The Tales series has had a good run. While the series doesn’t have as many entries as say, the ironically-named Final Fantasy, 14 games is nothing to sneeze at, with eight of these being localised for the English-speaking market. Previously being released as a Wii game in Japan all the way back in 2009, the latest to hit our shores, Tales of Graces f, is an enhanced version of the game for the PlayStation 3. Was it worth the wait? Certainly.
Tales of Graces follows the story of Asbel Lhant who decides to become a knight after a tragic childhood incident. Along with a motley crew (after all, is there any other kind of crew in a Japanese RPG?), he gradually finds himself involved in politics, saving the world and a quest to solve the mystery behind his amnesiac childhood friend, Sophie. Having not known what to expect about Graces’ story, I was pleased to see that the story works beyond a typical fantasy setting, although the game’s core theme of friendship does get overly sugary, especially with the game cramming it down your throat whenever it gets the chance. The cast is a bit of a mixed bag too, sometimes being capable of breaking character moulds and quipping grin-inducing witticisms but is at other times dull. As a result of the characters’ personalities there are some bizarre moments in the narrative which seem to defy logic. Still, Graces doesn’t let up on opportunities to develop its characters, with skits involving them musing about their current situation or some part of the scenery, and amusing chatter when the battle victory screen is displayed.
The world of Ephinea is brought to life by pleasant, colourful graphics and you would be forgiven for thinking Graces was never a Wii title. As far as visuals for a JRPG go however, there’s nothing particularly special here. Similarly, the music is good enough and suits Asbel’s epic journey, but fans of Motoi Sakuraba will note that it’s very similar to his previous soundtracks. The same can be said of the voice-acting; while adequate, there are occasional lapses in both suitability and scenes that are actually voiced.
With the quality of the writing varying during the course of the game and the graphics and audio being standard for the genre, Graces’ gameplay is the best thing about it. Combat takes place in real-time, with every action you take, such as attacking and dodging, costing Chain Capacity (CC), apart from standard movement and blocking. Much like a fighting game, tilting the stick in different directions will allow you to perform different attacks, which all cost varying amounts of CC and can be chained into combos. The skills used to pull off attacks in Graces are known as ‘artes’, which are categorised into two types, the ever original A and B. These types, combined with the fact that each arte has different attributes, is important when trying to exploit enemies’ weaknesses. For your AI-controlled teammates, these situations can fall in your hands too as you are able to change their battle strategy in significant depth, or even activate or deactivate their artes.
Throughout the game, more artes can be unlocked and even powered up by gaining and levelling Titles up, similar to the jobs system from Final Fantasy Tactics. Apart from looking flashy and adding more variety to your pool of attacks, using different types of artes in combos can improve the spoils of battle. Also interesting to note in Graces is the ability to switch between your characters, although this is entirely optional and the game didn’t explicitly tell me it was possible until I only had one character in my party. Does this all sound complicated? It doesn’t need to be. Graces has a number of difficulty levels and at its most basic, you can more or less get away with simply button mashing and tilting the control stick willy-nilly, although the depth and strategy of the battle system means that you can expect to be absolutely slaughtered if you try that tactic on a higher difficulty level. I dare say it may even be possible to do alright at the game on the easiest setting without having to play around with artes and character strategies – but hey, that’s half the fun of the game.
There are other enjoyable elements of Graces, such as Dualizing, an extensive if somewhat basic crafting system. As the name suggests, Dualizing involves combining two items (for a fee) to make a better item. It can be performed on almost anything, including otherwise useless items, which makes for a nice bit of cash to spend on new equipment and weapons. Speaking of equipment and weapons, they can be Dualized too, but with crystals that boost certain stats and add new attributes, such as increasing the player’s HP or accuracy. Use a crystal with one for long enough and they can be Dualized with another character’s crystal, forming an equippable hybrid of the two and encouraging players to try out interesting new combinations. Graces also makes use of the very interesting Eleth mixer, which essentially creates items based on certain requirements. For example, by telling the Eleth mixer that you want a certain object, ensuring that you have enough Eleth to actually make it and by walking around for long enough, there is a small chance that your mixer will create that item. Other items are more difficult to make as they can only be generated after fulfilling conditions after a battle, such as by having less than 30% of the team’s HP.
Exploration is, of course, the other major component of Graces gameplay. The developer does a good job of making Ephinea feel like a large, sprawling world, with a fair bit of travelling to be done by boat. Tying in with the occasionally puzzling story, there does seem to be an large amount of backtracking, although most of the pain is taken out of it by accessing a Turtlez Transport, which allows you to travel to major destinations. Which brings me to one of my major gripes about the game – the map. On the overworld or in towns, Graces makes very clever use of the R1 button, allowing you to see the areas around you in relation to the area you are in. Once you enter a building however, this feature is no longer available. I can understand why you wouldn’t make this accessible in dungeons, but why not in other buildings? Similarly, the map is horrible and displays information in impressive but insufficient detail; while you can see the positions of Towns, Dungeons and other landmarks, you can’t see the necessary path you need to take to get to your next destination and only have vague direction to go off.
Tales of Graces is a solid entry in the Tales series, with its interesting, if somewhat irksome cast and story. The attention to detail in the game’s battle system is definitely what makes it shine, making it highly accessible to newcomers and action RPG casuals and the hardcore alike. If this is the direction the Tales series is moving in, it’ll be very exciting to see what will be next, especially with the upcoming Tales of Xilia and its sequel. 14 might seem like a huge number of games to be compared to some series, but for Tales, it feels like we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.