Tales of Symphonia for the Gamecube was kind of a big deal. Not only did it gracefully bring the Tales series into full 3D but it also gave the series more relevance in the West. Given these big shoes to fill, Tales of the Abyss isn't revolutionary, but the good news is that it is a continuation of much of what Symphonia did well: it has an engaging story with charismatic characters, a battle system that has fun as its number one priority, and reasonably attractive visuals. Unfortunately, it doesn't retain Symphonia's fairly strong pacing due to some highly annoying backtracking, but if you've played other games in the series and you're looking for a new Tales adventure to sink you're teeth into, tracking down a copy of this game is a no brainer. If you're just looking for a good time, Tales of the Abyss will also satisfy. This is a role playing game that is extremely accessible and can appeal to both fans of RPGs and fans of action games.
Tales of the Abyss centers around Luke Von Fabre, the sheltered and immature son of the King of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear's sister. Strangely, Luke is not allowed outside of the castle because he was kidnapped and suffered amnesia as a result. One day, when Luke's mentor Vaan is to depart to search for an important religious leader named "Fon Master Ion," a woman named Tear appears and attempts to assassinate him. Luke intervenes and somehow the interaction between him and tear trigger a phenomenon known as a "hyperresonance," which sends both of them far away from home. Tear attempts to bring Luke back to Kimlasca but during their travels the two are caught up in a war between Kimlasca and a nation called Malkuth. The story gets much more complicated and involved, but to give away any of the development would ruin the game's exciting twist and turns. Honestly, if you're after a story with a lot of surprises and constant excitement, you really can't do much better than Tales of the Abyss. The game throws twist after twist at you as if they're going out of style. This might seem like it could get exhausting, but the game balances them with an abundance of leisurely character interaction and development. While Luke starts out as a whiny punk who you will despise, the characters in Tales of the Abyss are immensely charismatic. They have tons of vivid lines, they banter with each other in believable ways, they have compelling motivations and back stories, and they are voiced with panache even if JRPG awkwardness often sets in. Like other Tales games, the game lets you partake in "skits," which are little dialogue sequences that you can choose to ignore if you want. Some of these skits were extremely charming and quite funny, but most of them are uninteresting and they frequently disrupt the flow of exploration. The developers should have cut the five hundred or so skits down to about a hundred. Near the end of the game I began ignoring them outright.
While Tales of the Abyss's story is great in a lot of ways and hits all the right notes, it does overstay its welcome. The game takes between 50 and 60 hours to complete, but this number could have easily been reduced by 10 with absolutely no damage to narrative's development. After awhile, you get the sense that the developers artificially expanded the story's length by making the characters jump through a lot of redundant hoops to achieve their ultimate goal. This artificial lengthening of the game doesn't just affect the story, it also affects the overall pacing of the game. For the first half of the game, Tales of the Abyss is expertly paced, serving up new things and places to see like any good RPG should and tailoring its rather short stress free dungeons to fun and accessibility rather than making them long labyrinthian tests of survival, but after about the halfway point, the game begins requiring you to backtrack and backtrack and backtrack. This could easily be overlooked if the problem was mild since most RPGs require a certain amount of backtracking, but Tales of the Abyss is downright extreme about it. You'll visit some places five or six times, ensuring that you'll be absolutely sick of them by the end of the game. This is a shame because the towns and environments are actually quite charming with a kind of warm, homey ambiance resulting from the game's use of soft, bright colors and its vaguely cartoony aesthetic. In short, the game just has way too much filler and would have benefited greatly from judicious cutting.
Gameplay is perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Tales series and Tales of the Abyss doesn't disappoint. The action here is real-time and action-intensive, meaning that it plays more like a fighting game than a traditional RPG; you can dodge, counter, and parry via real-time button presses. Like Tales of Symphonia, you are initially confined to an axis of movement, but in a new development, you can push a button to go into free roam, which makes the system more flexible. The action in Abyss is fast and frantic and you'll have to chain together "artes," which are basically special attacks mapped to the directional buttons, to dish out maximum damage. Your fellow party members are controlled by the game's friendly AI. You have both a white mage and black mage character (and some additional fighters) and the AI is exceptionally competent, which means that you rely on the AI to heal you at the right times in the majority of situations. In the situations in which your healer doesn't heal in time, you can go into the battle menu and do it manually. You can also switch characters should the need arise. Furthermore, the game adds a featured called "fields of fonons," which are little circular elemental zones on the battle field that are created by your characters using a lot of elemental black magic. You can move into these zones and trigger special elemental attacks, which look awesome and do a lot of damage. While fonon fields don't set the world of RPG battle systems on fire, I thought that it was extremely fun to dart over to the circular zones before they faded away, giving the battles an extra layer of tension. And while the game is easy enough that many fights can be won through button mashing, the boss fights can be thrilling and tense and the controls feel so right that combat is always tons of fun. I actually went out of my way to engage in as many battles as I could.
Customization is pretty standard stuff with the usual increase of stats through purchasing/putting on new equipment and leveling. You learn tons of artes and support skills as you reach new levels and you can select the ones you want to bring into battle. One twist was the complex capacity core system. By utilizing it, you can give certain stats priority, getting an extra strength, defense, speed, etc. bonus at every new level. I never messed around with it too much because the game was easy enough that there was no need for stat bonuses, but it's a nice little system for those who enjoy that kind of thing.
Visually, Tales of the Abyss is a mixed bag. It has excellent and distinctive character designs; its soft oil pastel-like colors are very easy on the eyes; and the battle effects are delightfully flashy. On the other hand, the character models lack detail and the textures are frequently quite simple. This is not a problem in towns and dungeons as the simple textures complement the soft color palette in a way that's pleasing, but the world map is jarringly ugly with so little detail that you would be forgiven for thinking that the game has texture load-in problems and that the rest of the details will load in momentarily. Unfortunately, the world map is really that barren and washed out and what makes this worse is that the framerate gets super choppy when traversing it, which is puzzling considering that there is absolutely nothing visually impressive going on. It would be one thing to put up with choppiness for the sake of eye candy but Tales of the Abyss really has no excuse for such poor performance in any area of the game, much less the simple world map. Fortunately, the amazing anime cutscenes give the game some visual punch in spite of the overall quaintness of the visual presentation.
The sound design is far more consistent. The sound effects are perfectly serviceable, the voice acting is enthusiastic, and the game has more than its fair share of good songs. I especially dig the cheesy-but-epic guitar music that accompanies the game's amazing intro video.
Tales of the Abyss is a lengthy game with a large world, which is value enough, but the game has a ton of sidequests and mini games as well. Surprisingly, the gambling mini games that you encounter in an in-game casino are quite fun. Poker is especially addictive.
Despite some of its visual/performance issues, its gratuitous backtracking, and the lack of challenge, Tales of the Abyss is an immensely fun and accessible RPG with an exciting story and delightful characters. Tales of Symphonia is the more graceful game overall, but Tales of the Abyss is a worthy adventure on its own, and there are just enough improvements to the battle system that it doesn't feel like Symphonia 2.5. If you're a fan of RPGs or even action games and you can stomach some unfortunate padding and filler, you'll have a hell of a time with Tales of the Abyss.