By Spencer . March 12, 2012 . 4:50pm
After all the petitioning and Facebook posting, Namco Bandai finally localized a new "mothership" Tales title for North America. OK, we’re a bit behind since Japan has Tales of Xillia, but don’t ignore Tales of Graces f just because there is something shinier in the distance.
While Tales of Vesperia had an older protagonist with a cynical view of the world, Tales of Graces f’s lead character shares more in common with other Tales leads. Asbel Lhant is naively optimistic and values protecting his friends over everything else. He falls into the JRPG hero archetype category since you watch him grow up, but Asbel is less angsty than other recent protagonists. The story begins with Asbel and his younger brother Hubert as children (both use sticks instead of swords) who find a girl with purple pigtails sleeping in a flower field not far from Lhant, their home town. Sophie, the name the boys give her because she doesn’t remember her own, is clueless about the world around her. Good natured Asbel steps in and promises to take care of her even after his father chides him for taking on the responsibility. Asbel is joined by Cheria, a healer who lives in the Lhant home as a servant’s child, and Richard, the prince of Windol who is one year older than Asbel. While Asbel gives his new chums, Richard and Sophie, a tour of Lhant, the trio carve their names into a tree and promise to stay friends.
Tales of Graces f picks up seven years later with Asbel after he sets off to become a knight. An event in the prologue fuels Asbel’s drive to become stronger and he has been training with Malik Caesars, a respected knight who attacks with a boomerang sword. Players are reintroduced to Cheria and Hubert, who was sent to live with a different family, in the first few hours of the core game. War is brewing with Lhant caught in the middle, but while war is the conflict that drives the plot forward Tales of Graces f is centered around the characters and the mystery behind Sophie. Who or what… is she?
Tales has a vocal fanbase, but as a RPG series it isn’t as well known as other brands. Since Tales of Graces f is a two player game, I decided to play the English version with someone who has never played a Tales game before. The best way to spread Tales is to introduce it to new players (especially those who don’t play RPGs), right?
We took turns controlling Asbel on the world map and in dungeons. Since she doesn’t play many RPGs the idea of exploring corners for treasure was new to her and Tales of Graces f has a ton of stuff to find. Almost every dead end has valuable items and towns have discoveries to find that flesh out details like where HP restoring Apple Gels come from. If you’re looking for a world to explore, Tales of Graces f has a huge one. While the main story is linear, Tales Studio added plenty of side quests like gathering stuffed animals for a sick girl to a block hitting puzzle game with Pascal. Completing these rewards players with items, but more importantly all of the optional branches makes the game feel open-ended even though there is only one path for progression. Dungeons are peppered with puzzles, which adds variety. In one area you’re pushing ice blocks in place and in another there are floating platforms to interact with. These little touches make Tales of Graces f’s "dungeons" feel less like actual dungeons. Since monster fights aren’t random you can freely explore areas for treasure chests after cleaning house.
Exploring is one way to earn titles, which is the main way characters in Tales of Graces f develop. Titles unlock status boosts, new attacks, and can augment old ones. Each character has over 100 titles to collect and I can’t even imagine mastering all of them. Some titles are earned by going through the story while other titles are gained from watching side quests. Certain titles are acquired after using a specific attack so many times (usually these boost the arte mastery) and titles are unlocked after mastering titles. Tales of Graces f has a robust character customization system, but it can also be glossed over if you set to titles to auto mastery. The game will just pick how you level up. However, the game won’t choose titles when you need them like Poisonproof when fighting a boss that attacks with poison. If you want to earn lots of titles – the select button is your best friend.
Both of us appreciated how Tales of Graces f doesn’t take itself too seriously. Instead of drowning players with mythology to set up an epic battle between good and evil, Tales of Graces f has tangents like silly skits where characters react to minute events. These are optional, but they add more depth to the characters and show how… clueless Asbel can be about relationships. Skits, just like cutscenes, have voice acting. While I think Hubert sounds a little too gruff, Cup of Tea productions did a decent job of casting the game. Now is probably a good time to mention the voice track isn’t perfectly synced. I noticed this a few times during the anime cutscenes and events using the in-game engine. Distracting? At times, yes. Game breaking? Hardly.
Tales of Graces f uses an action based combat system, but unlike Vesperia you can’t jump. Characters have two sets of attacks: Assault Artes (X button) and Burst Artes (circle button). Basically, you have access to more moves and beginners can ease into the game by mashing X to do a chain combo. Namco dropped magic points, so you don’t have to manage precious pineapple gels anymore. All attacks are tied to Chain Capacity (CC), a number that determines how many attacks – melee or magical – you can use. This refills when you stop attacking so there are moments when you have to focus on defense or more importantly dodging. A new sidestep move is the main addition since you can evade an attack and restore enough CC to launch a counterattack against an open enemy. I missed being able to do aerial combos at first, but like how the sidestep motion makes Tales of Graces f’s battle system more technical. The basic flow for using a melee character is attack –> dodge –> counterattack. Magic users like Pascal still have to hang in the corner and avoid battle by hugging the battlefield edge (sometimes using CC to free run). Tales of Graces f also has two Eleth Gauges to watch one for the party and the other for all of the enemies. When its full you have unlimited Chain Capacity so you can unleash an onslaught and finish up with a powerful Mystic Arte. Be careful because enemies can do the same thing if their Eleth Gauge is full.
For newcomers, Tales of Graces f has a pot that automatically cooks healing items. The computer AI, if set to auto is capable enough and can be set to revive fallen characters too. Beginners might want to have a party with two attackers (Asbel and Malik) plus Cheria and Sophie acting as healers. Battles in Tales of Graces f are avoidable and can end usually take about a minute to complete for regular enemies. Tales of Graces f has some drawn out boss fights where you need to break through defenses using specific attacks that might be challenging if you weren’t paying attention during the tutorials. The game pretty much holds your hand through the prologue, though.
It’s been so long since I’ve played a Tales game I forgot how fun the linear motion battle system is when playing with friends. While the story falls into shonen troupes, Tales of Graces f was kind of refreshing since it reminded me of a "golden era" JRPG. I was able to hook someone into Tales who doesn’t play RPGs at all, so that says something about the quality of the game too. Oh, and when you think you’re done with Tales of Graces f there are Trials of Graces battles to complete plus an epilogue that makes a key character from Graces a more prominent party member.