Every Friday, I’ll be looking back at some of the best (or most interesting, at least) video games released on Nintendo’s most misunderstood console, the GameCube. This week, it’s one of the most popular RPGs on a Nintendo console, Namco’s Tales of Symphonia. For information on this project, take a look at the original post, and feel free to make suggestions in the comments!
From a critical perspective, I really don’t feel like Tales of Symphonia is all that. JRPGs are so reliant on their story and storytelling methods that when they fail, they fail hard (and this is a problem that’s pretty endemic not only in JRPGs, but in most games that try to tell stories, honestly), and Tales of Symphonia is so often an anime nightmare in the storytelling department that it has to fight extra hard in its other elements to prop it up.
Which, coincidentally enough, is exactly what it does.
True, the storytelling in Tales of Symphonia is often wedged somewhere between “charming” and “embarrassing,” but in nearly every other way that counts, Tales of Symphonia achieves something far more difficult to attain, especially for the often stultifying and tepid JRPGs that stake their claim on being “modern”: Tales of Symphonia is honest-to-goodness fun, and few role-playing games since have felt so very at home on a Nintendo console.
In 2004, Namco was theoretically attempting to find their niche in a market that had both been somewhat lukewarm to previous Tales games and which was also fairly saturated with JRPGs at the time. In contrast to the current state of the JRPG, there was still a pretty marked console/PC divide between JRPGs and WRPGs, and a lot of the malaise that has seemingly set in when the topic of JRPGs is brought up didn’t really exist yet. Considering all of these various market factors, the decision was made to bring Tales of Symphonia to the west on the GameCube, of all consoles.
The gambit worked. Tales of Symphonia received a lot more attention than a somewhat-obscure JRPG would have normally, mostly because of a lack of competition coupled with very attention-grabbing production values. I remember that when I saw previews for the game, despite being completely and totally uninterested in stereotypically anime affairs, I was still very much intrigued.
I had never seen a game that looked like this before. The cell-shaded approach was, at the time, compared to The Wind Waker, but Tales of Symphonia was doing something very different - it was interpreting an art style into 3D, and the colourful, bright worlds seemed appealing in a way that the increasingly gritty-looking PS2 JRPGs did not. But what really sold me on the game was the battle system, which seemed to combine the customization and traditional elements of, say, Chrono Trigger, with the fast and fluid fighting action of Smash Bros.
Even today, that battle system stands up as some of the most fun to be had on the GameCube. In one fell swoop, it seemed like Tales of Symphonia was washing away the bad taste left by ten minute menu-hunting epics in games like Final Fantasy VIII and replacing it with something far more slick. True, the system is comparatively traditional when one looks at something like Xenoblade Chronicles or Final Fantasy XII - and at the time, I was completely unaware that the Tales series even existed, never mind that it basically invented this type of battling years ago - but unlike those games, Tales of Symphonia‘s battle system feels idiosyncratic without feeling esoteric, which is still a feat that few games have been able to pull off (I mean, outside of the Tales games that have improved on this system, obviously).
This particular playthrough was my second. I played the game back in 2004 in a particularly odd way that absolutely colours my perception with a fair amount of nostalgia. When I first bought the game, I bought it for the same reason that I bought a lot of my GameCube games at the time: the promise of multiplayer. It seems absolutely baffling to me now to even think of buying a JRPG for its local multiplayer, but at the time my friends and I would play the multiplayer on any GameCube game. After a disastrous time trying to get them to play the multiplayer on the LucasArts SRPG Gladius, my friends were justifiably skeptical when I pulled out Tales of Symphonia one night. They, too, were a little off-put by the seeming anime nightmare of the cover - but if that truism of not judging a book by it’s cover was ever true, then this was that time. We gave the game a shot with four-player multiplayer - and we never looked back.
It was simultaneously one of the most amazingly fun experiences I’ve had as a gamer, and one of the absolute nerdiest. We played the whole game as a foursome. I was the leader, meaning I played Lloyd for the whole game, but wait, you don’t understand: I played Lloyd. That’s right: when the spoken dialogue for the game was absent, we all read the lines of our characters, sometimes in ridiculous accents. It was part video gaming, part acting, and never not the best thing ever. I mean, NOW I’m in a steady relationship with my girlfriend, but it’s no wonder I was single then.
So when this game was played through with friends, things like the complete nonsense of the story’s various twists and turns didn’t really matter - it was more about our camaraderie than the story we were being told. But playing through this time, alone, it’s hard not to wish that the game’s story matched the endearing nature of the battling (and the characters, sometimes). The ideas behind the game are compelling - it’s basically a game-length examination of religion (man, outside of the Dragon Quest series, JRPGs sure don’t have a lot of use for religion do they?) and its role in the destruction of a planet, coupled with a “defeat the empire” scenario with overtones of the Holocaust, but it’s in the telling that this story falls apart.
First of all, it’s so melodramatic to the point of being campy, and sustaining a tone is something of an impossibility for Tales of Symphonia - in one moment, characters will be laughing and joking (poorly, generally), and the next, they’ll be bemoaning the oppressive nature of the Desians. And seemingly, Namco was feeling some sort of need to compensate, because the game is extraordinarily long - if you want to see everything there is to see, it’s going to take you close to 100 hours - and to keep the game going, it introduces a number of “twists” that feel completely nonsensical in retrospect. Characters who presented themselves as being good become evil, scenarios that you thought were on solid ground flip completely upside down; it’s almost schizophrenic at times. In the beginning, the game is a simple “save the world” plot, with Colette (the near-angel) leading her merry troupe (including Lloyd, the protagonist, Genis, his best friend, Raine, their teacher and Genis’s sister, and Kratos, a mysterious mercenary) on a “world regeneration” tour. After about fifteen hours, though, the game becomes nigh-inscrutable. It’s baffling in a particularly video game-y sort of way, though it is luckily entertaining enough in its kookiness to keep one’s interest.
And while the characters, too, are drawn as broad anime archetypes, they do hold some endearing qualities, especially the female side of the cast (I’m thinking of Colette and Sheena, mostly). Keep in mind that I’m a pretty jaded twenty-five-year-old, so people who are more in this game’s target age (tweens and young teens, I’m thinking) will probably get a little bit more out of the sweet and largely likeable cast.
After playing through the aforementioned Xenoblade Chronicles, a game I really quite enjoyed, and Final Fantasy XIII, a game I most certainly did not, playing Tales of Symphonia felt nice. Besides its battle system, it’s a traditional JRPG through and through, with world map traveling, equipment upgrading, dungeons (with Zelda-esque light puzzle solving elements) and a linear progression. Critics of the genre claim that it’s these traditional elements that keep the JRPG from evolving, but to me, they just work, and that’s something I can’t say for a lot of modern design decisions in video games. The JRPG is kind of like any number of “formula” film genres - there are a number of signifiers that are going to get checked off in the course of one’s time with a JRPG, and it’s best to embrace them rather than bemoan them. If having melodramatic “save the world” plots aren’t really your thing, then why don’t you play something you do like? I don’t know, I feel like the JRPG wouldn’t be having such an identity crisis if the developers of these kinds of games just simply owned up and said, “this game is going to be a JRPG, not an WRPG, so deal with it.”
That larger dilemma isn’t really something that Tales of Symphonia is equipped to handle, nor does it need to. Instead, it’s a candy-coloured run through conventions that feel at home on Nintendo’s purple lunchbox, providing something that’s both familiar and endlessly fun. Especially if you can round up four people who are as OK with being social outcasts as my friends were, apparently.
NEXT WEEK: Mario Kart: Double Dash!!