After what seems like an interminable wait, Tales of Symphonia has finally gone gold...
Role-playing games have been something of a Holy Grail for fans of the genre on the GameCube, since the system's software landscape has suffered from a dearth of them, with a few notable exceptions. But the wait will soon be over, because the latest installment in Namco's venerable Tales series of RPGs is at last poised to leap onto store shelves. We've acquired the finished version, and after sinking some hours into the world of Tales of Symphonia, it looks like patient GameCube RPG fans will be well rewarded for their forbearance.
The most notable aspect of the game is its battle system, which, in the fashion of the other titles in the Tales series, eschews the traditional turn-based system that is virtually ubiquitous in console role-playing games in favor of real-time brawling. You can have up to four characters participating in a fight at any given time, and while typically you're only directly controlling a single character (Lloyd), pressing the Y button will bring up a set of menus that you can use to issue orders to your teammates. Battles take place in fields that are functionally 2D, so you're able to range forward and back to advance upon your foes, as well as escape their lines of fire. Lloyd can perform a standard melee attack with the A button, and he can perform special abilities when you press the B button and an assigned direction on the control pad.
When you combine standard and special moves with defensive moves, blocking, and the ability to run, the results present a very fast, frenetic, free-flowing experience that affords you lots of game control. Outside of battle, you'll be able to set the artificial intelligence for your teammates individually, which allows you to give them complex arrays of orders to follow that are usually performed well when you get into battles. You'll find that you rarely have to baby-sit your teammates, which contributes to streamlined fights with very little menu time. The combination of button mashing and on-the-fly strategy works out quite well.
Also, Tales of Symphonia doesn't have random battles. In dungeons and on the world map, you'll see both detailed and simple representations of monsters that you can typically avoid quite easily. Even early on in the game, though, it's very apparent that if you avoid too many battles, you can end up falling into the trap of having little funds and anemic characters. Leveling up is still required, though the game pretty much creates a situation where you get to choose which enemies you engage and when. In a genre where engaging monsters every five to seven steps can be typical, it's very nice to have the freedom of choice.
The story progresses mostly through in-game cutscenes, though at times on the world map, you'll see an icon that directs you to press the Z button. If you do so, you'll get to witness a text skit between two or more members of your party, which helps flesh out the characters and their relationships with one another. There are other extras in the game too, like the cooking system, which lets you combine various food items--according to recipes--to make particular dishes. If you have the right selection of foods, you can cook directly after battles. Doing so can restore the hit points of your entire party, depending on the dish you've made. (In our wanderings so far, we've made an enormous number of sandwiches.)
With bright, colorful environments and characters, the game (so far) has been visually pleasing. The cel-shading on individual characters gives them a very anime look, with some pointy hairstyles and wide, round eyes being the norm. While roaming the world map, there seems to be a slight amount of slowdown, possibly attributable to all the monster graphics that pop up and fade away as you near them and then move past them. Aside from this, the game sounds good, and the voices are all earnestly done.
From the initial hours we've spent with Tales of Symphonia, it seems like a promisingly solid role-playing game with a lot of appeal. That said, we've just begun to scratch the surface, so you can expect a more thorough reckoning in our review that will come out closer to the game's release. You'll have to wait a bit longer for the retail version, but feel free to tide yourself over, in the meantime, with our previous coverage of the game--and be sure to check out some fresh screenshots and movies as well. Tales of Symphonia is currently due on shelves in early July.