Beginning on the SNES with Tales of Phantasia, coursing through the PSX era with Destiny and Eternia, and most recently entering the last generation of consoles with Symphonia, Legendia, and Abyss, the Tales series is a long-running one, and generally considered the de facto action-JRPG. Tales of Vesperia is the latest game in the venerable series, and the first to make its way to the new generation of consoles. A demo recently arrived on Xbox Live, and after a short download, I quickly jumped right into the game.
The first and most notable thing to take away from it is that, as the screenshots would suggest, the game looks like a hand-drawn 2D anime, and this is not an exaggeration. While the 3D motion does give away the polygonal nature of the graphics, it still comes off looking like an anime. With this level of graphical polish, it's unlikely the game is going to need any prerendered cutscenes at all. The art style, though not nearly as impressive as the lush landscapes of Eternal Sonata, is what was expected from a Tales game — traditional, JRPG fantasy.
Keeping with the anime theme, the English voice acting present in the game is in your typical anime style. Although some of the voices were unfamiliar, two in particular stood out. The voice of Rita, the goggle-headed girl in red, was quite clearly Michelle Ruff, who played, among many roles, Yukari Takeba in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. The other notable voice was that of Karol, the young boy with the gigantic satchel, but for the life of me I cannot place who it is, despite the fact that I'm certain I've heard the voice in at least a half-dozen anime and games. The other voices are decent, if typical, though the main character, Yuri, seems a bit off. Music was clearly Motoi Sakuraba's work, and though the limited pieces shown in the game don't seem to be his best work, they were still quite pleasant to listen to.
The demo begins by throwing the player into the middle of a storyline event, and I was bombarded with a lot of keywords like "blastia" that meant absolutely nothing to me, but must be important to the game somehow. After getting chased off by soldiers, I was able to get my first taste of the actual Tales gameplay that is and always has been the core draw of the series.
"Just as Symphonia started a new generation of Tales titles with a bang, it seems Vesperia will be doing the same for this one."
Perusing the menu, I took the time to explore the artes, strategy, and skills sections. The former should be familiar to any Tales denizens, as it was simply a list of each character's known battle abilities. While some of these, such as First Aid, were immediately familiar, I couldn't help but notice that Yuri, the protagonist's, skills were all completely unknown to me. In a subsequent battle, I quickly learned that some of the core Tales skills seem to have been renamed, most notably the ever-present Demon Fang, which is now Azure Edge.
In the strategy section, I discovered one of the most detailed Tales AI setups yet developed. Options included TP usage, keeping distance from enemies, emergency maneuvers (such as moving away from the enemy if health gets low), general strategies such as heal or attack, and item, overlimit, and "fatal strike" use. Fatal strikes are a mystery at this point, as even after two playthroughs of the demo I was unable to determine what exactly they were.
The skills section was by far the most interesting of the menu options I was able to explore. Those who've played Tales of the Abyss may recall a very complex system of special support skills that were learned and equipped over the course of the game as certain conditions were met. While Abyss allowed the player to equip any and all skills that a character had learned, Tales of Vesperia seems to be taking an approach more reminiscent of Final Fantasy IX, where each of these skills comes associated with a cost, and skills can only be equipped so long as the resource for this cost is not exceeded. In Vesperia's case, this resource is SP, of which my characters had 20.
After closing the menu I headed out to fight some battles, but not before being assaulted by another cutscene. In this scene, poor Karol was cruelly shoved into a dangerous-looking plant by Rita, which promptly released some pollen that stunned the poor kid. This warning would be important in times to come.
After engaging an enemy by touching it on the map a la Symphonia and Abyss, battle began and ended in typical Tales fashion. One thing I did notice was that the control scheme seemed backward. The B button was used for normal attacks while the A button performed special skills. In other Tales games, this has always been the other way around, though this may just be the Japanese control scheme that will be modified for North American release. It took some getting used to.
Veperia's battle system appears to be Abyss's FR-LiMBS, or Free-Range Linear Motion Battle System. By holding the left trigger, I was able to move in full 3D, but after releasing it, motion was restricted to a straight line between me and the enemy. This comes as no surprise and is quite welcome.
And then came the boss. The very difficult, obscenely strong boss. Personally, I've come to the opinion that this boss was not meant to be beaten, but it did give a good example of what to expect from combat in Tales of Vesperia. Ally AI is quite smart, and I was pleased to see that they would automatically attempt to use Life Bottles on fallen comrades, which helped keep the battles flowing. I also tried out the overlimit system, which is outstanding. The overlimit bar goes up as players unleash attacks, and when it's full, pressing the D-Pad will unleash it, knocking back enemies and granting the user temporarily improved strength. Not only do attacks hit harder, but the character doesn't stagger from being struck, and combos are infinitely prolonged. So long as it lasts, the character can keep attacking indefinitely. Unless, of course, he's knocked out — a fate that unfortunately was thrust upon me.
Using a Magic Lens on this boss, a giant dog monster who spawns baby dogs, I found his health to be 25,000, a daunting sum, particularly when he hits so hard. Attempting to simply stay alive was difficult enough, but if this boss can be beaten, I expect there's a trick to it. Recall the flowers mentioned earlier? During this battle, some of these flowers are located on the outer edges of the battlefield. Targeting and striking these flowers causes them to unleash their pollen, stunning anything nearby, including the boss. This kind of environmental hazard is definitely a new thing for the Tales series, and hopefully it will be a feature throughout the game.
After my embarassing defeat, with the boss not even half-dead, a simple "Coming Soon" banner washes over the screen and the demo restarts. This demo was painfully short, lasting barely half an hour, but it does, at least, give us some insight as to what we can expect from the game come August. The skills system looks interesting, and the characters seem to be the same kind of loveable cast that Namco always brings to the table. Just as Symphonia started a new generation of Tales titles with a bang, it seems Vesperia will be doing the same for this one.