Story: Asbel Lhant isn’t exactly a model child, despite being the firstborn and his father’s clear choice to one day inherit the land of Lhant. When he sneaks out to Lhant Hill and finds a strange girl who can’t remember anything, he determines to take responsibility for her, despite his father’s warnings that this will involve more than he expects. But circumstances don’t work out how he hoped . . .
Fast-forward seven years, and Asbel is now training to become a knight. He hopes that this time, he’ll have the strength to protect those he cares about. But as the world begins a long slide into chaos around him, he will be forced to decide what is most important to him and how far he is willing to go for it.
It’s kind of hard to write a good plot summary of this, since so much of the heartbreak and drama hinges on events that, although they may show up fairly early, come as a real surprise to Asbel and force him to completely reevaluate his direction. That was one of the things I appreciated most about the story. Maybe because I’m old enough to have been there a few times, I can really identify with Asbel struggling to achieve a dream for his life only to have it snatched out from under him—multiple times. He learns the hard way that good intentions aren’t enough, that working hard isn’t a guarantee of success, that he can’t control other people or stop them from making the wrong decisions. And yet despite that Asbel maintains a positive attitude and forges one of the most interesting endings (regular game; f-arc is also good but not nearly the same level). His solution to Lambda is a huge personal gamble that opens the door for a change no one thought possible.
That said, I’m not blind to the weak spots. The beginning of the f-arc is particularly painful plot-wise with a lot of wince-worthy moments. Asbel’s decision at the end of the main arc is largely supported by plot details that are crammed as flashbacks in the last dungeon. Certain plot twists with Richard are hardly twists at all given that everyone but Asbel can see it coming.
Character-wise, both Pascal and Hubert took a while to grow on me. Pascal got better once she stopped being so obsessively grabby, and Hubert was just frustrating until he started to let his grudge relax (perpetually angry characters don’t do a lot for me).
On the other hand, I don’t think Malik had a single bad moment. The title he gets in a sidequest for “Best Supporting Actor” certainly fits. He’s an odd mix of serious maturity and simple fun (“I got a win stick!” . . . still one of my favorite skits). And then there are gems like when Hubert allows his inner geek out, or Pascal starts building mecha-Asbel, or Richard goes all “Mask of Barona”. Some of the after-battle skits are great fun too.
Gameplay: Graces did something a bit different than the typical Tales. You have two sets of attacks, physical (A-Artes) and magical (B-Artes), and they both use a bucket of action points called CC, with more powerful moves taking more CC. A-Artes force you to chain from a basic 1-CC attack up to the most powerful 4-CC attack (so you’ll need 10 CC total to perform a full chain), but B-Artes can be cast individually (although there are bonuses applied in many cases for tacking them on the end of an A-Arte chain).
What this does practically is eliminate the need to save big spells or high-cost moves for special times, as CC recovers very quickly. And even though the regular attack in different directions has always behaved a bit differently, I never had as much reason to use them as I do here, because not only are the attacks all different, but you can hit different weaknesses with merely physical attacks. Despite Asbel having a huge B-Arte attack stat, I played him as more of an A-Arte user because it was more flexible with move variations on the fly and more interesting for me.
Another really nice feature is the Eleth mixer, which can generate items, provide field effects like increased drop rates or enemy avoidance, and cook during battle (specific conditions apply to each meal to get it to trigger). This feeds into the synthesis system, which for items is straightforward and useful (weapons stats, unfortunately, is a completely opposite experience).
The title system has also been revamped. Titles are acquired through the main story, sidequests, and meeting specific criteria. Each title can be leveled up 5 times and will give certain bonuses upon each level increase and mastery. Mastering titles actually isn’t that difficult, particularly if you don’t mind upping the difficulty as higher difficulty levels give greater bonuses. Getting some of the titles, though, is another story (completionists beware…. some of the “Hit a weakness” titles require THOUSANDS of hits. Have fun getting that for members you generally benched throughout the game). If you’re not a completionist, then it’s pretty easy to get and master a good number of titles.
Overall: Based on sheer number of hours, this is my top Tales game at 146 hours and counting on my first playthrough (still working on the optional postgame dungeon and some completionist things so it will be more than that… wouldn’t be surprised if I top 200 hours once I get everything). I had the game mostly beaten well before that, but hunting down extra titles, working for the soul orbs that drop when you kill enough of a particular type of enemy, dualizing everything to fill my collector’s books, and generally messing around with the subsystems ate up a lot of extra hours. Still, I think that’s a good indicator that the game has a lot to offer, and if you’d rather get some of those things on a second playthrough it would cut down the time significantly.
There’s a lot to like about Tales of Graces f. The story and gameplay are both strong. The last boss of the f arc has one of my favorite enemy designs. Despite a few rough patches, by and large the game works very well. I rate this game Highly Recommended.