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Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360) artwork

Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360) review

"Even when it stumbles - and make no mistake, it stumbles - it's hard to not like Tales of Vesperia. It's big, dumb, JRPG fun."

Honest games, games that don't try to pretend they're something they're not, are beautiful things. Sadly, they are also very rare things these days. Many games pretend to be movies. Some games pretend to be simulators. Some games pretend to not be merchandise of some franchise desperately trying to grab mindshare. The worst videogames pretend to be fun.

Tales of Vesperia doesn't pretend. It is unapologetically a JRPG, and unapologetically an entry in the Tales series. And it is made by a team who seem to have all undergone the same very recent epiphany; maybe we shouldn't be trying so hard.

To be fair, Vesperia trips up in a lot of important respects. But, still being fair, it's one of the most coherent and least ridiculous JRPGs in recent history, and !@#$!, if that's not worthy of our respect, then I don't want to play videogames anymore.

(It also bears mentioning that the team that made Vesperia are the same team that made Tales of Symphonia, which was a (fun) complete mess of a game. Nothing warms the heart quite like modern JRPG developers showing evidence of learning.)

Plotwise, Tales of Vesperia succeeds mainly by plucking a few character tropes and story tropes and playing them either completely straight, for laughs, or otherwise for entertainment, but never (well, almost never) for melodrama. You have exactly one (1) irritating party member, and even he has moments. The characters, especially the protagonists, show signs of possessing actual brains, and often call eachother out when they sense JRPG plot-bullshit is incoming. They do things that raise actual questions, about which they (and you, the player), are actually uneasy. They are not at all prone to whining. They will occasionally do things that you won't ever see coming because you'll be thinking "This is a JRPG, and JRPG characters just don't ever do things that sensible". No one, not even the antagonists, is disarmingly cryptic. The bottom line here is this:

Actual (paraphrased) dialogue: "You IDIOT! Why didn't you just TELL us any of this? We could have avoided so much trouble!" (cue character development)

This is not to say that the game avoids all of the pitfalls of JRPG writing; it unapologetically walks into a few. Characters will sometimes recap things that just happened for the sake of exposition, and then remind everyone of their motives. There are scenes that are played for laughs that really shouldn't be, and there's this really irritating music piece that sometimes plays in such scenes that shatters whatever good experience might have been built up at that point. There are a few made up words that just can't be enunciated with a straight face. There are some cringe-inducing conversations. Sometimes, the characters simply feel like clichés rather than tropes being played straight. It's a fine line, after all. Every now and then, a scene will just fall flat on its face.

For the most part, though, Vesperia conducts itself with enough dignity to not be jarring and is self-aware enough to be genuinely amusing without being completely transparent. It tells a mostly interesting story filled with characters we are occasionally inspired to actually care about. And everything it does, it takes in good humour.

One can usually tell, when playing a videogame, whether or not it was made by people who were having fun, who enjoy their work. There's this weird kind of lighthearted charm that permeates such games. Tales of Symphonia, despite its many, many flaws, was one such game, and it was enjoyable because it somehow managed to remain fun, even if one often had to laugh at the game rather than with it - it was just so... enthusiastic. The game really believed in itself. Tellingly, Symphonia's (terrible) sequel was developed by a different team, which goes a long way towards explaining why it was so bad. More pertinently, though, Vesperia has that same sort of feel to it, only the actual workings of the game are finished to a much higher quality than those of Symphonia. They've gotten better at what they do, and they still enjoy it.

Vesperia also happens to take the kitchen sink approach to content. That means sidequests. Lots of sidequests. Buckets and buckets of optional stuff, stuff you can find, stuff you can do, stuff you can kill, stuff you'll trip over, stuff you'll never find without the guide, and stuff you'll miss completely. It's the kind of volume that makes the informed gamer unsure of whether or not to recommend a guide to the new player; play with a guide and within half an hour you'll be following it to the letter for fear of missing something, but eschew it and you'll get a more natural play experience but miss so much stuff!. You can play through the game multiple times, each time carrying over your stuff, if you want. You can earn Grade points in battles whose only purpose is to buy lots of modifiers that affect your next playthrough; Earn more experience, earn less experience, retain items, retain stuff done, etc. You could sink fifty hours into it and not even care.

Needless to say, there is also a lot of dungeon crawling and battling, and sadly, the dungeon crawling is pretty much just an excuse to put space (which can be filled with battles) in between you and the big climactic boss fight that undoubtedly lurks at the end of an area. But it's fun. Dungeons are usually unobtrusive, and even when obtrusive they're usually at least very pretty. Battles take place in the best implementation yet of Tales' battle system, wherein you and up to three other party members (who can each be controlled by additional players) run around on a 3D plane engaging in real-time combat with combos and timing and dodging and jumping and that special kind of ordered-chaos usually seen only in Super Smash Bros. Each of the seven party members has a completely unique fighting style, and all of them - even the healer and the mage, usually relegated to AI to maintain player sanity - are fun to play. Any party makeup will work - there is no combination that isn't fun to play. Even so, the game isn't a pushover. Of course, if you grind for hours every time you enter a new area, it will be, but that's an occupational hazard of JRPGs. That aside, Vesperia is a mostly gentle upward slope with a few... boulders, shall we say.

Even when it stumbles - and make no mistake, it stumbles - it's hard to not like Tales of Vesperia. It's big, dumb, JRPG fun. It has everything you've ever loved about JRPGs mechanics wise - it's got heaps and heaps of weapons and skills and spells and collectables, it has interesting and varied characters (both in battle and out), and tons and tons and tons of stuff to do. It's an enlightened JRPG. It's a JRPG that's stopped being so serious, and even when it is being serious it at least manages to inspire sympathy in the player. It's a JRPG with a smile on its lips and a song in its heart, and it does so much right you can't help but forgive it for anything it does wrong.

Fedule's avatar
Community review by Fedule (July 29, 2011)

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honestgamer posted July 29, 2011:

I read this review before I approved it for posting, then forgot to comment... so I will now. This was fantastic! You did a good job of capturing my interest in the title by admitting that it has flaws but by pointing out that the game is intent on having fun within its genre and successful for that reason. The score sounds right, too!
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Fedule posted July 29, 2011:

Admit it. You only like it because it begins "Honest Games".


..., but seriously though, once I wrote it I couldn't stop noticing the appropriate-ness of it. Anyway, glad it went over well.
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PAJ89 posted July 31, 2011:

Nice, enjoyed reading very much. I really couldn't get enough of it, a rare instance where I was compelled to go for full completion.

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