Tales of the Abyss (PS2 / 3DS)
Auldrant is a world ruled by the prophecy. Two thousand years ago in the Dawn Age, Yulia Jue foresaw a totally accurate prophecy about the future of her world, and wrote it all down on seven fonstones. Those stones have since broken apart, and fragments have fallen into various places around the world, triggering wars between nations as everyone fought for possession of the fragments.
Luke fon Fabre doesn’t know much about the outside world, and frankly, couldn’t care less. Despite being the son of Duke Fabre, third in line for the throne, and one of the most powerful people in Baticul, he’s not been allowed to leave his manor. Seven years prior, he’d been kidnapped, and when his family finally recovered him without any memories of anything prior, they forbade him to leave until he reached his majority. His life consists of a lot of boredom punctuated by treasured sword lessons with an Order Commendant, Van Grants.
And then Luke’s manor is invaded by a strange woman seeking to kill Van—and when Luke interferes, a magical explosion blows both of them to the middle of the wilderness. Now Luke is stuck alone in the middle of the world he’s been protected from for his whole life, in a world preparing to go to war . . .
Story: Tales of the Abyss did something daring with its story direction—it deliberately makes the main character a spoiled, selfish brat. Luke whines about being forced out of his deathly boring (but comfortable) life. He clashes with the rest of the party often, putting his own desires ahead of what needs to be done. He ends up in charge of this game’s mascot, Mieu, and names it Thing and has a tendency to beat him up. (Granted, I still find the mascot bit rather funny, as Luke’s primary complaint—that Mieu is annoying and has a really high-pitched voice—is something I agree with.)
What’s remarkable is how well everything pulls together. Luke is a whiny, spoiled child—but not without reason. Even in his worst phase, it’s still possible to read between the lines and see where he’s coming from (this is one of the things that makes a second playthrough so much fun; now you know all the secrets). He’s spoiled because he has been sheltered, and all of his life so far has been about him. It takes a pretty big knock to shake him out of that, but once he does he swings too far in the other direction—too hesitant, too uncertain, very much still looking to others for validation of not only his thoughts but his existence. But he changes, just as he promised, and ends up pulling up the others with him.
In terms of party members, Jade and Guy are easily my favorites. I liked Jade from the first moment you meet him. Jade, on a mission of peace for the Emperor of Malkuth, realizes Luke’s support would be a huge boon. Luke demands Jade bow when he asks for help, so Jade immediately gets on his knees and petitions Luke for aid. Luke then complains that Jade has no pride—and Jade counters “None so petty as to be shaken by something like this.” Jade is adult enough to have his eye on the grand prize of peace between nations. He’s direct, logical, somewhat cold, and has a great sense of humor. I also really like his backstory. He was, at one point, more villainous than many of the current villains because he was brilliant and without morals. And despite him personally changing and repenting, the knowledge he uncovered has much further-reaching consequences than he can control. So when you finally meet Jade, he’s an odd contradiction: world-renowned,yet content to be a simple Colonel, working for his Emperor and friend. It’s also quite fun how everyone not only knows him, they know him as someone extremely dangerous and not to be trifled with (which the beginning of the game underlines when the enemies use a seal that cost a tenth of a country’s budget just to shut him down).
Guy is my other favorite character, and like Jade he’s got a complex backstory and an interesting present story. Guy’s main gimmick is that he’s got two equal and opposing personality traits: he’s a really nice guy who turns into a basket case if a woman tries to touch him. It’s mostly played for laughs—but then you find out why he can’t stand women’s touch, and it’s an awesome, awful moment. But he’s also interested in fontech, in a world where engineering is that embarrassing hobby you’d never try to show your friends.
Abyss focuses on flawed, human characters. Whether it’s Asch working for overall good but unable to overcome his hatred of Luke, to Sync’s destructiveness stemming from his emptiness, to Dist’s questionable loyalty to anything but his own goals, the villains have as much to contribute as the party. (It’s also quite funny how Dist is determined to paint the relationship between him and Jade as eternal rivals, and Jade merely views Dist as an unfortunate groupie. At one point he even calls Dist a pet.)
In addition, the story as a whole has a darker tone. Replicas (a magical form of cloning) are a major focus of the plot. So is the infallible prophecy that promises prosperity followed by disaster–which leaves the protagonists actually working for what might be the wrong side for a good portion of the plot, and leaving the villains with superior motives if worse means.
Because the story has a lot of depth, and such strong characters, it’s an easy game to play multiple times (and in fact, playing it at least twice allows you to pick up on the clever way the game subverts expectations).
Gameplay: This is the first true 3D Tales battle system, which means Free Run at last! The elemental system is interesting in that spells affect the portion of the battlefield they hit, and stronger spells contaminate that area with more of its element, until enough gathers that it can be used to transform other attacks. So positioning is important (or keeping the enemy away from those positions), but you aren’t unduly hampered if you can’t use the elemental fields well.
Ironically, the agile Guy tends to play a better swordsman than the slow-but-harder hitting Luke. I played my original PS2 run of the game as the spearman/mage Jade (both because I loved his character and because it amused me to play as a mage) and my second 3DS run as Guy. The team additionally has Tear as the area healer plus offensive spellcaster, Natalia as the single-target healer plus some melee archery, and Anise as a physical/magical unit like Jade but focused more on the physical attacks.
This is one of those games that really benefits from having a guide. I use the Brady Games guide, which is mostly correct and enormously helpful. Sidequests have a nasty tendency to become available without any indication to a casual player they even exist, and many of them have strict time cutoffs where they’ll disappear forever. (Although one of the reasons to use GameFAQs even if you have this guide is that it won’t often tell you far enough ahead of time what a sidequest needs to be completed—I had to wait on the blacksmith due to not having enough materials from my initial run through Zao Runs, or not informing you to buy maces while they are cheap and instead forcing you to spend 7k apiece to get them for a quest if you’re going strictly by the book).
Even with a guide, the crafting system is obtuse at best. You turn in materials found at search points (and sometimes dropped from enemies), which gives you points in various categories. When you have enough points, items can be crafted. It’s best just to look up the GameFAQs guide if you want to do this. You can get some decent items from the shop, particularly when it initially opens, but it isn’t required.
But from a main story standpoint, it’s easy enough to get through, although some fairly easy-to-miss sidequests have nice bits of backstory.
OVERALL: The gameplay is complex and remains engaging even so long after its initial release. The story remains one of my favorite game stories overall. This game has long been my standard for later Tales games, and although I enjoy most of the series, this is probably my favorite. I rate this game Highly Recommended.