While never really recognized as a role-playing-game-friendly platform, the Xbox 360 is getting more and more attention on the role-playing front these days. The latest such boon is Tales of Vesperia, the newest installment of Namco Bandai's venerable Tales series and the first to hit the 360. While a lot of story details are still locked away, our hands-on time with the game has left us decidedly optimistic about exploring this attractive new world.
The first aspect of this game that springs out and grabs you by the retinas is the look, which of course features a lot of Japanese anime-inspired design. The anime studio Production I.G. (known for producing the television series version of Ghost in the Shell) provided an attractive cinematic intro accompanied by a catchy tune voiced by Japanese vocalist Bonnie Pink. The characters in the game are bright, as well as detailed and expressive with fluid animation, with little in the way of jagged edges from what we could see. The graphical punch provided by the 360 seems put to good use--the smoothness of movement and the lack of any prominent cel-shaded type of outlines makes some of the in-engine scenes approach the look of a true animated film. This was especially evident against the detailed environs of cities and the dungeon we were shown. The Shaikos Ruins were positively aglow with soft blues and greens, lending an almost watercolor backdrop with a lot of depth to the scenes as they unfolded. Another city was wrapped around the roots and boughs of a giant tree, replete with lush greenery. We saw a few different types of monsters, from fishlike creatures and bats to large stone golems that loomed and lumbered about; being the good adventurers we were, we admired the monsters briefly before clubbing them into ruin. .
As far as the main narrative goes, we still don't know much, though we did glean some information about the characters and the world they inhabit. The lands of Tales of Vesperia are powered by ancient technology in the form of blastia--mysterious items that are mined from ruins far and wide. They're used as energy sources with a variety of applications, one of the major ones being that they sustain protective barriers around cities to keep nasty fanged beasties out. They've also created a stratified society with sharp divisions between those with access to blastia and those without access.
Yuri, the dashing swordsman at the center of this particular tale, joined an order of knights along with his best buddy Flynn with the noble aim of helping the people. While Yuri became quickly disillusioned with the status quo and left to pursue some freelance justice work, Flynn remains a knight, so the two friends apparently end up bumping heads quite a bit. Their compatriots in the game include Estelle, a naive young maiden who spent her time in our demo trying to warn Flynn about some dire news; Rita, a spunky young researcher who denies vehemently that she's a blastia thief; and Repede, a stately canine who carries the pipe of his former master clamped in his jaws at all times. We don't know much about how they all come together yet, but it'll be interesting to see the dynamics of this particular crew. In an added touch, the frequent character interaction in the game is all fully voiced, including the world map conversations you can trigger by hanging around. What voice we heard had good delivery to it, which is nice because the character interactions are historically a big part of Tales games.
If you've played a game in the series before, the gameplay should be very familiar--all characters in your party freely roam the battlefield while you control the main character, and you can move in on foes to execute normal attacks or chain together special moves, called artes. In addition to each character's special artes, your characters can learn skills by equipping weapons, which have extra attributes (such as increased defense). Initially, you'll only have the skills if you have the items equipped, but as you fight battles, you'll gain points toward skills, and eventually, you'll learn the skill outright regardless of whether you're wearing the weapon or not. Fights seem typical of Tales games gone by--fast-paced, action-oriented, and forgiving of button mashing as you're learning the ropes. You'll get into fights by running into monsters on the map, and in an added twist, if you're nearby multiple groups of monsters, you'll end up chaining them together to fight the whole pack. We also participated in some multiplayer action because the game supports up to four players, letting each player control a character on the battlefield. The controls are the same as normal play, and it seems like a neat way to allow friends or family in on the monster-slashing good times.
In dungeons, you'll be able to gain access to a ring that shoots magical energy. This is used in puzzles to activate special crests that power doors or stairways and to pester the enemies around you. If you shoot roaming monsters with your ring, you can stun them for a battle advantage, freeze them in fear, or actually enrage them further so that they chase you looking for a fight.
As far as extras go, we're happy to note that cooking has remained a series fixture, letting you create delicious and restorative dishes from ingredients dropped by the creatures you encounter. You'll also be able to craft items and armor, with non-player characters helpfully available in the game to give you tips. They'll tell you what materials to combine to make certain items (leaving out some of the guesswork and guide reading that can plague such options) and let you know what stats to expect ahead of time, so you can plan your crafting activities wisely.
Tales of Vesperia looks like an eye-pleasing and solid new installment of the series that's right at home on the Xbox 360. Fans of the series and the Japanese role-playing games should definitely keep this game on their adventure-seeking radar. The game is currently anticipated for release in late August, so stay tuned to this gamespace for further updates on Yuri and his pals.