Oh hey yeah this is a thing.
So I kind of spent way too long spending all the time either fansubbing or dealing with fansubbing shenanigans and have kind of spent the last few months on a gaming sabbatical where I’ve been going through Xenoblade, Lost Heroes, and Tales of Graces F. Today I’d like to talk about that third one, because everyone’s talked about Xenoblade enough already and Lost Heroes (while good) is so generic that if I attempted to talk about it, you would all instantly develop insomnia just so that reading the post could cure it.
So let’s talk about Tales of Graces F instead.
Let’s start off with the core bullet points to alienate half the audience: it’s a PS3-exclusive JRPG with anime as fuck designs and a plot that’s entirely reliant on the entire cast being too fucking stupid to live.
And I fucking love it.
The plot takes place in the fictional world of ahahahaha who gives a shit, it’s a fictional world. You play as Asbel Lhant, a 19-year-old knight in training in the kingdom of Windor. Asbel has a pretty cool (and playable) backstory: He was always messing around as a kid, along with his brother Hubert, his childhood friend Cheria, and an amnesiac girl he meets named Sophie. The four of them have totally rockin’ kid adventures, eventually befriending the prince of Windor, young Prince Richard. So the five of them go off and have wacky shenanigans – until Asbel, getting them all in over their heads exploring some ancient ruins, gets one of them killed. Frustrated at his own stupidity and incapability, he runs off, leaving his home and friends in chaos, swearing to become a knight and be strong enough to not let shit like that happen again.
Of course, a lot’s happened in the 7 years Asbel’s been away from his home and the rest of the world. People have changed, grown to resent what he did and his absence, and when events force him to become engaged in events surrounding his home and family once more, the consequences of everything he ran away from came to bear. He’s very much the standard JRPG protagonist with the unyielding “courage and friendship will make everything turn out for the best!” mentality, but it’s the fact he’s surrounded by a cast of people that know how well that worked out that manages to make the entire thing interesting again.
Anyway, there’s the standard plot about conflict between the kingdoms of the Fictional World of Whogivesadamn, until an ancient and generic evil threatens the world and our heroes must rise up to blah, blah, blah, blah. The drill has been so drilled by this point as to not leave any solid structure left to drill into. Mercifully, said plot is honestly non-existant for most of the game before eventually developing into being merely weak, but instead puts most of its stock into building up the cast and characters and making you fall in love with every last fucking one of them.
What Tales does, and does really well, is character development. Pretty much everything you discover in the world or every stop you make will enable you to view little ‘skits’ (called GROOVY CHATS in the Japanese version which is the best thing) where your party will just chat about stuff for a minute or so. There’s about 400 of these in the game, so there’s a lot of just idle banter that goes a long way to really getting you invested in the characters and their interactions.
I could write a few paragraphs per character about how much I adore every single one of them, but if you haven’t played it that’d get very boring – so let’s just be simple and say it succeeds in said goal. There have been some Tales games where the cast falls really flat (hi, Vesperia!) and considering the plot in Graces is so, uh… curious, having a really strong cast helps to make the entire thing shine a bit more.
Anyway enough talking about boring plot shit, Tales is all about dat battle system. The Tales battle system is actiony, and all about stringing together fucking huge combos. The series has jumped between 2D and 3D a lot over the years, and Graces is the first time the 3D games have really felt like they’ve truly transcended the 2D ones.
See, the way normal 3D Tales works is that you have your usual physical attacks where you just smack the enemy with your weapon, and then the more impressive JRPG style attacks like dropping meteors on peoples dicks or eviscerating them with 100 slashes in half a second or whatever. This causes an interesting feedback loop: The game’s all about comboing, and the cool moves are what make those combos possible at all, so your instinct is to get all up in the enemies faces and start bashing them with FLAMING DEATH FUCK SWORD or whatever, but wait! You have an MP-like system, where every move costs like 10-25 MP to use! In a turn-based system like Final Fantasy, this is fine, because there’s no viscerality to the combat, so it’s totally fine to conserve MP for when its tactically appropriate, but in Tales the game feels dull if you conserve your MP equivalent in that way.
So the logic is you wanna spam expensive moves, and in that case, you need a good way of replenishing your MP stock without resorting to wasting all your money on healing items, and luckily, there is such a way! Physical attacks restore your MP!
At the rate of 1 a hit.
Lemme spell out, hence, how Tales 3D combat tends to go:
plink plink plink plink plink plink plink plink plink plink FUN
plink plink plink plink plink plink plink plink plink plink FUN
Or, you could save up and unleash all your MP in one big burst of joy!
YES YES YES THIS OWNS THIS IS GREA-…plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink…
Despite this, for the best part of a fucking generation and a half Tales has continued (and continues, in the case of some of the shittier dev teams working on the franchise) to think this MP system was a good idea. Graces, however, decides to rightfully throw that system out the window.
In Graces, there are no physical attacks, in the traditional sense. Physical attacks become special moves in their own right, splitting the game into two ‘trees’ of attacks – Assault Artes are the equivalent of physical attacks, allowing you to combo them together with each subsequent Assault move being stronger than the last. Meanwhile, your traditional special moves become Burst Artes – powerful, often with unique attack patterns or trajectories, and you can freely pepper them into your combo as you see fit.
So how do you regain MP then?
THERE ISN’T ANY.
Graces works on a system called CC – Chain Capacity – that essentially acts as a stamina indicator. Every move drains a little bit of your CC away, and all you need to do to replenish it is simply stop attacking for a second or so, at which point it regenerates really fast. To start with, you don’t even have enough to complete a single combo chain, but as you level up and get new equipment your CC increases, and as your CC increases the speed it regenerates increases, allowing you to be more intense with your combos without ever having to worry about resource management.
It gets better too – you have both a minimum and maximum value for your CC, like, let’s say a range of 10-15. When you start a battle, your CC will cap out at 10, but if you play well and gain the advantage in the fight, your CC cap will raise closer and closer to the maximum. Take clean hits from enemies, though, and the cap decreases back towards the minimum. This means you actually have to play well to unleash your full combo potential, instead of having to worry about constantly holding back to keep your goddamn MP up all the time.
Which means the game is always fun! All the time you’re playing it, it’s fun, because there’s never anything restricting what you can do with the system! Like, I shouldn’t sound this excited because this SHOULD be a given, but for a Tales game nowadays this is actually a goddamn miracle!
So you have your assault artes on one button, and your bursts on another – and like in a fighting game you can use combinations of these buttons and directions to use different moves. You can map your burst artes to whatever directions you choose (each character has about 10-20, with 4 mappable at once) while Assault Artes work kind of as a combo tree, allowing you to use the direction keys to change which tree you want to pull the next hit of your combo from. This idea of each character having a kind of move loadout to choose from is really, really nice and makes finding move combinations that segue naturally into each other really cool.
At any point, too, you can tap the d-pad to choose which of your four party members you’re controlling – and you’re able to freely set the tactics of the AI controlled party members at any time. While a few more tactical options might have been nice (i.e. a “Target enemies trying to interrupt my casts” would be pretty sweet) I’ve honestly never felt too annoyed with the system, and as the computer can’t do anything you can’t, the fact I suck at casting and the AI doesn’t probably means I’m just doing something wrong. :V
Anyway, at any given time you’re locked on to one enemy, and you move towards or away from it. But here comes the third button! There’s also the guard button, which allows you to block enemy attacks (with a successful block helping to raise your maximum CC cap) like, you know, you’d expect. But there’s always the chance an attack might guard pierce (based on the Accuracy stat, a nice way of implementing that in an action game) or whatever, so it can also be used to quick-dodge together with a direction, or freely run around the battlefield. These actions all eat up your CC like attacks do, which introduces another tactical idea – how much CC do you save after an attack chain to get yourself to safety? If you use up your entire stock, you’ll finish your attack chain and be pretty much a sitting duck for a few seconds, so saving a few CC to slide back out of a situation is the kind of good idea you’ll never think to have because BEATING STUFF UP IS SO GODDAMN FUN.
And really, the synergy in the game is just totally fantastic. Battles always feel fun -there’s no downtime, there’s no resource management, it’s all about your skill and your ability to keep enemies locked down and keep yourself (and your party members) safe. The ability to play as any party member in this action-based setup makes playing as different character archetypes really genuinely interesting – the caster has to try and find opportunities to cast without being interrupted, the ranged character who has to try and keep enemies under control as best as possible, the healers who have to target their ranged AoE heals cleverly for maximum effect, etc. The battle system just all feels really smooth and engaging.
To add to that, there’s a really smooth and awesome character customization/development thing called Titles. In previous Tales games, Titles kind of act like in-game achievements, little rewards that say “You got a 100-hit combo!” or “You did this dumb sidequest!”. And, yeah, that’s what they do in this too – except instead of being like 30 of them, there’s a thousand.
Equipping titles is how you customize your characters – in addition to each title having an innate effect, it has skills you can learn from the SP you gain from battles. Once you’ve learned a skill from a title, its yours forever, even if you equip a different title, and this gives rise to the neatness of the mechanic: deciding when to switch up your titles. Each level of a title requires more SP than the previous one (as good levelling systems do!) but there are only 5 levels to each title in the first place. As such, maxing out a title is pretty easy to do, but you’re getting titles with such frequency that it’s often a better idea to be swapping them out constantly and learning lots and lots of little skills rather than sticking with one title and learning “Holy Divine Buttfuck of the Blessed (usage cost: 2 CC more than you have)” or whatever.
Meanwhile you’re constantly learning them for all sorts of things. Reached level 20? That’s a title. Used the healer’s Antidote spell 50 times? That’s a title. Done 10 sidequests? That’s a title. Cooked 20 food items? That’s a title. Pretty much everything you do in the game is working you towards titles, which means that everything you do feels relevant and useful to your progression. Meanwhile, sidequests themselves often just directly give you thematically relevant titles (some of which come with their own costumes!), while there’s a “request” system where you can give items to people who need them in exchange for metric asstons of SP. It’s a really nice progression mechanic, as every move you learn you get through the title system, making what you choose to focus on early in the game actually help to shape how you play your character in pretty meaningful ways.
There’s really nothing bad I can say about the gameplay – it’s all really nicely handled. The game’s a little linear to start with, but soon branching paths open up to conveniently connect the game’s locations. The progression is fun, the combat is so fluid and amazing, and the characters are all just absolutely charming. The story’s not fantastic, but you’ll be invested enough in the characters and their stories to ensure you’re not really too mad that none of them seem to give a shit about the blatantly obvious presence of Space Satan for 3/4 the game that none of them are smart enough to pick up on. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
In summary: this game’s a gameplay delight, and if you have one of them PS Triple boxes, you owe it to yourself to play it. If you have a Wii and don’t mind having to play in Japanese, then the original version of the game (Tales of Graces without the F) is available for that, too, but F is better in every way including being in a language most people can actually understand, so, you know, that’s a plus.
Except for the bit where there’s a collectable card game that requires you to have knowledge of Tales games that were never localized.
But those are a story for another day.