Story: When someone steals a magical item that controls the water for the Lower Quarter, Yuri Lowell decides to take matters into his own hands. It’s not the first time he’s picked a fight with the people who oppress the poor of the Lower Quarter. But a rather routine stint in jail turns into a completely different adventure. A noble girl begs his help escaping the castle so she can warn Flynn—Yuri’s childhood friend who is now in the Knights—about something. And then the assassin after Flynn. And the journey quickly becomes something much larger than hunting down a thief for a little robbery . . .
I have long heard people singing Vesperia’s praises, so to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot when I started the game. (Mostly this is probably due to the sheer number of people who say Symphonia is the best game ever, which I thought was good but not great.) I was happy to find at least a few of the things I had heard were true, and the story overall was enjoyable.
I will say up front that the narrative arc of the game starts off going in one direction (vigilante justice or lawful justice?), then shifts gears and spins in the mud (Estelle being flighty and not able to make up her mind), then finally settles into a somewhat different story that it follows to the end of the game (the world-threatening disaster). I thought the first arc of the game would have been the most interesting to pursue to its logical conclusion, as it sets up a nice contrast between Yuri and Flynn as representing change-from-without and change-from-within that never really went anywhere. But I did like the eventual ending and was only really frustrated at Estelle’s ADD in the middle when she starts jerking the plot around to a bunch of minor useless quests.
And quite frankly, I loved Yuri’s solution to some rather annoying lowlifes. It’s simple, logical, and efficient—and hardly anyone ever does it. The one thing that weakens it is that the eventual discovery by the rest of the party is so underwhelming as to have virtually no impact on his relationship to any of them (well, Karol actually reacted a little, but he gets over it pretty quickly).
The villains were rather cheesy for the most part, except one whose turn is frankly baffling (if he really had good motives, as claimed, then why is he doing the full-fledged evil laughter bit? It just seems someone wrote one character and then decided to shove him sideways into another cheesy villain role). The last boss, at least, I enjoyed both plot wise and battling. The world-threatening disaster seems to go down a little too easily (it basically stands there and gets smacked).
The cast relationships feel a lot more like a family this time around, with Yuri in a more father-like role, Estelle’s motherly concern, and Rita and Karol’s big-sister-little-brother vibe (Raven and Judith are kind of the odd ones out). I loved Rita and mostly disliked Karol (probably because I had little brothers and also reacted violently to severe annoyances). Karol has a good role in the plot, and he actually has one of the better character arcs, but I suspect I would have preferred him as an NPC rather than a party member. I also hate slow tanks so his playstyle did little to endear him to me (Estelle I lost the 100-man melee in the Coliseum first time around due to a timeout because she’s slow and has terrible normal attacks, but she’s primarily a healer with some decent attacks thrown in. I should NOT be also timing out with someone who is supposed to be a frontliner).
I disliked Raven at first, but he grew on me (and I really liked him after a certain point in the game). Judith is kind of there—she’s the least interesting on her own, and is actually better from Rita’s side since Rita has to struggle with whether or not she can be friends with someone who has such radically opposed beliefs. I liked Rita’s testiness and genius and the way she’ll shorten her spell chants to “blah blah blah”, and how someone that no one liked (because of said temperament and genius) gradually gets sucked into caring about a group of people who can appreciate her. I like how Karol has to learn to stop running away from everything, and especially how Yuri encourages him to step up into a role he doesn’t feel ready for, and how Yuri supports Karol going after his dream. Estelle was another one that for me was kind of just there. I didn’t much mind the her innocence or ignorance (it contrasts well with Yuri’s more pragmatic bent), but I couldn’t really get invested in her arc of learning to make her own choices.
Speaking of, the choices angle was the only thing that really bothered me about the end. Yuri promotes choice above all, but his actions and his words rather contradict. Ragou and Cumore and even Duke made their own choices, but they were choices that harmed people, and rather than tell them he was happy they lived true to their own convictions Yuri stands up for a standard of right and wrong. And there are a few similar contradictions earlier in the game, most notably when Yuri talks about “cutting out the cancer” and then makes excuses when it comes to Estelle. It’s just funny that although the stated message is choice above all, the actual plot can’t get away from good being honored and evil being challenged.
Gameplay: Overall, the gameplay is excellent. The battle system has a fair number of gimmicks, but most of them are unobtrusive and can be used or ignored as desired (I think I used a handful of burst artes all game because I kept forgetting about them). The battle system goes a little crazy on special attacks, with Fatal Strikes, Burst Artes, and altered artes in addition to the more typical base/arcane/mystic artes. In a rather aggravating move, the three-hit-combo standard is actually reduced by one for certain characters, making already ineffective physical attackers like Rita even more useless without magic.
Overlimit is tiered, which is a shame, since mystic artes can only be triggered off level 3 or 4. On the other hand, even level 1 allows near instant-casting for spells, which make Rita, Raven, and Estelle overpowered in most fights. And Estelle has a skill which combines with an arte for invincibility (a bug which was actually fixed in the PS3 edition from what I’ve heard).
The skills system has a lot of depth. Skills are associated with weapons and learned from points gained after battles. This encourages synthesizing, as shop/standard weapons will frequently gain or change skills once upgraded. Setting skills in particular ways can also get you overlimit bonuses, although it was only a few hours from the end of the game that I actually had things staggered on certain characters to get those bonuses, since I wanted too many skills all over the place to get the bonus. One of the grade shop options I’ll definitely buy if I go through another playthrough does allow for skill cost to be set to 1, which will mitigate a lot of the “I have this awesome skill but would have to de-equip eight other skills to use it” dilemma.
Synthesis is a bit frustrating. The Monocles that improve item drop percentages aren’t available until later (green Fatal Strikes can help, but it does require a bit of care while battling), and the ingredients are not that easy to get. More, funds can be a real issue main game, and materials sell for 100 gald apiece (with a very few exceptions, usually drops from boss monsters). That means it’s useless to sell drops for cash, since at best you’ll be able to make a couple thousand on items that cost a lot of battles to obtain. But as a whole the synthesis isn’t too bad. By end game the rare items aren’t too hard to get hold of, especially if you’ve been diligent about farming search points. It’s a LOT better than Symphonia/Xillia 2 which required synthesis down several layers in order to get to the best items.
Character play styles have some good variety, although Yuri, Judith, Repede, and Raven were the best. Rita, unlike Jade from Abyss who could actually put forth a somewhat decent physical assault, can really only do spells, which means she can be run via shortcut and/or turning artes off. Estelle is a bit slow to be a physical fighter but doesn’t have much arsenal as a mage (only light-based spells, which is problematic if the enemy resists). And Karol is just slow. At least he gets Reaper Knock, which gives him something like a ranged attack (assuming the ball’s arc actually crosses the enemy’s body, as I had a few that I couldn’t consistently hit depending on the distance because it would go over their heads).
Sidequests were generally good (although get a FAQ if you want a few of them, as they require all-game participation), with a few notable irritants. The Dog Map was a lot of grinding, and several other quests have you hopping to every corner of the world just to complete one step.
Secret Missions are available for most of the boss fights, and they range from easy enough that you’ll probably get it by accident to incredibly frustrating. This is entirely optional and can give nice rewards, including a costume for Yuri if you manage to get all of them. I did them all, but never again. Some of these were pretty hard to trigger, and it felt really stupid to put everyone in the party on standby (and get murdered) while I’m trying to get the boss to use the one super special move that’s required for the mission. What makes it more frustrating is that there is no scene-skip option, so if you fail to get the secret mission before the boss dies, and want to retry, you’ll have to watch everything again (Zagi on the boat, I am LOOKING AT YOU).
Overall: This is a solid entry in the Tales franchise, and I can see why people like it so much. Mechanically it’s very good, and the plot generally hangs together well. I beat the main game in 100 hours (earned the Too Much Free Time achievement right before trashing the final boss), although people who aren’t trying to get every synthesis weapon and sidequest will get through it faster. Final levels were 74-75 for the party. I haven’t touched the ex dungeon yet, but I’m not sure how far I am going to go within.
The game has both PS3 and XBox 360 versions, but only the 360 version was released in English. That’s mostly why it took me so long to get around to this entry, since I had to buy a 360 to actually play it. That said, if you have a 360 or don’t mind picking one up, this is a good RPG to have for it. There’s a lot to explore, a lot of systems to master, and a grade shop that makes replays more valuable. If you can understand Japanese, the PS3 version adds Flynn and a new character Patty to the party and fixes a few small things. I rate this game Recommended.