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12/13/2012

REVIEW: Tales of Graces f (PS3)


Every time a game in the Tales series gets localized to either America or Europe, fans all over feel a deep relief. If there’s one JRPG franchise out there that always keeps the fanbase with a huge question mark over their heads about whether or not their games will actually be available, that’s Tales. Fortunately, America got Tales of Graces f, an exclusive PS3 title that is actually a remake of a Wii game that was born in Japan years ago.

Graces f will satisfy most gamers out there with a fantastic battle system that is fast-paced, challenging, varied and very deep. It’s actually the deepest and most engaging in the entire franchise because it added a lot of new mechanics and tweaks here and there to add depth to the entire thing. But while the battle system is incredible, the game feels a little bit shallow outside it since the story is not as deep as others and the narrative doesn’t help much and unfortunately, things outside combat like towns, sidequests, shopping, etc are not very special.

The game tells the story of Asbel, the heir to house Lhant and his brother Hubert with several other friends. While they’re children, Asbel and company come across a girl suffering from amnesia. They name her Sophie, after a local flower and decide to help her recover. They later befriend the prince of the land, named Richard and slowly become involved in a conflict between nations that will eventually turn into a journey to save the world from a disaster after they all grow up, seven years later.

In all honesty, Tales of Graces f doesn’t have a very engaging story. It’s not bad by any means but I’m pretty sure most players out there will be more interested in the battle system and how it evolves rather than the plot itself, unlike with many other JRPGs this generation, for example: Xenoblade Chronicles or Final Fantasy XIII. Still, while it’s not the best thing ever, the plot has a lot of development for the characters personalities and you’ll get to love several of them because they’re really cool.

The beginning of the game takes place while Asbel and some of the other characters are kids, seven years before the “Main Arc”. This prologue of sorts actually takes about 2-4 hours to complete if you decide to watch the skits (conversations between party members that occur during the entire game), fight all enemies you come across with and pay attention to what’s happening in the story, which is very important if you want to understand what actually happens in the Main Arc of course. The issue is that while they’re kids, Asbel and company won’t have access to any of their real skills, magic spells and weapon abilities. They’ll just be able to move around the field and attack enemies while Sophie takes care of healing. Most players will want to be over with the Child Arc as soon as possible to start the “real” game once Asbel and the others grow up. And trust me, once the Main Arc begins, the game only gets better and better.

Tales of Graces f is a beautiful game when it comes to visuals. It has a very colorful and elegant anime style like in the previous games of the franchise like Symphonia, Vesperia or Abyss. The developers did a great job porting the game from the Wii to the PS3 because the game looks very good. It’s not in the level of Final Fantasy XIII/XIII-2, but it’s definitely on par with Vesperia, which looked nice in the Xbox 360.

There are tons of different areas to visit like towns, dungeons and a world map that actually takes the form of the roads between towns rather than an open area where the characters will be bigger than the towns. You’ll be walking from town to town using the road between them and doing things in the way like opening chests, encountering NPCs, shops and of course, fighting one group of enemies after the other. The areas are very pretty and colorful and thought there isn’t much to do in them, they truly give the feel of existing inside the game, which is ultimately the point of them being there.

Graces f also has good antialiasing and nice textures, which is curious if we remember that this is actually a Wii game ported to PS3. Sadly, the lightning effects seem to have suffered from this because they’re very simple, but the areas look nice anyway. The characters’ animations are actually a mix. Outside battle, they will usually have few animations since they don’t do much besides walking, running and doing some gestures while talking to each other. But inside battles, the game will feel completely different, the characters will move, very fast, do a lot of things at the same time and in an excellent way to the point they’ll feel alive, like fighters from action anime series. In fact, sometimes it gives the impression two completely different teams made the animations for the characters inside and outside battle because the difference is incredible. But in general, Tales of Graces f is a very nice looking game.

The soundtrack during the entire game is great and feels similar to the entire franchise, which has always had excellent music. The battle songs (which are actually a lot) are the best of all and they fit perfectly with them and what’s currently happening in the game’s story. Towns, dungeons and other locations also have nice usual RPG songs that will feel familiar to fans of the series. The game has an acceptable English voice-acting. Most of the voices fit with the characters and the people doing them seem to have done a very good job most of the time, especially with two characters named Malik and Pascal who have the best voices. But sometimes, the voices and narrative feel weak because of the script and the plot itself that, as I mentioned before, isn’t very special. Sadly, there’s no option to play the game in Japanese but trust me when I say that the English voice-acting isn’t bad.

All of this brings me to the gameplay, which I feel is the thing that really makes Tales of Graces f stand out and be a really fantastic JRPG. As normal with the series (and the entire genre for that matter), you’ll control the leader of the party outside battle to walk around the many different locations and do things like talk to NPCs, interact with shops to buy and sell items, craft new ones via dualizing (a system where you mix two items to make a new, better one) and upgrade the character’s equipment which can be weapons, armor, character-specific items like ribbons, glasses, etc and cooking. Most of the dungeons have curious and fun puzzles to solve that go from usual things like pushing and pulling boxes to make way to move light beams around to destroy obstacles or create bridges. Those are actually pretty cool.

The battle system is the best thing in the game though, and truly one of the best battle systems I’ve played in an RPG this generation. This is an action-RPG where you’ll control the leader of the party, while the AI (or some friends) will control the other three party members. The perspective of the camera is behind the shoulder of the leader by default instead of the side-looking one used by previous games like Vesperia or Abyss. Characters can freely move around the battle area and perform attacks on it at any time. Graces f gets rid of the TP bar (Mana Points) used to cast magic spells and make use of weapon abilities in the past. TP is now replaced by Chain Capacity, or CC. CC is a numerical value that quickly regenerates itself and each magic spell, weapon ability and even normal attacks cost some CC to use.

At first, characters will have a little CC value on them, for example: 7 and if each attack costs 2-3 CC to be used, that character will be able to chain three attacks together to do a combo or combination between physical attacks and magic spells. When a character runs out of CC or simply doesn’t have enough to do a given action, he/she will simply have to wait a second or two to regain some and be able to act again in favor of the party. After they level up and unlock several abilities, the minimum and maximum CC each character have will of course increase to the point where they’ll be able to chain five, six and even more actions together.

Magic users and healers take a lot of advantage from this new CC system. In past games, it was usual for the Mages to run out of TP in the middle of a difficult fight which would incapacitate them from doing what they were supposed to, even if they were still alive in-battle. Another thing good for these type of characters is that if you use their Chain Capacity to land a combo that starts with physical attacks and then a magic spell, the casting time will be drastically decreased. The more physical attacks a “mage” does before casting in a combo, the less cast-time the spell will require. Pascal and Malik are two characters that will feel like a powerhouse together because of this. At the end of the game they’ll be able to cast high-level spells in around a second or two if played right. It’s actually pretty deep and satisfying.

Another cool thing introduced by Graces is a “sidestep” system, similar to some 3D fighters where a character can move sideways or backwards quickly to avoid an enemy attack. If done right, these evading moves will restore a lot of CC to that character allowing them to land a quick and effective counter attack to regain the offensive. You’ll also be able to block attacks to reduce damage taken, use items to restore HP, revive fallen allies and other effects and even change equipment and the behavior of the AI on the go. Most of the time the AI will act in a great way as long as the player provides the correct strategy for the fight taking place at the moment.

The battle system in Tales of Graces f is fast, intense, deep and very challenging if you play in moderate or hard difficulty (there are others even higher). Your skills in the game will truly be put to test in these two settings because to be honest, normal difficulty feels like a walk in the park while moderate and hard actually makes you think about what you’re doing. As I said, while the game is acceptable and even nice outside battle, the combat is what makes this game shine. And don’t worry, most of the time you’ll be fighting enemies like wild animals, demons, soldiers, bandits, robots, etc, etc. Boss battles are also very intense and extremely fun.

The party consists of seven characters each with their own stats, abilities and usefulness in battle. Asbel, Hubert and Sophie are more melee-oriented fighters but they can actually cast a spell or two to heal or deal damage. Pascal, Richard and Malik are more magic oriented and offensive from a distance with excellent-looking elemental spells that go from a simple shockwave to exaggerated things like a gigantic ice sword that falls in the middle of the arena and explodes damaging all foes in range. Cheria is the healer so you’ll see her away from enemies most of the time and keeping the rest of the party healthy, she can still deal damage by throwing knives and casting a few offensive spells though.

Equipping a title to a character is a feature the came back for Tales of Graces f, this time though, it’s more important than ever. Each character has access to around a hundred different titles that can be gained from most actions like story-related events, winning battles, using a spell a certain number of times, etc. Each of these titles has five different skills in them that can be unlocked by gaining Skill Points (SP) by winning encounters and other things. These skills go from stat grow like “Physical Defense +5” to learning a brand-new ability or trait for the character. It’s extremely important that you pay a lot of attention to the titles the party members have equipped on them because the more skills they have unlocked, the more powerful they’ll be. In fact, skills are as important in this game as leveling up.

So, as you can see, the gameplay and especially the battle system is what truly shines about Tales of Graces f. This is actually a great game with nice graphics, music, voice-acting and a somewhat interesting storyline, but the battle system will surely keep you glued to the game for a long time. From beginning to end, the game will take about 60 hours to complete which is more than OK for a JRPG. There are several sidequests to complete, a very-long and difficult extra dungeon and of course, you can attempt a second playthrough in a higher difficulty level once you’re done with it.

My final thought is that this game, and the entire franchise for that matter, deserves more respect and praise. For what it is and what is represents, the Tales series is still too underrated and obscure which makes Namco think twice about localizing most of the titles in the series. There are more than fifteen games in the franchise only available in Japan and this should not be the case. Fortunately, some of them actually manage to get to the West so they should be supported. Tales of Graces f is a fantastic game.


Pros:
-          Battle system is fast-paced, intense, challenging, deep and extremely fun.
-          Characters are easy-to-like, varied and have cool personalities.
-          Tons of different ways to customize character stats, abilities and equipment.
-          Title-equipping system adds a lot of depth to the gameplay.
-          Nice graphics.
-          Excellent soundtrack.
-          Great puzzles to solve.
-          Tons of things to do after the first playthrough.
-          Pascal.


Cons:
-          Storyline is kind of weak.
-          The prologue is too long.
-          Not too much to do outside battles.
-          Character animations outside battles are too simple.


-          Graphics and Visuals…….…..7
-          Music and Sound Effects….....8
-          Gameplay………………....…9
-          Replay Value………………..10

Overall Score……………….. 8.5 / 10

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