Tales of Legendia represents Namco's first foray onto the PlayStation 2 with a sparkling new Tales game, and all the pieces seem to be coming together quite nicely for the North American release. We've delved into the game's initial chapters, and the RPG offers up a personality-packed cast, a high level of graphical polish, and a magical gameworld that we can't wait to explore even further.
The game opens up with two youths on a small ship at sea who seem to be fleeing some unknown foe. Senel Coolidge is a lean warrior with a fluffy shock of gray hair and a facial tattoo, and his sister Shirley is golden-haired and demure, with an apparently weak constitution that can't handle the "poisonous" sea air. After a mysterious flash of golden light, they are suddenly beset by what at first glance appears to be a gigantic vessel towering behind them--only its prow seems to be made of a cliff of solid rock. This was our first glance at the Legacy, a giant "ship" crafted by an ancient civilization. What it actually is is an island on the move, an entire kingdom supported by old and inscrutable magic and lead by the city of Weretes Beacon.
Shortly after washing up on shore, it's apparent that Shirley's in a bad state from having gotten submerged in seawater, although Senel appears unaffected. After a local man shows them to a small freshwater spring, things get curiouser and curiouser as apparently Shirley counts breathing underwater and shining with a strange blue light among her special talents. No sooner does she recover, however, that the local man--the bespectacled scholar Will--takes an interest in her power, but before Senel can so much as say, "Quit staring at my sister," an unnamed stranger appears and demands the girl. As if that wasn't enough, while the three of them are squabbling, a bandit with a giant red wolf waltzes in, grabs Shirley, and takes off. It's quickly evident that Shirley has some kind of super-special RPG heroine power to attract so much attention, but we're left in the dark as to exactly what it is. Will refers to her as a "Merites" or Shining One, a member of an ancient race that could once pilot the Legacy (which currently is aimlessly adrift). But whatever she is, it's clear that Senel's keen to protect her, and he suffers himself to travel with Will to Weretes Beacon in search of clues.
We fought through a number of enemies to get there, and the battle system of Legendia is highly reminiscent of that in other Tales games, featuring a 2D battle plane dotted with monsters for us to face. You'll control the main character manually in battle, while your friends will behave according to how their capable AI is set. Each playable character that we encountered was referred to as an "eren", or people who can use "eres", which seems to be a magic related to combat. Characters strong in melee abilities are called iron eren, while those who are more proficient in magical spells are called crystal eren. When controlling your character, you can run freely left or right and use the X button to hit beasts with quick and simple punch combos; you can press up or down on the left analog stick to aim your attacks to hit high-flying or low-creeping beasts. In addition, you'll be able to focus your eres powers using the circle button, and the various eres skills are what let you deal the most damage.
Each character starts with abilities called base eres, such as Senel's demon fist, an attack which sends a shockwave along the earth to hit foes. You can chain eres with melee combos and with attacks from your party members to pummel your enemies repeatedly and rack up hits. The more you use an eres, the higher your skill level becomes. Once you master a particular eres, you'll eventually be able to combine them for even more powerful attacks--for example, Senel mastered his demon fist and shadow rush (a charging punch) and then learned demon shadow, a move that combined elements of the first two powers. Using eres powers consume technique points, and you'll regain some TP both during fights and after battle.
You can also earn passive stat bonuses for your characters through titles. Titles come about through your battle actions and can be awarded through cutscenes. Senel becomes a "comboist" through successfully using combo attacks and gets an HP bonus, whereas Will earns the reputation of "Old Hot-Head" from another character, and you can the title provides an attack bonus. As you earn multiple titles, you can pick and choose which you'd like to equip for each character.
Fights are randomly encountered but fast-paced and fun for the most part, and you can earn additional experience bonuses for rapidly polishing off your enemies. As you attack, you'll fill a meter at the bottom of the screen called climax. Once that's full, you can hit the L1 button to trigger it, and all the enemies onscreen will freeze for a certain number of seconds while you're free to beat them up as you see fit. This comes in handy for bosses and some particularly tough enemies you can meet while moving through areas. As you roam, there are shadowy bubbles of chaotic energy that denote powerful monsters within. However, the dark energy is also always present where there is better than average treasure, so you can choose to take on the tough enemies for a chance at enhanced goods.
On our journey, we met up with one Norma Beatty, a pushy young girl with a strong penchant for treasure hunting and a talent of absurdly strong earth magic, as well as Chloe Valens, a justice-obsessed lady knight with a ridiculous beret but powerful sword techniques. The characters tend to chat quite a bit, both squabbling during story sequences, chatting in short skits that you can bring up as you roam around the world, and talking to each other during and after battle. With all the talking going on, we came to appreciate very quickly the uniform, excellent voice acting that the game supplies. Namco clearly went to some extra effort to gather up high-quality speech actors, and it absolutely shows. Even the bandit's Southern drawl managed to sound natural and unforced, and that's a feat for any affected accent in a game.
The music for Tales of Legendia is also very rich, coming in almost immediately with a lilting vocal tune for the city of Weretes Beacon that's accompanied by light and smooth orchestral music, and it really sets the tone for the magical, mystical place that the Legacy is. Other music, like battle themes and overworld themes, were also easy to listen to--almost as easy as the game is to look at. The Tales games tend to a polished, detailed graphical style, and Tales of Legendia doesn't seem to disappoint in this regard, either. From the bright, sunny city of Weretes Beacon, spotted with gardens and dominated by a large, rose-colored flowering water fountain; to the glassy and delicate Crystal Forest; to the smoothly animated characters and flashy eres attacks, Legendia has a cohesive and nice look.
Beyond the good looks, the amusing characters, the mysteries of the storyline and the history of the game world, Tales of Legendia also managed to keep intact the series' cooking minigame, so fans can rest assured--you may (and you will) create large numbers of ham sandwiches. Tales of Legendia looks like it'll have plenty to offer Tales fans and RPG fans in general, and has definitely drawn us in so far. You can expect to see Legendia arrive for the PlayStation2 in early February, so keep your eyes on this gamespace for the latest news and media as it becomes available.