Back in the days of the original Xbox, JRPG's were incredibly hard to come by, whilst the PS2 seemed to have an endless supply. Fast forward to today, and things have switched around, with the Xbox 360 getting lots of JRPG goodness as of late, with great titles such as Eternal Sonata and Blue Dragon. The most recent JRPG to grace the 360 comes in the form of Tales of Vesperia, the latest in the long line of Tales RPG's, and the series' first entry into Hi-Def.
One of the first things you will likely notice upon booting up Tales of Vesperia is just how pretty the game is, both in terms of art style and graphical prowess. The cel-shaded anime styling of the game is a joy to look at, and the different characters all look beautifully detailed and unique. The environments, whilst lacking some fine details, are still wonderfully envisioned, and really make exploring the world a joy as you encounter all manner of fantastic cities and ruins. Cutscenes using the in-game engine are also beautifully done, but I wasn't so keen on the pre-rendered anime cutscenes, as while they are very well drawn, they just didn't seem to fit in with game all that well. The only real downer to the graphics is the world map, which ends up looking horribly bland and boring, which is a real shame considering how nice the rest of the game looks. Seeing as you don't spend much time on the world map this isn't too much of a problem, especially when the areas where you will spend your time look as great as they do, especially the fight sequences.
For those of you who have never played a Tales game before, the various fights in the game are very different from those found in most JRPG's, which are usually a turn based affair. In Tales of Vesperia, when you enter into a battle (which is done by actually walking into an enemy; no random encounters here) you are whisked into a small battle area, and are then given free control of your character with which to wail on your opponents by way of numerous different attacks, similar to that of a fighting game. Your arsenal can consist of various different melee, ranged and magic attacks, and you can of course block and use items (such as healing gels) as well. Aside from the basic attacks, your character can also use Artes, which are special attacks that you learn as you progress through the game. Further to this, you are rarely alone in these fights, and the other members of your party are controlled by AI (or local co-op players, which is a nice touch). In order to make sure the AI does as you want it to, there are various strategies that you can customise, and then switch on the fly using the d-pad. These strategies allow you to limit what moves your party can use, whether or not they will use items, and how aggressive they are, all of which can be altered for each individual character. As you can see, this is by no means a shallow hack and slash affair, but rather is a solid tactical fighter that is a joy to play and is a fresh change from the standard turn based fights we have been accustomed to. Also, as I said earlier, the fights look fantastic, with great weapon and spell effects, wonderfully designed monsters, and a rock solid frame rate.
The actual core story and game of Tales of Vesperia isn't quite as unique and refreshing as the fights. Now don't get me wrong, it is not that bad; it's just the overarching story of the game isn't really anything new, and the core themes have been done countless times before, such as magic barriers and monster attacks threatening the nation. Thankfully the great character design and charming dialogue hugely makes up for the rather generic storyline. Each character you come across feels interesting and unique, and you never get the feeling that you are now just speaking to 'Generic Bad Guy #34'. The dialogue between your party members is wonderfully crafted and really makes you bond with your characters and their feelings. To further this development are short, optional chat segments called 'skits'. When these are available you will see the topic of the skit appear in the bottom left corner of the screen, and are instructed to press the back button to listen to them. These basically consist of discussions within the party about the recent storyline developments, animated with basic chatheads of the characters involved. I found the skits to be a great feature of the game as it meant that those of us who crave more character development had the option for it, but those who want to simply push ahead with the story could ignore them, and still not miss out on any key plot points. There is also no shortage of plot points, as Tales of Vesperia offers up 50+ hours of gameplay.
The audio portion of Tales of Vesperia is a bit of a mixed bag. Whilst at no point during the game did I think to myself that any of the music sounded bad, after I had came away from the game I didn't really remember any of it, which is a bit disappointing. Most RPG's usually tend to have some really memorable music, but the Tales of Vesperia score was simply average. However, the sound effects and voice acting are top notch. Weapons and spells sound how you would expect them to, and during your fights your characters are constantly speaking to you and yelling out what is going on. All of this really helps you feel involved in the battle, which is something that is often lacking in JRPG's.
There is nothing quite like Tales of Vesperia on the Xbox 360, and if you like JRPG's you really owe it to yourself to check it out, and if you are new to the genre then this is a really good starting point. It is by no means perfect, with a mixed bag of audio and graphics, and fairly generic storyline. It does however have some real charm and character to it, and if you come away from it having not bonded with your merry party at all then you really have no heart.
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