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The Gamecube has so far been one of those consoles that's been running short of RPG's. While Skies of Arcadia Legends or Wind Waker might be reasons enough to own the console for some people, Tales of Symhponia was without doubt the one RPG that made the GameCube purchase worthwhile for me. Following the trend of the Tales series, ToS offers an incredibly fast paced battle system, great music, but unfortunately also quite a clichˇ-filled plot.
Even from the very beginning, the plot of ToS very much resembles the one seen in Final Fantasy X. A chosen maiden of a local village must travel to various temples and pray to the angels in order to recieve powers (elementals that are summoned in battle, actually) in order to - in the end - save the world from a terrifying evil. While that is a simple and harsh explanation of the plot itself, there is of course a lot more to it, including a whole lot of character development. All in all, the entire adventure is pretty light-hearted, and that is pretty much what all fans of the Tales series are used to.
While the story fails to impress, the battle system certainly doesn't. Like in every other Tales game, the battles are fast paced, smooth and very entertaining. Multi-hit combos, sparkling magic spells and glorious effects are to be expected here, and the risk of having an epileptic seizure has never been this high (just kidding about that last part). Much like in the previous games, the player only controls one of the four party members while battling, and has to assign a specified number of skills to certain buttons to use them in battle. These are the only four skills that will be available in the upcoming battles. The other party members act according to the strategies you've assigned them to in the main menu, and their AI is slightly improved above the previous games in the series (although, this never was THAT big of a problem earlier on either). New to the battle system are the Overdrive modes and the Unison attacks. When a character recieves enough damage in one fight, he or she will go into "Overdrive mode", which makes the character significantly more powerful. In some characters' cases, there are abilities that can only be executed while in Overdrive mode. The Unison attacks are a bit more common, and a lot more useful. When the gauge in the bottom left corner of the battle screen is filled, you can executed the Unison attack at any time during battle with the Z button. This triggers a special attack where the entire party attacks at the same time, similar to the combos used in Chrono Trigger or Legaia 2. However, since all four party members participates in the Unison attack, you always have the ability to perform 2 attacks at once (provided you have the right moves assigned to each character), since they're all executed in pairs. You can always change what moves each character is supposed to perform in the main menu outside of battle, in case you want to come up with new special attacks.
As a final note in the battle system, each character always has two ways to go when it comes to learn new skills; Technical and Strike. You can see what type of skills the characters are using by looking at the meter next to their portrait in the main menu. If it points to T, your character will learn the Technical skills, and if it points towards S, he or she will learn the Strike skills. You can always change your character back and forth between these two types by using skills of the opposite kind. Once the arrow points to the other direction, the new type of skills will begin to show in your skill menu, but you won't be able to use them right away. To gain access to them, you first have to forget (in other words, delete) the right skills of the opposing kind. This can be done back and forth as many times as you like though, so you can't really miss out on any skills.
Outside of battle, most things in ToS are very well executed. The interface is smooth and simple to use, yet very similar to the ones seen in the previous titles. The world map may be a bit undetailed, but it is highly appreciated that the enemies can be seen walking around there, so that you can avoid random encounters during your travels. When it comes to the localization, I really don't have any serious complaints, save for maybe the voice actors. While they sure made a better job this time than in Tales of Eternia, I still wasn't quite pleased. Especially the voice of Lloyd failed to impress, and took out most of the mystery in his character.
If there's one section where Tales of Symphonia fails (but not necessarily because it's a bad game) it's in originality. The plot is very clichˇ, the characters are nothing we haven't seen before, the battles are similar not only to the other Tales games, but also to those of the Star Ocean games. The music, yet again composed by Motoi Sakuraba, also resembles a lot of his previous work. There were a lot more tracks than usual in this package though, and a lot of them are actually quite impressive, despite giving me the feeling that I've heard them before.
In the graphics section, the Tales series took quite a step forward this time. Tales of Symphonia is the first game in the series which is fully in 3D, and on top of that also uses cel-shaded graphics. The result was brilliant. Everything in the game runs smooth, and it is nearly impossible to slow it down even in battle.
Overall, Tales of Symphonia provides enough challenge for most gamers to be satisfied. There are of course also some optional areas with harder bosses for those looking for a bigger challenge. Not only that, there are also several difficulty settings to choose from when you start a new game. The only down-side to this, is that you can't change the difficulty setting once you start a new game from a clear file from a previous run. All in all, the game shouldn't take more than 40 hours to complete, unless you want to experience all the mini-games and optional dungeons/bosses. Completionists would have to stay around for at least 60 hours to be satisfied.
In the end, Tales of Symphonia is a fantastic game, and is sure to make the Gamecube purchase worthwhile for most RPGamers out there. It's not very story-heavy, and it's not very original either, but it's a whole lot of fun to play.
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