The Xbox 360 has had no shortage of Japanese RPGs, but it has struggled to net a proper sequel in an established series. Tales of Vesperia is finally breaking the barrier with this year's main entry in Namco's flagship role-playing series. This title, like its predecessor Tales of Symphonia, is poised to open up a hungry audience to one the genre's strongest franchises, and Team Symphonia has brought their A-game.
It has to be said up front: The production values here are absolutely stunning. Ever since the first game in the series, Tales has always tried to create an anime vibe, from the opening pop song to the character designs by manga/anime legend Kohsuke Fujishima. With each passing game, Tales has pushed closer to their goal, and with Vesperia, it's almost uncanny. The lushly detailed environments are all rendered with hand-painted textures that make them look like an illustration come to life, and the cel shader used to render the cast is one of the most sophisticated I've seen, in games or in film. This game looks as close to a living, breathing anime as any 3D computer graphics have ever come, and there are times when I found myself just staring at the screen and taking in the imagery.
On top of this, there are countless hours of voice acting (unabridged in the North American release for the first time), anime and CGI cut scenes to move the story along, and more side-quests than ever. Everything about this effort bleeds detail, and it looks, sounds, and feels better than anything a Tales fan could have hoped for. Where it might start to go astray, unfortunately, is in the fundamentals.
The "Linear Motion Battle" system has always been the series' main hook, and the latest iteration hasn't changed much since Tales of the Abyss. A nuanced blend of action and strategy, as well as 2D and 3D, it pits you in real time battles with fighting game-like controls, but RPG-like stats, commands, and tactics. Unfortunately, the series really seems to be outgrowing its 2D roots.
Forcing planar control in a 3D environment makes less sense with each passing game, as enemies attack you from multiple sides while you remain locked on a single target. Yuri is a slower moving lead character than fans will be used to as well. If anything, the high difficulty of many boss fights puts the emphasis more on the strategy and less on the action this time around. This aspect is stronger than ever, and playing smart is the surest way to victory. Complaints aside, it's still one of the best combat systems in the genre.
The real problem with Vesperia is the level design. In the past, the series has dished out incredibly creative dungeons, ranging from stealth missions, to board games, to re-creations of Bomberman and Tower of Druaga. While there are a few good head scratching puzzles here and there, a disappointing number of levels are just linear paths with a few forks in the road. It takes a lot of the fun and surprise out of dungeon crawling, which really seems to have been downplayed a great deal.
In its place, we have an incredibly thick script, with fresh scenes to discover almost constantly. The cast of characters is fantastic, even compared to some of the greats of the series, and Yuri is certainly the best lead so far, so all the dialog is mostly quite welcome. Unfortunately it sometimes feels like you spend more time talking than actually playing, and that's where your patience might run thin. The story, while intriguing once it develops, takes a while to get started. Some missions feel like a weak excuse to drag you off to a dungeon and back again to no real consequence. Luckily a genuinely intriguing villain helps to keep the interest up, once he makes himself known.
But for all my many small complaints, I have to admit, I've already spent more time exploring the many side quests, secret bosses, and hidden areas than I have in any game in the series so far. It's true that in many ways, Tales of Vesperia is just a prettied-up version of Tales of the Abyss, but even without much to add to the formula, it's still just a very playable game, and about the best Japanese RPG on the 360 right now. If that's not good enough for you, well… I'm sure this won't be their last attempt.