Namco is set to release the next installment in its Tales RPG series in the US with Tales of Destiny 2. Like all good Japanese RPG series, TOD2's US release has a unique history behind it. The game is actually the third entry in the series, which began in 1996 on the Super Famicom in Japan with Tales of Phantasia. The series was introduced to Western audiences in 1998 with its second installment, called Tales of Destiny, on the PSOne. Although it looked a bit primitive compared to other RPGs on the market at the time, TOD was received well enough to encourage Namco to bring over the latest installment of the game. We managed to spend a good chunk of time with a preview build Namco sent us, and we came away pleased with the direction the game is headed.
The game opens in the land of Inferia as childhood friends Reid Hershel and Farah Oersted witness the arrival of Meredy, a mysterious stranger, who crash-lands her UFO in a nearby forest. Upon investigating the crash site, they discover a wide-eyed purple-haired stranger, speaking an unknown language, and her cute gibberish-spouting pet. Unable to communicate with her, Reid and Farah take her to their village, Rasheans. Trouble follows after they discover Meredy is from Celestia, Inferia's sister world, which has been out of contact with Celestia for 2000 years. A few battles and an expulsion from their town later, Reid and Farah find themselves on a journey to discover who Meredy is and why she came to their world. This being an RPG, you just know the trio will end up saving the world.
Players familiar with the original title will appreciate the game's overhauled look. A new graphics engine offers colorful, detailed character sprites that are well animated. The prerendered environments in the game are clean and full of little touches to keep things interesting. Fireplaces emit smoke, coffeepots let off steam, characters are reflected in mirrors, trees and grass move in the breeze, lakes and waterfalls run, and transparencies are used to simulate fog. Anyone in the mood for a chuckle should leave Reid idle on the world map for several minutes and witness his displeasure. The world map itself offers night and day cycles as you head out on your journeys--cycling through several shades of color to reflect the sun's movement. During combat, attack and spell effects are solid, making effective use of color and lighting.
In-game voices and music have been improved, thanks to the more-liberal use of voice and the enhanced score. Reid, Farah, Meredy, and company are a very chatty bunch, making extended speeches throughout the game. At the moment the voice acting is pretty spotty due to some unenthusiastic emoting, so hopefully the voices in our build aren't final. However, voice during combat is a bit better because of its more-animated delivery. Fortunately voice can be switched off in the game's options menu, if it becomes too grating, so it's not that big of an issue. While the voice work may not please everyone, the game's score sounds much better than the original score, because it no longer has the original's somewhat tinny and hollow quality. And the pieces offer subtle nuances, which work well.
In addition to the graphics engine and sound, gameplay has been tweaked as well. The game's unique combat engine offers battles fought on a 2D plane, à la Street Fighter. You can use skills you've learned by leveling up and performing combos on enemies. The quicker you can end a fight, the higher the bonus you can earn at the end of a fight. Combat in TOD2 is significantly faster than in TOD, and it feels better overall. You can have a party of up to four characters, including yourself, in a battle. By adjusting the strategy and formation settings in the options menu, you can customize your party's fighting tactics to a degree. With a second controller or multitap, it's actually possible to have your friends control the other members of your party. While it can get a bit crowded and confusing onscreen with four people whaling on anything that moves, it's definitely a nice touch.
Some options from the original game have also been tweaked, resulting in a more streamlined feel. For example, in addition to the healing and fireball skills, which were also in the first game, cooking is now an option. It can be used to benefit more than one character; preparing a sandwich, for example, can restore health and technique points to the entire party. The use of swordians for skills is gone; instead you can use elementals called craymels. Once you acquire a craymel cage, you will be able to hold the elemental and use skills related to it, much like with the swordians from TOD. Craymels can also be used to perform special attacks under the proper conditions.
So far, the game plays very well. Our preview build of the first disc offered a well-paced first act that eased us into the tweaks to the game engine. The flow of the game is fairly linear, and the gameplay seems to lean a bit more toward action than the original TOD did. Whereas the first segment in TOD had you racing around searching for a sword and facing a block-pushing puzzle, TOD2 throws you right into combat on your way to finding Meredy's ship. It's a subtle difference that seems to work better at getting you into the game.
So far, Tales of Destiny 2 seems to be a solid improvement from the original, and it may offer a good change of pace from the PSOne's offerings when it's released this September.