Perhaps Recollectia is a better name…
My current Tales collection, numbering 38 releases from the series
There is actually another word I wanted to ‘ia’ for what was once going to become an encyclopedia of Tales knowledge, but it was too good to let slip. For those who have no idea what this long page is about, I am referring to the “Tales of…” series of Japanese Role Playing Games. This is a bit of a rambler, so if you’ve no interest in the tried and tested tropes of a thousand console RPGs, then you’re probably better off navigating away from this page.
The series began in 1995 on the Super Nintendo with “Tales of Phantasia“, a game which set the naming standard for a series of games that generally end in “ia” (though there are some exceptions that actually start with the second game), and has since proven to be a solid series that has reliably brought fans of the JRPG genre new entries with incredible regularity – if you’re a Japanese speaker. Tales games feature colourful, anime stylings often with pastel shades. Even when trying their hardest to be “mature“, they still end up being brighter and more cheerful than just about every other JRPG series bar Gust’s Atelier games. One of the most important features of the Tales games is the battle system, which mixes random battles with an action-style system that has evolved from something representing a crude Streetfighter, to a complex beast that personally provides me with more fun than dedicated 3D fighters such as Soul Calibur. However, this is just the start, we’ll come back to the battle system later on!
But as good as the Tales games are, like most things you fondly remember from your childhood and earlier years, the recent entries just aren’t as good as the ones of old. Perhaps it is simply the frequency of which we hear about new games in the series but the last few years has seen merely good releases, and nothing that captures the excitement and scale of the older games. In many cases, feelings like this reveal themselves to be created by a solid pair of rose-tinted glasses, but I would personally guarantee that if you pick up any game in the series that was released before 2009 you’ll have a better time of it than you would with a more contemporary release. Part of me even believes that Bandai-Namco also agree, as they recently released a high definition update of one of their greatest entries, Tales of Symphonia (2003). If you do fancy playing some of the series, it may even be more prudent to work your way back and find the series improving as you delve into the past. I once had grand plans for a sizable tome on the series’ past, present and future, but the last few years of releases have put me off somewhat. Maybe this piece will inspire me to get back to it, or perhaps it will stand as the “thing” I write about the series.
Tales of Originia…
Tales of Phantasia was once just another member of the rich vein of 2D JRPGs that populated the SNES’ library. If you were into your role-playing games in the 1990’s, then you’d have been right to hope that that large, rectangular box under the tree at Christmas wasn’t a Sega Mega Drive!
Brattish attitudes aside, the SNES really was the place to be for levelling up, chocobos, moogles, and the exquisite views of twee fantasy worlds from atop cliffs. This was irrefutable if you lived in Japan, hard to argue against for North Americans, and the best place for those of us in the UK (though the PAL release schedule often left a lot to be desired!). The slight problem that came with the appearance of the Tales series was that it was strictly a Japanese-only game! On other platforms this might have meant you wouldn’t hear about the series for many years to come, but the SNES was reported on by a great magazine by Future Publishing called Super Play, and that magazine thrived on the Japanese games and oddities that the console had to offer. One of the issues I managed to get hold of when I was twelve-years-old was somewhere in the 30s of the 48 issue run (I’m pretty sure it was the magazine with the Secret of Evermore cover but it is currently 312 miles away from me to confirm, and it could have been Kirby), and inside this issue was a first look at Tales of Phantasia. More than anything else, the game caught my attention because it was a 2D JRPG, but it was also notable for being a game that required a 48Mbit cartridge so that the developers were able to include a host of voice acting for the characters, and songs on the soundtrack that included vocals: this was a Big Deal™ for 16-Bit consoles. Nevertheless, as much as I was intrigued by this game, my pre-teen self had no way of picking the game up, much less read the Japanese that would have been required. For now, the Tales series was just another one of those things I read about in Super Play that I had to accept I would never be able to play, alongside Final Fantasy III (VI), and Chrono Trigger…
Tales of Sequelia
The next phase of the Tales series was actually turning it into a series. Much like Final Fantasy, the Tales games were developed as standalone games, and didn’t require knowledge from the previous games in the series to be fully enjoyed. As a gamer in the drab, flat lands of Lincolnshire though they did require a pricey foreign console as unfortunately Europe still remained a forbidden (dramatics) territory for localisation and publishing. The United States did get the second though: Tales of Destiny. With the SNES breathing a death rattle beneath the weight of the 32 and 64-Bit consoles, the second game abandoned Nintendo in favour of Sony’s PlayStation in 1997 (almost a whole year later for North America). While other companies saw fit to try out their games in these new-fangled three dimensions that the gaming world was going mad for, Wolf Team (the Tales developers of the time) saw fit to keep the bulk of the game set firmly within two dimensions (the world map was polygonal) and was all the better for it. Say what you will about classics such as Final Fantasy VII, Tales of Destiny has aged far better in the visual department!
Tales of Destiny perhaps wasn’t quite as good as Tales of Phantasia in my opinion, though it was still an excellent game that had me glued to my screen until the credits ran. Random battles were incredibly frequent, but the offset was that the fights themselves were fast and fun. The game must have made more than a few good impressions though, as North America solidified itself as a location that Tales games might be released in, and eventually welcomed in the third game in 2001.
The third game’s official name was Tales of Eternia, but thanks to He-Man it was stripped of its official title when leaving Japan and slapped with the thoroughly uninspiring Tales of Destiny II. The name made sense from a marketing point of view for the Americas, as the only other game released in the Tales series there had been Tales of Destiny, but as both games featured no ties save for general structure of the game, people wanting to continue the story were left scratching their heads. To make matters worse, a year later in 2002, the original Tales of Destiny actually received a Japan-only sequel, genuinely called Tales of Destiny 2. This game has never been released outside of Japan, but has seen a later port to PSP. All in all, the third Tales game may as well have been called Tales of Confusia, which would actually have been less confusing to someone coming into the series post-2002.
Still, ignoring the naming slip-ups, the Tales series was now beginning to make a name for itself among Japanese and English speaking gamers. But what about us poor saps in Blighty, eh? We may have had Terranigma (a one-up over the US releases of Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger), but that game was released in 1996, and as good as it was, after tens of playthroughs I at least knew that I wanted something else: something unobtainable by normal means.
Tales of Importia
2002, United Kingdom. The Nintendo GameCube was released, and while perhaps not receiving the greatest amount of third party support (a sad future for Nintendo, really), they did gain the attention of Namco’s Tales Studio just the once. Fortunately, once was all it took before Namco graced Nintendo’s little purple box with arguably the best entry in the Tales series: Tales of Symphonia!
Now, while Tales of Symphonia was eventually released in Europe (twice, in fact), there was no precedent for this back when the game was first announced. Hell, there wasn’t even a guarantee that the game would see the light of day in the US, as they had already missed out on the real Tales of Destiny 2! Tales of Symphonia was also the first 3D entry into the series, and Namco had left it long enough that the 3D was able to make sublime use of cel-shading and as such remains largely unaffected by the ravages of gaming time. Now was the time for panic, now was the time for credit cards, Japanese dictionaries, Freeloaders, and play-asia.com!
Around the time of Tales of Symphonia, I was finally able to play Tales of Phantasia for the first time thanks to the shady world of emulation and fan-translations. I say shady only to make it sound dark and mysterious, it is actually a wonderful thing that I am fairly confident has played a large part in inspiring the big, brutish games publishers to make the effort to localise games for regions outside Japan. This was around the time that I was really getting into the Tales series. I had a PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube, as well as a PlayStation, Saturn and SNES and a host of handheld machines. Yet despite all of this newness, it was the first entry in the Tales series that had me returning to my PC every day. It didn’t matter if I finished the game, I just bust straight into NG+ again and again. It was brilliant, the soundtrack, the graphics, the battle system, the Whole. Damn. Game. Because of the amount of time I had spent with Tales of Phantasia, I just new that Symphonia was going to be better, or equally as awesome. At this point I didn’t even know that both games shared the same world of Aselia, and that Symphonia was actually a prequel that set up the world for Phantasia (huge spoilers, by the way, but the game is over a decade old). All I knew was that I needed the game, and a little bit of research led me to discover that it was actually very easy for anyone to bypass the GameCube’s region locking with Datel’s Freeloader: a simple disc that opened the console up to games from around the world. Never again would a lack of publisher confidence stop me from playing a game (until firmware upgardes on future machines, at least)! The only barrier now was the Japanese language. Not to be dissuaded, I picked up a couple of Japanese dictionaries, and a teach yourself guide. The game arrived (my first import!) and it transpired that basic Japanese wasn’t even that difficult to pick up! Within a few days I could easily read the menus, understand character names, items, basic plot points… Fair enough, I didn’t get the full extent of the story and the game took me over 100 hours to complete, mostly because for the life of me I couldn’t understand what “Penginisutomiton” meant, but by the time I watched the Japanese credits roll, there was the announcement that Tales of Symphonia would be heading towards the US! Even though I had just finished the game, playing it through again in English was just what I wanted and I went back on play-asia and ordered it again, this time in a language I could read in its entirety.
Incidentally, “Penginisutomiton” actually meant “Penguinist’s Mittens”, no bloody wonder that wasn’t in the J-dictionary!
Even so, while Tales of Symphonia did eventually get a PAL release, only the GameBoy Advance and PlayStation Portable received PAL versions of the Tales series for a while (re-releases of Phantasia, Eternia, and new IPs Radiant Mythology), and the “Mothership Titles” of the series continued to elude my PAL consoles. The PlayStation 2 ended up having similar options for importing to the GameCube, with the use of Swap discs, but they were never quite as intuitive as the Freeloader and required you to do things to your consoles that felt illegal, be it on the original model of the PS2, or its slim variant. Whatever. I needed the Tales games I didn’t have.
Tales of Collectia!
My awful penchant for collecting things came into full flow. Credit card in hand, and eBay to the rescue, I soon had orders for a US PS2, and Japanese PS2, and emails saying the Tales of Rebirth, Tales of Destiny 2, Tales of the Abyss, and Tales of Legendia had been dispatched. Then came the PSP imports of the Radiant Mythology games, Phantasia, Rebirth, and Destiny 2: Sony’s handheld became the place to be for the series, and the region-free nature of the machine meant that it was relatively easy to develop a collection for. It even gained it’s own games in Tales of VS and Tales of the Heroes: Twin Brave in its later years
It wasn’t just Sony’s handheld though, Nintendo’s GameBoy, GameBoy Advance, and DS also received their fair share of games (though they never had as many). While the GameBoy Advance made a home for yet another Phantasia rerelease, both GameBoy and Advance were the format for a spin off series known as Narikiri Dungeon. The Narikiri games were an offshoot of Phantasia, and were dungeon crawlers with costume-based gameplay: not quite the scope of the so-called “Mothership” games themselves, but pleasant offshoots in their own right, and the sign of a popular and well established series! What’s more, while the Tales series was really hitting its stride, it was somewhat noticeable for being a series that consisted of mostly good games. Sure, the games appealed to a specific type of gamer, but their action-oriented battle systems and grand casts of characters were well received by most that played them. It was at this point that the lacklustre entries to the series were the exception and not the norm. Not to sound completely damning of the current releases, but Tales of Legendia was largely remembered because it was (at time of release) the weakest entry into a generally strong series. It wasn’t even that bad when ranked among the myriad of JRPGs out there, but was notable for not being developed by the Tales studio, having a weaker battle system than the other games in the series, and the US release didn’t even have voice acting for the latter half of the game (which was technically post-game content, but provided as much game time as the rest of the story before it).
The Tales series was becoming a behemoth, releases were everywhere and on pretty much every platform that was worth owning, including mobile phones!. I had done everything in my power to own as many of the games as possible. I even picked up the obscure Tales of Fandom games on PS1 and PS2, though I haven’t had actually played them… Something unexpected then happened.
Tales of Vesperia
So here we come to a chapter in this not-very-to-the-point write up the Tales series that is actually named after a Tales games itself! In my opinion, Tales of Vesperia was the last truly great entry into the Tales series. It is hard to say to say whether it is better or as good as Symphonia. It was notable not just because it was a grand example of how the JRPG should be done, it was also released on the Xbox 360, and it saw a release in Europe as well as the US and homeland of Japan.
Tales of Vesperia came at a time when Microsoft was desperately trying to break into the Japanese market with its distinctly American box of tricks. The Xbox 360 was a good console (despite me burning through five of them), but it was not well received in Japan where it sold only 6 copies: nowhere near as well as Sony’s machines performed! If you were a JRPG fan and you had an Xbox 360, well you could count yourself very lucky if you only had Tales of Vesperia on it.
I would also like to tell you that it was Tales of Vesperia’s Yuri Lowell that brought Troy Baker to the attention of the gaming world in general and ensured that he voiced every videogame character from 2011 onwards, but it was probably more likely to have been Catherine. Whatever, at least he put paid to Nolan North’s and Johnny Yong Bosch’s ubiquity.
Tales of Vesperia was a game that easily sits among the Final Fantasy VIIIs (yup.), Chrono Triggers, and Secret of Manas of our time. For starters, it looks amazing (and still does), featuring some of the most delightful cel-shading I’ve seen this side of the Wind Waker. The chief character, Yuri Lowell, was something of an anomaly among the Tales casts in that he was quite obviously a bad-ass. This was a guy who got shit done, even if it meant getting his own hands very dirty in the process (see 6.30 in the linked video), and it wasn’t just the one time. Seeing a protagonist outright kill a character in a series that rarely saw folk die (at least not in terms of being murdered) was something that I personally hadn’t witnessed in a Tales game before, and it was something strange to witness in a game that was so colourful and resembled a family-friendly game. Yuri’s story took him through many terrible choices, and had him lead an ever-growing group throughout a globe-trotting adventure around one of the largest Tales worlds. The game was quite easily the biggest entry into the series, and that it was on a console more suited to brown first person shooters was all the more baffling. Vesperia did eventually get a release on the PS3, but it was Japanese only and I’m not sure that English speaking Tales fans have ever got over that given that it was generally regarded as the better version (though this could simply be contrarianism at its finest!).
Tales of Disappointia
So, Vesperia had been released! The Tales series had proved itself as a worthy opponent to Final Fantasy (the current big hitting rival). Everything was good for the Tales series, right? Well, not quite.
Following on from Tales of Vesperia was Tales of Hearts. Hearts was a DS-only game upon release, and was also a Japanese-only entry into the series to boot. Despite being a “Mothership” title in the series, Hearts wasn’t released outside of Japan until a PS Vita port in 2014. Perhaps because of low sales due to the odd choice of platform for the worldwide release of Vesperia, the Tales series had sunk back into relative obscurity. Those that imported the Japanese DS games knew that there were great games in Innocence, Hearts, and (to a lesser extent) Tempest, but it certainly looked as though Namco had turned its back on the western world for Tales releases.
Following on from Hearts came Tales of Graces, a Wii-only game that formed the twelfth Mothership entry into the Tales series. The game saw good reviews in Japan, which only made the lack of a release outside the country more frustrating. Importing was possible, but after being able to play Vesperia in english, slogging through a game in different language no longer held the same appeal. We had tasted JRPG nirvana and we wanted it back! Namco did something strange.
A puzzle was hinted at by Namco which eventually led to a website called “http://ataleoftworichards.com/” (site no longer works so I haven’t hyperlinked). From here Tales fans could see the above image, in which you could clearly make out the “Tales” of a Tales title! Yup, Tales of Graces was heading to both the US and EU newly entitled Tales of Graces f, featuring an extended epilogue and releasing on PlayStation 3. This all sounded fantastic, and there was hope once again for those of us clamouring for a new, readable Tales game.
I’m sure that many people enjoyed Tales of Graces f, and I didn’t hate the game. The problem with Graces though was that it just wasn’t up to the standards set by the previous epic entries into the series. The game featured two worlds, but each felt small and under featured, as though each globe was nothing more than a small village overall. The battle system was (as per the standard) hugely rewarding and fun to play for hours on end, but the characters were uninspiring and not a patch on those seen previously. The prologue took a long time to finish, and the story itself took such a long time to get going, made worse by the fact that there weren’t really many places to go so the world you thought was coming had actually already been traversed.
I finished the game thoroughly underwhelmed. It wasn’t too long after that another console entry into the Mothership series was announced with Tales of Xillia. The game did turn out to be better than Graces, but again did away with a decent overworld (there was no traversable map to speak of at all this time). Worse, the gameplay areas themselves were formed almost exclusively of canyons! Almost every location was a corridor walled off by rock walls making for a claustrophobic experience that didn’t express the epic nature that a Tales game usually shipped with. Back in my day (Phantasia) we would be on those cliffs looking at the lands below! Instead, the game plied replayability with the inclusion of two protagonists, a neat idea but one that didn’t really hold much water when there could simply have been a greater storyline in the first place. Once again, the battle system pulled me through the game, and the characters were a little more likeable. The game even sprung its own meme with a salesman who seemed to populate every town in the game, incessantly begging for someone to buy his damn mutton!
Well, Tales of Xillia 2 then came around, and was a game where you had to pay back a loan. Really.
Again, it wasn’t a terrible game, but it was far from the heights we had seen from the series. Luckily, a ray of light shone from the PS Vita for Tales fans with the remake of Tales of Hearts. Tales of Hearts R was a fully 3D iteration of the 2D DS game. The game had stuck with the anime stylings (the original DS version shipped in two flavours: anime, and the hideous CG edition) and honestly resembled the games that longtime Tales players remembered: a huge world map, random battles (without enemies on the map), a large and fun cast of characters, two large worlds, and the kind of scale that we had come to expect with Vesperia and Symphonia. It wasn’t as good as either of those games, really, but it went a long way to show that a future epic Tales game could still be on the cards.
The future of Tales is somewhat uncertain from my point of view. It seems that handheld games are the place to be based on the latest releases in the series, but it won’t be long before the next console entry into the saga is released on both PS3 and PS4 with Tales of Zestiria. The game certainly looks good, and I’m excited to play it, but I’ve also read mood-killing reports of another smaller world despite being something of a free-roaming adventure. What’s more, we have also seen the announcement of Tales of Berseria (again for both PS3 and PS4) with an as yet unknown release date. Already, Berseria’s protagonist Velvet conjures up ideas of a female Yuri Lowell, but time will tell! I do genuinely worry that the games are getting churned out a little too quickly, but I do hold out a good deal of hope for Berseria. At least while we know next to nothing about it!
Tales of Battalia
Let’s not end of a bum note though. The Tales series still stands as my favourite JRPG series out there, holding its weight alongside the many Final Fantasy games, the less frequent Dragon Quest series, and tens of smaller collections I have across my PS1, 2, and 3. Even if the more recent games aren’t quite up to scratch, the series in general has many games that you can mine if you’re interested, and thanks to the 2D and cel-shaded 3D graphical styles of most the games they generally tend to be easy on the eye, all while countless other games from similar times past are practically hideous to behold. I’m no graphics whore, but knowing that a game has aged gracefully from a visual standpoint is at least going to be a good start.
The greatest way in which Tales games remain among the most playable JRPGs since the original release is almost completely thanks to an engaging take on the part of a JRPG that inevitably eats up around 70% of your playtime (or 50% if you’re playing a particularly cutscene heavy game). The Tales battle systems form the centrepiece of the games and have undergone many changes throughout the series, starting out as a 2D, side on fighter, and developing into a fully 3D brawler. The system was originally given the name of Linear Motion Battle System, or “LMBS” in its most simple iteration. The battle systems gradually introduced multiple lines of attack, the ability to run free, and even once tried to emulate Tekken in Legendia. As is expected with systems of Japanese origin in a videogame, the original LMBS became hilariously overtitled at times, seeing such hits as “Cross Double-Raid Linear Motion Battle System” (XDR-LMBS), but whatever the name was, the games have consistently provided a battle system that doesn’t feel old throughout the many hours it usually takes to complete a Tales game.
Heading back to Phantasia, the fights on offer can feel somewhat sluggish by Xillia’s standards but are still remarkably robust (if a little on the frequent side). Trying to play through Final Fantasy’s ATB from the same time period is a painful experience in comparison! Even better, the battling really does feel different with each game, despite being fundamentally similar. This is a substantial boon for those considering playing through a large number of these games. You’re not just getting a new story laid on top of the same skeleton again and again. In fact, you’re actually getting more the opposite, as many Tales stories are relatively similar despite being incredibly exciting at best and merely passable at worst. Still, even if the stories can be a bit samey, you can kill all of the bad guys in new and inventive ways! And who can say no to countless variations on the Hot Springs? Oh, you can?
Tales of Summaria
Alright, perhaps Concludia might have been better, but I am trying to Tales-ify as many words as I can here, give me a breakia.
So you know what? Here you go Bandai-Namco – Tales of Compendia. That’s what I was going to call my encyclopedia of all things Tales (actually, perhaps “Encyclopedia” would have worked just as well…). Maybe you could trademark it now, maybe you have. Maybe you could ignore the fact that I was going to use it as the title of a book and simply slap as many games onto a Blu-Ray as possible and follow Rare’s suit with their upcoming Rare Replay and do every Tales fan out there an enormous favour!
If you’ve never played a Tales game before, or perhaps only played some of the more recent entries, you might find yourself quite surprised by the quality on offer in the back catalogue. While the series never seems to make as much of a splash as say Final Fantasy, the games are more consistently enjoyable than most series I’ve played. While the last couple of games have been a little shaky, I’ve yet to play Zestiria to say whether or not it does match up to the Tales games of years past. Clearly I’m hoping for a new Vesperia, guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Tales of Referencia
In order of appearance: