Friday, August 30, 2013

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World Review - Well, Since I Don't Have Xillia...

As the gaming industry has marched on, the JRPG genre has become a somewhat divisive one for sticking to a lot of its established traditions. And, apparently, “traditions” often translates to “dated elements” and “clichés” in the eyes of the gaming public. But it’s hardly fair to insinuate that there’s an inherent lack of creativity in JRPG’s when we like to revel in some common tropes and “clichés” of our own – just compare two or more war shooters and count all the similarities. But in the end, maybe it’s only natural that we’d more easily accept the commonalities of our own culture’s media than those of another. Perhaps JRPG’s were only destined to become slightly niche to begin with, but it’s a niche I’m perfectly happy with. Personally, the folks across the pond have always done a better job of capturing my imagination than our home-grown high fantasy open-worlds or sci-fi space operas, no doubt thanks to my being raised on a healthy dose of such like Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy (although I can hardly claim to having finished even half of the games in the series).
Hey, speaking of, this is the worst thing ever.
Naturally,Tales of Symphonia found its way into my heart somewhere down the line, introducing me to an entirely new and wonderful series with a battle system that I found no less than ingenious. Never mind, of course, the great storyline, lovable characters, and fun level design. Later on, I played Abyss – which had an excellent story, by the way – and Tales of Graces F, which is now one of my favorite RPG’s of all time. So, while I can’t say I’m the biggest buff on the series, I certainly enjoy it quite a bit, and I really want to get my hands on Tales of Xillia. It's...really too bad that I'm broke and Christmas is a ways off. So instead, I had to find another way to scratch the itch, and that’s what led me to the game I’m reviewing right now. See, I picked this game up in 2009, not long after I had finished the first game. I mean, hey, I enjoyed the original, so buying the direct sequel seemed like the next logical step. I was aware of the polarized-at-best reaction, but that’s the thing with divisive games like this: you’ve got to play it for yourself and see if it works for you. In my case, I played it for about fifteen hours, and I remember enjoying it, if not as much as the first game. Of course, at age 13, I also enjoyed freaking Nickelback; not to mention I didn’t actually finish it. So with little better to do as summer came to a close, I decided to play it through to the end and see what this low-budget spinoff was really about. In the end, did I like it?

Well…yes, I…kind of did. Don’t get me wrong, I have a laundry list of complaints, but…well…maybe it would be better just to get started.

So, let’s talk story, since that’s pretty important in a game like this. Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World takes place two years after the original Tales of Symphonia, where the joining of the two worlds, Sylvarant and Tethe’alla, has led to political unrest. In response to the bigotry and power of the Tehe’allan civilization, whose strength has only grown after gaining the Church of Martel’s favor, a group of Sylvaranti has formed the Vanguard, dedicated to liberating Sylvarant from its oppression. The Church of Martel responds by declaring war on the Vanguard, resulting in a Blood Purge taking place in the town of Palmacosta. It’s during this Blood Purge that the parents of our main character, Emil Castagnier, are killed by none other than Tales of Symphonia protagonist Lloyd Irving, and he is sent off to Luin to live with his aunt and uncle. Emil soon finds life difficult due to his distaste for Lloyd, who is viewed by the population as a hero, as well as his unfathomably timid personality.

But right on time, he meets Richter Abend, who imparts upon him the most poignant piece of poeticism to ever receive utterance from the human mouth. Now armed with the knowledge that courage is the mystical force by which his aspirations shall be made tangible, he ventures down into the bed of the dried Lake Sinoa to investigate a strange noise. After a rather complicated series of events, our spineless annoyance becomes a knight in service of a monster lord known as Ratatosk, whose dormant state is the reason for the world’s rather screwy climate. His core has attached itself to the forehead of Marta Lualdi and will not regain power until all of the world’s Centurions have awoken. To do this, Marta has to hatch the core of each. However, Lloyd seems to be trying to get the cores for his own mysterious reasons, and the Vanguard is after Ratatosk’s core as well. Drawing on some of Ratatosk’s power and accompanied by a Centurion named Tenebrae, Marta and Emil set out on a quest of much grandiosity to find all of the Centurion’s Cores and reawaken Lord Ratatosk, having occasional run-ins with the original Symphonia cast and some close calls with the Vanguard along the way. However, while Ratatosk turns Emil into a competent fighter, it also seems to bring out a darker side to his personality, and he has to come to terms with the fact that the Richter he respects so much might not quite be on his side.
Here, have some Google Images screenshots.
So if you can't tell by that lengthy string of what may be run-on sentences, it's pretty complicated stuff. But I have to say, I ended up enjoying the story quite a bit. After Symphonia’s rather optimistic ending, it’s actually pretty interesting to see how rejoining the worlds had some unprecedented consequences. The conflict between the two countries is well-thought-out and makes a lot of sense. Marta’s position as a former member of the Vanguard also leads to some nice development, and there ends up being more to the Vanguard's motivation than we see at the beginning. Lloyd’s transformation into a villain was also pretty interesting. Where Emil and Marta only know him as the murderer who carried out the Blood Purge, everyone else sees him as a hero thanks to the first game’s events. Throughout the story, we're left to wonder what provoked this change in character. Why is he after the Centurion’s cores, and is he really responsible for what amounts to mass murder? Admittedly, the explanation is just a little anticlimactic, but it does make sense by the end. 

Emil’s character arc, however, is probably the most fascinating part of the whole thing. It starts out kind of clichéd, but his split personality gets delved into a lot after it drives him to some morally questionable actions and affects his relationship with Marta. And then, in true Tales fashion, the twists start pouring in, plot bombs are dropped, and he is sent through heaps upon heaps of character development. This development extends to his romance with Marta, as well; what starts out as a rather childish, one-sided affection eventually becomes something sweet and genuinely believable. And while I won’t say much for spoilers, the villain is pretty good, too. Some players might find the story a bit too complicated – and even I have to admit that some plot points felt just a tad contrived – but the overall offering is pretty strong...even if it doesn't start out very promising.
Red Eyes, Take Warning
So, it’s a mostly well-constructed story that has some very well-executed character development. But…is the story delivered well? The answer is yes and no. To make my first major point, I’d like to turn our attention to a certain notable RPG that came out in 2001:

Final Fantasy X, alternately acclaimed as one of the best and worst games in its series, is polarizing partly due to having a whiny, angst-ridden teenager as its main protagonist. Tidus is a rather divisive main character for his boisterous behavior, constant dissatisfaction and childish ignorance. Personally, I can’t say I loved him, but I thought he was okay. He served his purpose in the story, had a decently executed romance with the much more likable leading lady, and received some development by the end of the game. But perhaps the most infamous thing about his character is how he drove James Arnold Taylor, an otherwise highly talented voice actor, to deliver a hilariously cringe worthy performance in several scenes. Yes, whether due to bad direction or the admittedly questionable quality of some of the material, one of the better voice actors in the biz completely botched his performance, leaving the gaming community with scenes it would mock for years to come:

So, how does this connect to Dawn of the New World? Well, here we have Emil Castagnier, a timid, spineless little wuss who will be serving as our main protagonist today. He is voiced by Johnny Yong Bosch, one of the greatest talents in the English dubbing industry period, and…I’m sorry, but his performance is just bad.

I don’t mean to say it’s his fault – I’m sure the direction he got was just awful, not to mention that he has to raise his pitch so high just to get the tone. But pretty much everything that comes out of this kid’s mouth just sounds awkward. He rushes out nearly every line and sentence while at the same time delivering everything with weird, strained pauses that make him sound almost constipated.  Even when he gets possessed by Ratatosk and Johnny can use a much more natural tone of voice…it still just sounds off. Now, as a character, Emil has gotten some pretty severe criticism as well for his pathetically meek personality. He’s so weak that he can’t even hold his own in a battle unless he’s possessed by a monster lord. And, well…yeah, I’ve got to admit, before his character arc really kicked off in the game’s second half, I couldn’t stand him myself.  The lame vocal performance was only salt on the wound – for half the game, this kid is just terrible. He apologizes all the time, is constantly whining, and most of the time you just want him to shut up. Now, you could say that that’s kind of the point – he starts off as an annoying milquetoast and gains some strength of his own over the course of the game. While that’s certainly true, I feel like other Tales games have executed this better, mostly Tales of the Abyss. Luke was an unlikable, whiny jerk before his development started, but he was still entertaining because the game’s writing made it work. Dawn of the New World’s writing is…
(sorry, it's the best one I could find that Blogger would let me use)
…Not. That. Good.

Yes, and I’ll have you know that it repeats that most powerful phrase approximately fifty different times throughout the story, often accompanied by a flashback. Other common proverbs of unadulterated brilliance include “Come on, you’re a man, speak up!” and “Are you a man or a dog?” And then there are some things that just seem poorly translated, and others that just sound cheesy, and…yeah, that’s something you’ve kind of got to put up with.

But with that said…it’s not completely terrible. In fact, when it comes to the character interaction, it’s honestly pretty good. The interaction between the new characters Emil, Marta and Tenebrae with the old Symphonia cast is actually pretty dang well done throughout, and while some of the humor is a bit…odd, the series famous skits are just as amusing as you would expect. In fact, aside from Emil early on, I can’t say I had any problem with the game's cast. Apparently, some fans find Marta pretty annoying, too. Personally, she took some time to grow on me, but I soon grew to find her quite lovable. Then again, I’m almost guaranteed to adore any character voiced by Laura Bailey…unless…her name is…Serah Faron. (Deep breaths…deep…breaths….) And like I said, while her infatuation with Emil starts out pretty childish, if cute, it does develop very well. Tenebrae’s snark and constant trolling made him quite the awesome companion, and the Symphonia cast was about as good as I remember. While the game does seem to exaggerate a few of their quirks for humor's sake, they all remain very true to their original personalities and play off the new characters pretty well. Noteworthy, though, is that Colette and Presea are the only characters who keep their original English voices. On that note, while I hated it at first, I’d have to say that the voice acting is…okay (Emil notwithstanding). It’s far from one the series’ best dubs, but it works. The bottom line is that if you can put up with an annoying main character for the first fifteen hours and some iffy dialogue throughout, the overall deal turns out to be very enjoyable.

However, there is one other thing that kind of drove me crazy during the first four chapters, and that is the pret-ty poor pacing. There are times the story would literally flat-out stop to send me on some sort of aggravating fetch quest. Actually, though it’s been a few years, this is a problem I remember sort of having with the original game. But the thing about Symphonia was that even when its story was slowing down, the game was still fun, an important ingredient to competent game design that Dawn of the New World sometimes just…forgets.

Well, while this is a given, I suppose I’ll first point out the big positive to the gameplay: the battle system. The thing the series is probably best known for is its excellent, beat-em-up style real-time battle system. Aside from retaining the usual structure, New World borrows elements from both Symphonia and Abyss. Unison Attacks return from the former game, though they’re handled a bit differently, and from Abyss, it takes the Arcane and Mystic Artes as well as Free Run. While Free Run in this game is unlimited, any hit you take while using it is automatically critical, so you can't use it all the time. Dawn of the New World’s main addition is a monster catching and training system, in which you form pacts with the various monsters you fight throughout the game and then use them to fill out the party when you’re short on characters. It’s not the most captivating system, but at least it works, unlike a certain other RPG direct sequel. (DEEP…BREATHS…GAH…) The controls feel a bit floatier than before, but in return, you can move a bit faster and you can also pull off some flashy aerial combat moves. Once you get used to it, it works out quite well. I also liked how the battle situation could be affected depending on how you enter the battle – if an enemy runs into you from behind, you start out dazed and have some nasty debuffs, while it’s the other way around if you ambush an enemy. On the whole, the battle system is just as fun and addictive as ever, and the game brings some nice, if small, tweaks of its own.

But that’s really the only good thing I can say for the gameplay. I’ll pull no punches here: aside from that, it’s honestly kind of crap. Well, maybe “crap” is a bit strong, but a lot of things about this game just feel lazy. I can understand some decisions such as a lack of a full overworld, or all the towns being the same as in the first game. After all, it is the same world and nothing could have changed that drastically over two short years, so why bore veterans by making them traverse the whole thing all over again? I can respect that, but what I can’t respect is literally copying almost all of the original game’s major dungeons, room for room, puzzle for puzzle, maybe changing one or two things to better fit the game’s play style (and believe me, I have a few choice things to say about that, too). And if the designers were feeling really crazy that day, they might put an arbitrary restriction on an old puzzle, add one or two extra rooms with some pointless mechanism you have to operate, or perhaps force you through an extremely irritating mini-game. This comprises most of the dungeons in the game, and the few truly new dungeons hardly fare better.

See, the main thing that made Symphonia’s dungeon design so clever was how it used the Sorcerer’s Ring, an item you get early on in the game. It was your main conduit for interacting with the environment and solving puzzles in the dungeons. The great thing about it was that it would receive different elemental attributes or even different functions depending on the dungeon’s needs. One of my problems with Tales of the Abyss, in fact, was that it only gave the Sorcerer’s Ring two different abilities that weren’t always used in especially interesting ways, but that game at least had a handful of decent puzzles here and there. In Dawn of the New World…you hold “Z”, you point, you click, you’re done! I’m not kidding. It doesn’t matter what element the ring has – that’s all you have to do. It’s so stupid and banal that you could literally take it out of the game and it would be no worse off for it. As for the more complex “puzzles”, at best, they just force you to memorize a bunch of crap, and at worst, they’re like this:

Confusing, frustrating, slow, dull, annoying, and painful. Some of the dungeons also like to pile on the tedium with our good friends “Backtracking”, “Where Do I Go”, and my personal favorite, “What Do I Do”. Gameplay-wise, there’s nothing else to cover: the battle system is great, everything else is bleh.

Lastly, there’s the presentation, and it’s…eh. The soundtrack mostly comprises of remixes from the original game, most of which I enjoyed, and the few new tracks that are there – a new battle theme and some character motifs – are fairly solid as well. The visuals, on the other hand are…honestly kind of bad. On one hand, it has actual full motion cutscenes, which are pretty well done.  On the other hand, the character models are cheaper than a game released in 2008 has any business being and the facial animations are just so shoddy it’s almost laughable. You can tell the game was made on a very low budget. That's fair enough, since most of the money was going to Tales of Vesperia at the time, a game I’ve heard some really good things about. But even with that said, Symphonia itself had some pretty mediocre production values. However, it at least had an appealing art style. Dawn of the New World is just really, really bland and ugly. Then again, so was Abyss, and that’s the art style they apparently liked and thought would suit this game. Yeah, uh…why? Why?!
Okay, yeah, this is the ugly 3DS port, but still, WHY?!

But really, graphics are just graphics. What’s really important in an RPG is how well the story and gameplay come together to make something of the experience. Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World has some big and obvious flaws on both fronts - gameplay more so than story - but at the end of the day, I thought the whole package was pretty all right. Is it a great game? Well…no, not by a long shot, but there are much worse RPG’s you could be spending your time with.

So, if you think you can put up with some of its crap, you might find it worthwhile for its engaging, if flawed, storyline and great battle system. One thing, though, is that this game was definitely made for fans of the original game more than anyone else. Still, an HD collection featuring both games is coming out early next year. I’d suggest buying that for Symphonia, and if that floats your boat the way it did mine, you might as well give New World a try. Bear with it in the early moments and it might just surprise you.