menu during battle, allowing the player manually select a character to perform certain attack, spell, or assign items. Depending on the character you choose to lead the party, you can assign some of their moves to specific buttons as shortcuts and construct combo attacks that are crucial in defeating tougher enemies.
As intriguing as the LMBS is, there are some drawbacks, mostly because of how dated the software is. Character movements during battle feel sluggish and their selected attacks take time to register and perform. The lead character is also difficult to control; often the player will find the character they’re controlling retreating back to their starting position after attacking or refusing to jump when prompted. This can be rectified by either performing a combo string with your special attacks or by setting the character on auto-pilot like the rest of the team, but the latter option takes away some of your involvement in the game and just becomes a bunch of CPU’s brawling on a screen.
Interestingly, the battle system tends to favor certain characters (and monsters) that can fly (such as Arche Klein, the only character in your party that can fly) who generally require field magic effects or specific targeting to hit. Grounded characters on the other hand suffer everything, from all-compassing magical explosions or wild swings from enemies that manage to go through one character’s animation frames and hit another character behind them, basically hitting two birds with one stone (or claw, or mace, or spear; you know, whatever the enemy uses to try and bash your skull in). As such, positioning and strategy are the keys to winning a battle, and if you slip up too much you’ll usually find yourself sandwiched between groups of enemies and knocked around until you’re dead.
Aside from the main story, the player has an abundance of extra stuff to do. The player can entertain themselves with an assortment of mini-games, hunt down optional elemental spirits that the summoner, Claus Lester, can make a pact with, complete side-quests to alter history and obtain powerful items, enter the coliseum in Euclid to level-grind or take on the Moria Mine dungeon to collect the game’s most powerful items and spells. An optional character, Suzu Fujibayashi (the second frontline fighter in the game), can also be obtained through completing a series of side-quests. So the game could be more “mainstream” and appeal to more gamers, the developers for the Gameboy Advanced version included the cooking and title systems featured in Tales of Symphonia. By cooking between and after battles, the player can heal his team or cure status aliments without using battle items while searching for the recipes for each dish adds another side-quest for the player to occupy his time. Titles can be obtained through completing certain side-quests or making certain choices during gameplay, and much like they did in Tales of Symphonia, they serve to boost certain attributes.
Tales of Phantasia is never lacking in visual appeal, the graphics brighter and crisper than they were in previous versions. The background designs are well-rendered with realistic shading, creating a fantasy world that’s full of life and color. The audio is equally of high quality; the songs are pleasant and diverse in tone, ranging from the soft melodies heard in towns to the darker moods portrayed in the dungeon themes. The voice acting is acceptable for a 90’s game (i.e. it definitely could have been worse), and while some might argue that fresh voices would have been better, the decision to keep the original voice acting keeps the game connected with its SNES origins.
Overall, Tales of Phantasia is an exceptional game and worthy of being the origin point for the Tales series. Minus some control difficulties and a sluggish battle system, the game offers everything that a good RPG should have whether you’re a fan of the Tales series or just looking for a solid RPG to pass the time.
- The characters are unique and their interactions with one another drive the bulk of the story.
- The Linear Motion Battle System breaks away from the standard turn-base gameplay and emphasizes more on strategy, positioning, and combo construction.
- Pure entertainment: enough extras and side-quests to keep a player busy, visually appealing imagery and graphics, and smooth audio with that bit of 90’s throwback.
- The plot is clichéd and predictable; total bust if not for the characters.
- A sluggish and slow to respond battle system and controls.
- Flying characters are O.P.