September 4, 2012
Unlike most JRPGs which throw you right into a storyline with futuristic settings and adult characters, Tales of Graces f begins in the small, rural town of Lhant where the local lord's two young sons, Asbel and Hubert, are your typical boys getting into all sorts of trouble. The two head out to an area called Lhant Hill to find a meadow where it’s said that the flowers bloom all year long. They come across an amnesiac girl who they name Sophie and take her back to Lhant in an attempt to find her family. They end up running across their sickly childhood friend Cheria and even befriend Richard, the young prince of the nearby kingdom of Windor, during their journey. This ties them together but also tears them apart as events that unfold in the opening chapter's final moments proceed to tear them apart leading to a time skip where the game picks up seven years later.
In terms of the series as a whole, this style of story is quite unique as it is the only one thus far which takes place during two distinct times of the lives of its characters. Because of this, it allows Graces f to sidestep the common pitfall most JRPGs fall into as the time skip provides players the opportunity to see the development of the characters from their child years to how they develop as adults seven years later. Compared to games such as Tales of Vesperia or Tales of Symphonia, which dredge up pieces of each character’s individual back stories when deemed necessary, getting to experience them firsthand is what makes all the difference.
Despite the strong premise, there are some issues with Graces f's narrative, however. Often times the player will realize a future plot point ahead of time - especially if they are genre-savvy - and the game will drag on for a bit before said reveal due to instances where two or more dungeons are placed back to back. It results in some unnecessary padding. That isn't to say there aren't parts where the game does provide some genuine surprises, but if you prefer story over character progression you might be a tad disappointed.
Bar none, Graces f's shining moment has to be the newly revised battle system. After multiple instances of the Free Run Linear Motion Battle System that originated in 2005's Tales of the Abyss, Graces f utilizes a new system which eschews the traditional mana bar-based TP system in favour of a new CC (Chain Capacity) system. It takes the form of a number next to each character’s battle portrait that determines how many attacks they can make before they need to recharge. Of course, the more powerful the attack, the more CC it will require to be utilized. But additional CC in the way of equipment and stat upgrades happens at a reasonable pace so the player never feels restricted by the system.
Movement in battle is very similar to past Tales titles, with the controlled character moving in a straight line towards the enemy in a 3D space. You then have the ability to switch between enemies (and thus what "line" they travel on) at will, using the X (normal attacks) and circle (Artes) buttons to launch various attacks. However, unlike previous Tales titles in which the normal attacks were simply used to lengthen combos and provide TP to use Artes (special mana-based attacks), normal attacks are known as A-Artes and special attacks are known as B-Artes. However, they both act independently from one another. To gain back CC you can either step away from the enemy, or if you are good enough, dodge the enemy’s attack at the right moment using the square button.
This shift in thinking is the most noticeable in Asbel's case as he can utilize both his A and B-Artes in huge combos with the the help of the other characters, but can’t easily utilize both by himself without the proper setup. This is where the battle system becomes incredibly satisfying once you properly grasp it, as the dodging system becomes crucial to master to gain back enough CC to keep the combo going. You can also use the Free Run system to move in any direction on the field to evade attacks as well, but since it depletes CC to do so it is really only useful in select circumstances and feels like a hold-on to introduce the system proper to those who have become accustomed to the previous LMBS style.
Being such a radical departure from the previous norms of the series in terms of the battle system, the developers made a wise choice in providing a plethora of tutorials both in-battle and out-of-battle. After each battle, if the game deems it necessary, it will show a short blip of information explaining more about the aspects of the battle system which is generally tailored to your recent actions. So if you have a status ailment you will find out more information about its effects and how to cure it. You might also get a short blip of how to use a new character. It's a small touch and has been seen in other games such as Final Fantasy XIII, but how it's implemented here feels much more user-friendly as it doesn’t require the player to stop what they are doing and go through the motions until it concludes.
The AI has also been markedly improved in Graces f compared to other games in the series. In past titles it often became necessary to switch between characters. This required a laborious process of pausing the game to go into the menu, switching to the new character and going back out of the menu. This has been solved in two ways. The first is the fact that your healers and mages generally get the job done as long as you are protecting them properly. The second, is that if the enemies gang up on these characters requiring manual control, you have the ability to switch between characters on the fly with a press of the directional pad.
Going back to the character development, it isn't just in the terms of the character progression in which Graces f improves upon past game in the series - it’s also in their statistical growth. Unlike the dozen or so titles available in past games, each character has 100+ titles that they can obtain throughout the game that replaces the traditional level-based stat growth the series has become known for. While levelling up does provide minor stat growth, the bulk of the growth comes from the bonuses and abilities gained through mastering the titles. Gaining SP in battle or through side quests levels up each title and grants bonuses such as increased stats, new Artes and upgrades to said Artes and new abilities just to name a few. A couple of these titles also provide the series staple of wearable costumes and various attachments are also available, so long-time fans need not be worried about the switch.
There’s a lot to be talked about in Graces f as can be clearly seen above, but one of the key additions outside of the new battle system is the crafting-based Dualize system. In past Tales games this became a problem whenever side quest relating to items came up. It forced players to hoard every item they came across just in case it became necessary later on. Graces f solves this problem by allowing players to craft almost every item in the game, given that they have the proper items to dualize with of course. Thus, players never run into the issue where they get locked out of a side quest just because they didn’t keep a specific item in their inventory.
Sadly, the graphics and music aren’t nearly as polished as the rest of the game. Being a port of a Nintendo Wii game, it's to be expected, but it just can't match its predecessor in terms of the excellent cel-shading found in Tales of Vesperia. Still, the game does have an excellent art direction and expansive, detailed environments that do help to mask its sub-HD remnants. Motoi Sakuraba has also, rather disappointingly, managed to produce another lackluster soundtrack. Most of the tracks are generally underwhelming, except for specific tracks which harken back to his more highly regarded work such as that found in the Baten Kaitos series. The voice overs are exceptionally well-done, but the awkward lip-syncing detracts from the immersion at times.
In addition, Namco Bandai decided to keep the higher price point of the DLC intact for the Western release of the game without any bundles, so be prepared to spend almost the price of the game over again if you want all of the DLC-exclusive costumes and attachments. None of them are required to beat the game, however, so this is only a major issue if you are one of the people who feel compelled to have a "complete" game.
The Tales series as a whole has always had an issue where although it has had a consistently high level of quality, there’s always been some flaw that drags down the experience. Graces f manages to succeed where other games in the series have failed, even if it does have its own issues. From the outside it might appear that its more of the same for the JRPG genre, but if you look underneath you'll see a game which attempts to push its boundaries, even if it stumbles at times. In a time where JRPG are moving away from their roots, games like Tales of Graces f stand apart as titles that hold their banner high and far. If you like JRPGs at all, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give Tales of Graces f a chance.