Back in the beginning of 2004, the Japanese RPG (JRPG for short) lineup for the Nintendo GameCube was nearly non-existent, to put things lightly. Sure, there were games such as Lost Kingdoms and ports of previous JRPGs such as Skies of Arcadia Legends, but the console lacked the variety found on the PS2, the current console of choice for the genre that generation. But that summer, Namco released Tales of Symphonia exclusively for the Nintendo GameCube. Those who played the game tend to hold it close to their hearts in their memories --- but why, exactly?
I grew up on the Super NES when I was a kid, and as you'd expect from the above paragraph, I played a lot of JRPGs on the system. There was something special about playing JRPGs on the SNES before the graphics-heavy advent of the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Since developers were restricted to 2D graphics (without the use of special, expensive extra chips like those featured in Star Fox), most of the work went into fleshing out a game's gameplay and art style. Games such as Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy VI come to mind, as well as Japan-only titles such as Tales of Phantasia, Star Ocean and Seiken Densetsu 3 (the successor to Secret of Mana). While there were some RPGs on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 that echoed this idea, they were few and far between. But from the moment I started playing Tales of Symphonia, I felt as if I was back in the golden age of Super NES RPGs, but with a current-generation look.
The story, at first glance, appeared to be your standard fare for the Japanese RPG genre: guide a character across the land in an effort to bring back life to a dying world. But as players progressed, it became clear that something else was going on, leading up to a shocking plot twist less than halfway through the game that everything you were lead to believe was a lie. This created an atmosphere where players did not know who to believe, helped by the excellent character development of the various inhabitants of Tales of Symphonia's world.
Speaking of the character development, Tales of Symphonia delivered this in spades. Initially, the main hero of the story, Lloyd Irving, is your average teenaged boy who's trying to make a name for himself and happens to get caught up in the world's events without his consent. But as the game progresses, he learns he's tied more closely to what's going on than he ever thought possible and has to make the tough decisions on how to proceed forward. This character development is mirrored by the other heroes and heroines in the game, especially in characters like Presea Combatir, and makes for a cast that doesn't reek of the one-dimensionality that plagued previous JRPGs.
What stuck with me more than anything was the dungeon design. As the capabilities of consoles increased over the years, developers took the route of making dungeons longer and more tedious to prolong the game. Tales of Symphonia had more dungeons, but each of them were unique and had their own twists, but most importantly, they only took 15-30 minutes each to complete, far less than most console JRPGs released at the time. None of them felt gimmicky or too obtuse in the puzzle design either, as every puzzle felt right at home with the specific dungeon's environment. One dungeon in particular that I still remember to this day utilized the power of wind blowing the player from ledge to ledge, but with the added feature of having certain plants that generated said wind doing so in different levels, so it was a game of creating the right amount of wind that pushed you towards all of the treasure chests and eventually the exit. The sense of accomplishment in beating that dungeon brought more joy than the typical run-to-the-end dungeons that most other JRPGs feature.
While there were some obvious faults in the game, such as a number of textures which weren't up to snuff and a few towns that felt unfinished, the game as a whole brought back the Super NES-era feeling of a JRPG that had been lost for so long. While the game has not aged as well when compared to the later games in the series, when it was originally released it was one of the best games out there and was crucial for restarting the Tales series in North America. And for that, it'll have a special place in my memories. If you can imagine you're back in 2004, you'll have one heck of a time playing this game.