Role over, Beethoven

Thursday, 22 July 2004 — 9:21pm | Video games

The province-wide hunt for an available retail copy of Tales of Symphonia came to an end yesterday, thanks to a Best Buy somewhere en route from Edmonton to Calgary, or so I’m told – which had just that one copy remaining, and not even on the shelf. I spent some time with the two-disc Japanese role-playing game for the Nintendo GameCube, and will undoubtedly be investing countless hours to come fighting monsters and making sandwiches in the world of Sylvarant.

Tales of Symphonia is best described as refreshing. For the most part it follows the familiar RPG conventions: you have a party of characters with finite hit points and technique points and equip them with weapons and armor, there is some kind of epic save-the-world quest to accomplish, you see the occasional save point lying around, and you fight monsters that crawl up and down the area you are exploring. The combat, however, is real-time button-mashing, where you can move your lead character towards and away from a given enemy in Street Fighter fashion. Although I quite like the patient strategizing that comes along with the turn-based menu systems that characterize the vast majority of the genre, this is a design that provides the experience with a brisk tempo that puts the player’s reflexes and sandwich-making skills to the test.

The art style is anime to the core, with a cel-shading engine that produces a look and feel closer to Viewtiful Joe than The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It’s imperfect, especially on a large-screen television, but the artwork is still a sight to behold. I have a lot of respect for the cel-shading technique; the two-dimensional sprites of the Super Nintendo era have aged a lot better than the rudimentary polygons of the PlayStation generation, and the illusion of cartoon textures in a three-dimensional environment is a natural extension of the former. The in-engine graphics are nowhere near the quality of the full-motion, pre-recorded animation, and the disparity is noticeable – but the technology will get there someday. Wind Waker shows that with sophisticated light and shadow, engine-driven cel-shading can already approximate full-motion animated video of moderate quality.

So far, the story has proved to be pretty involving – that is, ever since I got used to the funny fantasy names and sorted out who was whom. By the way, a note to the translators, because I have spotted this error at least once and it bugged me to no end: who is a subject. Whom is an object. Wrong: “Whom has bases that are belong to us?” Right (sort of): “All your base are belong to whom?” You don’t replace “who” with “whom” just to sound all formal and fancy, because all you end up looking is stupid.

I also wasn’t kidding about the sandwiches.

While on the subject of GameCube RPGs, be sure to check out this IGN article on the import version of Paper Mario 2, which has already been released in Japan. If you are of the traditional text-based persuasion when it comes to adventure games, a word of advice: don’t pick up the phone booth.

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