Ar Nosurge: Ode To An Unborn Star Review

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Being of the last JRPG’s to be released on the Playstation 3, Ar Nosurge is one of the many games that fell off the radar due to being released at the latter end of a console generation. To make matters worse, Ar Nosurge just happens to be part of the Ar Tonelico series despite not being named Ar Tonelico which could have also been part of the reason many forgot about its existence. While the Ar Tonelico series has a cult following, Ar Nosurge barely has a following at all, in fact it is actually the sequel to a game titled Ciel Nosurge, a game that was never released outside Japan which caused a lot of confusion over in the west upon its release… to those that bothered to look into it that is.

Those of you who have played the Ar Tonelico games before will likely find Ar Nosurge to be somewhat familiar, yet different. It feels like a spiritual successor in some ways as it carries over many of the gameplay elements of the Ar Tonelico series but it continues the story of Ciel Nosurge and brings back its established setting. As such from a narrative standpoint, Ar Nosurge doesn’t feel like an Ar Tonelico game at all. Despite this, it turns out that Ar Nosurge is actually a prequel to Ar Tonelico and takes place many years before the events of Melody Of Elemia which you would never have guessed if you hadn’t reached the latter end of the game’s story.

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The first thing that caught my eye about Ar Nosurge was its premise. After the destruction of the planet, people inhabited a space vessel known as the Soreil and have lived on it ever since in their journey to find a new world to call home. Over time however, people forgot about their search for a new world and transformed the ship into a huge colony in which two races battle for dominance over the vessel. Now if that isn’t an interesting premise, I don’t know what is. While the first Ar Tonelico also had a pretty ambitious narrative concept, it had a more conventional cyberpunk/fantasy setting whereas Ar Nosurge throws the fantasy out of the window and feels more like a sci-fi game which is ironic considering the fact that it is a prequel.

Upon hearing that Ar Nosurge has a sci-fi setting, you’re probably expecting lots of space travel and futuristic aesthetics. While there is plenty of the latter, space travel isn’t exactly the main focus of the game, rather the story focuses on the conflict between the two races. In addition, the environments in the game are pretty varied, offering the more traditional bright and colorful grassland in addition to the futuristic aesthetic of the ship’s interior. As for how grassland appears in a game that takes place predominantly on a space ship, Lets just say that you’ll have to willingly suspend your disbelief for most of the game.

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Unfortunately however, the level design itself is pretty bland for the most part. Each of the locations you visit are usually 1 or 2 screens large, even the dungeons/field areas (aside from a few pointless secret areas that are accessible later on). I personally believe that this was partially due to budget constraints but also due to the way the game is designed as each dungeon/field area serves no other purpose than to give players a place to fight enemies and considering the way Ar Nosurge handles random encounters, there would be little point in panning out the levels. Nevertheless I personally believe that many of the game’s design choices stem from budget constraints and that the developers goal was to do as much as they could with what little they had. This is the impression I got while playing through the game.

In terms of visual aesthetic, the levels look nice enough for what they are even if they seem a bit dated for 2014 standards. Yet another sign that the game was designed on a budget but nevertheless I didn’t find the visuals to be unappealing or bland, they were just ok. Like the Ar Tonelico games, towns are navigated via a menu which isn’t surprising but just like in Ar Tonelico, you do get to walk around in tiny areas inside each town but don’t expect too much. Ultimately if you’re looking for exploration, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed with this game and it definitely isn’t going to be for you. While Valkyrie Profile 2’s environments may have been limited by side scrolling, the game made up for it with its highly detailed aesthetic design which this game lacks. I strongly believe that Ar Nosurge would have been better suited as a side scroller rather than trying to have full 3D movement as the freedom to move in all directions doesn’t really add anything to the game.

Speaking of Valkyrie Profile, the combat in Ar Nosurge is similar to it in the sense that it is a turn based action RPG where each of the attacks are mapped to a face button. The similarities end there however as Ar Nosurge has a rather unusual battle system that can be pretty overwhelming at first but is actually pretty simple once you grasp the mechanics. Before I can talk about Ar Nosurge’s combat in more detail, I need to explain the game’s most distinguishable feature. One thing that has always bothered me in JRPG’s is the monotony of fighting one random encounter after another. Ar nosurge circumvents this issue by allowing you to use powered up song magic to defeat every single enemy in the dungeon at once, in fact the entire combat system revolves around this feature making it important to explain it in detail.

The way this works is that all the enemies in the dungeon are separated into waves. By defeating a single wave of enemies, the player is then introduced to a completely new wave of enemies to defeat. The player has a limited number of turns to defeat as many waves as possible. Turns are consumed each time the number of available attacks are reduced to zero. Now you are probably wondering how you manage to defeat 10 waves of enemies with so limited attacks. This is where breaking attacks come into play. By breaking/defeating all of the enemies that are preparing to attack on each turn, the number of attacks replenishes to maximum meaning that you essentially skip a turn but the enemies do not and thus some of the remaining enemies will prepare to attack in the next turn.

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This forces the player to think carefully as to how they approach battles as they have to not only consider the harmo gauge boost for chaining together attacks but they also want to consider which attacks they use and who they are targeting. Once the burst gauge reaches 100%, the player may activate a song to automatically end the battle, killing every single enemy in the dungeon, doing so rewards you with an experience multiplier which allows you to level up your characters insanely quickly should they manage to dispatch all enemies in a single battle by properly managing their turns and abilities. I love how the combat manages to keep players on their toes at all times with this system as it makes battles quick, yet exciting. This is something many JRPG’s need to learn from when it comes to fighting standard enemy encounters.

Of course there are some flaws to this system. For starters, I personally think that there aren’t enough enemies to fight in each dungeon. As such, while the idea is great and all, I find that it is a bit too easy to dispatch every single enemy in dungeons, at least on the lowest difficulty. This means that the game offers barely any combat at all when it comes to standard progression. Thankfully once you leave an area, enemies will respawn, this allows players to grind for as long as they desire but in doing so, it kinda diminishes the challenge of the game. This didn’t bother me though as I love power leveling in games, especially when I can do it quickly. If you’re the sort of person who is looking for a challenge however, playing on hard/veteran difficulty is an absolute must, fortunately they are available at the start so you do not need to unlock them.

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I also find that many of the game’s boss fights are pretty underwhelming due to the fact that the battle system is designed around fighting waves of enemies and since bosses are generally just a single wave, sometimes with only a single enemy, you will often find yourself repeating the same strategies against them making boss battles feel a bit tedious at times. That’s not to say that all the bosses are like this as some boss fights include multiple enemies which can spice things up a bit and can be pretty fun to fight. I think the issue ultimately lies in the wave based battle system as the combat is designed around killing waves of enemies as opposed to a single enemy.

In addition to this, I also found quite a few spikes in difficulty at times. This is likely due to the encounter system since fighting a single battle can level you up a ton, making certain boss fights a lot easier. That being said, if you didn’t fight any enemy encounters, you are going to have a very hard time against certain bosses, at least on the higher difficulties. This happened to me at the beginning of phase 2 where following the main story quickly threw me into a boss fight. This boss fight kicked my ass a ton of times but that was because I didn’t realize that there were new synthesis items available to craft at the beginning of phase 2 and as such I had to beat up more enemies to farm experience and items to do synthesis. Upon returning, I defeated the boss very easily.

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Thankfully farming experience isn’t such a chore, especially if you get a high score.

Equipment in Ar Nosurge is also a bit unusual as there aren’t any weapons or armor in the traditional sense. Your front line fighter can equip cathodes and your song mage can equip bios. Cathodes are used to modify the properties of the attack associated with the face button it is equipped to. Up to three cathodes can be equipped to each of the face buttons allowing for multiple modifiers to be applied to your attacks. Bios are used to enhance song magic at specific harmonics levels. Like cathodes you can equip up to 3 bios for each harmonics level.

Unfortunately there appears to be a bug associated with bios which renders the level 1 slots completely useless, this bug causes the bios to be triggered one harmonics level higher than the current harmonics level. As such at harmonics level 1, you will activate level 2 bios and at level 2 you will activate level 3 bios. Put simply it is impossible to trigger level 1 bios for this very reason and as such the level 1 slots should be ignored. Both characters can also equip RNAs which are used to increase base stats as well as offer additional effects.

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Now you’re probably thinking that you can purchase new equipment from shops but aside from the most basic of equipment, most of it is acquired through synthesis. On the surface, synthesis is just your typical crafting system, which it is. However, like in Ar Tonelico’s grathmelding, every new item that is created through synthesis triggers a conversation between characters. In Ar Tonelico, this was perfectly fine and all as the crafting materials were obtained through fighting multiple battles but since the battles in Ar Nosurge have you fight against every single enemy encounter in the dungeon simultaneously, you will likely have all the materials you need to synthesize a ton of items after a single battle, making synthesis a tedious ordeal to acquire new items for people who are uninterested in the conversations that revolve around each one, as a single enemy encounter can give you enough loot to make several synthesized items, usually to the point that you end up synthesizing all of the available items in one sitting.

As a result, synthesis feels somewhat tacked on and only serves to add more dialogue to the game. While the additional dialogue that comes with it isn’t necessarily terrible and can be comedic, it tends to take up a lot of the player’s time. If you aren’t content with reading large amounts of dialogue in bulk, I can safely say that synthesis is going to be one hell of an ordeal for you. Conversely, those who are looking for a more dialogue heavy experience can rejoice as Ar Nosurge inserts dialogue into every nook and cranny to the point that you are literally drowning in it. It’s pretty easy to tell what the developers were trying to do with this game as everything from the random encounter system, to the synthesis system and more is designed to get players out of the action and into the dialogue as quickly as possible. If you ask me, this is where Ar Nosurge takes focused game design a bit too far.

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Speaking of taking things too far, every time you create something, weeb shit happens… Thank god for the skip function at the bottom right.

Sure, there is an audience for what Ar Nosurge is attempting to cater to but the question is, is the material itself worth all the hassle of reading layers upon layers of incessant dialogue? That’s a good question. While Ar Nosurge’s world is a very ambitious concept, the story itself is actually quite straightforward for the most part, at least early on in the game. I think that while Ar Nosurge doesn’t have a terrible story, it does get a little bit ridiculous later on and whether or not you enjoy it will ultimately come down to how you handle the game’s plot twist because Ar Nosurge may have the craziest plot twist I have ever seen in a videogame.

Ultimately though, despite not having played Ciel Nosurge and not having any understanding on what went on in that game’s story, I personally found that the story of Ar Nosurge was decent. I wouldn’t say that it was groundbreaking but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was completely terrible. It definitely has its weird bits in there to help spice things up a little and I think the game handled its themes rather well. Still, as much as I don’t want to believe it, I think that most of the story was just an excuse to ship the characters which is a little sad but then again I could say the same about the first Ar Tonelico so it’s not like it’s all that surprising.

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In addition to the main storyline, the cosmospheres from Ar Tonelico return but this time they have been renamed to genometrics. Genometrics are a little different from the cosmospheres in Ar Tonelico as you are able to dive into multiple characters as opposed to just one. I also noticed that there are a lot more multiple choice branches in the genometrics which gives players an illusion of choice. Perhaps this is what the developers meant when they were calling their game an “A Deeply Immersive 7th dimension RPG” but I think that’s a load of bollocks to be honest. As I’ve mentioned before, immersion is about making meaningful choices and these choices are anything but meaningful. Sure some choices award you with crystals which can be used to… uh, I’ll get to that later but most options just eject you out of the dive session and force you to restart the dive all over again.

Thankfully all of the dialogue is skippable in genometrics which is a life saver because had I been forced to read all of the dialogue all over again due to picking the wrong choice, I wouldn’t even be writing this review right now, as I’d still be struggling through the ordeal of mashing the X button to skip through it all to this day. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little but I want that thought imprinted in your mind, because it certainly feels like an ordeal at times to get through the layers upon layers of dialogue just to unlock song magic. Speaking of which, there aren’t any support song magic to be found in this game, pretty much all of the song magic is used to nuke enemy waves, probably to befit the nature of the encounter system. As such you can only acquire one piece of song magic for completing a character’s genometrics as opposed to acquiring multiple songs within the cosmospheres themselves.

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Some choices require dive points to select them. Dive points are accumulated by winning battles and you will rarely be short on them. Regardless, it is recommended that you pick the cheapest possible choices first as it saves you from having to farm DP to access more events later on but be careful as some choices will eject you from the dive session.

The only other reason to do genometrics aside from experiencing a visual novel within a game is to acquire crystals and this is where the game gets weird. Once you have dived enough into your partner, you are able to perform purification. Now truth be told, I didn’t experience purification myself, mainly because the game makes it pretty obvious as to what I would be getting myself into should I end up experiencing it myself. Let’s put it this way, purification is cringeworthy to the point that I’m not going to go into too much detail on it. Put simply it’s just another excuse for the game to shove more dialogue down your throat as well as being able to equip crystals in an unusual manner. Talk topics are acquired though exploration but considering how simplistic the level design is, they are often very hard to miss.

Now with that aside, lets talk about the characters of the game. Considering the fact that Ar Nosurge prioritizes narrative above everything else, you’d expect to have a strong cast of characters. Well I’d argue that the characters are kind of a mixed bag in this game as while some have interesting personalities and are well-developed, others are just dumb anime stereotypes that get kind of annoying after a while. For starters I want to talk about Delta and Casty. These two characters are completely pointless and did not need to exist at all in the game. Not only do they barely have any connection to the plot but as Delta is pretty bog standard for a protagonist and Casty plays the generic tsundere role for the majority of the game, it’s difficult to see any value in these two characters. While these two characters aren’t exactly terrible, nor are they completely unlikable, they do not really offer much to the plot and are kinda just along for the ride.

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Conversely Ion and many of the NPC’s in the game are pretty well characterized and fit in really well with the plot. If they removed Delta and Casty from the story, literally nothing important would change. I can kind of see what they were trying to do though, they were trying to implement multiple perspectives into the game which I can praise them for trying, however I personally find that this doesn’t really add much to the game other than having to level up two sets of characters separately which can be a bit of a nuisance at times. Had Delta and Casty had a stronger connection to the plot and were more interesting, I probably would have appreciated this design choice more. It’s not as if it’s a major issue that the game tries to offer multiple perspectives and it is a cool idea, It’s just that it felt like a last-minute addition to the game, even if it wasn’t.

I’m not saying that the Delta and Casty added absolutely nothing to the story, there are sections where the two parties encounter one another and you can clearly see a strong contrast between the two, I just think that Delta’s side needed to be fleshed out more for me to care. One thing that I didn’t give Odin Sphere’s story enough credit for was that it had you rooting for pretty much every side. In Ar Nosurge I didn’t really give a shit about Delta’s side because they weren’t fleshed out enough and didn’t really have a big enough stake in what was going on. The thing is though, I get what they were trying to do and in theory it’s brilliant but in practice, not so much. If the main story was all there was, I’d argue that the plot clearly outweighs the characters in terms of value.

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In the genometrics however, things get a little bit more interesting as you are able to see the characters inner thoughts. While this appears to be a clever way to develop the characters, it can feel a bit disjointed from the main story at times, kind of like that feeling after you’re walking out of a cinema after seeing a movie where it’s hard to connect what you have just seen to reality because it is completely different and that’s kind of what genometrics is trying to be, it feels like a sub plot or a re-imagining of the characters rather than natural character development with loose connections to the plot. That isn’t to say that it is a re-imagining of the characters, rather it feels like it is because of how separated it is from the story.

I prefer natural character growth over simulated character growth personally and as such, I cannot ignore this point. Regardless, I get what the developers were trying to do, I really do. They were trying to make a point of illustrating how characters inner thoughts differ from their outer selves. I just don’t think that this is everybody’s cup of tea and as such I feel the need to bring it up. Nevertheless I think that the genometrics really brings out the best of the characters. Funnily enough, I found myself caring more about the NPC’s than the main cast as they really put a lot of effort into designing their genometrics, not to say that the main cast didn’t get the same treatment, I just found myself caring more about the other characters personally and it was a nice surprise to see them getting fleshed out instead of just having the main cast develop.

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It should be noted that while many of the characters are written well enough, It’s hard to take any of the writing seriously when the characters wear such ridiculous outfits. Just looking at these characters makes me wanna puke.

Perhaps the developers had planned to have multiple party members at one point but later scrapped it in favor of focusing on having one front line fighter and one song mage for each side, this is heavily implied by the game’s friend skill ability which allows you to summon friendly NPC’s to attack enemies with a one time super move to deal a lot of damage to enemies which can be handy in a pinch though nothing beats the power of song magic. Speaking of which, there is a harmoburst ability that can be acquired later on which is similar to Valkyrie Profile 2’s break mode in the sense that you can use your abilities freely within a time limit. Unlike break mode however, this attack comes with a super move at the end and you will automatically unleash your song magic afterwards making it the ultimate finishing move. This can only be used once you have fully maxed out your harmo gauge and as such you will need to do a lot of genometrics to unlock it.

I think that if you want to enjoy Ar Nosurge to its fullest, genometrics might as well be compulsory as it the only way to acquire new song magic and increase your harmo gauge. Conversely I never felt the need to equip the crystals I received from genometrics so purification isn’t really all that important and can be completely ignored should you wish to avoid it. As for whether you will enjoy genometrics or not, that depends on how much you care about videogame narrative. Regardless, most of it can be skipped anyways after seeing it for the first time but it must be viewed at least once. Bear that in mind if you aren’t looking to play a dialogue heavy game because this game has no shortage of text boxes to button mash your way through.

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Ar Nosurge takes every opportunity it can to insert more dialogue for players to read through. So much so that players can trigger skit-like conversations seamlessly as they walk around.

Had it been for the gameplay, story and visuals alone, I would have probably given Ar Nosurge a satisfactory rating as despite its shortcomings, there was some fun to be had here but it wasn’t a groundbreaking experience… well it wouldn’t have been had it not been for the game’s incredible soundtrack. The Ar Tonelico games have been known to have amazing soundtracks and Ar Nosurge is no exception. Electronic music makes up the bulk of the game’s soundtrack which is no surprise considering the game’s sci-fi setting but there’s also plenty of other genres on offer too.

I find that many of the tracks were well thought out and befit their roles rather well. The music that plays during the synthesis dialogues is so relaxing to listen to that it makes reading all of the dialogue a lot less of an ordeal, same goes for the music that plays in the genometrics, as there’s some really underappreciated songs that play in there and it makes the experience so much more enjoyable as a result. Generally speaking, Ar Nosurge’s soundtrack builds a very relaxing atmosphere that when combined with the game’s overall design, ultimately makes for a very relaxing experience. I cannot stress just how relaxing this game is to play once you get into it, nothing ever feels too overbearing and the pacing is on point thanks to the game’s unique encounter system.

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Much like in Ar Tonelico, Ar Nosurge features a lot of hymnos music. Hymnos music is essentially vocalized music that is used to represent the song magic being sang by the characters in-game. I usually consider vocalized music in games to be the videogame equivalent of doping. It is a cheap way to get players to be in awe of your game’s soundtrack and these song usually get way more attention than they deserve, at least in my opinion. The Ar Tonelico series is the exception to this as the vocals fit in with very nature of the game due to their representation of song magic, the core of the series’ narrative, making the existence of vocalized music plausible.

The Ar Tonelico series has a pretty good track record when it comes to its vocalized music but does Ar Nosurge manage to live up to the series’ standards? Hell fucking yes! The vocalized music in Ar Nosurge is simply put phenomenal, so much so that it feels a tad awkward when accompanied with the game’s low-budget presentation. What makes Ar Nosurge’s vocalized music stand out from other game is its use of instruments and the overall composition. There’s also quite a lot of different genres too, of course you get your generic Jpop but there’s also some metal tracks in there too as well as some orchestral tracks. It often seems as if the instruments and the vocals are fighting a constant tug of war in each track in an attempt to dominate the listener’s attention. While there are some tracks that focus primarily on the vocals, most of the songs have a good mixture of instrumental and vocals in them.

 

“I cannot stress just how relaxing this game is to play once you get into it, nothing ever feels too overbearing and the pacing is on point thanks to the game’s unique encounter system”

 

One criticism I do have though is that some of the boss theme’s were a little too flamboyant to the point that the final boss theme felt disappointing in comparison, not that the song was bad or anything, rather the music that played in other battles would have fit the final battle a lot better. In any case, you’ll have a tough job finding a game that can match Ar Nosurge’s vocalized music and if you do manage to find one, chances are it’s an Ar Tonelico game.

Ar Nosurge likes to masquerade as a deep and immersive JRPG. Its unique battle system is brimming with inherent complexity and the narrative needlessly complicates itself in order to maintain this facade. While it may not appear to be a simple game at first glance, players will eventually realize that the game isn’t really as deep as it first appears. The game suffers from what appears to be a lack of budget and there are a few annoyances in the game as well as some really awkward moments that envelop you in cringe. That being said, Ar Nosurge manages to make up for all of its shortcomings with its spectacular soundtrack, quirky design choices and its steady pacing.

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Or we could just shoot our way through and avoid all these needless discussions.

I think there’s a lot that can be learned from Ar Nosurge, particularly the way it handles the issue of random encounters. I think more JRPG’s need to employ systems designed to circumvent this issue in order to better optimize pacing. I still enjoyed the game’s combat despite its lack of depth as I found that it synergized with the encounter system well enough to create a really unique and rewarding experience. As for the story, If you’re a fan of visual novels, I think you’ll probably appreciate it quite a lot. Conversely if you’re not a fan of visual novels, you’ll probably have a harder time getting into the story as most of the game’s characterization is found within genometrics. All in all, I think that this game definitely deserves more attention as it has quickly elevated its way to being one of my favorite JRPGs on the PS3 (exclusive to Sony consoles at least).


Plot/Story: Good

Visuals: Satisfactory

Gameplay: Good

Music: Exceptional

Lifespan: Decent Length

Would You Replay? No


Overall: Good


Value: £30.00

Purchase Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star (PS3)

 

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Castlevania: Curse Of Darkness Review

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Castlevania is one of Konami’s most popular franchises and for the longest time, I had never actually played any of them. My first Castlevania was actually the original NES game which I picked up on the Wii Virtual console. I found it to be extremely difficult and never got far into it, however I later played Super Castlevania 4 and despite struggling through some really tough sections, I eventually managed to beat it and while the game initially felt like a frustrating ordeal, by the end it actually grew on me.

Ever since finishing Super Castlevania 4, I suddenly got the urge to play other games in the series but I didn’t know where to start. One Castlevania game that caught my eye in particular was Castlevania: Curse Of Darkness, a 3D Beat Em Up game set in the Castlevania universe with the ability to summon demons to fight for you, as tempted as I was to pick the game up, I ended up playing Symphony Of The Night instead due to the fact that it was considered the series’ magnum opus and that Castlevania Curse Of Darkness received pretty mixed reviews.

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While Symphony Of The Night didn’t disappoint me in the slightest, when I finally played Curse Of Darkness, I realized that I had picked the wrong game. I mean don’t get me wrong, Symphony Of The Night is a wonderful game and definitely lives up to the hype but Curse Of Darkness was just begging for me to play it simply because it caters specifically to my tastes for better or worse.

Imagine what would happen if Chaos Legion, Castlevania Symphony Of The Night and Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner combined, that’s exactly what Castlevania Curse Of Darkness is, it’s a 3D beat em up, much like Chaos Legion in which you hack n slash enemies and summon demons to assist you but at the same time your demons can evolve and level up much like in Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner.

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The level design appears to be reminiscent to that of Castlevania Symphony Of The Night in the sense that it is tight yet somewhat open-ended. However I would argue that Symphony Of The Night provided more incentive to explore and there was a lot more freedom in terms of where you were allowed to go once you acquired the required abilities to traverse certain areas. That’s not to say that Castlevania Curse Of Darkness removes the aspect of backtracking to acquire new items, rather the progression in general feels a lot more linear.

I would argue however that the game more than makes up for this with its combat which is surprisingly flexible for a Castlevania game. Make no mistake, Castlevania Curse Of Darkness is not a metroidvania at its core, it is a 3D beat em up so if you are expecting a 3D version of Symphony Of The Night then you may be disappointed. Personally I find this to be a good thing as I enjoy beat em ups.

The combat itself feels like a combination between Chaos Legion and Dynasty Warriors, you have your basic attack string which can be cancelled into a finishing move by using the circle button. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Well it would have been if it wasn’t for the Innocent Devils. By pressing triangle, you are able to command your Innocent Devil to perform a special ability… sound familiar? Yep it’s just like in Chaos Legion except this time, your summoned companion has several abilities to choose from, allowing you to mix things up. By pressing left and right on the d-pad, you can scroll between each ability in the heat of combat meaning that you don’t have to go into the menu to change abilities which allows for more flexibility in the combat.

Much like Chaos Legion however, Castlevania Curse Of Darkness doesn’t focus on building combos like Devil May Cry, rather the combat is designed around fighting a larger quantity of enemies much like Drakengard and Dynasty Warriors. As such, Castlevania Curse Of Darkness doesn’t try to be like Devil May Cry, rather it chooses to its own thing and in doing so, it manages to hold its own against other 3D beat em ups of its kind. However, I find the quantity of enemies to be slightly lower than other games of its kind and this can make a lot of the game’s arenas feel a bit empty at times as they can be pretty long and wide.

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Speaking of the arenas feeling huge and empty, the game’s protagonist, Hector moves considerably slower than other characters in the series and this is made even more apparent when you are trying to run from one room to the next as it can take a while to get from A to B which can be a bit irritating at times. I often find myself dodging to get to each area as it is faster than jogging but if you choose to do so, be careful if you have the double dodge ability switched on because if you dodge too quickly, Hector will have a long recovery period so you will have to time your dodges as you move between areas. Despite this, I highly recommend turning on the double dodge ability as it allows you to chain dodges faster, thus allowing you to move faster. Just be careful when you use it in battle as dodging too quickly can leave you vulnerable due to the recovery period.

Thankfully the dodge ability is accompanied with a guard ability and they both share the same button which means that even if you fail the dodge, the guard can still save you so long as the dodge animation has ended. Be careful though as enemies can break your guard if you guard for too long so it’s important to keep on the move in order to avoid getting hit. Once you unlock the perfect guard skill, you can time your guard perfectly in order to stagger the enemy, leaving them vulnerable to your combo’s so it’s a good idea to keep that in mind when guarding.

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I really like how the game offers plenty of options for defensive play as not only is guarding and dodging flexible but there are also skills your innocent devils can use to keep you safe from enemies and deal damage simultaneously. Curse Of Darkness may appear to be shallow on the aggressive side at first but once you unlock new Innocent devils and acquire new weapons, it really opens up. There are lots of different ways to play this game which is what ultimately makes Curse Of Darkness’ gameplay so appealing to me.

Aside from combat, Curse Of Darkness has a lot of RPG elements, so much so that it could arguably be considered an action RPG. Each enemy you slay will give experience to both Hector and your Innocent Devil companion. Bear in mind that in order to gain experience, the Innocent devil has to be summoned. Therefore it is often encouraged to switch things up every now and again to spread the experience points between each of them. On top of all that you may also acquire evolution crystals from enemies, these crystals can be collected by Hector to evolve the Innocent Devil that is currently summoned.

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Each Innocent Devil has its own evolution paths and in order to get the evolution you want, you will have to use a specific weapon. It’s often encouraged to experiment with different weapons each time you get a new Innocent Devil. If you screw up then don’t worry as your innocent devil can produce devil shards which give birth to new innocent devils so you can try new paths with them. In addition, these new Innocent Devils will carry over the stats of your current Innocent Devil, making them stronger in the long run.

Weapons and armor are crafted by obtaining materials dropped by enemies and combining them in the combine menu. You can also steal materials off of enemies by pressing the circle button on them when the lock on cursor is purple but it can be quite difficult to do so against some enemies as to trigger the steal option, there are certain conditions that must be met with each enemy and some steal conditions are absolutely ludicrous. Stealing is hands down the most challenging aspect of Curse Of Darkness and can be quite frustrating at times, especially against bosses as you only have one chance to steal from them outside of the boss rush mode which is a pain.

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In addition to stealing and killing enemies, certain ingredients can be found in secret areas which usually require the abilities of certain Innocent Devils to access. This is similar to the form changing in Castlevania Symphony Of The Night in the sense that they’re used to traverse areas of the map that were otherwise inaccessible except this time, each Innocent Devil has its own abilities and some Innocent Devils may not have the abilities you need, requiring you to incubate another devil shard to pick another evolution path in order to acquire the abilities that are needed.

This can be a tad annoying to some and a bit cryptic but it’s only necessary for those looking to get 100% map completion as many of the items can be obtained through stealing anyways, thus diminishing the value of finding secret areas which may disappoint fans of Symphony Of The Night. On the bright side, it encourages players to experiment with different Innocent Devils and make use of the devil shards.

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Aside from devil forging, weapons play a major part in combat as each weapon  type has its own set of combos and finishers. In addition, some weapon types have a one-handed and two-handed variation which perform very differently. For example, one handed swords are handy against mermen as they have the tendency to dodge a lot and are often attack in groups. Since one handed swords have long attack strings, reasonable AOE potential and high attack speed, they are a great weapon to use against them. A two handed axe on the other hand would have trouble hitting them as it is a lot easier for them to dodge a slower weapon despite its reach.

To get the most out of Castlevania Curse Of Darkness, you really need to be experimental and not stick to a favored playstyle. On surface, the combat may not appear to be very flexible but that’s because in order to change weapons and innocent devils, you have to use the menu and since changing weapons and innocent devils is important, you will spend a lot of time going in and out of the menu screen to do so.

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Curse Of Darkness isn’t the first Castlevania game to have this issue as Symphony Of The Night also suffered from this problem. While this could be problematic for people who want to play a more seamless 3D beat em up, I personally don’t have an issue with it as the menu is paused and not in real time. This means that I don’t have to consider time spent navigating the menu as a resource cost. I’d also like to point out that Curse Of Darkness doesn’t require you to equip items in order to use them like in Symphony Of The Night so its menu navigation isn’t half as irritating as the equip menu isn’t as cluttered.

So Curse Of Darkness is not only a solid 3D beat em up but it also has some pretty deep character management to the extent that it could even be considered an action RPG. Despite how common it is to see RPG elements these days, I’d argue that Curse Of Darkness has more depth in its RPG elements than most beat em ups and I personally consider this to be one of the game’s biggest strong points as the ability to level up and evolve your Innocent Devils is rewarding in itself as there are many different possible evolution forms for you to discover which gives more of an incentive to play the game.

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I personally think that this winning formula is ultimately what makes Curse Of Darkness stand out from other 3D beat em ups. If you’re looking for a game that is similar to Drakengard, Chaos Legion, Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner or even Kingdom Hearts 2 then you’ve found the right game because all of these games have one thing in common, they are all action games in which you primarily control a single character and they each have some kind of leveling system to give players a feeling of progression. This is what Castlevania Curse Of Darkness is all about and it’s the best of the bunch in my opinion as it arguably has the perfect mixture of action and RPG elements within the framework of a 3D beat em up.

That’s not to say that the game isn’t without its flaws, while the need to constantly access the menu mid battle and the more streamlined level design could be considered flaws, they can easily be overlooked. What cannot be overlooked however is the visuals which are pretty mediocre for a 2005 game. It doesn’t help that a lot of the locations in the game look as if they were copy/pasted, particularly in the final area. To the game’s credit, there are some unique locations at certain points which help mix things up but the majority of the game has you exploring what looks to be a copy/paste of a previous room.

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If it wasn’t for the in-game map, navigation in Curse Of Darkness would be an absolute nightmare as nearly everywhere you go looks the same. It doesn’t help that the arenas are big an empty as it can take ages to reach an area that looks different due to Hector’s slow movement speed. As such, the value of exploration in Curse Of Darkness is crippled because if all the rooms look the same, what’s the point in wanting to see what is through the next door? It’s just going to be another copy/pasted arena with enemies to kill.

On the plus side, like in most Castlevania games, the music is on point. Despite its dark gothic setting, many of the tracks are surprisingly upbeat which can feel a bit jarring at times but the same can be said for most Castlevania games. The music succeeds where the visuals fail, some of the tracks help build a strong ambiance while others play to the game’s strengths by being more dynamic. As such, there’s a nice variety of tracks on offer.

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Despite this however, due to the game’s lackluster visuals, any attempt for the game’s soundtrack to build a strong ambiance falls flat. So while many of the tracks that build a strong ambiance are nice to listen to, they tend to blend in with the visuals poorly. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Curse Of Darkness’ soundtrack and I highly recommend listening to it outside the game to better appreciate it. The music is arguably the most fun part of backtracking to previous areas if you ask me.

Aside from the visuals, the only other flaw that could be considered a major flaw is the fact that the Innocent Devils themselves aren’t exactly balanced as some abilities are better than others, therefore you may end up using the same abilities over and over again simply because they are better than the rest. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of useful abilities in this game but some of them just aren’t as good as others and some of them are a bit too good to the point that they could be considered overpowered.

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I personally think that this flaw is justified due to the fact that there are many different Innocent Devils and they each come with their own abilities, it would be difficult to balance them all. With that said, Chaos Legion also suffered from balancing issues and I can safely say that Curse Of Darkness suffers from them a lot less than Chaos Legion despite the fact that Chaos Legion only has 7 legions to manage with only 1 assist ability for each.

As for the story, there isn’t really too much to say really. The story revolves around the characters Hector and Issac primarily who appear to have some sort of rivalry. Hector himself appears to be a dignified yet somewhat paranoid character who is prepared to fight anyone who stands in his way in order to avenge the death of his former lover by defeating Issac, a flamboyant servant of Dracula who scorns Hector for making a mockery out of him by abandoning his service to Dracula.

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While the story does its job, it doesn’t really take center stage. One thing I can comment on however is the voice cast. Crispin Freeman and Liam’ O’Brien were the perfect roles for their respective characters, Liam especially since he has the tendency to voice a lot of flamboyant characters, particularly those who are aristocratic or insane. Crispin Freeman tends to play the dignified role well in pretty much every game he’s been in which makes him very fitting for Hector. I think the voice acting of these two characters is what makes the story as while the writing itself isn’t anything special, the delivery is perfect in every way.

While it might not be everybody’s cup of tea, Castlevania Curse Of Darkness does its best to cater to its crowd. If you’re a fan of 3D beat em ups then I can definitely recommend this game to you, I can also recommend this game to fans of RPGs in general as the Innocent Devils add a lot of growth and personalization to the game that many RPG fans will enjoy. Ultimately I’d argue that Castlevania Curse Of Darkness is a solid game as it manages to hold its own against other 3D beat em ups well enough to be considered a gem on the PS2.

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Plot/Story: Mediocre

Visuals: Mediocre

Music: Great

Gameplay: Great

Lifespan: Decent Length

Difficulty: Easy

Would You Replay? Yes


Overall: Great


Value: £40.00

Purchase Castlevania:Curse of Darkness (PS2)

 

Theorycrafting: Does the RPG genre really need to exist?

When one interprets the term “RPG” they tend to associate it with Dungeons And Dragons. The problem is, this doesn’t tell us what an RPG actually is. If you look at Dungeons And Dragons today and break down all of its elements, you can clearly see connections between DND and other genres outside of RPG’s.

Doom for example is loosely inspired by DND, this is made even more apparent by the Astral Dreadnought’s face being cropped and made into one of Doom’s most iconic enemies, the Cacodemon. ID software were clearly fans of DND and they took inspiration from it. The maps in both Wolfenstein and Doom can be seen as replications of possible DND maps, the first person maze-like structure of the game’s levels are similar to that of Akalabeth which was also inspired by DND.

One could argue that Doom and The Elder Scrolls Arena are the same game on the surface with the only differences being the lack of RNG elements, character building and replacing the direction of sword swings with the aiming of the crosshair. Mapping isn’t the only thing DND was known for but it’s definitely one of its defining traits as mapping was a big part of the game. The same could be said about Doom.

So what truly makes an RPG an RPG? If we look at all the elements of DND we are left confused as to which elements truly matter within the context of an RPG. The point I want to make is that the context does not matter. Every single gameplay element of DND is important, not just in RPG’s but videogames in general. The problem is that the games we define as RPG’s were merely games that were built to imitate DND much like Toukiden Kiwami and God Eater Burst are built to imitate Monster Hunter. That is not to say that they don’t have their own unique elements, these games did solve problems, it’s just that the problems they solved aren’t as clear to us today because we’ve taken them for granted.

One could consider Role Playing Games to be a sub genre of strategy games. The thing is, DND is exactly that, it’s a strategy game that uses dice rolls to manipulate variables to encourage more experimental gameplay and more replayability. The dice roll is merely a facade that covers a deep strategy game built on player intuition. The player’s choices are the strategy, the dice roll is the manipulation of the variable values that influence the outcome of the strategic choice the player makes. The reason for this is likely to solve a problem.

Strategy games like Warcraft Orcs And Humans are a lot easier to figure out than DND because they focus less on RNG and more on methodical design. That’s not to say that Warcraft Orcs And Humans is entirely a methodical game. However the fact that it is named “Real Time Strategy” and not “Real Time Role Playing Game” makes it pretty obvious that it wasn’t trying to be like DND, it was trying to be more akin to wargaming but in real-time. Then Warcraft 3 came along and introduced a leveling system. This isn’t something that hasn’t happened before. Games like Chainmail did this way before Warcraft 3 ever did. Does this mean that Warcraft 3 and Chainmail are RPG’s? Well apparently not as many consider them to be strategy games. So if leveling systems have nothing to do with what makes an RPG then what does? Just to make things clear, Warcraft 3 does have elements of RNG. A good example of this is Grom Hellscream’s critical strike skill which has a chance to deal double the hero’s base damage.

So this technically means that RNG and stats also have nothing to do with RPG’s since they can be applied to strategy games and they should be applied to strategy games, at least in my opinion. Why? Because they are wonderful gameplay mechanics that helps keep games from stagnating. Random elements can make anything intense because you can never be so sure of the outcome, sure said outcome can be manipulated but only to a certain extent through the use of RNG. The thrill of getting that critical strike chance is awesome because it can turn the tide of battle very quickly.

Now if we were to break down the definition of a Role Playing Game, it essentially means that you’re playing a game in which you represent a role. The truth is, this is the case for a lot of games these days. We have moved on from games such as Tetris and it seems that most games these days involve role-playing in some shape or form. Halo might be a first person shooter but you’re playing the role of Master Chief. What people don’t understand is that back in the day, games in which you played roles were few and far between, games were more abstract and as such it was far more difficult for games to portray a role for the players to play. There are games like Tetris in which you don’t play a role whatsoever. These games still exist today and as such they’re massively outnumbered by games that can be labeled as RPGs and if we were to name these games RPGs then the term itself would serve no practical purpose.

I can however state that most games are RPG’s these days and the mechanics that traditional RPG’s are known for have flooded into other games such as Borderlands. Does this mean that the term RPG has no meaning anymore? Well yes and no. The mechanics traditionally used in RPG’s are very meaningful, the ability to play a role is also very meaningful. What isn’t meaningful is the genre used to define a specific type of game. The term RPG is misleading. If you were to ask whether you wanted to make an action game, a strategy game or an RPG, which one would you choose and why? Action and strategy games have plausible reasons for their existence. Some people enjoy slow-paced thinking games, other people enjoy adrenaline pumping rhythmic games. There is a completely different audience for games like chess to games like football and each audience has their own set of preferences.

This is why many people were outraged when Final Fantasy decided to focus on real-time gameplay. The usage of the menu system in Final Fantasy XIII didn’t flow particularly well with the fast paced real time gameplay. Adding an auto battle option merely served to limit the player’s choice and navigating the menus took way too long for players to do due to the fact that every single choice is presented in a long list the player has to navigate through. As such the combat of Final Fantasy XIII was a recipe for disaster and the reason why people despised Final Fantasy XIII becomes clear.

Personally I dislike Real Time Strategy games as I don’t enjoy having to quickly think about what i’m going to do, I prefer to take my time. Real Time Strategy games rush you to make decisions and while making quick decisions might seem like a good thing to some, it doesn’t to me. Strategy games on the other hand aren’t so bad. Mount And Blade is a good example of a well paced and cleverly structured strategy game as the pacing of the game is only as fast as the player wants it to be. It is what I like to call “Synchronized Time Strategy”.

Believe it or not, the same applies to action games. Valkyrie Profile 2 is a “Synchronized Time Action” game which is something you definitely don’t see everyday. This is what makes Valkyrie Profile 2’s combat system one of a kind as many of its gameplay elements would never work in a real-time game (which most action games are). If I was to compare this style of gameplay to any other game series it would be the Mystery dungeon series. Unlike Valkyrie Profile 2 however, the Mystery Dungeon games are not considered to be RPG’s, rather they are considered to be “Roguelikes” which Valkyrie Profile 2 is not.

I really think that people under appreciate the value of synchronized time in videogames. It allows players to play games at their own pace. Pacing has been an issue for quite some time now and if more games were to use this style of gameplay, I believe it could help alleviate the problem of slow-paced gameplay. Synchronized time is not exclusive to RPG’s, so this doesn’t make it less important than any RPG mechanics in an RPG.

The point is, people need to start looking at the structural elements of game design more closely rather than trying to come up with thematic definitions for game genres. It’s one thing calling a game a first person shooter but is it a rail shooter or a free moving shooter? Both can be in first person and involve shooting but both are completely different games. Unlike RPG’s however, at least the term “First Person Shooter” makes sense as it categorizes gameplay that involves aiming via camera movement. The term Role Playing Game makes no sense whatsoever as it only categorizes gameplay which involves playing a role… which is in the vast majority of videogames released these days.

I do think genre definitions can improve, however I can see the importance in thematic genre definitions as they help newcomers discover a genre they can feel comfortable with. Not everybody is going to want to play a shooter because many shooters contain violence. Sure not all first person shooters are violent, Pokemon Snap is a good example as to how you can design a first person shooter without having to kill things but until people become more accustomed to gaming, I don’t think genre definitions should change. Perhaps if gaming becomes more acceptable in popular culture, we can improve our definitions of games by breaking down their individual mechanisms and sectioning them off into their own categories, we need an alternative definition for these games as the current definitions too vague. The problem is that there are so many different games labeled as RPG’s and we would have to break them down individually to find out what they really are.

If we did break them down, I think critics would have a much easier time measuring a game’s caliber. Of course it is still important to measure the levels of growth in a videogame and since RPG mechanics are directly linked to growth it can be as easy as simply looking closely at these mechanics and measuring them to see how well they accompany the core gameplay mechanics and how much of a rewarding experience they provide.

So I think we’ve found the true meaning of the term “RPG”. The genre label of RPGs given to games that use heavy RNG based mechanics and variables as a form of influencing decision-making and growth. The biggest problem with this label is that every other genre of game is adopting this system and thus they become RPGs. This means the way we look at games needs to change, we need to look at other games and how they implement elements of growth and experimental gameplay because this has become the norm now. Role Playing Games are no longer a genre exclusive to the stereotypical games that focus on heavy narrative (which was never the case to begin with, we just grew accustomed to this definition and by we, I am talking about the masses).

So what is to become of those games? Are they to be judged independently as either action or strategy games? Or will we find a new definition? Whatever happens, the way we critique these games should be no different. It is still important to focus on the mechanics that make the game’s growth and decision-making process engaging. We just need to start acknowledging these games as either action or strategy games or whatever is left when the RPG mechanics are ripped out of it. That way, we can help people understand what the game actually is without getting lost in the fog that is the term “Role Playing Game”.

It is important to note that this is not the responsibility of the critics. Critics cannot change something until it is widely accepted by the masses and as such we need to be patient. We cannot simply shove these definitions down people’s throats nor should we confuse the masses further by completely boycotting the definition. Instead we need to work on breaking down each individual game and discuss what makes these games great or otherwise. Once we know what makes a great game, we can discover new methods to motivate and engage players by analyzing the systems games use to provide the best possible experience for the player and share our ideas with other people so that not only do we get better games but people can finally understand what truly matters to them in game design.

This is a slow and arduous task that I alone cannot do but I can shed some light on it hence the fact that I chose to write about it. The RPG genre label needs to disappear and all games should be judged on growth and how well they implement growth because growth is practically everywhere now, people enjoy growth and as such, people enjoy RPGs. That’s not to say that everybody needs it but I do think that people enjoy it. Ultimately it all comes down to the way it is implemented. People have argued for way too long as to what makes an RPG an RPG and it’s time we put a stop to this, permanently by banishing the label from existence and accept that each of these games are different.

Tales Of Symphonia Review

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I don’t talk enough about the Tales series, maybe because the series has burned me out. I’ve been seeing more and more Tales games get shoveled out every year and each time I see them I kinda get a bitter taste in my mouth. Ever since the release of Star Ocean 5 and Exist Archive, my interest in the Tales series started to dwindle to the point where I had just lost interest in it.

However there’s nothing like a great Tales game to satisfy one’s JRPG cravings and Tales Of Symphonia is the first game that comes to mind when It comes to playing a good old-fashioned run of the mill JRPG. You see, Tales Of Symphonia doesn’t present itself as anything new. At first sight it’s easy to be misled by the game’s slow pacing but I’d advise you not to judge a book by its cover. Tales Of Symphonia is definitely a must play for any JRPG fan, particularly those who enjoy action RPG’s over the conventional turned based.

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As and action RPG, Tales Of Symphonia is often seen as a benchmark and rightfully so.  It was the first 3D Japanese Action RPG to give us a deep and engaging combat system and ultimately served as the demise for the Star Ocean series as a whole. If it wasn’t for Tales Of Symphonia, I don’t think the Tales series would have lasted as long as it has. The series has had a pretty huge legacy and Tales Of Symphonia serves as the pillar that holds it all in place.

Tales Of Symphonia might not seem much at first glance but as a game released in 2003 it has aged magnificently… most of it that is. A lot of people question the popularity of Symphonia, often comparing it to other games in the series. While the Tales series has evolved considerably, there have been a lot of changes to the series that have improved on the formula set by Tales Of Symphonia. As good as this was, future games in the series failed to stand out from its predecessor. While I won’t deny that there were some solid Tales games released after Symphonia, Symphonia kinda feels different from those games.

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There is something about Symphonia that keeps me coming back to it and I think I’ve found out what that something is. For starters, one of the things that made Tales Of Symphonia so iconic is its diverse array of content. There’s no shortage of things to do in this game as the main story has a pretty sizable length and there are plenty of sidequests to experience as you progress through the story and many of them offer some great rewards, usually in the form of titles.

The title system allows players to collect special titles that will alter the character’s stat growth. These titles can be carried over in a new game plus which allows players to customize their character’s growth in future playthroughs. Knowing that nearly every sidequest you complete contributes towards each playthrough gives you more of an incentive to complete them, when it comes to rewarding players, Tales Of Symphonia has a lot to offer.

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This alone would be a mere novelty. What truly makes Tales Of Symphonia a memorable experience lies in its gameplay and story. While the story of Tales Of Symphonia might appear quite generic at first glance, it manages to stay fresh with its strong themes. The characters themselves are very much the same, on the surface they are cardboard cut outs but each of them has their own place in the game’s story and play their role well enough. Rather than focusing on the characters individually, the game uses them as a means to portray the strong themes the game’s story revolves around. I don’t want to go into too much detail on these themes for fear of spoilers.

I’m not going to lie, Tales Of Symphonia’s story isn’t going to blow you away, it’s pretty bog standard for today’s standards but it was executed well enough to create a memorable experience. So long as you don’t set your expectations too high, you might be pleasantly surprised by the game’s story. If you do want to get the most out of the game’s story though, you’ll want to engage in some of the game’s many side quests as a lot of the story is hidden behind them. There are also skits which can help shed a light on some of the characters too.

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What makes this game truly stand out from other games in the series is its affection system. Tales Of Symphonia steals borrows this idea from the Star Ocean series which allowed you to partake in special events known as private actions which allowed certain scenarios to influence variables. These variables would affect the ending the player would obtain and each character would have their own adjustable variable value. As such the player may opt to avoid certain scenario’s or backtrack for specific scenarios in order to build up their desired variable.

In Tales Of Symphonia the way you interact with characters is different from the Star Ocean series. While lot of the choices you make throughout the game will affect the amount of affection each character has for the main character Lloyd, the actual process of acquiring these affection points is a lot more streamlined for the most part often forcing choices onto the player as they make progress though the game’s story. That’s not to say that there aren’t any optional interactions. Many of the sidequests can also affect a particular character’s affection for Lloyd. There are also optional skit points where you can engage in a skit conversations with other characters in which the player’s choices affect the character’s affection for Lloyd.

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Sadly this feature never made it into any of the future Tales games which is a shame. Unlike the Star Ocean series however, the affection system doesn’t affect the game’s ending, rather it changes up many of the game’s cut scenes. Once you reach a certain point in the main story, the characters with the highest affection will be able to partake in a cut scene with Lloyd, this scene will solidify that character as the one with the highest affection for Lloyd, essentially replacing the multiple character endings the Star Ocean series has. As a fan of the Star Ocean series I really enjoyed the inclusion of this feature as it allowed me to get more invested in the story and characters. Plus it allowed me to personalize my experience more which is always a good thing.

The Tales series is known for its fast paced real-time action battle systems and Tales Of Symphonia is no exception. Even today, Tales Of Symphonia holds up well despite it being rather basic. If you’ve played any other Tales game then you’ll know what to expect here. Tales Of Symphonia uses a side scrolling battle system in a 3D battle arena. This means that by changing targets you are able to spread your party out. So despite the fact that it is a side scrolling action RPG, it really feels like a free moving combat system.

Tales Of Symphonia was the first game in the series to offer serious competition to the Star Ocean games and for good reason. Rather than simply having players barrage foes with attacks, Tales Of Symphonia focuses on chaining hits to build up combos. While the ability to combo was somewhat prominent it still felt rather unrefined. Tales Of Symphonia’s combat offers a more refined combo system allowing players to chain up to 3 techs and alternate between 6 different techs per character at a time. This was a big deal back then as ARPG’s often lacked variety back in their early years. Tales Of Symphonia was one of the first ARPG’s that added a considerable amount of depth making it capable enough to rival that of a turned based RPG.

The combat focuses on synchronizing your attacks with the AI (or other players) in order to build up a combo. This idea would later be used in other games such as Valkyrie Profile 2 which allowed players to take control over all four characters in battle, managing them all simultaneously. Tales Of Symphonia was one of the first to focus primarily on combo focused gameplay and offers a wide variety of options in battle.

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Unfortunately like in all real-time action RPG’s with AI controlled party members, the combat suffers from having a lack of control over multiple characters. This is a problem that is not exclusive to Tales Of Symphonia but is worth bringing up considering the fact that Tales Of Symphonia is one of the pioneers that established the more modern style of real time action RPG’s and as such it is important to keep in mind that relying on the AI is essentially a big part of the gameplay.

For this reason, playing the game with a friend is probably going to be a far better experience than playing alone. Much like Secret of Mana was a more co-op orientated game, Tales Of Symphonia appears to be very similar. However players managed to enjoy playing Tales Of Symphonia as a single player game so it’s not impossible to enjoy playing it alone, rather there are some flaws to be aware of in terms of the AI. I will say though that for the most part, the AI aren’t all that bad in Tales Of Symphonia and if you can learn the AI’s patterns, you can really build up some awesome combo’s.

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Still, my philosophy on these type of games is that they were actually built with co-op in mind originally but the early games in the series along with all of the Star Ocean games seem to have forgotten this. Regardless, I judge these types of games in four different categories: flexibility, intuition, smoothness and AI behavior and considering the time this game was released, Tales Of Symphonia is above average in all four of these categories making for a very well-rounded combat system. Like I said before, you have 6 attacks at your disposal and they can all be mixed up in any order you choose as well as several regular attacks to mix things up more. While that may not sound like much today, back in 2003 this was a pretty big deal in terms of flexibility.

Now I never had the chance to play the original Gamecube release (which is quite ironic since the Gamecube is my favourite console) but based on the PS3 release, the controls are very simple and easy to use. You can guard and dodge using the square button, use normal attacks with X and artes using O. Comboing is simple enough, using a combination of normal attacks and artes as well as the AI’s attacks you can build up some crazy combos which are still really fun to pull off today and it’s easy to build up those hits, you never feel like you have to do too much busy work to pull them off like in Star Ocean Till The End Of Time which required the player to constantly swap characters in order to juggle their enemies.

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To add to all this you also have unison attacks. This was cool because you got to stop the enemy in their tracks while you get to perform any move of your choosing. Performing certain moves allows you use a compound special attacks which were a combination of two different artes with two different characters. It was a flashy and cool way to finish off enemies. I really liked the unison attack system and building the unison gauge was never too much of a hassle. It just gives you more control over battles and adds some extra flashiness to the combo’s.

To make things even crazier, the PS3 version (based on the Japanese PS2 version) adds mystic artes which are an alternate finisher that allow specific characters to pull off a unique special attack much like the purify weird soul attacks in Valkyrie Profile. These are used as finishers but unlike Unison Attacks they are pretty hard to pull off and can sometimes be completely forgotten about. This is due to the fact that the overlimit gauge didn’t exist yet and overlimits were built up over time much like trance in Final Fantasy IX in the sense that you cannot trigger it at will. Since most mystic artes required the character be in overlimit or at low hp, they were difficult to pull off.

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Regardless I can easily say that Tales Of Symphonia’s battle system stands the test of time, while other games in the series may be better in some areas, few games come close to the polished smoothness of Tales Of Symphonia’s combat. It is one of those combat systems that keeps you coming back for more due to how simple yet polished it is. To put it more accurately Tales Of Symphonia’s battle system is the benchmark of any real-time action JRPG combat and is what all real time action JRPG’s should aspire to be.

Aside from combat you do get a little bit of character management here, while not as deep as it is in the Star Ocean series, Tales Of Symphonia offers the player a few choices in regards to character management in the form of EX skills. These skills alter several different properties of each character giving them special passive abilities or allowing them to be played in a unique way. Sadly in future games such as Tales Of The Abyss, EX skills were learned in a more linear fashion and rather than picking and choosing, you get given all the EX skills over the course of the game which ruined the whole point of having EX skills. Regardless this was a great addition which adds a little bit of experimentation to the game.

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Other than that however, character management is very basic, learning new artes can be quite complicated as there are two different combat styles to learn: strike and technical. Each style has its own set of artes and is influenced by the player’s EX skills. Strike artes are mostly powerful attacks which focus on knockback. Technical artes focus more on delivering more hits and are usually a lot flashier than strike artes. Then you have magic which is completely different depending on the character. For example, you could have Raine be a strong party healer and teach her technical moves like Revitalize. On the other hand you could teach her stronger single target healing abilities and the ability to give your characters an auto-revive buff.

You can mix between strike and technical artes by changing your EX skills to favor the opposite style just before you learn a new move, you can also forget certain moves and swap them for their alternate move should you wish. Or you could just stick with either style and see what you get. This makes the game more interesting as there are so many different combinations of moves you can have at your disposal, some may see it as limiting but that’s kinda the point, by limiting the player, you are making them choose between two variants of moves based on which they prefer.

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Do they want to focus on dealing raw damage and knockbacks or so they want to focus on building up more hits? By limiting your game for the sake of choices, you’re actually providing a more rewarding experience since the choice the player makes equates to that of rewarding players with personalization. This is what many of the other Tales games failed to realize, by breaking these limits and just giving all the abilities away to the player, they are essentially removing that element of choice which made Tales Of Symphonia feel so rewarding… at least in terms of personalization.

So Tales Of Symphonia does a lot of things right with its gameplay and while the story starts off quite slow, it picks up later on. In theory this alone should provide a highly engaging experience and it does… for the most part. You see Tales Of Symphonia may be the series’ benchmark but it isn’t without its flaws. For starters, the dungeons of Tales Of Symphonia tend to really bog the game down in monotony as there are plenty of dungeons in the game that just flat-out suck. Why is this you ask? That’s simple, puzzles and when I say puzzles I mean hours upon hours of tedium.

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The puzzles in Tales Of Symphonia are quite possibly some of the most irritating puzzles I have ever seen in an RPG. While the first few dungeons have very simple, yet boring puzzles, later puzzles can become quite tedious and annoying to do. One puzzle in particular literally has you moving blocks of garbage and dropping it off a catwalk for no other reason than to pan out game time. To make things worse you have the sorcerers ring with its many functions. I absolutely loathe the inclusion of this feature because there are times where you have to switch between ring modes to accomplish certain tasks the game gives you to do like shooting braziers and shooting a bomb to blow up a rock.

Maybe this is just a personal issue but I honestly do not see how anyone can enjoy slogging through such horrendous dungeons. The most infamous of dungeons require you to guide several blobs to a certain position. These blobs will follow you but it is a nightmare to keep them all together. All you do is run around the area aimlessly pushing switches, trying to find all the blobs and trying to keep them all together. To make things worse, pushing in certain switches pushes other switches out. It’s a nightmare for people like me who want to get straight to the action. Even if I were to like puzzles, I cannot see myself not getting frustrated in that horrendous place.

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The dungeons are the biggest problem with this game and they are one of the few things that hinder the game’s replay value. However there is also another problem that many games released back in 2003 suffered from, unskippable cutscenes. That’s right, one of the most irritating parts of replaying a JRPG is to have to press X/A to keep the text moving so that you can get back to the action. I wish that players could just skip the cutscenes and move on. Why this isn’t a thing in the PS3 port I cannot fathom.

Despite all this, I managed to slog through another playthrough and while it did have its annoying parts, the amount of rewarding content this game offered convinced me to play through it again and once I reached the second half of the game, my engagement levels rose a ton. Tales Of Symphonia offers a new game plus feature. By spending grade you are able to unlock certain perks which you can carry over to each playthrough. After unlocking the combo’s perk the game felt extremely rewarding to play in terms of growth as it rewards you with experience based on the highest combo you perform in the fight. This made every boss fight feel different and added an extra layer of depth to the game.

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It was this second playthrough that convinced me to review this game as I felt that being able to play through a game such as this a second time alone is something worth noting since I don’t normally do such things in videogames. I will say though that the second playthrough did have its annoying moments, particularly in the dungeons but I believe if you are truly willing to give the game another shot, by all means do so.

This game has a lot of replay value to balance out the horror of having to slog through those painful dungeons again and as someone who dislikes replaying videogames in general, I can confirm that there is some value to be had in doing so, it just takes a bit of patience because Tales Of Symphonia is quite a lengthy ordeal as it can take around 40 – 50 hours to finish the story. I assure you, once you endure the first half of the game, the game opens up fairly quickly and you feel like you’re playing through a whole new experience entirely. There are still the painful moments but if you are willing to endure some of that pain, it’s definitely worth playing through this game multiple times.

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As far as music is concerned, the game’s soundtrack does a reasonable job of keeping players engaged in the experience but doesn’t go the extra mile to deliver something particularly noteworthy. There are some good tracks here and there, ironically the best tracks tend to play in some of the most tedious dungeons, kinda fitting considering the fact that you’ll be spending a lot of your time in these places. Some tracks are better than others but for the most part I’d say that the soundtrack does its job reasonably well.

In terms of art direction, Tales Of Symphonia takes a very vivid approach depicting a bright, colorful cel-shaded world. While some may find this kind of contradictory to many of the game’s themes I feel that it serves to make the world more likable and makes the locations more memorable due to this distinct art style. After all, sometimes you want a break from the more darker styled games and you want something bright and colorful as a refreshment. As such I feel that the art design fits this game rather well, it really fools you into believing that the game is very plain and simple at first but when things start to get more interesting as the story clashes with other themes, the art direction really stands out.

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When it comes to choosing whether or not to play Tales Of Symphonia, ask yourself what exactly you are looking for in a JRPG at this point? While I do believe that every JRPG fan should give this game a shot at some point, I don’t think this is a game people should rush towards for the sake of it. If you’re going to play Tales Of Symphonia then you want to be in the right mood for it.

If you’re tired of the more conventional RPG and want something different, Tales Of Symphonia can be quite difficult to get into. On the other hand if you’re looking to escape from more modern, avant-garde JRPG experiences then you should definitely give Tales Of Symphonia a go. I do think that the game starts off quite slow and it can be an arduous task to get to the meaty stuff but when you do I believe that you will enjoy what you see.


Story/Plot: Good
Visuals: Good
Music: Satisfactory
Gameplay: Great
Lifespan: Quite Long
Difficulty: Medium
Would you replay? Yes

Overall: Great

Value: £40.00

Purchase Tales of Symphonia (PS3)