Well this is a long time coming, I finished the game ages ago but I was too bummed out to do a review afterwards. In case you’re curious, I played the Dejap SFC version and believe me, its the best translation.
Playing Tales Of Phantasia has been an experience without a doubt, an experience that has taught me many things about RPGs and tri-Ace alike. I would consider this game a must play for any
Tales or tri-Ace fan but with that said, the experience you get from this game may be mixed. I will enlighten some of these points in my review.
For starters, lets look at the premise of Tales Of Phantasia or should I say, the story. Tales Of Phantasia is a very ambitious storyline which suffers from archaic plot devices with lackluster execution but offers a somewhat interesting twist to the usual JRPG romp by establishing a somewhat interesting universe which could have been more than it turned out to be.
Though this just happens to be a continuation from Tales Of Symphonia Dawn Of The New World timeline wise, it feels kinda more like a prelude to what could have been an epic series. In fact it hit me the moment when I reached the city on the eastern continent and viewed that scene. I knew what I saw in that scene and what I saw was tri-Ace as they are now. It would seem that the Wolf Team were planning something big with Tales Of Phantasia, a whole series continuing the timeline and unfolding an epic universe with potentially an epic storyline… but instead we got a prequel which felt a bit too similar to Tales Of Phantasia, moreso a massive nod to the series, similar to what Star Ocean 4 did to Star Ocean 1.
There are so many things you hear about in Tales Of Phantasia and it makes you want to learn more but the game’s plot felt half-baked. I honestly feel like we were playing only half a game… or maybe they were trying to build up a sequel… wait they did make a sequel, well sorta. It’s my favourite game of all time (well the second one at least). It all made sense now. tri-Ace pulled an Exist Archive on Tales Of Phantasia but they split it into two games. Those games being Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile, these were tri-Aces legacy but Tales Of Phantasia is where it all began.
Though technically a Namco game by right, this was a tri-Ace game by heart. You could tell this was a tri-Ace game with the whole long/short-range attacks and the fact that the entire interface and style mimics Star Ocean. This game was the foundation for all the tri-Ace games we have grown to love but not only that, it pioneered a new system that would later be adopted by many Japanese Action RPGs. This would be the use of battle transitions and fields optimized for real-time gameplay as opposed to turned based gameplay, a style that was heavily focused on in the Star Ocean series. With the limitation of a side scrolling battlefield, Tales Of Phantasia was able to experiment with new ideas allowing for a more flexible gameplay experience.
So Tales Of Phantasia has a lot of acclaim under its belt but what does it do to earn this praise? Well I can’t speak as a gamer of today but if we transport ourselves back to the early 90’s where the only ARPG’s around were Secret Of Mana and the Soul Blazer series (which were more like action puzzlers if you ask me), Tales Of Phantasia really stood out for its style. It was the first ARPG which didn’t feel like a Squaresoft game or a Zelda game. It instead opted to be different from the competitors in order to attract attention. If we look at gaming today, we can see that Tales Of Phantasia has surpassed them in terms of legacy.
I don’t want to go in too deep with the story but I will say that it’s one of those stories you’ve likely seen before in some form but you probably won’t see it quite like this. Think Grandia 2 when I say this, only a lot more primitive. This game has a charm to it that separates itself from the other games of its time, something only tri-Ace could do. In fact, this game doesn’t really feel much like a Tales game at all, there aren’t any skits or anything you would consider to be “Tales”, if anything it felt more like Chrono Trigger/Secret Of Mana combined into one. This game has everything you would expect from a JRPG released in the early 90’s.
One of the things that took my interest immediately was the opening music. Whilst it wasn’t dubbed in english (unlike the strange intro of Star Ocean) it was pretty incredible to hear vocalized music coming out of a SFC game, something many games have adopted these days. While I’m not much of a fan of JPOP, I have to credit them for making this possible on such a dated system, there’s just something mysteriously alluring about hearing the primitive voice recordings on an SFC. It felt less of a Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest clone and more of a unique anime-like style RPG whilst not forgetting the preceding RPG games as it is quite clearly inspired by such games.
To be honest, to call this game the core of every JRPG I love wouldn’t be too far off, though there would be a few exceptions, Tales Of Phantasia is the game that established many of the games I love today and as such, it earns my respect regardless.
As for playing the game yourself, if you go into this game with a more modern mindset, you’ll probably find yourself getting bored with all the currently archaic elements this game has and whilst this is true for pretty much all games released in the 90’s, this game sticks out like a saw thumb in the archaic department.
Being the pioneer of the many games I love, it’s unsurprising that this game is so primitive. The characters line up in battle which causes movement issues, since your movement is restricted constantly. Tales Of Phantasia, like many early Japanese ARPG’s feels like a stunlock fest but it’s definitely a good one. However with this said, it can also prove to be bothersome as the movement issues tend to give you some trouble in boss fights. However the main thing to be concerned here is not the comboing, blocking or dodging like in most ARPG’s these days but with picking the best attacks for the job.
Comparing it to Star Ocean on the SFC, the combat is very different as it focuses more of elemental attacks and conventional JRPG strategy whereas Star Ocean is more about positioning yourself and picking the right attack string for the situation as you can manually move anywhere (though not directly with the d-pad, rather you control a cursor which position’s you). However the premise is very similar. You have special attacks and regular attacks at both long/short-range and whilst regular attacks have a bit more focus in this game, they don’t really amount too much.
I was a bit peeved that the only character worth controlling was Cless and as much as you basically have to control pretty much everyone manually (due to some AI issues), you don’t really feel like you can play with different styles unlike Star Ocean which was a shame. Cless is pretty versatile though and has a lot of cool moves and different weapons but Chester… he’s kinda useless and boring, the rest of the cast are all… you guessed it, casters. This was fixed in later versions where they added a new character to balance things out.
There are quite a few side quests about, I didn’t bother with many of them though but some of them are pretty interesting and just enhance the game’s story more as well as the game’s world. If I could devote more time to this game, I might have done so but I tend to rush through most game’s these days.
The visuals, whilst not as lush as Star Ocean’s are still rather nice, typical SNES stuff mostly, if you’ve played Seiken Densetsu 3 you’ll probably be in familiar territory here though I personally find Seiken Densetsu 3 to look better from what I’ve played (in fact that game looks more like Star Ocean to me). Still the good ol’ fashioned 16 bit top down world map never gets old.
The music was obviously composed by Motoi Sakuraba, who else would it be? Mickey Mouse? I mean, this is the game that pioneered practically 80% of games he composed for (basically everything except Golden Sun and Dark Souls). His soundtrack in this, whilst not completely as memorable as Star Ocean’s has some quirky ones to say the least. To say that this was the first soundtrack he ever did for a Japanese ARPG, it’s pretty unique and somewhat captivatingly magical… but not on the same level of Valkyrie Profile 2 of course.
However one song that really stuck out to me was the piano solo which was played at the adventurers guild which was played by none other than Motoi Sakuraba himself. He is actually a character in the game. That pretty much sums up just how important this game is to not only me, not only the fans but also the creators themselves. This is the game where Motoi Sakuraba made his mark and he is immortalized in this game for a reason.
This game was developed out of passion and though it may be a series that has moved on since, it’s hard to consider Tales Of Phantasia to be a Tales game, it doesn’t belong to Namco, it belongs to no one because if tri-Ace can’t have it, no one can and whilst Namco themselves might disagree, they’ve yet to prove that they are worthy of owning the rights to this game because as it stands, this game is not only the centerpiece for the Tales series, it is the centerpiece for tri-Ace and practically every single game Motoi Sakuraba has ever composed for.
So whilst this may not be much of a review, let it be understood that whether you like this game or not, I urge you to play it just to experience it yourself if you consider yourself to be a fan of Tales, tri-Ace, tri-Crescendo and pretty much any Japanese ARPG in general. As for whether you enjoy it or not depends on your standards, if you really dislike archaic games, you probably won’t enjoy this, however if you’re open to these kind of games or are new to the genre, you might appreciate it more.
Ultimately though, it is what it is and nothing can change that. At least I can safely say that this game has a lot of unique charm that is a nice change from most 16 bit JRPGs but to compare it with Star Ocean, I’m afraid I’ll have to give it to Star Ocean to be honest as that game tried a lot of cool new concepts whereas Tales Of Destiny focused on expanding current concepts.
Then again that basically sums up the difference between tri-Ace and Namco’s Tales team as developers, tri-Ace aim to innovate and tinker with new ideas, Namco aim to expand on current ideas to refine them to the best they can be. Regardless this game is the centerpiece of it all and it’s wonderful to see just how much it managed to accomplish in the long run, despite it’s shortcomings.
In general, Tales Of Phantasia is a good game but it hasn’t aged well. The archaic combat system of this game is unacceptable to today’s standards but if you’re just looking to re-live some of the series’ history or are wanting to see where many of the best ARPG’s began, you might want to give this a go, it’s definitely a worthwhile experience.
Lifespan: Decent length
Would you replay? No