Like the cast, Tales of the abyss has some flaws but is too charming and fun for any RPG lover to ignore.
The game starts with a scene of the game's protagonist, Luke von Fabre, waking up in his room. Rather than some common farm boy, Luke is the son of the Duke von Fabre, a nobleman in the kingdom of Kimlasca- Lanvaldear. And it isn't long before we are introduced to his personality… He is abrasive and rude to his servant, Guy, as well as the other maids and help. The only person he really fees respect for is his Master Van, the guy that helps him practice his swordplay. After a few events, a mysterious female attacker named Tear appears seemingly out of nowhere and attacks Van for an unknown reason. However, something inside Luke reacts with Tear, and the two of them are teleported out into the wild.
The story starts out small. In the beginning, it's about operating behind the Malkuth Empire lines and trying to get Luke back home to Baticul. As you can imagine, nothing goes as planned, and the characters are drawn into a greater conflict. Along the way, you'll meet up with an excellent cast. In addition to Luke and Tear, there's Anise, the young and money obsessed Fon Master Guardian; Jade, the bitingly sarcastic colonel who may or may not have a sadistic side; Natalia, the loyal but troubled princess; and the aforementioned Guy, who isn't who he seems to be. Each character has an incredibly well written and distinct personality, giving them all their own flavor and making them uniquely endearing. None of them are perfect, as you'll come to find out as the game progresses. But the flaws are what makes them all the more likeable and believable. There aren't many games where the writers really took their time in creating the cast, but Tales of the Abyss is one of them. The strong cast also aids in the storytelling. Even when the game slows down a bit and there's not much happening, the character interactions will compel you to keep playing.
This is thanks to the great script. Everywhere you go, the people will talk in believable ways. This goes double for the many story scenes. Many games struggle to create really realistic sounding dialogue, but this game doesn't. Each character consistently talks in a certain way, but without feeling contrived. Rather, it all feels quite natural, even when the game is throwing around its extensive fantasy jargon.
The game is further elevated thanks to its mostly excellent voice acting. While walking around towns is the standard JRPG fare (speech bubbles and whatnot), there are a high quantity of scenes in the game that feature full voice acting from all the characters. And, thankfully, it's almost all quite good. There is the odd bit of poor acting here and there, but for the most part the actors all do a good job of breathing life into their characters.
The music is, in general, also good. Many of the tunes are relaxing in the towns (and each one has their own distinct theme, which is a nice touch) and the battle music gets the job done. The issue with it is that none of it is terribly memorable. That's not to say it's bad by any means, but, sadly, you aren't likely to find yourself humming any of the themes. Although, there is a moment very near the end of the game that uses one of the common themes in a truly extraordinary way. It takes a memorable fight and amps up the drama to eleven.
The gameplay is quite strong. Early on, you are introduced to the many basic functions of combat. Rather than standard turn based gameplay, you battle almost like in one of Namco's Soul Calibur games. You run around a field, blocking and attacking when needed. In the beginning, you start out very weak. But, like any RPG, you eventually learn more moves and skills to buff your characters. Rather than learning new moves normally when you level up, the Capacity Core equipped to your character determines their moves. In this game, special moves are, rather, called Artes, and each set varies from character to character. For instance, Luke is a melee oriented character, so he will learn many moves for his sword. Additionally, he is best suited to a Capacity Core that ups physical attack and agility. On the other hand, Tear is primarily a healer, so she will be learning support moves along with some offensive ones. Capacity Cores add a small but significant level of customization to the proceedings.
There are also Skills that each character can learn. Unlike Artes, different characters can generally have the same Skills. These are passive abilities that can offer some good buffs. Some of them might improve a character's ability to prevent knock back damage, while another might allow them to charge their strength. These are also small but meaningful upgrades that add to the depth of combat.
Outside that, you can pursue the main story. Typically, each objective boils down to going through a dungeon of some sort and getting an item or beating a boss. Speaking of, the battles in this game are quite challenging at times, especially near the end of the game. Where many enemy encounters can be overcome without too much thinking, the bosses require some careful planning if you hope to emerge victorious. They can, typically, overpower a single character with ease, which is why it's important to learn when to strike and when to hang back.
There's also a good amount of side content to pursue. While there are times where the story pushes you along with little room for deviation, there are also times where it really opens up, giving the player a slew of useful side tasks to perform. The rewards are, typically, quite helpful; one late in the game allows for increased mobility of your airship, which you can land anywhere. There are also a myriad of extra Titles and costumes to unlock, some of which are very amusing and humorous.
The game isn't perfect, though. As mentioned above, the music, while serviceable, isn't hugely memorable (save for a few tunes). There are various Skits you can access in the game (they usually pop up every five minutes or so) which are conversations between characters. These are meant to add more depth to the narrative, which they do. However, there is no voice acting, which is disconcerting. The skits range from funny to touching, but they would have been improved with the voices. Instead, all we get are lines of texts and character expressions in traditional portrait style.
The graphics are also questionable. While the game isn't necessarily bad looking (and it does have a strong artistic style) it isn't great, either. There are tons of really noticeable jagged edges, and the facial expressions are very primitive looking. The animation during scenes also leave something to be desired, and the 3D is mediocre at best.
Finally, there are some pacing issues throughout the story. There are stretches of time where all you do is run from one place to another with seemingly menial tasks. Granted, the story scenes are well written and worth watching, but it can be annoying when you're tasked with going back to the same town you were just at a half hour ago. On top of that, in the beginning of the game, all sorts of foreign fantasy phrases are thrown around with no explanation. It's not until about six hours in that everything is fully explained to you. Why the writers chose to do this is beyond me.
Despite those issues, Tales of the Abyss is a worthy RPG for any fan with a 3DS. It does take a while to get going, but once it does, it's tells a good story enhanced with great characters and writing. The fighting is fun and addictive, and the exploration is worth partaking in. The game also has solid replay value thanks to purchasable New Game + such as double experience or the ability to carry over your Artes. This is on top of the 45- 50 hour playtime. Needless to say, if you love a good RPG (and can tolerate some flaws) then Tales of the Abyss is worth playing. So long and thanks for reading.