Is anyone else slightly offended that 1995 was officially twenty years ago? I know that as I get older I keep realizing that I remember these years fairly vividly. I remember 1995, I remember things I did in 1995: movies I saw, games I played, albums I listened to on repeat for hours on end. I remember my boombox and SNES and how playing Green Day’s Insomniac (still one of my favorites) went really well with Mortal Kombat 3. Until today whenever I play MK3 I hear flourishes from Geek Stink Breath as I land six-hit combos with Kabal.
1995 was also a year that would become more special to me as I got older. As a gamer 1995 was the year that brought us: Chrono Trigger, Mortal Kombat 3, EarthBound, Full Throttle, Yoshi’s Island (Jordan’s Favorite), Command and Conquer, Suikoden, Donkey Kong Country 2 (the best DKC), Rayman, and most importantly (for this article’s purpose) Tales of Phantasia. Phantasia kicked off the Tales series, a series that has become one of my go-to for JRPGs since the mid 2000s. Anyone who reads my stuff knows that I’m a huge Nintendo fan, but I’m also an avid fan of great JRPGs. The Tales Series is a pillar franchise for we JRPG fans, and it’s up there with the likes of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Shin Megami Tensei. So why don’t we celebrate 20 years of Tales!
Often compared to “comfort food” the Tales series is fairly basic at its core. When you put a Tales game in, you know EXACTLY what you’re getting. While often not as complex as other great series like Persona and Final Fantasy, Tales games offer something that’s a bit easier to take at face value. The games are designed with an anime style, often have fantastic soundtracks by Motoi Sakuraba, and always have a great sense of mood. What always brings me back for more Tales is their frantic and insane combat systems. Here’s some of my favorite aspects of these games!
Favorite Game: Tales of Symphonia (GCN, 2003)
This one was tough! Symphonia was my first foray into this series. The Gamecube had so few RPGs that when Tales of Symphonia was announced that I jumped all over it! I had not played Phantasia or Destiny before this game, but I was hooked. I easily sunk 60-70 hours into Symphonia on my first play-through. I was hooked on the combat! The Tales series has such a wonderfully frantic combat system that is often reminiscent of a fighting game. It keeps combat interesting in the long term, and always feels awake.
The story’s protagonist is Lloyd Irving, a dual-bladist who is the guardian of The Chosen, a young woman who has the angelic duty to sacrifice herself so that the world, Aselia, can “regenerate”. However, Aselia is actually tethered to a second world, Tethe’Alla and the regeneration actually robs the other world of Mana, a source of magical energy. There’s a deep story about environment, energy, and heroism. Despite it’s water-colored artstyle, Symphonia actually has one of the deeper and darker stories in the Tales series. I think that’s why it ends up as my favorite. Well, that and because you never truly forget your first. Tales of Symphonia opened me up to this wonderful series, and showed me that classic JRPG gameplay can be hectic, have great combat action, and enormous AI. This game’s a classic at this point, so go get the dual-pack on PS3, you won’t be disappointed. Also, Lloyd (In English) is voiced by the same person who provided the voice for Robin on Teen Titans, which is pretty rad.
Runner Up: Tales of Xillia (Ps3, 2013)
Best Protagonist(s): Milla Maxwell and Jude Mathis (Tales of Xillia, PS3, 2013)
In 2013 Tales of Xillia gave you the option to choose your protagonist. The player gets two different play styles based on who they choose. There’s Jude, the mild-mannered, typically meek anime dude who’s trying to prove himself. Secondly, there’s Milla, the all-powerful Maxwell, who has the ability to control “the great spirits”, which means magic. Both characters played differently in terms of combat (with Jude being the more typical), but what really gets this spot for me is the intertwining of their stories. Jude finds Milla as she’s trying to complete her goal, and destroy human technology so that spirits can continue to live in the world. Jude, a medical student, decides to help her and learn more about how Spirits and Humans can co-exist and bring health and wellness to all people. As always, there’s enemies who want to abuse the relationship between human and spirit, and some evil spirits that just want to destroy everything! It’s standard anime fare, as are the character designs (Milla’s costume is essentially impossible…with belts), but their relationship grows throughout both Xillia and Xillia 2. There’s some kind of romantic undertones and a real “will they” or “won’t they” sorta feeling. Ok, I get it…it sounds a bit like a soap opera, I guess that’s why I like them. I enjoy Jude’s meekness despite his physical prowess and Milla’s power, attitude, and force of personality. That’s why they get my vote! They also show up in Tales of Xillia 2 and you get to hang with them all over again!
Runner Up: Yuri Lowell (Tales of Vesperia, Xbox 360, 2008)
Best Supporting Cast: Tales of the Abyss (PS2, 2005)
Tales of the Abyss was a sleeper hit for me. I didn’t know it was coming out, and then I saw it on the Gamestop shelf on its release day. I bought it, pumped 70 hours into it and it won a special place in my heart. We’ve talked about RPG heroes, but what’s a leading man without his supporting cast? Tales of the Abyss has such an excellent set of teammates that I wish some of their archetypes hung around. The lead character, Luke has a bit of a Ben Reilly story (Clone who thinks he’s the hero), but his friends are really the fiber that holds this game together. The story of Abyss has much more emphasis on supporting characters and their connection to the end-game boss, Master Van. While many of the character models look similar to Xillia, Symphonia, and the rest of the series, it’s understandable as they follow normal anime tropes. The story of Abyss strives to force Luke into maturity. Through conversations with the other characters, he finally understands what it is to become a hero. He begins the game as a spoiled brat, and eventually finds his place. The supporting cast is incredibly important to his journey, which is why they get top spot. Most of the other games follow characters that are already somewhat established or confident. Luke needs to unlearn himself to find his true purpose, especially as a “fake” or clone.
Runner up: Tales of Destiny (PSX, 1997)
Best Combat: Tales of Xillia 2 (PS3, 2014)
The Tales series has always been about frantic, fast-paced combat. Whether you’re moving fairly laterally in games like Tales of Phantasia, or on an open plane in Tales of Graces, combat is one of the most important parts of these games. While sometimes story can be fairly similar from game to game, Tales always tries to renovate and reinvigorate its battle systems. Tales of Xillia 2 definitely feels like the culmination of all the good ideas Namco-Bandai has had since 1995. Though the combat system is very similar to the original Xillia, there are a few flourishes that were added to give this game some more hustle. Xillia made it possible to link up with another character in your party, during combat to gain some tactical advantage and unleash some crazy moves! What Xillia 2 adds to the mix is that you get to play as the lead character, Ludger. What makes Ludger unique is that he doesn’t have one set of weapons. In many RPGs typically each character has their “weapon type” whether it be: swords, polearms, guns, etc. In Xillia 2, Ludger gets three different types and can switch between them on the fly. This makes combat all the more fluid and variable. He also brings back the dual-blades main weapon, which is always cool. You get to transform in this one as well, you turn into a big monster-demon thing…
Runner Up: Tales of Graces F (PS3, 2010)
Worst Game: Tales of Legendia (PS2, 2005)
It wouldn’t be a good PopChomp article if we didn’t muck up all this love with a bit of disdain. I was so excited for Tales of Legendia. After Symphonia rocked my world in 2004 (when it released in the US), I was all about Legendia continuing the awesome-fest. Sadly…it did not. I felt betrayed and upset. The combat was tired, the character models were garbage, and the gameplay felt sluggish and boring. I bought this game, played it for a week, and made sure to hide it among all the other forgotten RPGs like Beyond the Beyond and Azure Dreams. In a series full of great silver-caliber fun, this piece of trash should just hang out at the bottom of every bargain bin. It was so bad that Namco-Bandai needed to release another Tales game, the very same year, to wash its bad taste out of our mouths.
I hope this post turns some of you folks on to this series. It has easily become one of my favorites. I get excited every time I know a new game is coming out. I cannot wait for Tales of Zestiria that hits US shores later this year! Tales is a bit of an under-appreciated series outside of its devoted fanbase. It’s a great pillar of the JRPG structure, and I sometimes prefer it to Final Fantasy. I hope this series continues for another 20 years!