Incremental updates; words that strike fear into one's heart. Sports games, with their yearly roster updates and generally unfulfilled claims of major innovation, are the kings of this kind of release, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been noticed by developers of other genres as a means of, well, developing. After following up Tales of Symphonia with Tales of the Abyss, Namco Tales Studio, with Tales of Vesperia, have very much made "Tales ’09".
That’s by no means a bad thing, though. Symphonia, in 2003, was an incredible game and brought a lease of life to the Tales series in the west, the Abyss followed a few years later with some minor refinements, a whole new setting and plot, and was a much better game for it. Fast forward a few years further and we have Vesperia, complete with some more minor refinements and a whole new setting and plot, it's near perfect.
Only near, though. The new setting is wonderful and the world is reminiscent of that in Eternal Sonata - slightly less pretty but few games can rival Eternal Sonata’s world. The characters also are amazingly realised, cel shaded in a style that few companies in the world pull off anywhere near as well as Namco Bandai do.
The problem is with that new plot: it just feels so forced. For the first half of the game none of the people who you befriend give a sensible reason for wanting to carry on travelling with you. At the end of every town section, when the team decides to split up, then, oh wait, let’s all travel together for some inane reason; it just gets dull. The second half of the game cuts down on that, with the team finally admitting they like, need and want to help each other. But, by this point the game is so bogged down in pretend technology and complex terminology that it’s a struggle to understand it. This is the end of any faults that can be levelled at the game, however, and by the third play-through (yes, you will), the plot is certainly much easier to follow.
In every other area the game excels, most notably with main character, Yuri. With the plot so dense, he’s the reason you’ll want to carry on - his particular thread feels new. Yes, his hair is a bit silly and his clothes are straight from RPG Hero Design 101, but he feels genuine. He’s a good guy, but he has faults like everyone else, and he’s an interesting character, taking the plot in a few directions that games rarely, if ever, cover. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is largely clichéd, but Yuri makes up for the rest of the cast tenfold. Oh, and there’s little to no angst.
So, how does it play? The easiest answer, of course, is “like Tales of Symphonia and the Abyss before it.” Outside of RPG staples such as towns, dungeons, NPCs, there's the Tales battle system, known in Vesperia as the "Evolved Flex-Range Linear Motion Battle System" (or EFR-LMBS). That's surely more than enough information to allow you to know exactly how it plays, but if it's not, here’s a more detailed explanation.
Enemies are encountered on the field, the screen smashes, and the battle screen appears. This takes no more than a couple of seconds – horrible loading times are not something that Vesperia suffers from. Within the battle screen, one enemy will be targeted and your chosen character will be effectively on a 2D plane with that enemy – with other enemies and characters on a 3D plane. Your choice of character is important, they may all be largely clichéd but they have vastly different fighting styles, and finding one to suit you is essential. At any time the targeted enemy can be changed, and the 2D plane becomes bound with that enemy instead. Also at any time, a pull of LT allows a free roam of the 3D plane, with 2D restored when LT is released.
The important bit: to attack an enemy, approach them and hit B. Hit it a few times for a combo. Hit A to unleash a skill or magicattack. X blocks. Please refer to the instruction manual for more buttons to press, there are many! The battle system is quick, fun, and while a few new intricacies are introduced throughout the game that make matters a little confusing, it’s always easy enough to follow and with great practice comes great fighting. Or something.
Yet again, Microsoft’s achievements turn an already great game into an incredible one. The Tales series has always been full of side-quests, most of them easily missed and rewarding the player with little more than a pointless title here or an obscure item there. This made them nice enough to warrant earning if you came across them, but not really worth going out of your way for. It would be the same in Vesperia, too, on any other console. With achievements for collecting all the titles, or filling the item collection book, amongst others, players are encouraged to seek these things out, and by doing so will discover a huge amount of comedy accessories and costumes bordering on anime-esque fanservice; it’s hard not to be drawn into finding them all. Making the effort to do so fleshes out the characters and world beautifully. Other achievements include a few interesting little challenges and so there’s a lot of reward on offer in those aforementioned repeated play-throughs; three and a half should just about do it!
A final, excellent touch, and something every RPG should come with as standard is the stat-screen. It tracks everything from play-time (long), to number of escapes (none, you big wimp), via highest combo (obscene). It’s not like an RPG needed another screen of numbers but this one is a lot of fun to refer to - it’s basically a screen of high scores inviting you to challenge them.
Tales of Vesperia surpasses every Tales game that preceded it, by building on their strengths and adding a series of new features. Granted, the story isn’t up there with the best, but Yuri is, and the game is simply so playable that any shortcomings in the plot can be easily ignored, with sheer fun taking its place.