Tales of Destiny - Review

Tales of Destiny makes for a solid, if unspectacular, RPG experience

By Brian Maniscalco, RPGamer Writer

Review Breakdown
   Battle System7.0
   Replay Value9.0
   Time to Complete70 hours 

   Amidst the introduction of the third dimension to the RPG genre, there has been a steadfast and vocal portion of the gaming community that has shunned the new in favor of the old. Unimpressed with the growing trend of polygon-this and FMV-that, these gamers have made known their desire for a throwback RPG in the early-mid 1990 SNES mold, be it because of a belief in the saying about not fixing things that ain't broke, or perhaps because of a touch of nostalgia for the good old RPGing days. Whatever the case may be, Namco's Tales of Destiny certainly fits the bill.

   Tales of Destiny is a sequel to Tales of Phantasia, a popular SNES RPG that was released only in Japan. For the most part, it stays true to its predecessor's style, partially accounting for its "old school" look and feel. In it, you play the part of Stahn Aileron, an oft too-honest-for-his-own-good countryboy who gets caught up in affairs pertaining to the survival of the planet during his search for adventure.

   Interestingly enough, in the days and weeks prior to its US release, discussion regarding the game generally centered around an anticipated lack of graphical prowess. Yas Noguchi, the game's American localization producer, even issued a statement on the matter. While not jaw-dropping in quality, the graphics definitely don't detract from the game either, easily on par with Playstation RPG contemporaries such as Suikoden and Wild ARMs. Attention to detail in backdrops is fairly high, enlarged battle sprites enhance the traditional SD look of older RPGs, and the full body character portraits in the status screen top the status screen character profiles usually featured in RPGs. Additionally, nuances such as reflective mirror and water surfaces, shadows of varying lengths, angles, and darknesses depending on Stahn's position relative to the lighting source, and footstep imprints on snow that slowly fade into nothingness add a small but appreciable dimension to the otherwise familiar town and dungeon visuals.

   Not every facet of Tales of Destiny's look is borrowed from the full-blown 2D era. One graphical aspect that is markedly different from Tales of Destiny's heritage is the world map, which is polygonal. Kudos go out to Namco for this move -- while plenty of gamers still appreciate the dated two dimensional look, seeing Kefka's Tower plastered flat against the ground from the airship's perspective in Final Fantasy VI never did look quite right. Destiny's world map takes full advantage of its three dimensional structure, boasting a good deal of topographical definition and even a slight curvature of the horizon. A somewhat unusual feature is the occassional animated cut scene sequence intended to facilitate story telling. These scenes typcially last about 3 seconds and their graphics are totally independant from the gameplay context, although their poor, jerky animation tends to negate their aesthetic potential.

Hand-drawn backdrops
Hand-drawn backdrops provide an alternative to 3D

   Rounding off the eye candy portion of the game is Tales of Destiny's answer to FMV: its anime scenes. The longest and most impressive of these is the introduction movie that plays before gameplay starts and is comparable to that of Wild ARMs in terms of style and quality. I would have loved to have seen a more prolific use of such anime scenes; unfortunately, there are only two other such movies in the game, both much shorter that the intro.

   Moving on to audio stimuli, the music is solid, but rarely attains the true essence of RPG music, which is to truly embody, and in turn, perpetuate the essence of a particular scene or setting. The sound effects are well done during battle, including character voices upon technique execution and victory. There are also some rare cases of brief voice acting that occurs during the scrolling of text. Disappointingly, voice acting really takes a back seat in the American release; voices are in the original Japanese conception and the vast majority of spoken dialogue was removed entirely. I find that this lends an unfinished feel to the game. In any case, the game has a cool Sound Test feature that allows you to play back every song and sound effect (including voice acting) in the game.

   The basic plot is nothing special or new (a cast of eclectic heroes and heroines must band together to prevent an ancient threat from re-emerging and threatening world peace once again? *yawn*), and it seems that every point where the plot truly draws the player in is counterbalanced elsewhere by a lapse into a hopelessly predictable and disappointing cliché. That's not to say that the plot is without any redeeming qualities, however. The characters are engaging and likeable, and the chemistry between Stahn and Rutee is particularly entertaining. The character development is solid for the most part and especially effective on a couple of rare occassions, if a bit clichéd. The various localities are well done, with definite identities (in terms of country if not individual city) and definite relations and attitudes toward eachother; although it could have been done more elaborately, a sense of an entire world, not the typcial collection of isolated towns, is achieved.

   A large part of the game's appeal is attributable to its light hearted, humor oriented approach. Thanks to a superb translation that has drawn the inevitable comparisons to the paragon of localization itself, Working Designs, you'll find the text laced with humorously colloquial dialogue instead of awkward grammatical errors. In addition to comedic interaction among player characters and non player characters alike, there's also the occassional out-of-game-context gag (such as an advertisement for Namco's fighter Tekken 3 on a town bulletin board that ends off with "This is a shameless plug!") that serves to refreshingly assert that the game doesn't take itself too seriously. Unfortunately, the humor is virtually non-extistent in the later portions of the game by necessity of the attempt to achieve a sense of drama, and the game suffers because of it.

   The battle engine (Enhanced Linear Motion Battle System, or E-LMB for short) is a unique break from the standard RPG fare; think menu-based combat meets Street Fighter. Battles take place on a 2D stage where only horizontal movement is possible and physical attacks are executed directly with real time button input. The player can pause the action by calling up a menu that consists of various commands, including spell casting, item using, and strategy alteration. The latter comes into play since the player only directly controls Stahn; the remaining allies on screen are controlled by the computer according to certain strategic settings that the player establishes, similar to Ogre Battle. Up to four characters can fight at any one time, although a total of up to six characters can comprise a party -- the remaining two can be rotated in and out of the fighting squad at the player's leisure. There are certain items found during gameplay that allow you to control a character in battle other than Stahn and also allow the remaining characters to be controlled by other players, making for a potential 4 player setting if a multi-tap is utilized.

Battle scene
Menu-based combat meets Street Fighter in battles

   While entertaining to an extent, the battle system provides surprisingly little challenge. Characters' technique points, used to execute special character techniques and cast spells, are partially restored after every battle, virtually eliminating the threat of depletion. Little strategy is necessary; there isn't one battle that you can't win by simply physically bulldozing the opposition without even needing to use spells, and it's far too easy to trap an enemy in the corner and thrash relentlessly until victory is achieved. Needless to say, this undermines the impact of what almost was a truly interesting and refreshing battle system. Fortunately, there are a number of puzzles that require thought, trial and error, and perseverance that end up preventing the game from being a total laugher.

   Battles aside, Tales of Destiny plays similarly to other standard console RPGs, with several points of note. For one, the game is more linear than most -- the player has full control over sea and air vehicles for an exceedingly small fraction of the game. The rest of the time, transportation between continents of your choice is controlled automatically, disallowing free exploration. On a more positive note, numerous side games, spanning from a game of tag to a game of cards, provide entertaining diversions from the main course of the game. Although the overall gameplay may not stand out heavily in terms of quality or originality relative to other RPGs, it does in terms of quantity. The game takes a healthy 45 or so hours to complete the first time around, assuming you don't explore its myriad of optional activities, which includes completing a huge 60 floor dungeon. The sheer length of the plot-driven course of the game combined with its unusually high amount of optional ventures makes for a high replay value.

   All in all, Tales of Destiny is a rock solid RPG experience, but it's nothing truly outstanding or revolutionary -- it certainly has its fair share of shortcomings, and the only thing that really distinguishes it from other RPGs, battle system aside, is its high replay value, a function of its long lasting and diversified gameplay. If you can't get enough of the RPG scene or if you long for that old school feel, Tales of Destiny is definitely for you. If you're a more frugal gamer or are more interested in where RPGs are headed rather than where they've been, you'd probably be better served to wait for the releases of Xenogears or The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.

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