Tales of Symphonia was a huge hit for Namco when it appeared on the Gamecube and PlayStation 2 back in 2004 and many believe it to be the strongest title in the Tales of franchise. Because of its success, Namco decided it would be wise to try and expand on this offering, and thus, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World was hatched as a sequel/spin-off title, which would take place two years after the original and would feature a similar band of characters.
Despite featuring a host of characters from the original game, Dawn of the New World follows the journey of Emil Castagnier, Marta Lualdi and Tenebrae, a Centurion, as Emil looks to avenge the death of his parents. He also looks to help Marta as she is trying and revive the Summon Spirit Ratatosk by collecting Centurions Cores. Following the merging of the worlds in Tales of Symphonia, the world's mana supplies have gone into chaos and only Lord Ratatosk can maintain the balance, but he is currently asleep. At the same time, the Vanguard, a rebel group from Sylvarant, are attempting to acquire the cores for their own dastardly deeds and Lloyd Irving, the protagonist from the original game also appears to have distinctly changed and is on his own quest which conflicts with Emil and Marta.
Unfortunately Emil's personality is devoid of anything that anyone could really connect with, and when the main character in a game has this problem, it doesn't really bode well for much else. After making a pact with Lord Ratatosk, Emil gains something of a split personality which sees him go from supreme wimp to supreme badass, but neither of the personalities are overly convincing, or engaging. It also doesn't help that the story is also somewhat split. The in-game cutscenes are generally quite serious in nature, but the optional cutscenes (skits), which actually help to develop the characters more, are generally quite tongue in cheek. This disconnect means that it's hard to tell what character's are really feeling, or what their personalities are really like and it presents a real problem. Add this to the fact the story takes quite a long time to really get started properly and it doesn't make for an overly rewarding experience. It's slightly saved by the addition of characters from the original title, but they only really perform slightly extended cameos and don't stick around for that long. They essentially serve as a convenient vessel to drive the story on and to break up the monotony of just having to put up with Emil and Marta on their own with Tenebrae.
To try and enhance the experience, Dawn of the New World uses the Flex Range Element Enhanced Linear Motion Battle System (FR:EE-LMBS). It sees players go into battle with four characters, although they can only control one character themselves. Fights are in 3D, but take place on a 2D plane naturally. Players can select one opponent to focus on, although they can press Z to perform a free-run around the map, useful for gaining an advantage on opponents. Overall it's fairly simple though, as the player can only perform a normal attack (which can be changed depending on the direction pressed), use Artes, or use Items. It means that generally battles result in spamming the attack button relentlessly until the enemy is dead, although some extensive combo attacks can be created by combining attacks and Artes.
Both Magic and Artes require TP to use, which presents one of the initial problems. To regain TP, players must either use items, or land successful attacks on their opponents. Stronger enemies will block a lot though, and when a Mage runs out of TP, it's not really helpful for them to charge into battle to try and score successful hits. This also highlights one of the problems with the AI, as they have no real sense of self preservation. They will charge in to try and get TP when they have 1hp and they don't really seem to understand the concept of blocking. It can be very frustrating to see AI controlled characters constantly dying as it can cause a battle to quickly be turned on its head for no real reason.
The difficulty is also very hard to predict, as the random encounters are never really challenging, so there's no indication about what to expect from the upcoming boss encounters, which in some cases can be extremely frustrating. Due to the nature of the game, most bosses can be bested simply by levelling up lots and being overpowered, but the game should also be accessible to those who actually enjoy using strategy. The deficiencies in the gameplay and options surrounding it make it apparent that this isn't the case though. It is possible to alter formations and give very basic commands to the AI, but they are so limited they might as well not have bothered. Sometimes the only options are "attack freely", "attack closest target" or "don't attack", so it's fairly redundant. When fighting a battle that's a sure-fire win, the combat system does seem extremely fluid though and it's actually enjoyable to use, it's just a shame the same can't be said when a challenge appears.
As the game progresses, Emil and Marta will gain allies, but they can't be customised or levelled. They just appear with stock levels, disappear, then re-appear with a higher level. It means that Emil and Marta are the only two characters that really see any growth and to counter this, a Monster growth system has been implemented. This sees Emil being able to form pacts with captured monsters, which in turn allows them to be used in battle as allies. It's not overly unique though and shares many similarities with other games. Upon attaining certain levels, the monsters can be upgraded, which causes them to be reset back to level 1. The cycle then repeats itself over and over, until the player is satisfied with the strength of the monster they've acquired.
Graphically, the game can look quite impressive when in battles, but when generally walking around it can feel very static. It does have a certain charm to it though, especially when it comes to the character's facial expressions. Many fans will be disappointed to find that the only FMV is the opening cutscene, as all of the cutscenes use the in-game engine combined with motion capture. It's not bad, but there are oddly some performance issues. For example, changing camera angles can often lead to 3-4 second freezes, which really breaks the mood that the cutscene is trying to evoke. The voice acting is generally really good and the new voice actors do a stellar job. The only exception is Emil, whose voice creates a feeling of annoyance every time it's heard. The music is also slightly disappointing, as the synthesisers used feel quite dated. The same tunes are also appear quite frequently, which also adds to the feeling that the game lacks personality.
There are actually three different endings to enjoy, and upon attaining two of them, players will have a chance to enter the Grade Shop. Grade points are awarded throughout the game for performance in battle and the Grade Shop allows them to be spent on things to make the next play through more enjoyable. This includes retaining the monsters collected, keeping the same items and increasing EXP gained. There are also various side-quests to do in each of the game's chapters, and the Katz Guild has plenty of quests to do too. Combine these things with the amount of time players could spend upgrading their monsters and it's not difficult to see that Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World could keep players occupied for much longer than the 20-25 hours it takes to complete the main story. It's also possible to play the battles four player, which makes the whole experience much more enjoyable, but shortcuts need to be reset quite a lot, as characters frequently leave and re-join the group. There are also only two main characters, so it means the other two people control monsters, or characters which don't upgrade.
Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is a pretty decent RPG, but it just feels like Namco Bandai didn't really devote as much time into the development as they could have. The main characters are very difficult to care about and the combat system seems quite unrefined. There is too much reliance on levelling to compensate for its deficiencies, which is a shame because it can actually be quite fun to use sometimes. The returning characters from the original don't really add much either, and when they appear in battle, they have stock levels and stock gear. Overall it just feels like a game that was made to appease the fans of the series, not to try and entice new people to get involved.