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Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360) artwork

Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360) review

"I think the charm of the “Tales” series has always resided in the little picturesque settings it has given us to explore. From the beginning, this has been a fantasy universe defined by bright green fields and quaint houses and cobbled roads. “Tales of Phantasia” painted a rich picture by capturing details like shadows, reflections in mirrors and ponds, and footprints imprinted in snow. “Tales of Vesperia” is a game forged in that tradition, rich in colors and layers and the little things that i..."

I think the charm of the “Tales” series has always resided in the little picturesque settings it has given us to explore. From the beginning, this has been a fantasy universe defined by bright green fields and quaint houses and cobbled roads. “Tales of Phantasia” painted a rich picture by capturing details like shadows, reflections in mirrors and ponds, and footprints imprinted in snow. “Tales of Vesperia” is a game forged in that tradition, rich in colors and layers and the little things that inspire wonder, such as cherry blossoms daintily falling onto streets and roof tops.

To be sure, this is a game and not an interactive picture book. Our hero, Yuri, carries a sword and fights all manner of unusual beasts. There are encounters with fishmen carrying pitchforks, giant boars, walking tadpoles, ferocious unicorns, imperial troopers, nymphs, grizzlies, and lots of other creatures of various sizes and categories. You know how some RPGs invite you to fill out a “monster encyclopedia”? This is one where you might actually be tempted to take up the offer, if only to see what else the creature shop dreamed up. Just bear in mind that in a rich world like “Vesperia’s”, which sees rain and fog and other weather conditions, keeping up with beasties of different climates and territories can be quite the undertaking.

So what kind of world does Yuri inhabit? One where humanity has to live within the confines of magic barriers. These barriers are big. They create these neat translucent rings above and around towns and cities, and they shield the citizens from feral beasts that prowl the outskirts of civilization. The downside to this way of life, apparently, is that people don’t see much of the outside world. Yuri is a born rebel, so this doesn’t sit well with him. Fortunately, events conspire to allow him and his loyal dog Repede to get the heck out of the Imperial Capital and chase an elusive bandit. The bandit in question pilfered something called a blastia, which is a sort of magical battery. Think of the materia or magicite from “Final Fantasy,” and you’ll get the idea.

The specifics of the plot don’t matter much. What does is where the journey takes us. I believe that RPGs are like road trips, and the great ones lead us to the most interesting characters and places. Well, each town in “Vesperia” is a set piece. For once I find myself unable to complain about a lack of camera control, because that lack of control here creates rich vistas. When Yuri moves through bustling marketplaces and sunny ports, it’s like he’s a part of living illustration. There are characters all around him, animated and carefully positioned. The power of the Xbox 360 hardware is used to create vast streaming environments, so the camera can track us with hardly any interruption.

In the course of their travels, Yuri and Repede meet five key individuals who will comprise our battle party. Each have a color palette and style of their own, bringing to mind classics like “Lufia” and “Lunar.” Estelle has pink helmet hair and wears puffy shoulder pads, and she’s equipped with a rapier. Karol’s ragtag clothes are earthy; he’s tiny and he carries a big hammer. Rita’s mini-robe is fiery red with dark sleeves, and she wields some sort of whip-scarf that she flourishes with gusto. Based on those three descriptions, you probably have an idea of who these characters are and how they behave. That is solid character design.

I’ll let you discover the other two cast members on your own, but let’s just say they don’t buck the trend of big personalities and vivid design. The cast of “Vesperia” has a playful chemistry that's fun to observe in the various optional “skit” sequences, which are fully-voiced and conveyed with crudely animated character portraits. These scenes, which are activated with the “select” button, reminded me of “Popful Mail” on the Sega CD. Ah, if Working Designs had been allowed to script “Vesperia”…

But I digress. This is still fun, even with a B-grade script. The road is punctuated by Rita’s abuse of little Karol, Estelle’s naiveté about everything that exists beyond the halls of her sheltered aristocratic environment, and everyone’s efforts to make friends with the enigmatic and sometimes elusive Repede. All the while, Yuri exudes a confidence and composure that’s been sorely lacking in RPG heroes of the last decade. He mentors Karol, advises the conflicted Estelle, and rapports with the irrepressible Rita. I can’t recall a moment where he ever whined or lamented his situation. Perhaps he internalizes all that.

These personalities and locations inform the world of “Vesperia.” They make it rich in a way that few recent RPGs manage to be. Without realizing it, I found myself wondering how its denizens would adapt to the changes being wrought upon them by the plot. Could they survive in a world without barriers and blastia? How? When some team member suddenly went AWOL, I felt the impact. They took their personality, their little contributions to the skits, with them. It’s not that this is some incredible work of literature. I simply became absorbed in this charming fantasy world.

The “Tales” games have prided themselves on their white knuckle action/RPG gameplay, and this is the best it’s ever been. The battles are bigger. Like “Earthbound,” enemies can accumulate in the time between initiating an encounter and the start of combat. This can result in epic sessions of combos, furious magic spells, stray blows, aerial gymnastics, and ‘mystic artes.’ This is very exhilarating. Allies and enemies make asides, sometimes even commenting on your technique or chastising you for squandering items. The rock/techno fanfare is empowering, especially during those boss confrontations where friends drop left and right.

One thing that surprised me was how dependable the other characters were. They use items to heal you and themselves, without having to be commanded. If you take the initiative in dispensing medicine, they back down and return to whatever it was they were doing. They even ask permission to use items, and you can decline their request by pushing one of the bumper buttons. Recent “Tales” games have had good artificial intelligence, to the point that you can phase out everything else and focus solely on what you’re character is doing. Yet for some reason, the computer felt particularly helpful and dependable here.

I’ve just realized that I could devote countless paragraphs to the various ways you can customize characters, rack up hits, and play “Vesperia.” Each of the seven team members you can control has a unique fighting style. You can acquire quirks and abilities from weapons. There are ‘fatal strikes,’ which make combat even more visceral and exhilarating once you get the hang of them. This game can be as much preparation as it is button mashing, but the tweaking is never overbearing the point of, say, the element system in “Chrono Cross.” You can even automate all of it, but some of the fun in these games is turning this or that off or equipping some weapon and seeing what it does. I guess what I’m saying is, this is an RPG all right.

There's more than enough dungeons and treasure boxes. There's side quests. Mini-games. Stuff you could overlook. Stuff you will go back for. Achievements. Costumes. Secret skits. Does it suddenly feel like I’m hitting the eject button? I have to, because if I don’t stop myself I’ll keep going. “Tales of Vesperia” is a great role-playing game. It’s also the best of all the “Tales.”

Rating: 10/10

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Community review by joseph_valencia (August 01, 2009)

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randxian posted August 02, 2009:

You forgot to include a disclaimer to recommend a cup of coffee before reading this review.

Anyway, I like how you include just enough information to make the characters and game interesting, yet don't reveal too much that would spoil the experience.

While I agree that too many protagonists have that annoying brooding personality, I think it's dangerous to make sweeping generalizations that this is one of the few RPGs that has a more positive character. Just thought I would point that out since I got docked for doing something very similar in week 1 of the TT.

Otherwise, I like this review. I really enjoy the Tales series and there is certainly the right amount of info and enthusiasm to convince anyone to try this game, or any game in the series.
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threetimes posted August 03, 2009:

I enjoyed this review and got a real feel for the game (well not surprising I suppose, given it's a "tales" game) but I would have liked a little more of a hint about how the combat played out. I got that you could set everyone bar the lead character to AI and that this was very responsive to control.

But I liked your style and the descriptions and the flow of the review.
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psychopenguin posted August 11, 2009:

Eh, it's a Tales game. And this one sounds badass from what the review described!
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jerec posted August 12, 2009:

It is an awesome game from what I've played so far.

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