I have been playing Tales of games for the past few years after ignoring the franchise for the vast majority of my gaming life. During that time, Tales of Symphonia has lingered over my head like a dark cloud because of its status as not only a beloved title, but arguably as the most well-known standalone game in the entire series. Since beginning, I leaned more heavily towards newer games because they were more accessible. However, after obtaining the PS3 port, it sat in my backlog collecting dust, until I decided to finally push through and complete it. Sitting on the opposite end after sinking forty plus hours into the game, I wholeheartedly regret my decision.
The Tales of series is most notably defined by its hack ‘n’ slash gameplay. When Tales of the Abyss was released, it introduced a feature that changed the direction of the series: free roam. Prior to Abyss, gameplay was restricted to moving between enemies that were being attacked, in straight lines. With free roam, players were finally able to move about the battle arena at their leisure. It was a fresh of breath air in a franchise that badly needed a shake-up. Playing Tales of Symphonia is similar to revisiting your old high school and realizing that all of the bad elements you experienced in the past are still present. Without free roam, Tales of Symphonia sorely suffers from button mashing, even more so than other games in the franchise. I often found myself running to the nearest enemy and spamming the attack command as soon as battle started. There is very little incentive to find different ways to attack. The game heavily favors melee users because spell animations not only take long, but offer little in the way of extra damage compared to physical attacks. The simplicity of the battle system wears away its welcome rather quickly. Furthermore, there is very little in terms of additional systems to enhance it. There is something called the EX Gem system that gives each party member some additional abilities both inside and outside of battle, but it is simply not enough to hold one’s interest over the course of the lengthy adventure.
Tales of Symphonia holds true to standard JRPG conventions and doesn’t take too many risks when it comes to overall presentation. You begin in a small town and venture out from your simple beginnings and discover a storyline that goes above and beyond your immediate dilemma. There is a world map to explore and varied locations and dungeons to visit. At times however, these conventions hold the game back. For the first half of the game, you are relegated to travel by foot. The biggest issues are that not only does Lloyd, the protagonist, move excruciatingly slow on the world map; the camera takes a weird angle as you move about the world map. The game attempts to alleviate these problems by providing a minimally faster method of transportation in the way of a dog like companion. If you unlock gravestone looking nodes scattered around the world, it will unlock the use of the companion for that specific area. It can be troublesome at times getting to these nodes because the high enemy encounter rate will bog you down. Symphonia does provide you with what essentially amounts to an airship approximately halfway into the adventure, but the snail’s pace for the first half kills any momentum the game might build through other areas. To add insult to injury the game’s conventions work against in so far as the locales are very limited and don’t allow for much in terms of exploration. Even the complex puzzle dungeons are relatively small in scope and are usually made up of only a few screens. Given today’s gaming landscape, it is difficult playing a game like Symphonia that relies too heavily on doings things the expected way. The only saving grace is the story that attempts to challenge the normal standard, but trips over itself in doing so.
Much like the presentation, the biggest obstacle against becoming invested in the story and characters is the pacing. The story takes an incredibly long time to get moving and arrive at answers, as the main cast is left in the dark for the vast majority of the game. There is a twist when you arrive at the Tower of Salvation, at about a quarter of the way through the story. While it is mildly interesting, it doesn’t give any momentum to the story going forward. In fact, things return to normal rather quickly for the party, and the pace remains uneventful until near the end. Even then, I didn’t find the payoffs particularly meaningful, and it was difficult to see the characters changing all that much over the course of the adventure. In fact, some of the characters have very short arcs, and are rather forgettable overall. Most of them also fall into your typical JRPG tropes, and save for a couple of them they lack any and all depth. Tales of Symphonia is plagued by the cheerful protagonist and power of friendship bylines, and it is disappointing considering the attempts the game makes at telling a different story during other parts of the adventure.
Tales of Symphonia tested my patience to the utmost limit. Admittedly, I had to force myself to see the end considering the amount of time I invested into it. I was hoping for more, but the reward never came. The battle system was a repetitive exercise in frustration and the slow character movement and slow story only hamper the overall experience. Tales of Symphonia will be that one game that is almost universally praised that I won’t quite be able to see eye to eye with no matter how hard I look. Tales of Symphonia is a product of its time, and it has aged poorly. There are a lot better RPGs that are more worth your time. Go seek those out and save yourself the trouble.