|Tales of Graces f|
|Genre||RPG to Know the Strength to Protect (no seriously, wikipedia it)|
|Buy from Amazon|
It was four minutes into Tales of Graces f that I met the amnesiac with the impossible purple pigtails. She didn't know who she was, or where she came from, or anything really. She was a deadly martial artist, but nearly walked right off a cliff. Later she asked the meaning of the word "friend." I threw up in my mouth a little and realized that Graces f would be a tale quickly forgotten. In hindsight, I guess the cover art should have served as warning.
But if the whole game boiled down to waiting for the kid in the Elvis getup to realize that the king is possessed by a demon, I wouldn't have played it for almost ninety hours. Yes, a lot of time is wasted running errands through copy-paste corridors while the characters say how they feel and explain magical jargon. But then you run into a giant spider, and the kids' anime story melts away for a few seconds of glorious battle.
I'll even say that Tales of Graces f has my favorite RPG combat, taking the crown from predecessor Tales of Symphonia. Graces f layers new abilities and limitations onto Symphonia's melee-and-magic arena skirmishes, and the end result is a more dynamic structure that makes earlier games in the series look like button mashing. It's also complicated as hell.
The first step to understanding combat is figuring out the Chain Capacity (CC) gauge. Using any attack costs CC points (most cost two or three). The CC gauge refills automatically while not attacking. Considering a character's CC seldom reaches into the double digits until well into the adventure, it is rare that a single attack chain lasts more than a handful of hits before defense is necessary as the enemy retaliates. This back-and-forth of attacking and guarding was more of a suggestion in previous Tales games, but Graces f's humble CC gauge makes ready defense a necessity.
Attacks in Graces f are called Artes, and there are two types: A-Artes and B-Artes. It's tempting to label A-Artes "weapon attacks" and B-Artes "magic attacks," but the distinction is only so clear in a few of the characters. The default player character, Asbel, has a particularly interesting interplay between A and B. His A-Artes are a collection of punches, kicks, and scabbard strikes, while his B-Artes are magic-enhanced slashes with a drawn blade. The player can switch between A- and B-Artes at any time, but a chain of A-hits will make Asbel implacable when he draws his blade for B-Artes, and consecutive B-hits will recover HP when Asbel sheathes his blade and returns to A-Arte stance. Like the shifting of offense and defense, the encouraged switching between A- and B-Artes engenders sequence and flow to offense.
Asbel isn't the only playable character, however, and his six pals have their own skillsets waiting to be mastered. Boomerang pro Malik can chuck his blade around for crowd control or charge up powerful elemental spells to take out specific targets. Bespectacled blue-hair Hubert handles the obligatory swords-that-are-also-guns for a mix of ponderous melee and speedy ranged weaponry. As you only control one character at a time, you'll have some basic AI settings for your allies to make use of. They suffice most of the time, but you'll yearn for another player to take control of your backup in tougher scuffles...and you can, provided you have extra controllers and some acquaintances willing to put up with you. And considering even the support characters are just as enjoyable to play, your pals won't even be too mad that they only get to participate in battle.
Adapting to the CC gauge and the A/B setup is only Combat 101, and the in-game manual is a necessary guide to discover all the intricacies of battle. The risk/reward dodge mechanic, elemental attributes, powerful Mystic Artes, and the occasional Eleth Burst power play are gradually introduced through the game's initial hours, and it's important to pay attention. The complications can be daunting at first, but mastery of the many battle mechanics can be the difference between falling to a seemingly overpowered foe and ending the fight without a scrape. And executing these skills in the fully real-time action gratifies more than simply knowing which choices to select from a menu.
Outside of battle, stat progression is the game's other strength. Where most RPGs offer a linear growth column or a branching tree of upgrades, Graces f presents a broader approach to customized character growth through its "Titles" system. Titles are like Espers from Final Fantasy VI: equip one to enable its spells, use it for a while to learn those spells permanently, then switch to another title and do it again. The difference is that each character has a unique collection of 100+ titles to master, each with five upgrades. Characters can learn new Artes, enhance base stats like HP and Physical Attack, bolster defenses to specific enemy types and status effects, and even modify old Artes with new functions. New titles are unlocked rapidly through the adventure, and almost every battle ends with one or more stat upgrades granted. The Titles system allows minute stat customization and offers rapid micro-rewards, Call of Duty style. And if that level of management isn't your thing, you can set it to autopilot.
The minutiae of the combat and progression serve Graces f well, but other game systems seem unnecessary or counterintuitive. I was just outside the final showdown when I finally understood all the ins and outs of the Eleth Mixer, a handy device that is like a Crock Pot and a 3D Printer in one. I combined materials and ingredients into a whole lot of trinkets and weapons and meals, but mostly out of curiosity. And I ignored the equipment-enhancing Shards and Gems until they became necessary for a sidequest, only to find a tedious process with unclear workings. These options all have their benefits, but some are so strange and difficult to absorb that it's fortunate that you can make it through the majority of the game's content without learning about any of them. Those interested in filling out their item catalogs and discovery books should just bookmark the game's GameFAQs page.
Combat and complexities aside, Tales of Graces f sticks pretty close to JRPG game tropes, for better and worse. You'll wander from town to town, chasing the next plot point into uninspired dungeons filled with monsters and moving-block puzzles and indistinguishable hallways that make navigation a chore. Postcard grasslands and charming villages make way for neon factories and crystalline caverns as the conflict snowballs from hometown skirmish to world-ending cataclysm. And the one-dimensional young adult heroes will face the coming apocalypse equipped with the kind of optimism and flextime that allows for the occasional beach resort hijinks, trading card games, and impromptu performances of Sleeping Beauty (the FF6 opera scene, it ain't).
Even by mainstream JRPG standards, the Tales series has little room to boast about its narrative, which walks such trampled JRPG ground as the sacrifices of duty, the meaning of humanity, and the source of true power (friends, of course). A few seeds with surprising potential are planted early on in Graces f as protagonist Asbel abandons his friends, family, and duty for knighthood abroad after a few devastating incidents, leaving those relationships in shambles when they suddenly reenter his life in adulthood. The potential humanization suffocates in repetitious chitchat and corny resolutions. Tales games usually manage a worthwhile character or two, but Graces f's cast members fall flatter than ever. For all their dozens of hours of chatter, there's just not all that much to learn about them. I guess there's little room left for characterization when every other line in the script is "I have to get strong so I can protect my friends."
If you can stomach that kind of cheese, you'll get your fill of value in this new Tales. 30+ hours for the main quest, a dozen for the "future" quest (which explains the "f" in the title but doesn't excuse it), another 40+ to complete all of the sidequests, and well into the hundreds to earn and master all titles, find every item and dialog skit, and replay the game on tougher difficulties in the modifiable New Game+ mode. The game has no qualms about wasting your time in its copy-paste dungeons and fetch quests (thankfully mitigated by a handy late-game warp option), and frankly I would have skipped a number of the sidequests if I'd known how small the payoff would be for so much work. But the bulk of the adventure is worth playing, if only for the slick battles.