Tales of Phantasia (SNES) review
"Itís amazing how a role-playing game can do just about everything right, but still fall short because of one glaring flaw. Amazing ó but possible, as Tales of Phantasia proved to me in a decisive manner. "
Itís amazing how a role-playing game can do just about everything right, but still fall short because of one glaring flaw. Amazing -- but possible, as Tales of Phantasia proved to me in a decisive manner.
This 1995 Japan-only Super Famicom game developed by Wolf Team for Namco starts off with a bang. Controlling a youngster by the name of Cless (standard RPG ďtankĒ character), your quest begins in a stereotypical old-school RPG starting point -- a rural and isolated village. Itís not isolated enough, though, as warriors invade and destroy the town and all its inhabitants. Fortunately for you, Cless and best bud Chester (an archer) were off hunting in the nearby forest and donít arrive on the scene until the one-sided battle has ended.
From there, the story moves quickly, as Cless gets captured by the FORCES OF EVIL, but escapes (rescuing a girl with great healing powers named Mint in the process). After reuniting with Chester and meeting a local scholar, you all head out to stop the evil leader before he is able to resurrect one of those all-powerful bad guys (named Dhaos) that commonly pops up in games of this nature. Since youíre only a couple of hours into the game by this point, it should be obvious that your attempts to restore balance will fail miserably. The evil leader brings back Dhaos, who promptly gets down to the business of destroying anything (and anyone) in his path. The only known survivors of this attack are Cless and Mint, who are sent to the past by the scholar. Sadly, he and Chester apparently have sacrificed themselves to allow you to fight another day, as the only remnant of their existence is Chester's bow. Your mission -- destroy Dhaos in the past, so his attack on your time never happens and everyone can live happily ever after.
Itís not that easy, though. Youíll have a lot of work to do as Dhaos has plenty of things working in his favor. Not only does he do a pretty good job of keeping his castle protected from trespassing heroes, but he also is quite the resourceful fellow -- showing no small amount of proficiency in manipulating time and space to ensure his continued survival. To help Cless and Mint on their quest, youíll soon get assistance from two other characters. Klarth, an ancestor of the scholar who joined you in your initial attempt to stop Dhaos, is able to summon powerful beasts....assuming he can forge a contract with them -- while Arche, a half-elf witch, provides your party with plenty of strong offensive spells.
And, to make a long story short, the four of you will go all over the world throughout multiple time periods. Many vast dungeons, castles, towns, caves, towers and other hostile locales await -- creating a lengthy and challenging quest.
Many aspects of that quest are quite impressive. Considering what companies were behind this game, it should come as no surprise that the graphics and sound are wonderful. Characters and enemies are well-animated and the backgrounds are simply gorgeous. The music and sound effects are equally impressive. Characters shout out their special attacks as they unleash a world of hurt on their foes while enchanting tunes play in dungeons and on the overworld.
And Tales of Phantasia does succeed with more than just its aesthetic qualities. There is plenty to do in the world of this game. From lengthy and difficult optional quests to engaging minigames, youíll have plenty of distractions to keep you from focusing on the main quest. Many of the dungeons are also well-designed with some very inventive puzzles. To be honest, there were many times in which I felt this game was far superior to Namcoís Tales of Destiny -- a Playstation game using the same engine.
Unfortunately, my biggest gripe with Tales of Destiny also rings true with Tales of Phantasia -- combat can become excruciatingly painful after a while. Wolf Team deserves credit for coming up with a creative fighting system, but the execution just falls short for two reasons.
First, you only can control one character (typically Cless), while the other three (all magic-users for much of the game) fall under the computerís control. Battles (which are real-time) take place on a side-scrolling, two-dimensional screen which can easiest be compared to the fight screens in the Adventure of Link. As the game progresses, the general theme of each fight will be to mash the attack buttons, hoping Cless does good enough to prevent monsters from smacking around your magic-users and disrupting their spell-casting. And virtually every fight follows this path. You control one character and have to rely on him to protect the other three AND for them to cast the right spells at the right time.
This creates a lot of micromanaging, as your allies can be real morons at times. You can bet Arche will cast her ultra-powerful lighting spell at will (even if it heals everything in the dungeon youíre currently in) until you go to her options screen and turn off that particular attack. While the game does provide you with a few different tactics you may employ to create guidelines for their actions, the lack of total control over your allies in a fast-paced battle setting tends to become somewhat disconcerting at times.
I never was bothered so much by this in the Star Ocean games, though. Personally, I think a lot of the problem is caused by the flat, side-scrolling, two-dimensional fight screen. Letís say an enemy is hovering/flying. If Cless doesnít properly respond to you mashing the attack button and jump before swinging, heíll be helpless to harm that foe with his attack -- meaning youíll be stuck doing nothing while waiting for Arche or Klarth to vanquish the foe with magic. A handful of other enemies can find ways to get behind your party by various means (something that also happens when you get ambushed). Since youíre operating on a screen with no depth, your weak party members are powerless to effectively evade these foes and will simply stand still while getting decimated by powerful attacks. At far too many times during this game, I felt like that Cless had to completely carry his inept crew to victory and that the other members of the band would hinder as much as help.
And if you feel the same way about the battles as I do, it will be a major annoyance as you will fight CONSTANTLY in Tales of Phantasia. Seriously, the frequency of battles here is just brutal. Itís not much of a bother in the early parts of the game because youíre going through relatively small dungeons. However, as these places get larger, the constant series of fights youíre forced to partake in really starts to detract from the experience.
It doesnít help that some of these battles can be quite lengthy. Frequent battles in a Dragon Warrior game never bothered me because many of them are over in a matter of seconds. However, especially as you get farther into this game and take on monsters possessing deadly attacks and tons of hit points, fights in ToP can take a good deal of time to win. Many enemies can paralyze, stone or instantly kill Cless, forcing you to wait for Mint to cast the appropriate restoration spell. Cless will then get drilled with the same attack mere seconds later, forcing you to repeat the ever-so-fun waiting process. Finally, after Arche and Klarth have cast their powerhouse spells enough times (while you pray they arenít casting something that heals the monsters), the fight will be over. Then, youíll walk about five steps and the process will repeat itself.
On the positive side, you can buy Holy Bottles that temporarily reduce the encounter rate to something a bit more manageable. When using these items, I enjoyed going through the dungeons, as I was able to walk a decent distance before being interrupted by another annoying battle. Sadly, you canít rely on the Holy Bottles too much, as this game expects you to power-level if you want to have any success in the end-of-game optional areas (which contain some awesome items no true RPG fan could bear to go without). So, youíre essentially stuck in a no-win situation. If you play the game normally, youíll get burnt out by the constant fighting. If you use the Holy Battles to make the game flow more smoothly, youíll never get strong enough to overcome the toughest challenges Tales of Phantasia holds.
Itís really a shame the battle system turned out like this. Tales of Phantasia has all the necessary tools to be a great game. It looks great, sounds great, has a great story and tons of things to do in a wide variety of locales. But, I simply got sick of it all partway through the game. I got tired of wading through countless (and lengthy) encounters in one vast dungeon after another. Initially, I looked forward to playing this game and didnít want to put it down -- by the time I neared the end, I was playing it solely out of a grim determination to finish it. The joy had faded and I was only left with a sense of resignation as I steeled myself for another hour or two of tedium. You could say most RPGs are exercises in repetition, but Tales of Phantasia is one of the few where I truly can agree with that sentiment.
Community review by overdrive (January 06, 2005)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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