We recently received a previewable version of Namco's Tales of Symphonia, the Japanese developer's GameCube role-playing game that marks the fourth installment in the Tales series. The game was released in Japan late last year, but it won't actually be hitting our shores until this July. Though we've had a chance to spend bits of time with work-in-progress versions of the game, we haven't had the opportunity to sink our teeth into the proper game until now. Our near-final US build of the game gave us a good idea of what to expect when the final version hits store shelves this July.
You'll play as a young boy named Lloyd Irving, who, like most RPG heroes, gets sucked into a fantastic adventure filled with excitement and danger. The main reason for Lloyd's misadventures is his friend Collet Brunel, a young shaman who is slated to be "the Chosen One" among her people and who will restore the balance of mana in the land (there's a pretty major shortage) and keep her people safe. Lloyd, overly helpful sap that he is, offers to look out for Collet at the start of the game and escort her to the local temple when the time for her to take on her duties as the Chosen One comes up. Unfortunately, as any veteran RPG player can tell you, being helpful is just asking for trouble, which is what Lloyd and his friend Genis Sage discover as the adventure kicks into high gear.
The early part of the game is devoted to easing you into the various gameplay systems at work during your adventure. Tales of Symphonia follows most of the bullet points you'd expect to find in an RPG. You'll explore towns, interact with non-player characters, travel via a 3D overworld map that features visible enemies, engage in combat, and navigate puzzle-filled dungeons that will force you to use your brain. Symphonia has a few distinguishing characteristics that keep it from blending into the RPG pack. You'll hear an impressive amount of quality voice work performed by a seasoned cast of pros, which is a rare but welcome occurrence on the GameCube. As far as gameplay goes, Tales of Symphonia will feature "skits," which are 2D sequences starring your party's heads in which everyone talks to one another to offer some insight into the story or side quests that affect character relations. The skits will be events you can trigger with the Z button at specific locations in your travels.
The combat in Symphonia is a fun, action-focused, button-mashing affair that is based on the "linear motion battle system" the Tales games are known for. The essentially 2D system has you pressing the A and B buttons to attack an enemy on a 2D plane. The A button is assigned to your characters' normal attacks, while the B button will let you perform their unique tech attacks. As you level up your party, your crew will earn new techs you can assign to the B button. You'll be able to assign up to five different attacks to the button by using a direction on the D pad to select from that character's available attacks. However, hacking and slashing will get you only so far as you get further in the game. Thankfully you'll be able to defend with the X button and rummage through your items with the Y button if you need some healing. When you've built up enough of a charge, you can trigger a special attack with the Z button.
The right trigger will let you pause combat briefly and use the analog stick to change your current target, which lets you direct your attacks to the foes that they'll be the most effective against. For example, why bother doing minimal damage on a ghost with Lloyd's sword attacks when Genis' magic can kick them where it counts? Another distinctive element in Tales of Symphonia's gameplay is its cooking system, which lets certain characters make treats for the party at the end of battle if they have the right ingredients on hand. While Symphonia's cooking system isn't a totally original concept--quite a few RPGs have done it before--we have to admit we're suckers for any game that offers you a sandwich-making option at the end of a battle.
The overall presentation in the game is coming together nicely, and the graphics are looking good. Tales of Symphonia has received a cel-shaded makeover that retains the charm of its 2D roots while moving into 3D. Lloyd and the gang are clean and detailed and animate nicely. The environments offer much the same in terms of art and detail, which works well. The 3D overworld map is nicely done, and the game doesn't appear to slow down as much as its Japanese predecessor, although we're still early into the adventure. The audio in the game is well done and, in addition to the impressive voice work, offers a good selection of tunes to accompany your adventure.
From what we've seen so far, Tales of Symphonia is just what the doctor ordered for RPG-starved GameCube owners. The two-disc game offers a meaty quest that looks good and plays well. We're pretty pleased by how the game has come together for its US release. Anyone looking for an RPG fix on the GameCube would do well to keep an eye out for Tales of Symphonia when it ships for the GameCube this July. Until then, keep a look out for another update on the game soon.