Review: Tales of Graces f

TalesOfGracesF

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who reminded us that character is everything. Of course, our naturalist pal was talking about words, deeds and moral consequences, not the ways in which deep and resonant characters can elevate a videogame experience. But we’re pretty sure he’d have agreed that characters are what drives the JRPG bus in Tales of Graces f, the latest offering from Namco’s Tales studio. And before you’ve gotten halfway through this largely charming and strategic adventure, you will, too.

Our story follows the adventures of young Asbel Lhant, a cocky and headstrong lord-in-waiting, and his childhood pals. In the game’s 5-6 hour prologue, Asbel and company discover—cliché alert!–an amnesiac girl with the least practical hairstyle in JRPG history in a hillside meadow near their village. After some gallivanting that introduces the basic gameplay mechanics, an unexpected and devastating tragedy strikes, and suddenly, we’re zipped seven years into the future, to rejoin these kids as they stand on the precipice of adulthood.

Leading with your weakest material doesn’t necessarily seem a surefire strategy for success, but Graces’ fast-forward to the future makes it work, using the kids’ early antics as both a touchstone for their lasting bonds of friendship and a setup for an emotional payoff later in the game. The prologue may have you wondering when the pace is going to pick up—it eventually does—but the initial slog ends up being worth the investment.

Stat-hounds and fans of strategic real-time combat are going to groove on the deep character customization options here. The game deluges you in literally hundreds of titles with which you can equip your characters, some of which add interesting strategic wrinkles and combat artes, some of which just seem like shades of the same color you’ve already seen. If you‘d prefer not to scour your ever-growing titles inventory to track down, say, the Poisonproof title—a decision that could prove fatal depending on the type of enemies your party ends up facing—you can opt to have the game do the choosing for you. That’s a big relief, given the frequency at which you acquire and level up new titles.

Combat’s all about button-pushing and stick-waggling, as the attacks you’ll unleash are mapped to the direction you’re pushing the left analog stick and what type of arte you’ve selected. Winning battles is all about scouting and exploiting enemy weaknesses, so you’ll want to do more than just randomly tap and jerk.

Unlike previous Tales games (Vesperia, Abyss, etc.), blocking, a move executed by holding down the square button, is now an absolutely critical piece of combat. And not just because it’s an obviously useful way to deflect the enemy’s frontal attacks: Holding your block also builds your chain capacity (CC), the meter that governs the number of successive attacks you can pull off, and, depending on how long you hold your block and the color of your aura when you release it, could also be the segueway into an unblockable critical hit of your own. It takes several dozen battles to master, but once you’ve gotten the hang of sidestepping, blocking and mixing your A and B artes, you’ll be blazing through multiple-enemy encounters like a laser. At least until you encounter a boss, at which point the difficulty spikes. You’d better have a six-pack of life bottles in hand. You’d also better have made a point of engaging every random roadside enemy encounter possible; without some requisite level-grinding in the game’s early hours, your characters will be left woefully unprepared to tackle bigger battles.

The world of Tales of Graces f is tiny compared to other RPGs; even the big, castle-laden cities can be explored and mastered quickly. A fair chunk of the story involves skittering back and forth between the same locations, generally to do little more than find a key character, have a quick conversation, and head back to wherever you just came from. Detours into underground alien ruins (unexpectedly, Graces spikes its fantasy RPG cocktail with a double-shot of sci-fi) and bridge-like fortresses help break up the monotony.

Without serving up plot spoilers like a five-dollar blue-plate special, it’s worth noting that there are some connections missing in Tales of Graces f’s storyline that don’t really get adequately addressed. It’s odd that the plot treats the tragedy that marks the jump from the characters’ childhoods to their lives as teenaged heroes more like a minor playground mishap than a life-altering experience that threatens the peace and future of the realm. Everyone’s emotionally scarred, sure, but they all seem almost willfully oblivious of what happened Way Back When and how it might be affecting Here and Now. When Prince Richard keeps dropping to the ground with king-sized headaches and bipolar personality meltdowns, it’s beyond ridiculous that anyone’s puzzled as to why he might be behaving a little bit oddly.

Luckily, the game’s plot holes don’t derail the proceedings, and that’s largely because these characters are so compelling and likable. When Asbel loses his place in the world (a development that’ll happen multiple times, often involving cruel circumstances and twists of fate), it’s easy to feel the anguish and injustice, just as it’s easy to feel an ache when one of his friends reaches out to comfort him. The push and pull of the relationships also feels deep and genuine, with weak characters growing unexpectedly strong and strong characters facing moments of doubt and crisis. The comic moments that crop up in the game’s skits (another familiar Tales touch) and the post-combat cutscenes are often hysterical and amusing.

While Tales of Graces f never quite attains a sense of the epic, it also never feels anything less than compelling and entertaining. Because of that, this is a story—and a set of characters—you’ll want to see through to the end.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Compelling characters
+ Huge ability to customize characters, attacks
+ Combat system rewards clever use of combos and strategy

Cons:
– Pace can be on the slow side
– Story has some gaping holes

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Release Date: 3/13/2012
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.