Tales of the Abyss is a classic RPG, filled with intrigue, action, and human connections. The characters are wonderfully written, and everything is extremely well localized, with excellent voices and translations. That having been said…
I really wish I could say more in favor of the Nintendo 3DS port of this game, but, unfortunately, it is just that — a port. Nothing new has been added whatsoever, other than 3D, which, too, is fairly unimpressive. Turning the 3D on in this particular game results in some overly sharp edges that were quite painful to my eyes. There’s no extra content or characters or even costumes, like there have been for other ports of the series, although I suppose the game does have the benefit of being portable now, as well the benefit of very short loading times.
Despite the lack of improvements, though, I still love Tales of the Abyss for the game it was and is. On the 3DS, it’s just as nice as it did on the Playstation 2, and the original script and plot are well-developed enough that the game is just as relatable for me today as it was in 2006.
Tales of the Abyss is about a boy named Luke who has been closed up in a mansion all his life, ever since he was kidnapped at the age of 10. Due to that incident, he doesn’t remember anything from before that time; however, he’s been doing rather well, thanks to the support of his tutors, despite being a little ignorant of the ways of the world. For example, because he’s never had to buy anything, he doesn’t know you have to pay money in exchange for goods.
However, all of this changes when, one day, an intruder sneaks into the castle, intent on killing Luke’s tutor, Van.
Luke, who hero-worships the man who practically raised him, blocks the attack and, in an inexplicable phenomenon (that gets explained later in the game), gets transported out of the mansion and his secular life there, and gets thrown into the real world. Tear, who won’t explain why she tried to attack her brother, feels bad for this unintended kidnapping, promises to bring Luke back to the mansion, all the time putting up with the heir’s brazen attitude and ignorance, coupled with curiosity at the world around him.
On their way back to Luke’s home, Luke and Tear find themselves caught up in the political shenanigans between the two main countries in the Tales of the Abyss world (hardly surprising, since Luke is the son of the duke and the fiancé of the princess of one of the countries), which gradually escalates into a conflict that involves the world, its religion, and its people.
As grand as this sounds (and it is), Tales of the Abyss does a wonderful job of keeping the conflicts personal. Part of the reason is, of course, that the characters are directly involved, each with their own secrets and their fingers in far too many pies. The other reason, though, is that the game always keeps the focus close to the characters. Never is it a distant scheme, hardly impacting the characters but for its political impact. The story is mostly told through dialogue, with hardly any narration, which colors the events in each person’s perspective.
This is partially why I was so bothered by the game’s silent skits, since they were such an excellent, unique opportunity to get to know each character more. The skits serve to delve further into different points, like Anise’s nefarious plans on easing Guy from his phobia and Luke’s decision to ask Guy to train him in the middle of the night, so he won’t be a burden in the middle of battle due to his aversion of killing. While some of them are humorous (such as everyone’s speculations that Jade’s coat is secretly magically air-conditioned because the man is not sweating a drop despite the fact that they’re standing in the middle of a volcano), most of the skits are actually small scenes that let you learn more about a character and his (or her) thoughts.
(That said, the skits are also completely skippable, so if you would rather ignore them, you can save yourself the trouble and time of going through hundreds of mini-scenes.)
Because of this, you get an especially strong grasp of everyone in the cast and how they interact with each other, as well as of their flaws. And boy, are each of the characters flawed. I think this is perhaps one of the main reasons I admire the story in this game because, while it is easy to characterize one person at a time, it is difficult to mature several characters at the same time and keep track of them all. The game’s most extreme example is Luke, who starts off a little whiny and completely ignorant of the world. Despite his overwhelming faults, though, he actively shows that he has a good side (and after playing the game once, it’s painfully obvious that most of his flaws are a result of miscommunication and misunderstandings).
At one point, the entire cast gets fed up with Luke for something that he does, despite his vehement protests that it was someone else’s fault. Interestingly, Luke’s protests and his denial of responsibility would usually be considered a flaw, but while it is true that he does have some responsibility, the other characters aren’t perfect in their understanding of the situation either, and blame him, regardless. It’s this absolute mess of misunderstandings that I love about the game. (Don’t worry, it all gets sorted out later.)
As far as the actual “playing” is concerned, Tales of the Abyss employs the classic overworld-town-dungeon structure, but does so well. While the world is vast, I never felt lost in the fields or forests. There are no random battles, which lends a feel of solidarity to the world because you’re not being ripped out every few seconds with random breaks in your exploration.
Each town and dungeon is uniquely designed and you can often get a feel for the culture of the places. Different cities have different reliance on technology vs. magic, and different places have different industries. The world feels populated, too, since there is a good balance of NPCs.
I also really like the way the economy works in the game. Items are priced such that, unless you try really, really hard, you can’t buy everything with the amount of cash you have, so you’ll have to choose what you want smartly. Should you buy a weapon that only increases your attack by +10, or should you wait for the next one where it’s +60 and instead spend your money on some healing items? There is some interesting interplay with economy in this game as well, where you can affect the prices of the items a little by selling a bunch in one area and then traveling to another place and checking their prices.
Easily the most fun aspect of the game is the battle system, where you have full control of one character in real-time. One button controls regular attacks, another for special attacks called Artes, another for guarding, and finally one for jumping. You can also unlock more actions as you level up and advance the story, such as being able to control characters other than Luke or guarding against magic attacks. You can also eventually run in more than 2 dimensions (vertically and horizontally), giving you more options for attack and evasion.
Of course, the other characters in your party don’t stand around doing nothing. They take action based on the strategies you input in the menu before and during battles. You can also manually tell them to use items or certain Artes. The AI for the game is rather good, and while they won’t be doing as much damage as you, they can hold their own very well.
Artes are unlike special attacks in most games, where they’re more powerful than ordinary attacks. The main purpose of Artes is to rack up combos, which in turn increases your Grade, which is calculated at the end of every battle. Grade is used for New Game+ bonuses, so the higher the Grade, the more you can carry over. As you level up, you can also unlock Mystic Artes which, on top of looking really pretty, are also extremely powerful. (Unfortunately, your enemies also know Mystic Artes by this point, and they hurt. A lot.)
In a battle, you can assign up to four Artes to a shortcut, although you can access every one through the menu. One Arte is assigned to up + B, another for down + B, another for left or right + B, and finally one for just B. These allow you to pull off attacks quickly and efficiently.
Unique to Tales of the Abyss is the customization using Capacity Cores and Fonslot Chambers. The former increases each stat a certain number of points whenever you level up (from +1 to +4). The latter enhances your Artes, so you can make the attacks stronger, make your skills knock your enemy further away from you, cost less TP (technical points, which you use to cast Artes), allow stealing, etc. In addition to this, some of the Artes are subject to elemental changes when combined with magic attacks. All in all, I really enjoy the battle system. It’s a little hard sometimes, but with practice, you’ll find yourself flying through the fights.
Ultimately, while the 3DS port adds little to Tales of the Abyss, it’s still fundamentally a wonderful, balanced game that I enjoy immensely to this day.
Food for thought:
1.) I love the voices. The voices are some of the best I’ve heard in English. I love the music, too.
2.) To some extent, the characters’ appearances are customizable. There are costumes, like in other Tales games, and their appearances in battle also change depending on what weapon they have.
3.) You can also unlock special effects by assigning your characters “titles,” which are unlocked through the story as you learn more about the character. For example, Tear starts out with “Mysterious Intruder,” which allows her to heal some HP when she stands still. Later, she’ll get “Van’s Sister,” which allows her to automatically cure poison by standing still.
4.) The characteristic genre name for Tales of the Abyss is “An RPG that teaches you the meaning of your existence.” That doesn’t bode well for the characters, but it is fitting, if a little…grandiose for the name of a genre.