Namco Bandai dropped by recently with a yet-to-be-translated copy of Tales of the Abyss to show us how the latest game in this classic role-playing game series is turning out. Though we didn't have the opportunity to spend as much time fiddling with the gameplay as we would've liked, we did get to see a lot of what it has to offer, from sections near both the beginning and the end of the game.
Tales of the Abyss, which derives most of its influence from Tales of Symphonia, even down to using the exact same development team, begins with a story completely different from all of the previous games in the Tales series. It's not entirely a stand-alone product, however, since people who have played games such as Symphonia will definitely be able to jump right into Abyss, quickly adapting to the game's style and noticing that some of the language and skill names, for example, have carried over.
You begin the story as Luke fon Fabre, the young son of a Duke (and yes, we've made the Duke Luke joke already) who was kidnapped and has no recollection of his life before the kidnapping. Confined to wander around his father's impressive mansion, Luke eventually meets up with a woman named Tear, and their introduction inspires some kind of rift phenomenon, which transports the two off into the world, far away from everything Luke has ever known. Conveniently, you're able to learn about the world as Luke does--observing his reactions as he first witnesses less-than-everyday occurrences like brutal murders. Unlike previous games, Tales of the Abyss features a more realistic presentation of character reactions, zooming in on their faces to show their expressions, for example.
True to form, Tales of the Abyss looks and feels quite a bit like an anime, favoring in-game cutscenes and skits over extensive cinematics, although there are approximately 20 minutes of cinematics in the game. The cast of characters, varying from the adorable cheegle, Mieu, to the stoic necromancer, Jade, provide worthy backup for the combat-focused Luke and can be commandeered either by the artificial intelligence, you, or up to three friends in the game's four-player multiplayer.
The best way to attack the game, as you would expect, is to use a combination of strike artes and fonic artes (the game's magic abilities, which are divided into seven of the traditional elements: fire, water, light, and so on) among your party of characters. As previously mentioned, Luke is predominately strike artes-focused, but even he will rely heavily on the newly implemented Field of Fonons gameplay mechanic. As you fight, and characters use elemental-based attacks, a ring corresponding to that element will appear on the field. Once the ring has been charged (by using the elemental spells), players can stand inside the ring and supercharge their attacks. Combine this effect with a smart application of elemental attacks (fire will not fight fire, for instance), and you have a rather effective method of dealing with enemies in a constantly interesting way.
Also bear in mind that you can use your enemies' Field of Fonons (and they yours), so it seems that there might be tactical advantages to using these sparingly now and then. If you're not playing with friends, you can map the four directions on the directional pad and the four directions on the right analog stick to correspond to four hotkeyed spells for you and your AI, respectively, so you can control all of the action with the controller pretty easily. Although we didn't spend much time in the fighting sequences, the Namco Bandai representative (whose save was logged in at 95 hours) explained that he found himself managing the AI quite a bit throughout the entire game.
Further character management comes in the form of the capacity cores, which influence the types of statistics your character acquires when he or she levels up. There are more than 20 different capacity cores in the game, and each one has a different balance of physical/fonic attacks/defense points, so you can customize your character pretty freely, all the while monitoring your character's progress by an onscreen indicator that shows how much of each statistic your character currently has. As your characters level up, they will unlock up to 80 AD (additional) skills in the game, not the least of which is the ability to turn on free run in the battlefield, which lets you move all around, unlike the straight-line combat of Symphonia. There are also fon slot chambers, which grant you the ability to add special effects to your skills in battle. The four colors of red, blue, green, and yellow offer different traits to your skills, so, for example, red will give power to your skill (increased damage for an attack, more points for a heal).
Making its triumphant return to the game is the ability to cook, which is one of the things we were most excited to see in Tales of the Abyss. Titles like "necromancer" and "cook" affect your character and give you the ability to unlock additional costumes (like swimsuits and formal wear). Though there's no wonder chef in this game, you will be able to cook after most of your battles, creating tasty delicacies each time.
Though Tales of the Abyss has been out since late last year in Japan, Namco Bandai promises exclusive content for the US release in the fall of this year. We don't know what that content will be yet, but we look forward to spending more time with this game and unveiling more of its secrets as we learn them.