The Tales series has had its share of memorable characters, but it's very rare for one of its villains to stand out above the main cast. One of the few exceptions to this rule comes from the much loved Tales of Symphonia, a 2004 GameCube RPG that is widely regarded as the best entry in the long-running series. Apart from its memorable cast of characters and excellent gameplay, a major reason for this love is that one of the the game's major themes, one of moral ambiguity, is so fully embodied by the game's main antagonist, Mithos Yggdrassil. But to really understand what makes Mithos such an interesting, and in many ways likeable, villain, you have to look beyond his actions in the game, and look at his actions in the past.
Most Tales worlds have complicated backstories, but few actually take the time to create their own legends, and then tie them into the game itself. Long before the events of Symphonia, legends speak of a great hero, Mithos, who stopped a war and saved a world on the brink of destruction. Very little is revealed about this legend -- like all good legends, much of the truth has been lost to time, and only the most significant parts of the story still remain. However, as the plot of Symphonia unveils itself, pieces begin to fall into place and you start to realize that these two stories, the legend of Mithos and the journey of Lloyd and his friends, are intertwined.
Eventually, of course, you learn the whole story. You discover that Mithos, a young half-elf, was persecuted by the world and rejected by elves and humans alike. You discover that he went on a journey with two other individuals you encounter over the course of the game, Yuan and Kratos. And finally, you discover that he had a sister, who is now revered throughout both world as a goddess. A sister whose brutal murder destroyed an idealist and led to the world that now exists.
Mithos Yggdrassil is the core of Tales of Symphonia. In many ways, he is the true hero, and Lloyd et al are merely interlopers in a much larger tale. Mithos was a hero, but the world spat on him and he fell from grace. As an idealist, he wanted to end the conflict between two great nations, but ultimately, he gave up hope and found another solution: separating them into two distinct worlds. Everything that occurs in the game, everything that Lloyd fights to undo, is all the result of that choice.
So what happens in the four thousand years between Mithos's story and Lloyd's? Distraught over losing his sister, Mithos uses the Eternal Sword to separate the world in two, creating a waxing/waning system where the limited mana supply channels from one to the other like an hourglass. Originally, this was intended to be a hotfix, a temporary solution until he could revive the Kharlan Tree and provide an abundance of mana to both worlds. However, his sister is now part of the seed that will eventually become the tree, and he becomes obsessed with returning her to life, keeping the tree from sprouting as he tries to find a way to save her. This marks the beginning of his downward spiral from hero to villain.
Once the game's story begins, he has become Yggdrassil, the leader of Cruxis and master engineer of both worlds' destinies. As time passes, his obsession with his sister drives him to do darker and more despicable things. All the while, Lloyd and his friends hear tales of Mithos the hero and his accomplishments, and it isn't until near the end of the game that the connection between the two becomes apparent, and the true tragedy of Mithos's character is revealed.
Mithos even goes so far as to insert himself into Lloyd's group, befriending a young half-elf named Genis who likely reminds him of his own youth. In this section of the game, Mithos shows that he's more than just a villain, even going so far as to put himself in harms way for his young friend in a certain sub event. He's portrayed as a good person with a strong moral center, but his long and painful life have left him scarred.
As the game closes and Mithos lies dying, his final words are, "Farewell, my shadow. You who stand at the end of the path I chose not to follow. I wanted my own world, so I don't regret my choice. I would make the same choice all over again. I will continue to choose this path." It's rare for a villain to be repentant in his final hours, but Mithos is unique in that not only does he truly believe he has nothing to repent, but he makes the player believe it as well. Just as Tales of Symphonia has two worlds, it also has two heroes. — Adriaan den Ouden
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