"As you play, though, you'll notice a dark side to the powers that be relying on The Score as their be-all, end-all source of guidance; especially when it's made clear than a number of huge tragedies were caused by man solely to keep things in line with The Score. "
If there was one positive I took from Namco's Tales of Legendia, it was the storytelling. While the repetitive combat system wore out its welcome possibly before I was even halfway through the game, I became invested enough in its characters to play it for hours a day even though I wasn't necessarily enjoying myself for much of that time. People who'd played Tales of Symphonia likely had a bigger beef with it, as battles were simplified to the static horizontally-scrolling two-dimensional battlefields of older Tales games. For the most part, all a player did was tap the attack button and occasionally hit another button to use a special attack or spell -- something that got pretty boring long before the final boss had been defeated.
Fortunately, the second Tales game for the PlayStation 2, Tales of the Abyss, has a combat system that at least keeps things from getting too stale, as it is much more similar to Symphonia than Legendia (ie: a big improvement).
In the early going, though, you won't see much of a difference from Legendia. You'll start on the left side of the screen, enemies will be to the right and you'll go running up to them and bonking them with your weapon. Characters will learn skills and spells (known as Artes) that can be programmed to buttons to provide more damaging attacks. As time goes on and enemies get tougher; however, you gain new battle commands that spruce things up a bit. You'll learn that by pressing L2 while moving, you can freely-roam the screen to dodge attacks and flank the enemy. When you release L2 and start attacking, the screen will adjust to put you back in a straight line with your prey. It's a very effective enhancement to the battle system, as it maintains the two-dimensional straight-line system, but adds the element of three-dimensional maneuvering, so you're not stuck in a static environment.
There also are a lot of uses for Artes to make them even more handy. Casting elemental Artes can create a circular field on the ground. By using an Arte of the proper element in that field, you'll wind up with a much more powerful attack. Also, you'll eventually gain access to the Over Limit gauge. When it fills for a character, they have the ability to flow from any special attack to a Mystic Arte -- a very powerful attack that will completely ruin the day of any foe within its range.
Having increased maneuverability and more ways to use special attacks made it so I was able to play through Tales of the Abyss without dreading going through dungeons and the dozens of battles each one housed, but it was the story that got me hooked. With Tales of Legendia and Suikoden III, excellent storytelling took a game I found mediocre and made it fairly enjoyable -- with this one, it took an enjoyable game and raised it to a step below greatness.
You control spoiled, sheltered noble Luke fon Fabre. The kid's an utter twit, but you kind of feel bad for him. He was kidnapped briefly as a child and, as a result, came down with amnesia. Making matters worse, his parents have become over-protective to the point that he's confined to their manor, leaving him with little company other than a couple of friendly servants and his mentor, Van. Van's a very highly-ranked official, but he still finds the time to train Luke in the art of the sword in sessions that likely are the highlights of the kid's dull life.
One of those sessions (aka: here's your battle tutorial, folks!) leads into a scenario which definitely breaks the tedium for our obnoxious, young hero. A mysterious young woman appears, casts an Arte to stun everyone present and attempts to kill Van. Luke leaps to the defense of his mentor and...some weird magical deal happens that causes Luke and the woman to be teleported far, far away to a less-than-friendly country. The woman, Tear Grants, explains to Luke that she'll escort him back to his place, as she has no grudge with him...and promptly learns how much "fun" it is to escort a pompous, spoiled brat with no clue as to how the real world works. After a number of adventures where the remaining four party members (as well as an antagonistic lot known as the Six God-Generals) gradually are introduced, Luke will make it back home -- but that only will be the beginning of his travels and travails.
One of the main themes of the game is the transformation of Luke into something that could actually be described as a hero. It's not an easy path, as he starts out being a naive jerk until getting used by a person he trusted in order to commit a massive tragedy, which leads to his search for redemption. Some characters, such as Tear and childhood companion Guy, are inclined to be supportive of him; others such as the sarcastic, cynical Jade (who delivers many of the game's best lines) take a more pragmatic stance: prove your worth and you can stay; become a hindrance and you're gone. While Luke does enter into emo-like periods of self-hatred a bit more often than I'd like, it's hard to really blame him, as it's obvious how the plot's twists and turns pertaining to him would cause him to question every aspect of his existence -- to the point of asking the question, "Should I exist?".
However, the most intriguing part of the plot involves a religious artifact known as The Score, which seems to work both as a horoscope for common people and divine prophecy for the world's religious and political leaders. As you play, though, you'll notice a dark side to the powers that be relying on The Score as their be-all, end-all source of guidance; especially when it's made clear than a number of huge tragedies were caused by man solely to keep things in line with The Score. If it states that two countries will be at war, certain people will make sure certain things happen to cause conflict to happen. And if the end result of that war is the destruction of a city, you can be sure that city will get ruined somehow. The question of whether a prophecy really is a prophecy when humankind goes to extreme limits to ensure anything foretold happens is quite prevalent in the game and added a great deal of intrigue for me.
But like I said, even though the plot is excellent, it only takes the game to A STEP BELOW greatness. At times, the story-telling seems to supersede everything. You'll go to one city to talk to its king, then to another to talk to a second king, then to a scientist-laden town to get work done on your airship, then to the city that serves as the world's religious center to talk to someone else...at which point you'll finally get to visit a dungeon. The first parts of the game move quickly, but it seemed that the farther I progressed, the more time I spent commuting between places for conversations, as opposed to exploring dungeons and fighting stuff. And after almost every conversation, boss fight, etc., you'll gain access to one or more "skits" where various characters will talk about what just happened. There are nearly 500 of these things in the game, many of which do little more than rephrase the dialogue you just listened to. And they're not even spoken by the squad of very capable voice actors. No matter how much I liked the story, some of this stuff feels like filler that should have been left on the cutting room floor.
On the default difficulty, Tales of the Abyss is pretty impotent, as well. The final boss gave me some trouble, as did a few optional foes. Other than that, I cruised through this game with a "tough fight" being one where I'd have to manually order characters to use healing items or Artes instead of trusting in them to do so on their own. I'm not saying that a game's normal difficulty should be this excruciating ordeal where I have to level-grind obsessively and use every bit of my skill to claw my way forward one step at a time, but it would be nice to feel like victories were something I earned instead of a foregone conclusion where the only element enemies had in their favor was the fact my computer-controlled allies weren't bright enough to run from their more powerful attacks.
Still, Tales of the Abyss is a marked improvement over Tales of Legendia. I spent roughly 75 hours immersed in its world, which reaffirms the proverb "Time Flies When You're Having Fun", as it didn't feel like nearly that long. If it was a bit tougher on normal difficulty and had eliminated some of the "go here, now go there" busywork, it would have been truly great. But still, it is pretty darn good and was more than capable of keeping my interest.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (December 02, 2011)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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