The 3DS certainly has started to build up a nice library of games in the past months but RPG fans were still longing for the first great RPG on the platform. Thankfully, that wait is finally over with the release of Tales of the Abyss. While it is a port of a PS2 game, the original never saw a release in Europe, so for most people this will still be a completely new experience, one that no fan of RPGs should miss.
The game takes place on Auldrant, a planet composed of elementary particles called Fonons. For much of Auldrant's history, only six types of these Fonons representing the elements of Water, Fire, Wind, Earth, Light and Shadow are known to exist but eventually a seventh type named Sound is discovered and its discovery brings great chaos to the world. Using this newest Seventh Fonon allows one to read the future. Yulia Jue, an important religious figure in the game, puts in place a future for the world for thousands of years to come, with the promise of unlimited prosperity at its end. This prophecy of the future's set path becomes known as the Score and is documented on Fonstones scattered throughout the world. The people of Auldrant closely follow this prophecy, hoping to obtain the promised unlimited prosperity. With the goal to obtain knowledge about the future, the two big kingdoms of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear and Malkuth continue to fight over the Fonstones that contain this prophecy.
You take control of a Duke's son named Luke fon Fabre who was kidnapped 7 years ago and due to the trauma that took place has no memory of his life before that moment. Since that event Luke has been confined to his manor for his safety. Just like many other games in the genre, the main character you play as is the 'Chosen One' and has to save and restore peace to the world. However, similar to other games in the 'Tales of' series, the cast of characters is one of the most fleshed out and diverse you will ever find in a game. This is achieved by so-called 'Skits' which will frequently be available to watch throughout the game. They are basically conversations between the group with animated anime pictures of their faces and can offer hints on what to do next or provide interesting backstory on the characters and lore of the world of Auldrant. Add extremely well written dialogue and outstanding character development to the mix and you got yourself an engaging story that always makes you want to know what happens next.
The overall gameplay is nothing we haven't seen before but the real time battle system with free movement does a great job at keeping things fresh. While traversing the numerous locations of Auldrant, you will see monsters running around and if you get too close they will chase after you and attack you. It's relatively easy to avoid most encounters but it's recommended that you fight at least half of the enemies you come across. If you don't, you'll have a hard time beating the bosses and proceeding with the story. In battle, you can control one character yourself while the other three are being controlled by the CPU, although you can still give them specific commands and change their strategies to make them valueable allies in battle. Thankfully, you won't need to give them commands for the most part as their AI is good enough and they do what they're supposed to do.
Your basic actions in combat are normal combo attacks and blocking while moving around. There are also special skills called Artes. These are divided in Strike and Fonic Artes, meaning physical and magical. Most of them are offensive but there are also Healing Artes. Since you can move freely on the battlefield, dodging enemy Artes can be as simple as moving out of their range. It provides an additional tactical layer to the battles, as your positioning plays a very important role in winning. When you use Fonic Artes, a circle with the corresponding element will stay on the ground for a short period of time. These circles are called FoF, Field of Fonons. If you use an Arte with an affinity for that element in the circle, it will turn into a more powerful version and obviously deal more damage. Throughout fights, your characters will fill up their 'OverLimit' gauge and once it is full, you can choose to enter the OverLimit mode. If you perform a high-level Fonic Arte during this mode and press A right after it ends, your character will unleash a devastating attack called 'Mystic Arte' which is unique for every character. After each battle, you are awarded with 'Grade' depending on your overall performance. Racking up high combos or performing Mystic Artes will increase the amount of Grade you receive, while getting hit or dying has the opposite effect. However, Grade isn't particularly useful for a single playthrough, as it's mainly used for modifying additional playthroughs.
Tales of the Abyss offers two features to enhance your characters and your Artes. Characters can equip so-called 'Capacity Cores' that enhance their stats as they level up. Once a certain statistic has a large enough bonus, an Additional Skill is learned automatically. These are passive bonuses with various different effects, such as increasing the number of combos you can do with a normal attack or reducing the time it takes to stand up after you've been knocked to the ground. Artes, on the other hand, are enhanced with gems which you can find and assign to your Artes in Force Slot Chambers. They have a certain percentage of activating their special effect that increases with every use of the Arte while it's equipped, eventually reaching a 100% chance after a while.
The graphics haven't changed much from the PS2 release, but that's not really an issue as they are still very nice to look at with the exception of some jagged textures. The game also features some very impressive 2D anime sequences which usually appear in major story events. The real shame here is that the added 3D is very poor and doesn't enhance the game at all. Unlike some other 3DS games such as Super Mario 3D Land, the 3D effect is hard to focus on and the textboxes stand out way too much. I tried playing with 3D turned on for a while but it really isn't worth it. There are also some instances of slowdown, particularly on the overworld map. On a more positive note though, the atrocious loading times of the PS2 version were fixed and make travelling just so much quicker.
While the brilliant cast of characters and excellent dialogue is without a doubt the strongest point of the game, it wouldn't be able to leave such a great impact without the beautiful soundtrack and top notch English voice acting. There are some really emotional moments in the game and the music and characters perfectly convey those emotions to the player. One particularly impressive aspect of the sound is the Opening theme. It is extremely catchy and appears in several different soundtracks in the game, ranging from energetic to sad, and it never fails setting the tone for a particular moment in the game.
Although the game still looks pretty, the graphical aspect of Tales of the Abyss isn't without any faults. Occasional jagged textures, poor usage of the 3D and rather frequent slowdowns on the overworld map definitely make the graphics the weakest part of the game. A number of impressive 2D anime cutscenes make up for it, though there sadly aren't that many of them.
The soundtrack in this game does anything but disappoint. It's great throughout the entire game, but there are some particularly brilliant pieces as well. The English voice acting is top notch too and it's amazing just how perfectly they suit some characters.
The gameplay, while great, doesn't stray too far from the J-RPG formula but the combat system and features such as Additional Skills and Force Slot Chambers to enhance your characters and Artes manage to keep things fresh.
This is a massive game that should keep even the most dedicated gamers busy for a good while. Just playing through the story takes about 40 hours and in case that's still not enough, you have the option to use obtained 'Grade' to modify future playthroughs.
It's a shame that not much effort has gone into this port, but this doesn't change the fact that Tales of the Abyss is an amazing JRPG that shines with its brilliant cast of characters and dialogue and doesn't disappoint with its gameplay or soundtrack either. It originally was never released in Europe on the PS2 and sadly it has already become a rare game. If you're a fan of JRPGs, you can't go wrong with this game. Try to track down a copy while you still can, it's more than worth it.
Final Score: 9