Let me tell you a story to set the scene. Once upon a time, a rosy-cheeked, spirited young nerd boy bought a game called Tales of Symphonia. He played through the lengthy narrative, pondered the ideas presented, and watched the characters interact and grow, and thus began a long running love affair that to this day reminds him of the inherent potential of video games and holds the greatest sway of any in keeping his interest in the gaming industry as a whole.
This is probably as close to an origin story as there is for my relationship with anime. Sure, the first japanese animations I ever saw were probably Pokemon, and Dragon Ball Z, and some number of others from the Cheese TV era, and I’m sure their psychological impact cannot be overestimated, but this is where my interest was kindled as an adult, as pretentious as that sounds, this is what made me decide to explore anime some three years ago.
Cut to now. I’ve played quite a few of the Tales games that have actually been localised. Besides Symphonia, I’ve completed Tales of the Abyss, Dawn of the New World, Tales of Phantasia, and Tales of Vesperia. The rose-coloured glasses have certainly dimmed somewhat, but I still have a deep love for the series.
Taking a few steps back, for those who have no clue what I’m talking about, the Tales of series is a long running franchise of JRPGs with a cult following, all titled Tales of X, which tend to get anime adaptations in various forms. I have tried to remember many times what the spark was that made me decide to explore the world of anime, and at first I thought it was Cowboy Bebop, but after further consideration I am fairly confident this is it. Being in this position, it would be hard to overrate the place the Tales of series has in my heart. This series of posts will be about my impressions of the latest game in the franchise to hit the West, Tales of Graces f, as I play through it, with a bit of hind-sight thrown in, since I’m 30 hours into the game already, and I doubt I’ll be writing these posts at the rate I play the game. I will keep these entries free of explicit spoilers, but I can’t promise it won’t give some hints about the general structure and thrust of the narrative, roughly where plot twists come up etc. So if you’re particular sensitive to spoilers of any nature, read at your own risk.
Now, as overjoyed as I was to be finally getting my hands on Tales of Graces, after taking something like 2 years to be localised, there was one thing that set off warning bells in my head before I even laid eyes on the game. Every Tales of game has what Namco Bandai call their “characteristic genre name, which tend to indicate the core themes the game it based around. Pretentious as this may sound, and I don’t deny it is pretentious, they tend to match up very well with each games core ideas, and add a bit of perspective, sometimes even to the game’s title. For instance, Tales of the Abyss had the characteristic genre name “to discover the meaning of birth”. Again, pretentious, but also very apt for the messages that game conveyed, and gives some perspective on the connotations of “Abyss” in the game’s title. Similarly, Tales of Vesperia had the characteristic genre name “to enforce one’s justice”.
The first warning bell was sounded when I read that Tales of Graces characteristic genre name is “to know the strength to protect”. Anyone who has watched any shounen anime knows why this made me worry. It quite probably meant a lot of brooding about “wanting to be strong”, and a main character who simply wants to protect all his taisetsu na nakama. It’s not that I think this is an awful theme, it’s just that it’s about the most overdone trope in all of anime, right next to high school love triangles.
More warning bells were set off when I started playing the game, and the lengthy prologue had about twice as many BFF speeches as it took to keep my eyebrow semi-perpetually raised. But hey, that’s what the Tales of games do, they start off with a veritable cliche storm, turn everything on its head about 20 hours in, then spend the rest of the game deconstructing those very tropes. In short, I wasn’t too worried, because it’s not like there aren’t plenty of interesting places the childhood friend pact premise could lead, and sure enough the prologue ends with a bang, we skip seven years ahead, and all the childish friendship speeches start to get turned on their head, as our protagonist finds that reality and the harshness of time have not been kind to his old bonds.
I’ve read a few reviews, and a lot of them complain about how slow the prologue is, but I just don’t see how this sort of thing is avoidable when building the foundations for an epic 50 hour quest. In Medias Res can be a way to combat that, but you run the risk of not giving the proper backdrop for the characters and events that unfold, thus detracting from their significance. And while I agree the prologue gives little to no hint of the overarching story, heaps happens, and it all goes out well with the aforementioned bang. If anything one of Graces biggest flaws is not giving enough informations about the world or people to properly frame a lot of the conflict, but that’s something that doesn’t become apparent till much later in the game.
The amnesiac girl is also not a plot point that filled me confidence. Tales of the Abyss did an excellent job of deconstructing the amnesiac protagonist trope, do we really need to go there again, potentially in much less depth? On the other hand, I like that her character wants to protect the protagonist, rather than be protected by him, and in the prologue at least, proves herself more fit to protect than to be protected on many occasions.
All in all I enjoyed the prologue, and it gave me plenty of hope for the rest of the game, despite my misgivings. The protagonist is nothing amazing in this section, but to be fair, he’s only 11 at this point, and his fiery interactions with his Father feel pretty real, and bring a lot of life this section of the game.