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Random battles. They are the bane of the most cherished era of RPGaming—the 16-bit generation; many a memory of these classics is tainted with this ‘flaw’ in game design. For the greater good we endured these hardships, and as the genre grew (and the developers gained more sense) these random bouts became fewer and fewer; some games (like Final Fantasy VI-VIII) devised means of eliminating encounters, and others, such as Chrono Trigger/Cross and the magnificent Xenosaga completely rid themselves of them. Alas, the looming threat of random encounters, especially those with a high rate, has ruined many a great game. Sadly, Tales of Phantasia, one of those lost SNES gems that never quite found its way across the Pacific, is one of those games.
Case in point: after roughly 40 hours into this game, I had fought a little over 1500 battles (thanks to a meter that actually KEEPS TRACK of how much battles you fight!); that equates to about 38 battles an hour, which boils down to close to two battles for every three minutes you play this game! Now of course this argument is flawed, seeing how it doesn’t take into account battle time and situations (which could actually work against a dissenting argument) and time spent leveling up (scratch that one—you get into so much battles in dungeons that you don’t have to spend extra time leveling up!). Regardless of that, most of you should see the point I’m trying to make.
The frequent random battles also completely ruin what is one of the most creative and innovative battle systems ever envisioned. It distinguishes itself by taking place on a linear 2D plane, where special skills and spells are performed onscreen in a similar fashion to a fighting game (with a special in-game item, special moves can even be performed on your controller, Street Fighter/Mortal Kombat style!). Like in the Star Ocean games, you control one character (the hero, Cless Alvein) while the computer controls the other three you have in your party. All is not lost however, as you can direct the AI controlled characters via battle tactics (also like in Star Ocean, or Ogre Battle). For once, too, the AI is not wholly dumb; if one of your members is down for the count, you can expect your healer Mint to revive him/her within the next move. A MAJOR problem I find in this system though (besides the all-too frequent encounters) is the fact that when a magic spell is performed, ALL action on-screen comes to a screeching halt until the spell is done (a problem I also have with Chrono Trigger and Star Ocean 2). “But that happens in most every RPG”…I know, I know; but at least in ‘every’ other RPG everything onscreen doesn’t just stop in place—a very nitpicky fault, I know; but to me at least it really can counter the flow of a battle. On the whole though the battle system is extremely refreshing, but due to the nature of this game (read: step-battle,-step-two battles) it eventually loses its luster.
Apart from its all-too-frequent battles Tales of Phantasia is an extremely good-looking game, taking full advantage of the SNES’ aging graphics engine. Its graphics place among the best on the system, besting those of Final Fantasy VI and even Chrono Trigger. You will glimpse in awe (or, just simply marvel in retro-admiration) at seeing characters’ reflections in pools of water, the gorgeous sprites, and all other aesthetic beauty that my limited comprehension of graphical vocabulary fails to grasp. The score on the other hand…this is a prime example of a ‘hit-or-miss’ soundtrack; some tracks are very well done and inspired, while others—well most, I’m sorry to say—fit into a percussion-heavy, boom-sha-boom-chang mess that really detracts from the game. Though Tales of Phantasia is a lighthearted title, a game of this epic a scope deserves a stronger soundtrack, I believe. On the other side of the aural coin this was one of the few 16-bit RPG’s that featured voice acting, and even features a full J-Pop song! Most of the voice acting consists of the characters’ scant yelling throughout the battles, but it did not bother me too much to really notice.
The game also plays smoothly thanks to great controls. By the time the 16-bit generation hit its stride horrid user-to-menu interfaces had found their way out of most RPG’s anyway, so this isn’t saying much. Menus are no problem either in this game to navigate, even considering the depth of skills settings and such. The only real inherent problem with this part of the game lies in the fact that you can only carry up to 15 of one item; though this is remedied by the fact that due to the numerous battles you have a great chance of re-stocking your reusables.
The story is standard-RPG canon; a young lad (Cless) is pulled into a battle for the fate of the world after his town is razed (this plot device was old even in 1995…)—this time however, he must do it through the present, past, and future. This game was a contemporary of Chrono Trigger, and so this was new fodder as it pertained to RPG plots. This mechanic is not as central to the game as it was in that venerable classic, but it is still pulled off rather well. The allusions to Norse mythology are also numerous, interesting, and beyond the Ragnarok/Odin/Yggdrasil fare that most other RPG’s flirt with. As the game progresses the story evolves from its pedestrian roots into a battle for the control of the entity of Magic, and almost mirrors the caliber of a Final Fantasy title—albeit without the heavy-handed melodrama and poignant themes those games are famous for. The characters are very likeable, and though you only get five throughout the game they do leave a unique mark on the story (especially Arche!). All in all, Tales of Phantasia is a game that prides on not taking itself too seriously (even in light of a few scenes which no doubt helped influence this game’s absence from our shores).
Tales of Phantasia’s difficulty stems mainly from the player’s familiarity with the battle system. Since you have ample opportunities to become acquainted (I’m really NOT trying to harp on the random encounters all of the time…really—they just kind of come up themselves…) the difficulty should plateau after about twenty minutes of game time. Some later dungeons and enemies require more in terms of coordination, especially in the optional Deep Dungeon-esque Moria Gallery. The game itself will take around forty-five hours, give or take a few pending sidequests and optional areas (such as the coliseum), and really doesn’t lend itself to replay soon after it is done.
To conclude, Tales of Phantasia is like those tragic heroes that you may (or may not) have studied in school: great in stature and poise, but in possession of one brutal flaw that ultimately brings him or her (or in the case of the game, it) crashing down—and my individual and overall review scores reflect this. The amazing graphics and involving story just cannot mask the fact that your experience with this game WILL be tarnished by the random encounters, to the point even when just the opening notes of the battle theme is enough to induce epileptic labor from your eyeballs (which should be impossible, seeing as it doesn’t make any sense). The myriad battles keep this game from bng the best ‘tale’ it could be.
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