Name: Tales of Graces f
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Release Date: 31 August 2012
Platform: Playstation 3
Multiplayer: Co-op multiplayer (1-4)
What it's about:
The story follows the protagonist Asbel Lhant throughout his quest to gain the power to protect his friends. It's a pretty cliché story but the varied cast of loveable characters more than makes up for it. It's actually told in three different time periods. The short child arc serves as an introduction to both story and gameplay, while the adult arc that takes place seven years later is the much larger portion of the game. Then there's also an added future arc for the PS3 version, which adds to and ultimately concludes this tale of friendship.
The Gameplay is very similar to previous games in the series but vastly improves upon them. For starters, there is no longer any MP cost for using Artes. Instead, each character has a certain amount of CC (Chain Capacity) which are basically Action Points. Each Arte or Action like evading takes up a certain amount of CC which mostly depends on the equipped weapon. Unlike before, CC recharges in battle very quickly, ideally while simply blocking, which makes it possible to build the whole battle system around using Artes instead of mashing the Normal Attack button and using Artes every now and then before you'd run low on MP. This change makes every battle a lot more dynamic, different and most importantly fun. Quite honestly, it makes the systems used in Symphonia or Abyss look completely outdated, archaic and boring in comparison.
In classic Tales fashion, you control one of the four characters in battle while the AI handles the rest. There is co-op multiplayer that allows up to 4 players to play and eliminate the need to rely on the AI, but unfortunately I wasn't able to try it. That said, you can quickly switch between characters with the d-pad if you need to. Each character has two different types of Artes, which make for two completely different playstyles. A-Artes are a chain of Artes you can unleash in quick succession and are tied to usually 3-4 trees of 4 Artes. Depending on which direction you tilt the analog stick while pressing the button, you can smoothly use Artes from every tree in one combo. B-Artes are more similar to the setup seen in previous Tales games and 4 of them can be mapped to your controlling character at a time. A-Artes are physical while B-Artes are magical and enemies tend to be weak or very weak to either type, found out by simply pressing R1 for a quick summary of the targeted enemy including their elemental weaknesses. Like I mentioned before, they also make for different playstyles. For example, Hubert uses his Dualblade for physical attacks when using A-Artes, but his B-Artes make him quickly change his weapon into two guns.
Titles return from previous games but this time they're made into a crucial mechanic. You can earn well over 100 titles for each character and each title comes with 5 skills, which can be learned with Skill Points obtained from battle. While there is the classic Level and Experience system, your main way of developing your characters is with titles. The skills you can obtain range from decent passive stat boosts, improvements for your current Artes and even learning all your new Artes, including powerful Mystic Artes. Some of these are extremely useful and make it well worth your time doing sidequests or fighting a lot of battles to obtain most of them.
A very cool difficulty option with a total of 6 difficulties lets players tailor the game to their skill level, making battles feel much more engaging and rewarding. Speaking of which, the game greatly rewards you for the tougher battles on higher difficulties with more Experience, Skill Points, more and rarer item drops etc. It can be changed at almost any given time in the option menu, letting you test your skills once you feel confident enough or lower it a bit once things get too tough. I've played the whole game on the harder difficulty settings and it made the battles much more fun to play, even with the AI of the other characters not being near as good defensively as I was and causing some frustrating moments every now and then.
Outside of battle, there is plenty for players to do as well. You can watch hundreds of skits, small scenes between the party members, which either talk about the current situation or completely unrelated and hilarious topics. They are all optional and provide backstory or comedic relief, so it's up to the player if they want to view them.
Materials found or obtained from enemies can be combined (or dualized, as the game likes to call it) into new items and in the same way you can dualize a weapon or piece of armour with special shards to upgrade them and give them special abilities. If you use these pieces of equipment in battle, they'll eventually temper which grants them a small offensive or defensive boost. However, you can extract the shard from two weapons or armour to make a gem with the respective abilities that can be equipped as an accessory. This process can be repeated over and over again to keep your old weapons useful and obtain more gems, which can also be dualized into new ones.
One very useful tool you're given at the start of the adult arc is the Eleth Mixer. This mixer automatically cooks dishes you previously dualized in or after battles for you. Fighting a hard boss battle? Put some curry into your mixer and it will automatically cook it once per battle when someone is KO'ed to revive them and put them right back into the action. That's only a fraction of what this handy tool can do though. It can also produce any previously obtained material at a certain percentage as time passes, making it crucial if you want to dualize as many items as possible. Finally, you can equip special books to it which give you really helpful perks, such as increased material or shard droprates or even double the amount of Experience/Skill Points at the cost of cutting your stats in half. Everything, including having books equipped, drains Eleth from the mixer. Its capacity and slots to utilise will increase as you use it but you'll still frequently have to refill it for a small fee at a merchant.
Tales of Graces f is on the PS3, but one shouldn't forget that despite being in HD it's still a Wii game at its core. It looks good, but doesn't come close to what the PS3 could do for the Tales series, like Tales of Xillia or its upcoming sequel. That said, some praise has to be given to the superb battle animations and effects as well as the Mystic Artes. The skits also feature full-body 2D animations of the characters instead of just portraits and look very good. Last but not least, about a dozen of short anime movies are in the game as well and they look stunning.
The soundtrack is once again composed by veteran Tales of composer Motoi Sakuraba and Hibiki Aoyama best known for his collaboration with Sakuraba on the soundtrack of Tales of Vesperia. While it is a very good soundtrack, only few of them were memorable and really stood out. The voice acting is great though. The voices fit the characters very well and a few awkward moments are caused by the script, rather than the voice actors.
Tales of Graces f is a very long game, even for the already meaty standards of the series. Unless you completely rush through it all, 50 hours for the main game is what you're looking at here. Then, there's the added future arc with 10 additional hours of story content and even a pretty hard optional dungeon for the PS3 version. If you really want to get the most out of it or even get the Platinum Trophy, you'll easily be busy for 150 hours or more. For this purpose, the New Game+ and the Grade Shop return and make a second playthrough a lot easier with very generous Experience and Skill Point multipliers, transferring many things such as titles from your old file and much more.
Outside of the main game, there are Trials of Graces which are specific challenges you can attempt with any of your savefiles. If you win, you can transfer the reward item to that savefile. There are only about 25 and they're nothing major, though later ones can get incredibly hard. There is DLC for the game but it's nothing story-related and only alternate costumes and other minor things. Some costumes can actually be obtained in-game via sidequests as well, which is very welcome for people who might want one or two costumes but don't want to spend extra money on them.
Final Score: 10/10
Going into this game, all I knew was that it supposedly has an amazing battle system, which it undoubtedly does. It's so much more than that though. It keeps and refines every element the series is known and loved for and gives it the brilliantly engaging battle system it always deserved. Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss were both already outstanding games but Tales of Graces f simply surpasses both of them in just about every way and is, quite simply, fantastic.