Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tales of the Abyss: Evidence of our Journalistic Integrity



Fuck you.


Tales of the Abyss is as strong a case for video games being considered a work of art as you can make.  If a great novel is artwork, or a great painting, or a great poem or song or play, then all of those things rolled together should qualify without question.  It also presents me with an opportunity to talk about how excellent a blog The Backlog is.  Let's take a look at this review of Final Fantasy XII given by IGN upon the time of its release. 

"Final Fantasy XII is a fantastic RPG. It blows all of its PS2 competition this year right out of the water and is among the all time elite role-players ever made for the system. Kingdom Hearts, Devil Summoner, Xenosaga III, Tales of the Abyss... none of them are on the same level as Square Enix's bold and riveting move in a new direction. Whether you're a fan of the genre or not, FF12 most certainly deserves a special spot on your PS2 game shelf... put it in the front."

IGN went on to give FFXII a 9.5 rating, compared to an 8.3 for Abyss

This comes up if you search "skeptical."

Before I go further, I want to be clear.  I loved Final Fantasy XII.  I played it a whole hell of a lot, as evidenced by my previous posts on the subject, and really enjoyed it by the end.  However, to say that this game is not only superior to Tales of the Abyss but not even "on the same level" shows that you can count on The Backlog for quality gaming journalism far more than IGN.  Although, most people know you can count on your neighbor's talking dog for better advice than what is offered on IGN, but I'm not here to disparage anybody.

"Kill the unclean!  Also, Donkey Konga was fantastic."

So let's talk about Tales of the Abyss, and exactly why it comes out ahead of what many others called "the best RPG on the PS2."

Alright, so take these games;

Now put them together in a blender.  Done?  Great, what did you get?

Excellent, now your copies are gone and mine are worth more.  On an unrelated note, if you were to just take elements of all those games and combine them, you'd get a lot of what Tales of the Abyss is like.  Though while it has combat similar to Radiata Stories, the sheer amount of miss-able and optional content as Star Ocean: The Second Story, feel of the overworld map of Dragon Quest IX, and character design of Suikoden III, it is somehow more polished than all of these games together.  It is definitely a case of the sum being greater than its parts.  The sprites are more expressive and animated, the environments are easy to get immersed in, the world is complex and well-designed, and the music . .  . oh man, the MUSIC.  I literally cannot think of anything about this game that was not enjoyable.  Let's start from the beginning.

I have the BlueGartr forums to thank for me picking this game up.  There's a community there which talks about video games a lot, and frequently mentioned are the Tales of series of games.  I was only vaguely aware of them prior to getting involved in BG's gaming discussions, so it was surprising to me how vehement a fanbase these games seem to have.  After reading endless comments about various Tales games, I decided to put this one on my list of PS2 titles to look out for, and in some stroke of luck the GameStop near me suddenly got a copy in just a week later.  At the time though, I was firmly embroiled in some other titles, and getting into something I knew nothing about didn't really take precedent.

The series itself is nearly as large as the Final Fantasy franchise, beaten in numbers only if you count sequels and spin-offs, yet only a select few have made it overseas.  The lack of localization has been a sore subject amongst fans of the series for years, and after playing this it's easy to see why.  Fortunately, I discovered early on, none of the Tales games are connected, so you can use really any of them as a jumping-on point to the series.  Since I talk about gaming on BlueGartr frequently, and I also get a lot of traffic from their site, when I beat Stella Deus and wasn't sure where I wanted to go next I made the decision to give this a go.  Best game-related choice I've made in ages.  So, thanks for that, BG.

Actually, Stella Deus is a good point of comparison (more on comparing this to FFXII later).  You might remember that a big part of why I found that game so mediocre was that none of the actors seemed to have their heart in the story. 

"I am kind of angry, or determined, maybe, because of things I'm pretty sure I don't agree with."

I mean, the story isn't that great to begin with, but the way it's told doesn't do anything to help.  The voice actors show only passing interest in the material, and make practically no character choices.  It's not Chaos Wars bad, but it's a game that probably would have been helped by having a Japanese voiceover option.  That way if the actors are Portman-ing it up, at least I'll have no way of knowing.

It's okay, when you're this pretty you don't need talent.

Within a few minutes of starting Tales of the Abyss, Sasuke Uchiha is training with Captain Harlock while Vash the Stampede looks on, when suddenly Yoruichi appears to fight them.

There is precedent for such collaborations.

This is actually one of the only times I can remember caring about who the voice actors were.  They did such an amazing job that I looked each of them up (not the least of which reason being finding out where I recognized them from), which is something I never do.  What I watched unfold was a brilliantly acted play, and I wanted to make sure I went through the program so I knew each actor's name for the future.  Now, the presentation is also leaps and bounds ahead of Stella Deus, but that's really secondary to the fact that this is a great story and the voice actors did astonishing work with it.

And that brings up a point of comparison with Final Fantasy XII.  Its voice acting was fine, even great at some points, but most of the characters are kind of one-note.  If something is happening with speaking roles you can bet on a few things and usually be spot on.  Basch will say something gruff and serious, Balthier will be droll and seem only mildly interested, Ashe will gasp and look at her feet.

They have distinct voices, but these voices never serve to flesh out the character or reveal some hidden subtlety about their thoughts or motivations.  The difference in the amount of thought and effort put into each actor's performance is obvious, and makes a tremendous amount of difference.  Advantage:  Tales of the Abyss.

Just starting a tally.

Now it's not just the voice acting itself which drew me in.  The way the characters are animated, the way they move and how their expressions change, and of course the story they're telling did that.

Tales of the Abyss takes place in the world of Auldrant, where what we might call "magic" they have down to a science referred to as "fonic artes."  Fonons, you see, are the elementary particles which compose all matter on the planet.  There are six types of Fonons, each representing the four basic elements as well as Light and Darkness.  Everyone has fon slots on their body, and their ability to take in Fonons determines how strong they will be with fonic artes.  However, a Seventh Fonon was discovered, representing sound, and those in tune with it discovered they could use it to foretell the future.  Seventh Fonons used to interpret upcoming events came to be known as "The Score."

According to this arpeggio, you're going to burst into flame any minute now.

Using Seventh Fonons in this way led to chaos and warfare throughout Auldrant, until one woman, Yulia Jue, came forward having claimed to made contact with a being named Lorelei, the sentient embodiment of the Seventh Fonon itself.  With Lorelei's guidance, Yulia's Score came to be.  Written on seven Fonstones, enormous and compressed stones made of fonons which orbit the planet, Yulia's Score predicts every event for centuries to come with perfect accuracy.  A religion rises up around the belief in Yulia and Lorelei, and the world settles back down into order, appeased by the woman who could foretell everything.

We're not shown what Yulia looked like, but certain assumptions can be made.

Also, we later find out that Lorelei is totally a dude, so his parents were probably hippie Fonons.

They represent Weed and brightly painted Minibuses.

With that backstory out of the way, we jump into the role of Luke von Fabre, a teenage boy who's spent the last 7 years of his life holed up inside his parent's house.  Luke is the son of a powerful nobleman and nephew of the King in the kingdom of Kimlasca, and at age 11 he was kidnapped by agents of the neighboring superpower, the Malkuth Empire.  He was rescued by Van Grants, a striking and powerful figure who also serves as Commandant of the Six God-Generals, leaders of the military branch of a third nation called Daath.  Whatever happened to him while he was gone, however, cost him all of his memories.  So we meet him at age 18, having recollection of only the last 7 years of his life.  This whole time he's been confined to the manor to protect him from being kidnapped again.

The hair is also a deterrent.

So for seven years he's been stuck in the house, looking forward only to the times when Van shows up to instruct him in swordsmanship.  His only friends are his household servant, Guy, and his betrothed, the Princess Natalia.  Then, one day while he's learning a new technique from Van, this chick shows up.

Luke's first reaction is to ask for her stylist.

After singing a song which puts the entire house guard to sleep, she leaps in to the courtyard with the intent to kill Van.  Luke leaps in the way to stop her, but as soon as their weapons collide a bizarre explosion takes place, warping both Luke and the woman far away from the manor.  They show up in a field miles from civilization, where we discover that this is none other than Tear Grants, Van's own sister, come to kill him for reasons she won't talk about.

By the way, if I can digress for a moment, that's a theme you'll see pop up in this game constantly.  One of my only complaints about the story is how characters frequently show they know more than they're letting on, but when asked what's up they just respond with some variation of "Hm?  Oh, nothing, nothing."  No!  Something is obviously up.  You just gasped in response to some news or started asking questions which make no sense to anybody else.  Tell us what it is and save the heroes a lot of time, don't just say "I was afraid of that . . " after some calamity has already occurred.

"I could have said something, sure, but I wasn't certain that continent would explode."

Anyway, Tear apologizes for dragging Luke into her affairs and agrees to help him get back to the capitol of Kimlasca.  Unfortunately, after they finally get their bearings they discover they've ended up in Malkuth, which is the last place Luke wants to be.  It's really around this time we discover one of Luke's defining character traits - he whines.  A lot.

This is most of his dialogue for the first part of the game.

Later we discover his other endearing characteristic when they introduce adorable sidekick character Mieu - he's also a dick.  Mieu is a little blue-furred rabbit-like thing called a cheagle, with enormous eyes and a squeaky voice whom ends up in Luke's service.  He refers to Luke as "Master" and faithfully follows him everywhere, eager to help.  Luke responds by kicking him, throwing him, yelling at him, and at one point when they're on a sinking ship, telling him to "shut up and drown." 

Look at this jerk.

So Luke's a whining, self-centered, naive douchebag.  For a little more than a third of the game he goes on like this before showing a glimmer of hope that he'll change, but that's part of what makes this such a great story.  I can assure you that he does change, and actively tries to change, because events make him realize what a little prick he is, and he doesn't want to be that way anymore.  Also, it's not an immediate 180 from his previous attitude, either.  Luke's journey is the tale of a spoiled noble brat who knows nothing of life outside the walls of his plush manor to a young man accepting responsibility, learning about the value of life, and earning the trust of his friends.  If you think you're going to hate Luke when you start playing the game - well, you're probably right.  Give him a chance, though, he really does grow on you.

Somewhat later, we get into the major conflict of the story, after Luke and Tear meet Jade, the most intriguing character I've ever come across in a video game.

Seriously, let's talk about Jade for a second. 
Straight Bossin'

Jade Curtiss, the Necromancer as he is called, is a Colonel in the Malkuth military.  He's immensely powerful, to such a degree that the villains of the story, when they first appear, have a multi-million dollar, one-time use device put aside specifically to dampen his powers in the event he arrives.  They use it on him, and he still takes down one of them with a single shot.  It's not just that he's strong, though.  Jade, voiced by Kirk Thornton, is witty and charismatic, yet at the same time quite frightening.  Almost from the outset he gives you the impression "I am not to be trifled with," and every moment involving him from thereon out serves to reinforce this.  Those glasses he's wearing?  He doesn't even need them.  He wears them because he's put fon slots in his eyes.  Nobody else is doing that because it's too dangerous and radical.  This man is like the only cool hipster that ever lived.  He probably joined the military ironically.

He also invented fomicry.  You've probably never heard of it.

Jade by himself is a reason to play the game.  His interactions with others, their reactions to him, just the character as a whole.  Any list including underrated video game characters should have him on it, preferably near the top.

So later on we're joined by Guy and Natalia, as well as the current Fon Master Guardian, a 12-year-old girl riding a giant deformed doll.  Her name is Anise.  I broke up those two sentences so that there would not be any confusion.  The girl is named Anise, the doll is named Tokunaga.  Anise's job, Fon Master Guardian, means she protects a quiet and cheerful boy named Ion, the current head of Daath.  Daath, you see, is a neutral territory reigned over by the Church of Lorelei, and as Fon Master it's Ion's job to interpret the Score for the entire world.  He's incredibly powerful in use of the Seventh Fonon, but also frail and unable to use his power without weakening himself.  His basic belief is that the Score is a guideline, one of many possible futures, whereas others in the Church, such as his subordinate, Grand Maestro Mohs, believe it is intractable truth and must be followed to the letter.

Presumably the Score is responsible for this, so we know Mohs is a bad guy.

When the plot gets moving, we find that the Six God-Generals, all of whom are supposed to work for Daath but may or may not have actually escaped from Kingdom Hearts, are trying to actively destroy the Score.  Only, the chain of command is completely unclear.  The God-Generals are supposed to work for Van, but he shows up more than once to stop them and save Luke when he's in trouble.  Mohs is their other direct superior, but his goal is to make sure everyone adheres strictly to the Score, not destroy it.  Is one of them lying about their involvement?  Are the God-Generals working on their own?

Can Mickey Mouse foil their scheme in time to stop the Heartless?

The story takes a huge twist relatively early on, one of many to follow.  It's a sweeping narrative, with one of the better touches being the implementation of "skits" to help explain certain parts of the story.  A cue to press Select shows up whenever a skit activates (there are 489 in all, the game keeps track of how many you've seen), and the screen switches to shots of the group's talking heads in boxes discussing their concerns about upcoming events, recent accomplishments in mini-games, or bosses you may have just murdered.

Exactly like this.

Some are funny, some are touching, some are informative.  And they're all optional.  If you think they're a waste of time, just don't watch them.  Personally I tried to see as many as I could, I got to around 430 by the end of the game.  In my second playthrough I'm going to shoot for them all.  The script for this game is enormous, and the more I can view of it the better.

Of course, a good story does not a great game make.  The rest of the elements have to be there, and Tales of the Abyss has them all.  Character designs are fantastic, town settings are very well done, the game has a stellar supporting cast, entertaining mini-games and an absolute glut of side-quests and hidden scenes to discover.  Also, as I hinted at in all caps earlier, the music.

Here's the regular battle theme for the game, "The Edge of a Decision."  You hear this every single time you get in a fight.

And this is "Karma," the song and video which come up every time you turn the game on.

I'm not going to sit here and argue that FFXII didn't have great music.  It had a tremendous score (ha), a sweeping orchestral take on the classic FF theme as well as very memorable boss music and cutscenes.  Tales of the Abyss does all that plus electric guitars.  That closes that case for me.

Now of course I can't mention a Tales game without talking about the combat.  If you could take a fighting game and shove it into an RPG, I'd call you some kind of mad wizard, and apparently that's the only kind of wizard Namco employs.

On the set of the next Pac-Man.

There are other games which incorporate real-time fighting into RPGs, and in similar ways.  You see monsters on screen, coming into contact with them brings you to a battle screen with a 3D field to maneuver your characters through.  Radiata Stories and Star Ocean both use this concept.  Abyss goes a step beyond.  Each character is given a wealth of special attacks to use in battle, as well as passive traits which change how they can move about the screen, mitigate damage, increase item effectiveness, and all kinds of other useful bonuses.  Combat skills are classified as Base or Arcane, and you can combine the two of them to make even more effective combos.  Not only that, but using certain skills leaves an elemental field - Field of Fonons - on the battlefield.  Combining the right combat skill with the right FOF changes your attack into an even more powerful one.  Finally, each character gets their own special finishing move, usually a high-damage, high-combo attack which flattens enemies.

IGN called the combat "button mashing" which leads me to believe whomever reviewed this game was terrible at it.  You've got to be able to know when to attack, when to back off, get your timing for blocking down, know which combos to use and when, and more.  You probably could just power your way through it with Luke or Guy's regular melee attacks (or Anise, whom I discovered is an absolute terror in the game's Coliseum), but doing so isn't going to get you any high marks.  That's right - you're graded on your performance, and at the end of the game your total grade shows up and determines what you can and can't do if you start a second playthrough.  Do well and your grade goes up, poorly and it goes down.  This combat system is rich with a combination of strategy and on-the-fly decisions, and if you don't master them both you're not going to enjoy it as much as if you take the time to.

The Gambits in FFXII are well-done.  They give you a fairly unprecedented degree of control over your party and let you decide exactly how manual or automatic your game is going to be.  If you want to micromanage, go for it.  If you'd rather just keep moving forward and let your party deal with fights without you having to get involved, that works too, and so does everything in between.  Tales of the Abyss doesn't do this as quite well, but it still does it - you can set all characters to automatic or try to control their actions yourself.  However, the A.I. is very smart, and very rarely needs to be tinkered with.  In terms of comparing the two, I'd say it's a toss-up, unless you prefer having manual control, in which case the depth of Abyss's combat clearly pulls out ahead.

In fact, if I had to name one thing I'd say FFXII does better, it's creating the feeling of playing in a world.  The game takes place entirely in Ivalice, which we know is just one part of a much larger planet.  In Abyss we can explore the entirety of Auldrant, which has fewer areas to roam around than this one part of a single continent in FFXII.  I've always been kind of wary about games where you can travel across the entire globe and see only three kingdoms and a smattering of towns, and Final Fantasy XII was quite exceptional in making sure you knew this was only a small slice of everything going on out there.  So, they've got that going for them.

Then again, Vaan.

So while Tales of the Abyss does have its flaws, they are not quite so glaring as the poor judgment decisions you can pick out regarding FFXII.  The story is knit together better, the character's motivations more clearly defined, and, unlike Square-Enix, Namco didn't set out to reinvent the wheel.  Abyss follows a pretty set Tales formula they've been using for a number of years now, and focus on making that formula the absolute best it can be.  S-E, on the other hand, has gotten it in their heads that they need to make a completely new and different game every time a Final Fantasy title gets released. Results have been mixed.

In fairness, calling this a "game" is probably inaccurate.

So while FFXII features a whole lot of grinding on hundreds if not thousands of monsters in order to get the items you need for the best items in the game, Tales of the Abyss gives you an immensely straightforward and time-efficient variation on the same gathering system.  Also, the best weapons and items are often found through exciting side quests or in combat.  FFXII tries to act like it's an MMO which you can play offline, Tales of the Abyss just tries to be a really great video game - and it is.

Now, the way the game is made, you can't 100% it on your first playthrough.  You need at least two in order to get everything in the game - every item, weapon, new character outfit, and cutscene.  I knew this going in and was prepared for it.  What I didn't see happening was that the guide I was following was woefully inadequate in getting me everything I could get the first time around.

I should have known not to trust you.

Not only is a second playthrough now a desire, it's practically a requirement.

But you know, I don't mind.  For as many games as I have backlogged - and it's a LOT - there are some that I've played and beaten over and over again.  Suikoden II and Ogre Battle, for example, have probably been conquered by me no less than a half-dozen times each, because I simply never get tired of playing them.  I can easily see this game being added to the list.  Right now, my favorite PS2 game is Persona 3: FES.  It makes total sense to me that some people would prefer FFXII to Tales of the Abyss - they're ultimately very different games and different people have different tastes.  It's the same deal with Persona - it's a visual novel-style game, and not everyone likes that kind of restriction. I loved it, and up until now I didn't foresee anything taking its place in my top spot.  Now I'm not so sure.  I just may have found a new favorite game to enjoy over and over again.

One thing I will say with certainty though; if you thought Final Fantasy XII was on a completely different level from Tales of the Abyss, you either have a natural predilection against the Tales-style of games or you are being paid very well to say what you said.

You know it's all hookers and blow over at IGN.

Speaking of loving games though, I will be playing through Abyss again, but I don't want to leave everybody hanging waiting for my next post.  With that in mind, I've started up a game of Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth on my PSP.  I can beat that at work while going through Abyss at home, and have a nice write up ready to go soon. 

In the meantime, I thought I'd try a fun experiment to see which game I should play next.  To that end, I'm placing a poll up on the blog, and you the reader will get to decide what comes off my Backlog next.  I'll pick three games, and you choose the winner.

Choose wisely.

So until next time, keep playing, even if it's just one game you love again and again.

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