'Tales of the Abyss' is a role-playing game released for the 3DS in 2012, although it originally came out on the Playstation 2 in 2005 for Japan and North America. This was a game I really wanted to play at the time of its original release, but like mainly games in the cult 'Tales' series (which include the popular 'Tales of Symphonia' for the Nintendo Gamecube), it did not make it to Europe until now. When I got a 3DS console in June I knew this was one of my 'must-by' games, and I bought it back in July with high expectations. Having now completed 'Tales of the Abyss', is this port worth the seven-year wait to come to Europe?
'Tales of the Abyss' takes place in the world of Auldrant, governed by an ancient prophecy known Yulia's Score. Created by a woman who became one of the first to see the future, The Score's accuracy at foretelling events means that the people are pretty much ruled by its readings, believing that deviating from what is written will bring disaster.
One of the great prophecies of the Score is that a Chosen One will be born in the Kingdom of Kimlasca and bring prosperity to the region. Said Chosen One and game protagonist is red-headed noble Luke fon Fabre. Unfortunately, ever since he was captured by the enemy empire Malkuth at seven years of age, Luke has no memories of his childhood and has been trapped in his manor for his supposed safety. Spoilt, sheltered and immature for his age, Luke's only escape is sword training with his best friend/servant Guy Cecil and senior knight Van Grants. However, his life changes completely when a young woman named Tear breaks into Luke's manor to kill Van. When Luke tries to stop Tear, their contact causes them to teleport out of the manor. Tear agrees to escort Luke home, but what ought to be a simple journey back turns into a quest to save the world, with a quite a few revelations for Luke along the way.
The story in 'Abyss' is very good, particularly as the lines between 'good' and 'evil' become very blurred past the halfway mark. At first I was a bit overwhelmed by various terms and exposition given by the main characters, but once I understood the world better things got a lot more interesting. There are skits throughout the game (accessed by pressing Start when prompted) which provide short dialogues between characters and help you understand the story and nature of events better. Furthermore, several plot twists are present and whilst a couple are predictable by video game standards, some definitely throw you for a loop.
Characterisation is very strong too. Luke starts off an immature douchebag who you really do wish was not the hero, but after a certain story-changing event he endeavours to change for the better. As well as Luke, Tear and Guy, you will be joined by thirteen-year old knight Anise Tatlin, sarcastic and shady general Jade Curtiss and the Kimlascan princess (and Luke's betrothed, despite being related...?) Natalia L.K. Lanvaldear. All of these characters, and even some of the villains, are well-written, relatable and undergo development as the story progresses.
As with most RPGs, 'Tales of the Abyss' has you controlling your character as you move around towns and dungeons as the story requires. What makes the 'Tales' series unique is its real-time battle system. The player controls Luke on the battlefield while up to three of the other characters are controlled by the computer. You strike enemies normally with the A button and use 'Artes' (special moves which consume your character's 'TP' meter) with B, and these can be chained together to combo your enemy. Enemy attacks are guarded by pressing Y, while pressing X will open up the battle menu and allow you to use items or change the party strategy, among other options. Winning battles grants your team experience points, gald (the game's currency) and 'Grade' (explained later).
The battle system is great in that it makes battles fast-paced and exciting; they can be completed in about 30 seconds if you're skilled enough, therefore one isn't bored or frustrated by even basic enemy encounters. Nevertheless some enemies and certain bosses can provide a challenge if unprepared, but on the default difficulty the game is balanced enough. Controls for battle are decent enough for a conversion from Playstaion 2 to 3DS, but I did have some trouble getting used to moving around the battlefield using the analogue stick. There is barely any use of the touch screen controls except to cast spells that have been shortcut to the bottom screen, although this is handy for getting healed quickly in battle (but was present in the PS2 ability). Unfortunately, the game occasionally suffers from lag in battles, especially when several attacks are happening onscreen at once. The lag only lasts seconds and doesn't affect gameplay too badly, but it is concerning as to how well this Playstation 2 game is suited to the Nintendo 3DS console.
There are quite a few little gameplay aspects which help to make 'Tales of the Abyss' stand out from other RPGs. Firstly, the cooking system from other 'Tales' games returns. Characters can cook dishes from recipes found around Auldrant which can restore health or give a certain boost, and the more skilled your cook the better the benefits. Secondly there are several ways to boost your characters' skills. AD Skills are learned as characters levelled up, and they can be equipped and unequipped with ease (although I found that I never unequipped anyway). One such AD Skill is 'Free Run', which allows your character to run around the battlefield instead of simply forward and backward, therefore they can avoid attacks and possibly get behind enemies. The most unique feature to the battle system 'Abyss' in my opinion is the FOF (Field of Fonons); when elemental attacks are cast on the battlefield, a coloured circle appears for a brief moment of time on the ground. If your character uses a certain attack Arte whilst standing in that space, it will initiate an FOF change and cause the character to do a more powerful Arte instead. This is a nice touch to the battles and adds some strategy but I wouldn't say it is essential to gameplay. Most of the time, I didn't end up using the FoF unless the element there was associated with one of my regular attacks.
The game is mostly in 3D save for occasional anime cutscenes interspersed during story events. To be honest, the 3D rendering (so characters, monsters and the like) does not look the best on the 3DS console- everything lacks polish and can look quite "blocky" especially from a distance. That said, the game environment looks decent enough, with the final dungeon looking absolutely gorgeous. Likewise the anime cutscenes look great and run smoothly.
Turning on the 3D is possible, but it adds nothing to graphics or gameplay whatsoever.
The soundtrack for 'Tales of the Abyss' is fitting enough but I found only a couple of tunes are really memorable. The opening theme is 'Karma' by Japanese rock band BUMP OF CHICKEN [sic]. I find it's terrific and suits the story really well (it doesn't help that I heard and loved the song before I realised it was the theme song for this game!). The song also inspires a couple of background melodies that fit the scene perfectly.
There is voice acting for the story cutscenes and battles. Most of the main characters are voiced by prominent voice actors (if you pay attention to the video game/anime/cartoon VA scene) and they seem to fit their characters well. Unfortunately the in-game skits that I mentioned earlier are not voiced, which I found very awkward as the background sound is lowered and you're reading text in awkward silence.
An average playthrough of 'Tales of the Abyss' takes about 50 hours, which is very impressive! This isn't including sidequests or minigames, which can add another 5-10 hours.
In addition, when you finish the main game once, you can play through the game again carrying over various things that you buy in the 'Grade Shop'. Higher difficulties (the game is defaulted to Normal) are also unlocked to give you a bigger challenge in facing enemies in battle. So it is possible to spend well over 100 hours in Tales of the Abyss! For me, however, one playthrough is enough of an experience for the moment, but the story has won me over that I might play it again in the future on Hard mode.
'Tales of the Abyss' is a great game with solid gameplay and an excellent story. However, I do feel that, as the handheld port of a Playstation 2 game, the quality has been somewhat compromised. The graphics do not look great, particularly compared to games specially designed for the 3DS, and the lag might be offputting for some. That said, since this is the only way this game has made its way to Europe, its positives far outweigh the disadvantages. I highly recommend 'Tales of the Abyss' to RPG fans and those who like video games with a good story and engaging gameplay.
You can buy 'Tales of the Abyss' for about £22-25 new and for no more than £20 second hand.