Tales of the Abyss was released in North America in 2006 for the Playstation 2 and later ported to the 3DS. It was released as the eighth entry in the series and when compared to newer entries in the series, it plays very differently. In the past few years, the Tales of series and JRPGs in general have done away with the world map system. In the most recent entry to be released Stateside, Tales of Zestiria, there are larger zones and these zones all connect with one another. Long gone are the days of cruising around a world on your airship near the end of the game. This is only one such aspect that marks Abyss as a different game compared to its successors. In some ways Abyss is different in the right direction, but at the same time it handles other aspects in a backwards direction and it does not respect your time.
If I had to pick a single flaw to characterize Tales of the Abyss it would be backtracking. Tales of the Abyss is a long game. I invested fifty-four hours into the adventure before I completed the main storyline. This is usually music to one’s ears because it means the game is a worthwhile investment. However, with Tales of the Abyss there is far too much padding. Abyss will have fake-out endings to make you believe you are close to the end when that is far from the case. However, the most glaring issue is that the game will frequently task you with revisiting areas you have already visited before. This will happen multiple times. It makes the world feel small. It makes past actions feel unimportant. When I visit an area for the third or fourth time, some resentment begins to build because as gamers, we tend to gravitate towards seeing new environments and seeing where the story leads the player next. This feeling rarely happens in Tales of the Abyss because the game is too focused on making itself last as long as possible. A player should never dread going to a specific place, but it happens when you have seen it all before. Furthermore, this extra padding makes playing the game complicated because it does not respect your time. Tales of the Abyss feels like a game that would cater to my younger self. As a working adult, the amount of time I can devote to games is limited, and a longer fifty hour plus experience becomes harder and harder to complete. I want a JRPG to respect my time as a player.
Abyss feels very much like it belongs in an era past. The 1990s were dominated by the JRPG, and especially during the time of the SNES, these games were heavily reliant on guides. Oftentimes quest requirements were very obscure and it was easy to miss specific quests because they were dependent on progression. Tales of the Abyss feels like it belongs during that era. In order to unlock the game’s full potential, a guide is absolutely required. Many quests were missed simply because I was unaware of their existence and requirements. This is frustrating. I am not advocating hand holding because that can also ruin an experience, much like Pokemon does. However, I am not against some guidance and given how limited time can be, it is sorely needed in most JRPGs that ask you to spend a couple dozen hours inside their world.
Everything isn’t doom and gloom with Tales of the Abyss. I specifically want to touch upon the game’s antagonists because they are the highlight of the game. I have always been a huge advocate of works of fiction that use villains with relatable reasons and motivations. Tales of the Abyss is one such example. Essentially the group of antagonists is working towards the same goal as the heroes, but they are going about it differently. In the world of Abyss, peoples’ lives are dictated by something known as the Score which is a prophecy stating future events. Many people feel that they cannot live without it because it gives them purpose and direction in life. Luke and his friends seek to end the score and so do his master, Van, and his God Generals. Whereas Luke wants to end the Score and keep the world intact, Van wants to end the Score and replace the world’s population with clones. This is the central point the two groups disagree upon and fight over. Most of the God- Generals have tragic back stories and so does Van, himself. In many ways, Van’s story is one of revenge, something a lot of people, myself included, can relate to in more ways than one. If I have sympathy in some capacity for a villain, that person becomes memorable to me. Considering what happens to Luke over the course of the game, it is very easy to see him going down the same path as Van if he handles events differently. That is a sign of good story telling, and it is definitely one of Abyss’s strengths. Abyss makes you think about what exactly constitutes being right versus being wrong. Sometimes it is a very fine line and when I caught myself thinking about those questions, I knew Abyss was doing a great job with its characters.
Being one of the first eight games, Abyss has simplistic combat. It is the first game in the series to introduce the free run feature. Before Tales of the Abyss, characters could only run in a straight line and enemies could only attack in the same manner. With Abyss, players could move their controlled character around the playing arena, which proved incredibly useful for avoiding attacks. This mechanic proved to be the single best gameplay addition in the history of Tales. It changed the way the series progressed since Abyss’s release. After putting so much time into Abyss, I can confidently say having access to free run makes a huge difference. It adds an important element to how the battle system works. Nothing feels better than avoiding enemy attacks with free run and waiting for an opportune moment to strike and then backing out again. Free run allows the player to be more patient. It is also noteworthy in Abyss because Artes users are strong. One effective strategy was to utilize free run while controlling Guy and allowing the other three party members to hammer away using their Artes. Despite being a decade old, I found myself having more fun with the battle system in Abyss than I did with more recent entries. Zestiria in particular added a lot of elements that complicated the battle system, but Abyss kept things simple for the most part and it still holds up today.
Before playing Abyss I was under the impression that Zestiria had the best music from the games I had played in the franchise, but I was proven wrong. Motoi Sakuraba and Shinji Tamura are responsible for the music in the Tales of series and they outdo themselves in Tales of the Abyss. The dungeon themes in particular are strong. The music used in dungeons is varied and often fits the mood the dungeon is trying to accomplish with its aesthetic. Zestiria’s soundtrack was strong because a few notable tracks stood out above the rest as being very memorable. Abyss has a much more consistent score. Other themes, such as the main battle theme, are rock heavy and induce that rush of adrenaline in the player. What separates a great game soundtrack from a mediocre one is the lack of filler songs. It would be a difficult endeavor to classify any of the tracks on the soundtrack as filler because each one has its deliberate purpose in the game. That is why this soundtrack is a cut above the rest.
Tales of the Abyss is an interesting game. It has a slow start to the narrative and doesn’t ramp up until several hours have already been invested. The game also feels stuck between in the past in a lot of ways, especially in regard to how it forces you to revisit past areas so many times and use a guide to get the most out of it. With that said, the positives are clearly present. The combat doesn’t feel convoluted or too easy. It strikes a nice balance between the two. The antagonists are well portrayed, perhaps the best in the series. They pursue similar goals to those of our heroes. As a result, it is an easy task to see their viewpoint. Lastly, Tales of the Abyss has an exceptional soundtrack; one that manages to be consistent and varied. Is the game flawed? Absolutely. Does this game respect your time? No. If you can look past the flaws however, you will find a compelling game that still stands out a decade later.