Not so long ago (ok longer ago than I’d like) in my childhood it wasn’t uncommon to spend the majority of a week off playing video games – hours at a time chipping away at whatever JRPG I was using as a time sink at the time. Now that I’m an adult there’s a multitude of factors that prevent me from doing this again, so my enjoyment of sinking hours upon hours into a JRPG has slowly diminished. Between a full time job, social commitments, the better half, and having to cook clean and generally look after myself my free time isn’t really free, but this past week I spent an ungodly amount of it with Tales of Graces F.
I regret nothing.
The Tales series, a series of often Japan-only action based JRPGs, is a series in mechanics and titles only, similar to how each numbered Final Fantasy game is its own universe. Every iteration of Tales (with the exception of some cross over games) follows a new set of characters, takes place in a new environment, and has a completely new storyline.
Graces F follows its new set of characters through three parts of their lives: childhood, young adulthood, and an F-edition exclusive future arc. Yes, as you may have guessed, the F-edition is in fact a re-release of the previously Wii exclusive game, although for those who are starting to write it off all ready – don’t.
While it was built as a Wii game the graphical style holds up under HD, with the colours and lines coming together beautifully to resemble an animated look. Some cutscenes have even been actually animated which, while very nice to watch, can often serve to point out the fact that the gameplay doesn’t look quite as good as your brain starts to make out after extended periods . While it is easy on the eyes it also means that there isn’t as much detail than some more realistically rendered games, or even other cel-shaded titles built specifically for HD consoles like Tales of Vesperia.
Speaking of Vesperia, the overall design in Graces just never seems to manage to hit the same levels of visual interest. The inability to move the camera to really look at your surroundings, as well as the lack of an overworld to explore; travel in Graces is relegated to a series of interconnected roads and so means that it’s hard to get lost, which is usually the cause of most of my JRPG playtime (which is something I enjoy. I like to explore and find things).
The silver lining to this lack of an overworld though is, of course, the inability to get lost, and with that a sense of focus in the journey. You always know where your start and end points are, and as such are free to enjoy the beaten path, fighting monsters you know you won’t be under-levelled for, and not getting OCD about having missed a secret area or collectable or side quest.
Combat is the real draw in the Tales series, however. Trying to define them in the terms we’ve come to define games such as Final Fantasy with their “Active-time”-s or “turn-based”-s just don’t apply to Tales. The series is a refreshing take on the formulae of the JRPG by basically introducing a 3D fighting game as the battle system and as such has an even more interesting title beheld upon it: “Linear Motion Battle System”, or LiMBS.
What this comes down to is every battle takes place in a 3D arena that the player can move freely about in, but is for the majority of the time locked onto a two dimensional plane between them and their target. Attacking is comprised of two sets of attacks, dubbed A-artes and B-artes. A-artes fill the position of basic attacks and combos, while B-artes are your special attacks, allowing flourishes or magic to incorporated into battle, or in some cases changing the weapon the player character is using, for example Asbel’s A-artes consist of hand to hand attacks or blunt attacks with a sheathed sword, while his B-artes unsheathe the blade for slash attacks.
Like Vesperia before it, Graces has a hidden depth to its combat. For the child arc (the first 4-5 hours) the combat is little more than running up to an enemy and mashing a single button. But slowly more and more concepts are introduced until once the adult arc finally gets underway your juggling A and B artes with dashes, dodges, timed counter attacks, and overlimits. Counting CC (the points used to continuously attack and use special attacks) soon becomes second nature, and risking a perfectly timed dodge to instantly increase the maximum amount available soon becomes commonplace. It’s fast paced but very very thinky, and on higher difficulties can really become a test of the players skill and dexterity.
Throw into the mix the ability to control any member of your party, set orders and strategies, stat bonuses, elemental weakness, equipment management, and title customisation and things get very deep very quickly, but never becomes overly complex.
“Title management?” you ask. Yes, titles make a return, but unlike Vesperia they now have bonuses attached to them. Each title can be ranked up 5 levels, with each rank increasing attack power, health, or the potency of certain artes. While simple, it’s another nice bonus to make the battle system even more customisable, with the added bonus of giving you something else to grind out levels for when you get the itch.
And that’s an itch that is so very often scratched. Not only do your characters and titles level up as you go, but you can also “dualise”, that is combine and synthesise, your weapons and items to make them even more powerful. Throwing a standard weapon into the mixing pot with certain items can result in said weapon coming out with numbers added on to the end of its name, a simple but satisfying representation of the increased battle capabilities. You can also combine items to make better items should you be running low, or just want to make some valuable items to sell to buy a new weapon to dualise to scratch that itch for higher numbers.
Outside of the main campaign, there’s another mode that could satiate another urge; considering just how deep the combat can get, being able to just jump in and have some fun, or indeed get some extra practice in without the fear of having to revert to a previous save point, Trials of Graces is little more than a battle challenge mode. Pitting you against a set of enemies using yoru current party members, these battles can range from a cake walk to “oh dear I’ve now got pieces of broken controller embedded in my abdomen” depending on just how much levelling you’ve been doing, not to mention your current equipment and titles. It’s not all just for fun though, as a win will result in you reciving items to use in the main game, so its often worth jumping into the trials everytime you start playing again, just to play the most recent battles and get the equipment before its becomes obsolete.
Design wise, outside of the already mentioned graphics, the sound is spot on. While voice acting is capable (and I’m sure there are those who swear that the English VA is a crime against humanity but I like to be able to listen rather than read so I’ll stick with the English thankyou very much), it gets a substantial upgrade once everyone grows up. During the childhood arc the voices can often be grating and make you reach for the mute button, but thankfully the lines they’re acting are interesting enough to keep you engaged. The story itself won’t be winning any awards anytime soon, but it does hold enough twists, turns, intrigues and general sense of progression that you’ll happily follow it for the double or triple digits of game hours you invest. The characters, while not quite as likable as some of those found in Vesperia, come together as a more believable whole, helped in no small part by the fact we see the main characters grow up and become friends together – a simple but effective way to introduce and make us care about the people we’re supposed to care about. When some of the plot points suddenly turn up they almost always feel natural and have a sense of personal investment that other games often fail to manage.
Another returning addition is the skits, short semi-animated scenes in which the characters muse about recent events or discovers, of even recently used items. While opinion is divided on the worth of these skits, they are never mandatory, and are often times funny and charming, adding a greater sense of depth to the world and the characters, and helping to show everybody growing as a group and being a more believable bunch.
Overall Tales of Graces F is a fantastic game, let alone a fantastic RPG. The story holds you, the characters grow on you and the battles make you think and test your reflexes. There’s a sense of control that few RPGs ever manage to reach, and can often times come close to a dedicated fighting game. If you’re looking for something to sink some time into and own a PS3, then Tales of Graces F is a must buy.
Over a hundred hours of gameplay
Never gets tedious