Review: Tales of Graces f (PS3)

Tales of Graces f box artThe long-running Tales of series has returned. Tales of Graces came out for the Wii in 2009 in Japan, and has been revamped and re-released for the Playstation 3. Tales of Graces f is an incredibly long JRPG, spanning a minimum of 30 hours with the potential for that number to climb into the hundreds without you even realizing it. Taking place primarily on the world of Ephinea, the story follows Asbel Lhant, a Knight with a tragic past, as he seeks to save his hometown – a task which requires so much more than he would’ve ever thought possible.

Can’t Have a ‘Tale’ Without Heroes

Children’s Story

The game’s opening is the weakest part of the entire game, featuring a rather length prologue(at least several hours long) in which you get to know many of the characters as children. I have never been fond of playing RPGs with a cast of children and this was no different. If it hadn’t been for the cover showing these characters as adults, I never would’ve made it through the prologue. The children are spoiled brats with unbelievable and unrelatable personalities and it makes for a truly frustrating first few hours to the game. Unfortunately, you can’t just coast through the prologue and not pay attention because the prologue does contain some truly essential events and establish some key elements that cannot be ignored if you wish to understand the story, and it ends on a truly tragic note that is utterly essential for the story to even exist.

Children

Yes, Asbel. Have a cookie.

Only Improves With Age

Luckily, the game gets better once you get past the prologue. The game skips forward 7 years and the characters seem to have improved immensely. The characters immediately become relatable, entertaining, with realistic and believable interactions – for the most part. And, even better, the characters continue to improve. The experiences of the game help to refine the characters in ways that are utterly understandable. Responsibility helps to focus Asbel, friendship begins to overcome Hubert’s paranoia, and being confronted with the past helps to reinvigorate Malik – gradually of course.

No Rehearsals

The game’s storytelling features both mandatory and optional elements. The mandatory elements are, of course, cinematics and cutscenes – your standard JRPG fare. The optional portions are dozens and dozens of little ‘skits’ you can trigger if you happen to be in the right place at the right time – and these are where the game’s story begins to shine. By watching these skits you can see the characters interact with each other in a much less forced manner. It creates just the right tone, and I strongly recommend never passing one of these up in this game as they make such a huge difference in your perception of the characters. Luckily enough, many of the most crucial of these are very obvious and, in fact, hard to miss if you play the game.

Models: Check! Music: Check! Bunny Ears: Check?

Haven’t Aged Well

Unfortunately it’s very clear this game came out on the Wii in 2009 originally from your first glance. Nothing in this game looks quite right. The character models aren’t terrible, but they definitely look dated and a little rough around the edges. The environments are a little sterile, with very little that is actually truly memorable. The animations are a little… awkward. It is unfortunate, but also expected as it is a port of a Wii game. I’m normally not one to put too much stock in graphics – I still love SNES JRPGs after all, but Tales of Graces f is in that strange place that I just find unappealing – it’s clearly trying to be hi-res, to be clean and clear and pretty…. it just isn’t quite making it there. The one exception to this would be the cinematics; as expected of a JRPG they are gorgeous anime-style sequences.

Graphics

This ain’t no FFXIII or Uncharted here…

Close Your Eyes – It Gets Better

Fortunately if you just close your eyes and listen you get a much different experience. This game features some absolutely gorgeous music that does a fantastic job of setting the stage for the events that are to come. On a similar note, the game features some very talented voice actors who do a fantastic job portraying the characters just as you’d hope. Yes, Pascal might sound annoying and Sophie might sound awkward and naive… but that’s who they are. The voices, while some of them are not ones I would love to hear on a daily basis, are all very fitting for the characters and it makes the experience feel more coherent. The only audio gripe I have is with some of the sound effects – there are some sound effects that you’ll hear over and over and over again that just don’t quite sound right. Not all of them, but some sound effects are just awkward… and unfortunately, many of them are ones you’ll be dealing with for a long time to come.

Completionists Beware – This Game Will Devour Your Soul

This is, in case you hadn’t guessed, the ‘bunny ears’ portion. The game features numerous ‘collectibles’ and I use the term loosely. Regardless of what type of collection or accomplishment you’re interested in – whether it be skits, costumes, crafting, treasure, missions, discovery etc – this game has it in spades.

On the item side you have a ton of crafting materials you can collect in order to craft hundreds of different types of equipment and food of various different attributes and quality levels… if this doesn’t sound so bad, there are probably 50 different ‘qualities’ and even the ‘qualities’ are a collection of sorts, as you can view a list of all the item qualities you’ve witnessed. In addition there are a large variety of costumes you can unlock, including a rather adorable little goth outfit for Sophie, a series of swimsuits for each character(both male and female), various cross-universe outfits from other related JRPGs, and more. The downside, of course, is that many of these costumes are dlc you have to purchase, and some of it is quite overpriced for a single costume…

Costumes

Costumes costumes everywhere!

Getting away from items, there are also an unbelievable number of the afore-mentioned skits to watch – so many, and some in such strange places – that uncovering them can be a ‘collection’ of a different sort. In addition to that, uncovering all the various ‘discovery’ locations(landmarks around the world) is a challenge – and a chore – that will keep you looking for hours. And if the discoveries aren’t enough, there are hundreds of sidequests to complete – some of which unlock new discoveries, costumes, skits, etc. If you are an avid collector, you will be playing this game for the rest of your natural life, and still probably have just ‘one more costume’ to find.

Value is the Name of the Game

This is a fairly long game on its own. While it can be completed in 20-30 hours probably, the core game offers easily 50-60 hours of gameplay. Add to that all of the completionist elements and you have potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay. Add to that a New Game + feature which further enhances the replayability extending the game even longer. Add to those the addition of two different challenge arenas, one in-game, the other separate – both offering rewards and more time spent. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that the game has a Return of the King movie complex – ie. ‘oh you think you’re done… nope THERE’S MORE!’ But the real kicker is that one of your rewards for completing the game is another entire section to the game, complete with story. This game basically has an expansion built-in, bundled with the game, and wrapped in the form of a post-game unlock. And, even when it first came out it wasn’t even a standard price release. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, this game has it – provided you enjoy it of course.

Graceful Mechanics

Titles of Graces f

One of the character customization features in this game is the Title system. Each character has something like 150 available titles, awarded in several different ways. Some titles come from the story itself and some come from hidden side events, but the majority of titles come from how you play the game. If you attack enemy’s weaknesses a lot, you’ll unlock one set of titles, if you tend to use low-cost attacks you might unlock a different title, if you steal a lot you could get another title, if you use x ability a lot you’ll eventually unlock up to 3 titles for that.

Titles

Yes, this is one half of a character’s title screen…

Titles accomplish 2 things, aside from unlocking more titles of course: they provide you with permanent new abilities and passive bonuses, and they provide you with a specialized passive effect while they are active. You can only have one active title at a time, and whichever title is active you level up as you fight enemies. Because they provide a passive benefit that is special while they’re active, it adds a layer of strategy and depth to what seems like a shallow progression system. Having trouble with a particular status ailment? Equip a title that makes you immune to it temporarily! See a boss you think you’ll have trouble with? Equip a title that provides you with a great passive. But don’t forget that any time you spend with a title you’ve already mastered is effectively ‘wasted’ since you can only level the title you equip. Do you want to get that ultra awesome passive bonus…. or do you in stead want to get all those lovely points towards a title with an ability that you don’t have yet?

Eleth, Tempering, and Crystals

There are some really intriguing ideas that have been put into this game in regards to how it uses, creates, and modifies items. While it’s crafting system inherently is pretty basic – combine two items, get a new one – it has some really intriguing elements that help to keep you thinking. The first is the Eleth Mixer. Using the Eleth Mixer you can create virtually any core item, component, or food item that you have previously owned, but at random. You tell the mixer what you want to make, and using certain parameters it will create that. For core items or components, it merely creates them as you walk around in the game. This allows you to supplement what you find from monsters with specific components or restorative items you might end up needing even when you’re nowhere near the place those items are available. For food items, it creates them during combat when certain conditions are met – such as someone dying or killing an enemy.

The second element, tempering, is something that has been done before – but never quite this way. Basically, you get little fragments off of enemies. These fragments contain a specific stat(such as bonus cc, health on hit, defense, etc.) and can be used to upgrade your gear granting it that stat, and also altering the gear’s quality and upgrading the weapon or armor itself, improving it’s base stats as well. Then, as you fight with that gear equipped, it will ‘temper’ itself over time. Once you have two weapons or two armor that are tempered, you can extract the stats provided by the two fragments to make a crystal that can be equipped as an accessory. The weapon loses the bonus stat provided from the fragment, but keeps the base stat improvements that resulted from the upgrade. Additionally, this also allows you to upgrade the weapon again with a new fragment, allowing you to gradually upgrade your gear over time improving its stats and also making it more valuable.

Fighting, Graces Style

A turn-based combat setup with no resources to worry about might sound shallow, but fear not! Tales of Graces f’s combat system is actually quite deep and dynamic. They use an action system called ‘chain count’ that determines how many actions you can perform at a time. Your CC is randomly selected from the range between your Min CC stat and your Max CC stat – both of which can be found through equipment, crystals, or titles. Actions can take anywhere from 1 to 5 or so CC per action, depending on the strength and versatility of the ability. Enemies will typically have 2-4 weak points, and abilities can have anywhere from 1-4 attributes. By striking an enemy’s weak points you can gain bonus CC or even restore your entire CC bar instantly, allowing you to continue chaining. CC can also be gained by dodging perfectly, and the rate at which cc restores is increased while blocking.

Conbat

Oooh, shiny…

The other key element to watch in combat is the Eleth gauge. When it fills up for either you or the enemy, it triggers an Eleth Burst which grants unlimited CC, special abilities dependent upon which titles you have, and the ability to trigger special superattacks. The gauge fills up when you, or the enemy, performs well in combat. Blocking attacks fills it a bit, a perfect dodge does more, breaking an enemy block or hitting an enemy’s weak points will also fill the gauge. Just remember that the enemy’s gauge fills the same way – so if you keep attacking an enemy who is blocking, their gauge is gradually going to outpace yours and bosses can do Burst attacks too.

The controls are all, thankfully, fairly easy to understand offering a relatively accessible experience. Everything does exactly what you’d expect it to do, you only have to worry about one character personally – the other party members are controlled by ai scripts that you can designate – and for the most part it is just very straightforward. Each character operates slightly differently, so choose who you want to control wisely. Personally I found Asbel’s mechanic to be the most intuitive and rewarding to use, but they all have their pros and cons so it’s important to try them to find the one that feels the best for you personally. This was a fantastic way to make the game have a broader appeal, since you can play as each of the different gameplay styles to personalize your experience. Making effective use of the character you choose and all of the different combat techniques they provide help to make a truly rewarding, and almost addicting experience.

Unfortunately it isn’t ALL good. Mostly due to the fact that the characters you aren’t controlling aren’t… well… smart. They make really poor decisions, and sometimes don’t even follow the ‘style’ you assign them. Some of the most frustrating moments in the game were during boss fights where I’d end up constantly reviving my characters because they were too stupid and the enemies seem to like focusing whoever you aren’t controlling a little too much.

Final Thoughts

I would strongly recommend not playing higher difficulties. Not because they’re impossible or anything, no… they just don’t feel rewarding. The challenge isn’t satisfying, it’s just awkward. I played for about half the game on hard, and just found that all it did was make me bored. Which is really too bad, because I normally like the challenge of harder difficulties, but this game just didn’t make it satisfying. Aside from that, the only really annoying aspect were the strangely placed invisible walls. They’re all over the place, and in some cases they just don’t make any sense.

On the plus side, I can’t remember encountering a single bug, glitch, crash, or other technical issue over the course of my playthrough – which was very refreshing given the number of really buggy games in the past year or so.

Overall

Despite a few issues with the game’s opener, the AI, and the graphics; I would say that this was one of the most fun games I’ve played this year. Interesting characters, a unique plotline, a fantastic combat dynamic all make for a JRPG that is certainly worth the time, and given the incredible amount of value there is to be found here it’s certainly a good choice for people on a budget.

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