HIGH Finding an RPG hero and villain who aren't exactly like every other RPG hero and villain in video game history.
LOW Non-skippable cut-scenes. Really, should I have to watch five minutes of dialogue again just because I suck and died on a boss?
WTF There is a dog in your party. A dog who fights with a knife and smokes a pipe.
About 25 hours into Tales of Vesperia, I came to a realization: I don't like the Tales games. I feel free now that I've said that—it's been an issue lurking in my subconscious for years and it's good to have finally gotten it out in the open. I was worried about making this admission at first, scared that it might somehow ruin my hardcore role-playing game nerd-cred. Now that it's out, I don't even care anymore. Don't get me wrong—I don't hate the Tales games. They're competently made and if you're into whole goofy Japanese anime aesthetics, I can see how you might enjoy them. My days of trying to convince myself I like them are over, though. I just can't live the lie for another minute.
Despite this revelation, I'm going to review Tales of Vesperia, the latest entry in the long running (and console-jumping) series and I'm going to do it fairly. I think this might even be for the best, because freed of my feeling that I should like these games I'm now able to look at them in a totally objective light. I will say this: Tales of Vesperia was not the game that pushed me over the edge—that would be Tales of Symphonia—it was merely the one that brought about my "moment of clarity." I suppose that because of this truth Tales of Vesperia will always have a special place in my heart.
It could have had that sliver of cardio real-estate for even better reasons if not for the game's penchant for shooting itself in the foot at almost every turn. Vesperia is one of the oddest RPG experiences I've ever had: during my 55 hours with the game, we were all over the place. For the first seven hours or so I loved it. During the next twenty, there were periods where I hated it. At other points I felt impressed by the title's ability to subvert my genre-based expectations. These were almost immediately followed by periods where I wanted to kill myself because the game was following the "RPG 101" rulebook to the letter. It tried valiantly to win me back at the end, but by this point I was too exhausted to care. And again, even at endgame, the title manages to do something right and then almost immediately screw it up. When the end credits rolled, I felt battered...and relieved.
Because the things Vesperia does well are so inextricably linked with the things it botches, it's hard to talk about one without talking about the other at the same time.
The game's main character, an ex-knight named Yuri Lowell, seems like he's been cut from the same cloth as just about every other RPG protagonist in the past decade. He's an ex-knight, for starters, who quit because he didn't think the gig was the best way to affect positive change. His best friend is still in the knights, which sets up the potential "friend vs. friend" conflict we've all seen a hundred times before. He starts a noble quest that begins locally and eventually morphs into something global. He meets a group of friends who go on the journey with him...conventional RPG plot elements for sure. Something happens about a quarter of the way through the game though—something that makes Yuri far more interesting than we'd been led to believe early on. Yuri is not above dispensing his own brand of justice. Unlike the multitude of do-gooders who comprise the RPG lead character universe, Yuri Lowell kills people. He has reasons that he finds just for committing murder, but he still wrestles with the philosophical implications of the act. For an RPG, this kind of character depth is pretty damn groundbreaking. Yuri's characterization makes it all the more tragic that the rest of his band of fellow travelers are so generic that they could have been pulled from any of a hundred other games. Tales of Vesperia gives us one great character, then surrounds him with the standard "princess no one recognizes," two annoying kid characters, a hot chick from another race/culture, the standard comic relief character who's the butt of most the game's jokes, and a dog. Not just any dog, either, but a dog that fights with knives and smokes a pipe. If that's not a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment, I don't know what is.
The saddest part of all of this? I expect this level of buffoonery from the majority of Japanese RPGs in general and the Tales games in particular. It's business as usual, except for that Yuri Lowell guy. He makes the mediocrity of the game that much harder to swallow—we get a glimpse of something intriguing, of something that could almost take this resting on its laurels series and make it relevant, and the game never really does anything with it. Tales of Vesperia is willing to flirt with a break from tradition, but when it inches up to the precipice it quickly backs away in favor of a princess who's been chosen by destiny and a cast of characters who're about as interesting as reading the tax code.
Yuri isn't the only place where the game manages to get something right. No one will ever mistake the narrative of Tales of Vesperia as particularly deep, but I did feel at various points (mostly in the last act) that it was far more timely and filled with social commentary than most of its brethren. Allow me to explain.
The game's story centers on a bunch of mumbo jumbo about "aer", "entelexaia", "adaphagos", "blastia", and "apatheia" (I found this last one pertinent since most of this stuff left me feeling "apathetic"). What all that is and how it works doesn't really matter—what matters is that the story uses all this material to make something of a point about conservation and proceeding in a world where the old source of power is no longer available and must be replaced with a new one. You don't have to spend a lot of time reading about "peak oil" to make a connection between the game's story and our current energy crisis. I thought it was a stretch at first, but as the game inches closer to the end, the parallels become harder to dismiss.
The problem (and yet another positive as well—I told you these things were all linked) is that the story presents all of this social commentary in a clichéd RPG storyline. It feels like the writers had no real idea where the tale they were spinning was going and they just strung together some scenarios until they got to the end.
This flaw is most apparent in the presentation of the game's final boss. Tales of Vesperia's last enemy reminds me of some of the PlayStation era Final Fantasy games wherein the last boss just appeared out of nowhere. The character here is involved in the story from relatively early on, but he never really comes to prominence until close to the end of the experience. That's not so good.
What is good is that this last boss is a character almost equal to Yuri when it comes to subverting expectations and exhibiting depth. I called the guy the "final enemy" earlier, and he is in the sense that he's the last boss you're forced to fight. However, unlike most RPGs, this guy is presented not so much as a bad guy, but simply as a guy you have to fight because he has a different idea about how to proceed in resolving the current crisis facing the planet. You can identify with this character to a degree and what he's trying to accomplish. He's not evil, or even entirely misguided, but instead just has a different opinion than the heroes. This made for some really interesting final sequences.
And there you have it, the most interesting and annoying things about Tales of Vesperia. As far as everything else goes, the graphics are nice (but not as nice as Eternal Sonata), the battle system is just a slightly tweaked version of the ones used in Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss (meaning it's a combo-crazy button-mashing arte spam-a-thon), and the voice acting is all over the place (it's particularly funny when you see the androgynous looking Duke character open his mouth and hear a Barry White bass come out of it).
If you hadn't figured it out for yourself already, allow me to reiterate—Tales of Vesperia is sort of like an RPG treadmill. For every step forward the game makes with its use of characters or social commentary, it follows up with a step back in the form of an over-reliance on genre clichés and a meandering narrative focus. I may not have loved Tales of Vesperia (or even liked it that much), but I can respect it for the things it does well. Perhaps this is a sign of the series going through growing pains as it strives to reach new ground.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 55 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol references, fantasy violence, mild blood, mild language, and suggestive themes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: will miss out on the voice acting, but not the story itself since everything is subtitled.