A heaping helping of Japanese-RPG comfort food
A few short years ago, RPGs like Tales of Graces f were, if not commonplace, certainly nothing out of the ordinary. And despite the fact that I grew up in the Dark Ages of Japanese RPGs—where I sometimes had to go to the lengths of getting my fix by paging through issues of Famitsu I could barely read from the Japanese supermarket that I was fortunate enough to grow up near—I came to take the constant flood of plucky, anime-styled protagonists over the past 10 years for granted. If anything in Japan was worthwhile, after all, it would certainly be translated and released here! The days of excellent games left stranded on the other side of the Pacific? Don’t go there! That’s so ’90s—and so not the bomb!
But then a certain Great Recession hit, and companies suddenly became averse to investing a localization budget into games that weren’t guaranteed sellers. In fact, you only need to look at the actions of Nintendo, a company flush with cash that practically had to be coerced into releasing Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story (in the latter case, allowing XSEED to publish it), RPGs with Xenogears and Final Fantasy pedigrees, respectively—an act that would have been unthinkable five short years ago.
The Tales series was one of the most prominent victims of this changed economy. Sure, plenty of moe tripe is now rightly staying overseas, never to infest our shores—but Tales never deserved this fate. Beyond their candy-coated trappings and plots and character relationships that seem outright designed for slash fiction, these are, by and large, excellent games featuring addictive, easy-to-learn-but-tough-to-master real-time combat. 2008’s Tales of Vesperia was perhaps the pinnacle of the series, fusing that stellar combat with a surprisingly deep, mature storyline and a host of bonus content. But we hadn’t gotten Tales of Graces in North America—a 2009 Wii release—until this souped-up PS3 version.
In fact, we haven’t seen any Tales releases on this side of the Pacific since Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World—ostensibly a sequel to the surprise 2004 GameCube hit that really thrust the series into the consciousness of the West—bombed hard in late 2008, just before the economy tanked. Shortly after, I—along with scores of other Americans—lost my job; meanwhile, the Japanese RPG was about to become a boutique novelty overnight.
Three years later, Namco Bandai seems to be willing to give Tales another serious shot in North America, and they’ve done it with a game that’s absolutely worthy of RPG fans’ support and purchase. While Vesperia offered a surprisingly darker, more sinister take on the formula, Graces f returns the series to its more clichéd storytelling roots. This fact becomes immediately obvious when the game unleashes three laughably predictable Japanese RPG tropes—the headstrong young hero in the vein of Ash Ketchum; the mysterious, amnesiac purple-haired girl; and the lovely lass who has a crush on the guy who won’t give her the time of day—within the first five minutes.
Tales games tend to take about twice as long as they need to in order to get to the point, and Graces f is no exception, particularly when it comes to the meandering preamble that really goes nowhere for about eight hours. Thankfully, that’s about the only real beef I have with the game—even the exceedingly familiar storytelling provides a sort of weird comfort-food-style reaction, particularly if you grew up on this type of fare.
What’s set the Tales games apart over the years, though, has always been its high-octane real-time combat—leveling up is always quick, painless, and an actual challenge instead of mindless button-pressing. Rather than the free-roaming battles of more recent Tales entries, though, Graces f offers the “Chain Capacity” system, which sets a certain number of action points in order to perform various maneuvers—and that means that you can’t constantly mash the attack button in order to succeed. Instead, you’ve got to guard to replenish your Chain Capacity or learn which combos are the most effective.
One major sticking point for hardcore Tales fans in North America has always been Namco Bandai’s botched handling of the skits—optional between-battle interludes that focus on character backstories and development. Unfortunately, Namco’s had a habit of slashing costs over the years and cutting the voices in various entries, which has resulted in untold wrath on certain message boards. Thankfully, they’re all voiced here—along with plenty of subtext and innuendo sure to spark a flurry of erotic fan fiction.
It’s also all enjoyable to read or listen to, as Graces f features probably the best translation the series has seen to date. One of Vesperia’s few weak points was actually its localization—it wasn’t that the writing was necessarily bad, but it was clear that the translators just weren’t working with any context in a lot of cases, which made for quite a few awkward exchanges. Proper context is a must when it comes to translating Japanese and its constant vague generalities, so it’s great to see the localization team got the resources they needed this time around.
If you’re a lapsed Tales fan or into Japanese RPGs on any level—well, the first thing you should do is pick up Vesperia, my personal RPG of this console generation, if you haven’t already. But you should follow that up immediately with Tales of Graces f. Its earnest storytelling and unapologetic Japanese visuals seem almost refreshing in these days of hulking space marines and hipster indie fare—and they’re a reminder of why I got into Japanese RPGs in the first place.
SUMMARY: Sure, it’s unmistakably familiar, but that’s also part of its charm—Tales of Graces f does Japanese RPG conventions exceedingly well, which makes it a must-play for both longtime fans and series newcomers.
- THE GOOD: JRPG conventions at their finest.
- THE BAD: …JRPG conventions at their “finest.”
- THE UGLY: Fan fiction sure to spring from certain character relationships.
Tales of Graces f is a PS3 exclusive.