Franchise Festival #54: Tales

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we will be telling the tale of TalesCover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Where a single year is indicated in a section header, it refers to Japan; where two years are indicated, the first is Japan and the second is North America.

Most of the sources which informed this article will be linked in the article below, but I would like to direct particular attention to Aselia, the fan wiki devoted to Tales. Those folks have done a bang-up job collecting the extraordinarily twisty history of a long-running series with few other secondary sources published in English. Plot summaries and character descriptions here are largely drawn from Aselia.

Table of Contents

Tales of Phantasia
Tales of Destiny
Tales of Eternia / Tales of Destiny II
Tales of Destiny 2
Tales of Symphonia
Tales of Rebirth
Tales of Legendia
Tales of the Abyss
Tales of Innocence
Tales of Vesperia
Tales of Hearts
Tales of Graces
Tales of Xillia
Tales of Xillia 2
Tales of Zestiria
Tales of Berseria
Spinoffs

Background

Though the Tales intellectual property is currently owned and produced by Bandai Namco, its origins lie with a different studio in the 1980s. Telenet Japan was founded as a video games and software development company in 1984. Two years later, Telenet Japan created an internal development team called Wolf Team.

Wolf Team would undergo various corporate vicissitudes over the following six years: it would become independent in 1987, return to Telenet as a semi-autonomous development studio in 1990, and finally be entirely reabsorbed into Telenet in 1993. Much of the original team had split up by the end of 1993, with members alternately departing Telenet to join Camelot Software and found Gau Entertainment. In its place was a group comprised of old and new members, including Masahiro Akishino, Joe Asanuma, Yoshiharu Gotanda, Masaki Norimoto, Motoi Sakuraba, and Shinji Tamura. This new Wolf Team would soon embark on its most noteworthy project so far, establishing a popular series that would outlast the studio itself.

Tales of Phantasia (1994/2006)

Characteristic Genre: Legendary RPG

Wolf Team had produced a number of action games and ports for the SEGA Mega Drive and Japanese PCs, but Tales of Phantasia would be their first heavily narrative-oriented role-playing game (RPG). The plot is largely adapted from an unpublished novel written by team member Yoshiharu Gotanda. Wolf Team strove to integrate a greater emphasis on narrative and RPG gameplay tropes with the action characteristic of their earlier releases.

The opening sequence of Tales of Phantasia instantly identifies it as a game produced with the Super Famicom’s / Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s Mode 7 pseudo-3D graphics. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

The search for a publisher would meanwhile provoke ongoing behind-the-scenes challenges, as Enix turned the project down and Namco required numerous changes to the game’s original proposed design. Producer Joe Asanuma would depart the studio amid protests from his staff and be replaced by Eiji Kikuchi. Kikuchi would successfully implement Namco’s required changes, forming a corporate relationship which would come to define the franchise over the decades ahead.

Parallax scrolling allows Wolf Team to present environments as rich as contemporaries like Chrono Trigger (1995) or Final Fantasy VI (1994).

Charmingly, Tales of Phantasia’s development and promotional period marks the beginning of a distinctive series trend which would never make it out of Japan. Wolf Team and Namco established a characteristic genre for the game in an effort to explain its core concept ahead of release; no other games would be released in this artificial genre, and the name would be discontinued following publication. For the first entry in the Tales series, the developers offered “Legendary RPG.” This characteristic genre convention would be applied with varying results to all future entries in the franchise.

Beach volleyball? No, beach combat! Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

Tales of Phantasia is mostly successful at fusing Wolf Team’s action-oriented gameplay with the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) sub-genre’s focus on characters and plot. Norse and science fiction elements inform the setting, a high fantasy world called Aselia. The player controls a party of adventurers led by Cress Albane as they seek to halt an apocalypse initiated by demon king Dhaos. Time travel is introduced during Tales of Phantasia’s opening sequence, as Dhaos travels between alternate time periods and is confronted by multiple generations of heroes. As in Chrono Trigger, another significant JRPG released in 1995, the player character’s party must explore various points in time to alter the course of history.

The world map is typical of its era. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

Gameplay is a mixture of the familiar and novel. Exploration of environments, as is typical in JRPGs of the 1980s and 1990s, occurs in real time and is perceived from an overhead perspective. Graphics are two-dimensional, with colorful sprites depicting the characters and setting. The player guides Cress’ party through towns, where they can interact with non-playable characters (NPCs) and purchase equipment, as well as a world map and dungeons. The world map serves as a miniaturized abstraction of long-distance travel while towns and dungeons are drawn to scale.

Characters can even carry out jump attacks in real-time. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

Battles, however, are where Tales of Phantasia radically distinguishes itself from its contemporaries. The Linear Motion Battle System (LMBS) serves as an interesting iteration on the Active Time Battle (ATB) system introduced by Square in Final Fantasy IV in 1991, though no direct influence has ever been cited. Where Square’s system saw players choose their characters’ attacks and skills from menus in real-time – unlike the wholly turn-based battles of earlier Final Fantasy entries – Wolf Team’s LMBS is executed almost entirely in real-time.

Final Fantasy IV’s ATB system is one of LMBS’ closest touchstones but it is significantly more menu-driven. Source: NintendoComplete

The player moves his or her main character around a 2D side-scrolling battlefield and attacks enemies roaming left and right in a style inspired by the beat-em-up genre. Skills and spells are still accessed from a pause menu, while teammates are commanded using AI orders found in a menu rather than directly by the player. Battles are encountered randomly while exploring dungeons or the world map.

Menus in Tales of Phantasia are similar to other 16-bit JRPGs, though the game’s title appearing in the background in English is a nice touch. Source: MobyGames

After a delay, Tales of Phantasia was released on the Super Famicom in Japan during late 1995. It was widely praised in Japanese gaming outlets for its inventive combat system and superlative presentation, as it was one of the only Super Famicom games to offer voice clips. Initial thoughts about localizing it to Western markets would be abandoned in the face of hardware advancements and the difficulty in securing resources for translating its text-heavy script.

Towns in the PlayStation version are still 2D, but do offer greater detail than the Super Famicom version. Source: Amaranethene Orbis

Still, the game would have a long shelf-life in its native country and abroad. A Japan-only 1998 PlayStation remake features overhauled visuals, more extensive voice acting, and a new playable character. An English-language version would finally be published by Namco on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) in 2006 after being released in Japan during 2003. Following this, a PSP version featuring full voice acting was released in 2006 and a mobile version was published in 2010; both were exclusive to Japan. A 2013 free-to-play version was released on iOS in Japan and North America, but support was discontinued in 2014 following scathing complaints of a broken game – many save points were removed and numerous features had been gated behind microtransactions.

The world map featured in Tales of Phantasia‘s PlayStation version is almost entirely 3D. Only the player character is represented by a flat sprite. Source: Amaranethene Orbis

Back in 1995, though, the future for the Tales series was uncertain. The first game had been commercially and critically successful, but the departure of much of Wolf Team after Tales of Phantasia‘s release left the series’ future direction in doubt. Tastes were simultaneously changing due to the release of the SEGA Saturn and PlayStation, so fans eagerly looked forward to discovering how Wolf Team might adapt to 3D game design.

Tales of Destiny (1997/1998)

Characteristic Genre: Fateful RPG

Much of Wolf Team departed Telenet following the release of Tales of Phantasia. This is typically attributed to a high level of executive interference by Namco, though I could find no direct source to confirm this. The former staff went on to found noteworthy JRPG producer tri-Ace, while Motoi Sakuraba, Shinji Tamura, and Eiji Kikuchi stayed behind and rebuilt Wolf Team.

Much of the PlayStation’s ability to render more graphically complex visuals than the Super Famicom would go unused in Tales of Destiny, but the game does feature a full anime cutscene at its start. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

The reconstituted studio would quickly set about the development of a new Tales game for a new generation of hardware with the characteristic genre “Fateful RPG.” Tales of Destiny was released in 1997 in Japan, and then localized for English-speaking audiences in 1998. Wolf Team had believed that translating Tales of Phantasia would be a fool’s errand, given the recent release of new console hardware and the fading commercial viability of 16-bit software, and their efforts on Tales of Destiny confirm that the process would have taken quite a bit of resources: at an E3 press event, a Namco producer confirmed that the localization process took on an uncharacteristically high priority (for the era) due to the game’s otherwise simple presentation.

Battle sequences are almost indistinguishable from those in Tales of Phantasia, though they would be novel to North American players who had lacked access to Wolf Team’s prior effort. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

Tales of Destiny represents something of a throwback during the 32-bit era. Like contemporary JRPG series Suikoden, Wolf Team’s second Tales game is largely 2D in contrast to industry trends. Even before Final Fantasy VII had accelerated the transition from 2D to 3D graphics in RPGs, the success of Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider, and Crash Bandicoot revealed that the future of games was drawn in polygons. Wolf Team steadfastly adhered to the JRPG style established during the 16-bit era, however, with few concessions to evolving technology.

Exploration sequences represent a slight visual upgrade on Tales of Phantasia. Note the footprints visible in the snow as the player character moves around this snowy forest and the overlaid weather animation. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

Characters and environments are represented as 2D sprites viewed from a bird’s eye view while exploring dungeons and towns. Battles still make use of the side-view LMBS system, though forced perspective and more detailed parallax backgrounds improve the illusion of depth. Sprites overall are more detailed than they had been in Tales of Phantasia.

Tales of Destiny‘s 3D world map is a highlight, particularly the cute side-view of the walking party. Source: MobyGames

The key difference in presentation between Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Destiny is found on the world map. Rather than traversing a flat representation of the game’s vast overworld, the player is greeted by a massive textured polygonal globe across which they navigate their avatar. Humorously, a side-view depiction of the party moving in profile across a sprite-based version of the same terrain is displayed in a small overlaid window.

Tales of Destiny is an extraordinarily verbose game, as even the swords talk. Source: World of Longplays

The narrative concerns Stahn Aileron, a young man from a rural town who stows away aboard an airship in pursuit of adventure. He encounters a talking sword called a Swordian and discovers a world-spanning apocalyptic threat which he is destined to avert. As would become typical in the Tales series, the plot is secondary to the varied cast of characters who accompany Stahn. These include young profiteers Rutee Katrea and Mary Argent; swordsman Leon Magnus; priestess Philia Felice; Prince Garr Kelvin; archer Chelsea Torn; brash arena fighter Bruiser Khang; bard Karyl Sheeden; and Stahn’s younger sister Lilith Aileron. The frequent dialogue between these characters heavily emphasizes their relationships and the slow development of their bonds takes an outsized role in the plot progression.

In a hint of things to come, there are occasional polygonal flourishes throughout the game. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

Tales of Destiny would be a commercial success in spite of its traditional graphics and mechanics. Its critical impact was more ambivalent, garnering few outspokenly positive reviews from Western outlets; at least one prominent publication actually suggested that the game should never have been localized. Still, it made enough of a splash that Namco would put Wolf Team to work on a sequel shortly thereafter.

Tales of Eternia / Tales of Destiny II (2000/2001)

Characteristic Genre: Eternity and Bonds RPG

Tales of Eternia launched in Japan during November 2000. Less than a year later, it was published in North America under a different name: Tales of Destiny II. Though rumors suggested that the name was altered in an attempt to avoid conflict with Mattel, as Eternia is a significant name in that company’s Masters of the Universe IP, a contemporary IGN interview with Namco’s localization producer Aki Kozu confirms that the decision was made for brand recognition. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (as Dragon Warrior in North America) had already established a tradition of numbered JRPG sequels bearing no narrative relation to their predecessors, so Namco would have encountered little audience confusion and been more likely to attract fans of the preceding title in the still-risky North American JRPG market.

Detailed establishing backdrops are sometimes shown when players enter a new area. Source: bertin

The plot in Tales of Eternia is traditional for the genre, as it concerns a young woman who falls from the sky and the adventurers who help her regain her memories. This eventually leads them from their home world of Infernia to another planet called Celestia. By the narrative’s mid-point, the characters become wrapped up in an attempt to avert a world-ending catastrophe.

Voiced skits occur when pitching a tent while traveling the world map in the Japanese version, though these were cut from the North American localization (likely due to the resources involved in re-recording voiced dialogue). Source: Blondguygamer

These characters are where the player’s primary attention is directed. The cast includes Reid Hershel, a laid-back hunter; martial artist Farah Oersted, a friend of Reid; Keele Zeibel, a scholarly young mage; Meredy, the aforementioned young woman who falls from the sky and speaks an alien language; Chat, a 12-year old aspiring pirate; Max, a Celestia resistance fighter; and merchant swordsman Rassius Luine. Dialogue sequences in town and during exploration fill in the details of characters’ relationships as they grow closer to one another.

Abilities played a role in earlier Tales games, but they take on a greater prominence here. Source: MobyGames

For the first time in the series, major character customization options are introduced. The LMBS combat sequences remain intact, but they now include skills and magical abilities that can be customized for certain characters. Reid and Farah utilize physical skills that can be mixed and matched, then applied to directional buttons for use in battle without using a menu. Spellcasters Meredy and Keele, on the other hand, make use of the Fringe system. This sees the party collecting elemental spirits called Craymels and combining them to create new spells. At no point can the player use the game’s full library of spells, since spell usage depends on which of the game’s ten total Craymels are combined at any given time; the player can reconfigure these combinations as needed, however.

Craymel combination results in new spells and abilities, though I can’t hear craymel without thinking of delicious, delicious caramel. Probably shouldn’t eat these helpful guys though. Source: Blondguygamer

Further customization is introduced by the franchise’s first food crafting mechanic. When accessing the menu during exploration sequences, the player can combine consumable ingredients to create powerful food items for health restoration and stat boosts. Recipes are discovered through encounters with the Wonder Chef, an odd character who disguises himself as household objects throughout the game world. This cooking system would go on to become a regular element in later series entries following its debut in Tales of Eternia.

Battle sequences are similar to earlier games, though the increased level of complexity in characters and backgrounds is apparent. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

The visual design, unlike the character customization and crafting systems, does not represent a major departure from earlier games. Sprites are still more detailed and dungeon/town exploration is now viewed from an isometric perspective, but the world map and battle sequences are very similar to how they had appeared in Tales of Destiny. Unfortunately, Tales of Destiny‘s humorously abstract windowed depiction of squat character sprites traversing the world map in profile has been omitted here.

The PSP version of Tales of Eternia features bright, beautiful sprites and highly detailed (sometimes animated) backgrounds. Source: TEZZTAGAMES

A PSP remake would be released in Japan in 2005. This version of the game is definitive, largely eliminating loading screens and improving performance while otherwise retaining the original release’s presentation. It would sadly remain unreleased in North America, though European and Australian audiences would receive a localized edition in 2006 following a fan translation project.

Tales of Destiny 2 (2002)

Characteristic Genre: Liberating Fate RPG

If you’re surprised by the second appearance of a game called Tales of Destiny 2 on this list, you’re in good company. The game caused more than a little confusion at the time of its release due to Namco’s peculiar decision to rename Tales of Eternia as Tales of Destiny II in North America. For better or for worse, the broader commercial implications of that choice would remain unexplored since Tales of Destiny 2 was never localized outside of Japan; even a later PSP remake would remain region-locked.

One of the only other studios reliably developing 2D isometric JRPGs in the PlayStation 2 era was Nippon Ichi Software (famed for their Disgaea franchise). This still from Tales of Destiny 2 shows the level of crisp detail possible when designing 2D environments for that platform. Source: rudyxx

A leap from the PlayStation to PlayStation 2 ensures that the game looks more impressive than its predecessors, yet the highly traditional visual design feels increasingly anachronistic. Few PlayStation 2 games employed sprite-based character models, but fewer still continued to make use of static hand-drawn backgrounds. Wolf Team steadfastly stuck to what had worked for earlier entries, though, producing a game that looks like little else on the console. Character sprites and backgrounds are relatively lush, even making use of occasional computer-animated flourishes to enhance the illusion of motion.

Another advantage of using the PlayStation 2 to display comparatively simple (if richly detailed) 2D sprites is the possibility of presenting many more characters onscreen at a time than would be possible in a 3D game. Source: rudyxx

As with its visual design, Tales of Destiny 2 features few updated mechanics. The LMBS system is intact, along with skits featuring dialogue between party members while exploring towns and dungeons. The most meaningful enhancements to gameplay are tool-oriented puzzles that occur in dungeons: the player character must make use of a Sorcerer’s Ring and a Sorcerer’s Scope to fire projectiles and reveal hidden secrets, respectively.

Bafflingly, the world map is fully polygonal. Perhaps this decision was made because world map features in the JRPG genre tend to be very simple and abstract. Source: rudyxx

The plot picks up eighteen years after Tales of Destiny in a land still reeling from the widespread architectural and economic devastation wrought by the preceding game’s climax. The player steps into the role of Kyle Dunamis as he seeks to save an orphanage that belongs to his mother, Tales of Destiny‘s Rutee. In the midst of the slow rebuilding process, Kyle’s quest leads him to clash with a dangerous religious demagogue who preaches an attractive if dangerous new faith.

That’s a Tales battle screen alright. Not a lot changed here. Source: rudyxx

The game represents the series’ first step onto the sixth generation of hardware but would be the last Tales title developed by Wolf Team before its full acquisition by Namco. Following its release, Namco absorbed Wolf Team as a subsidiary and renamed it Namco Tales Studio. Some team members departed during the transition, necessitating an extensive restaffing program under the studio’s new parent company. The next Tales game, however, was already well into development before the shift.

Tales of Symphonia (2003/2004)

Characteristic Genre: Resonating With You RPG

Tales of Symphonia would be most Western players’ first experience with a series that was already almost ten years old. Namco had absorbed Wolf Team into its own production network and was consequently more interested than ever in fostering a worldwide audience for the subsidiary’s flagship IP. The publisher’s recently announced partnership with Nintendo was likely a factor in its eagerness to demonstrate support for Nintendo’s new Gamecube console. One of the first games it announced for the platform was Tales of Symphonia, revealed in a 2002 press conference and then heavily promoted over the following year.

Opting for a stylized cel-shaded style allowed Team Symphonia to offer highly expressive characters even in a 3D setting. Source: Longplay Archive

The Tales franchise’s newest entry would be a significant departure from the highly traditional style that characterized its preceding four releases. Polygonal 3D environments are present for the first time in the series’ history, alongside fully 3D character models. The use of 3D space allows the developers to utilize dramatic shifts in perspective within cinematic story scenes as well, heightening the drama in a series which had become known for its comparatively underwhelming presentation. Lest anyone conclude that Namco Tales Studio had finally conceded to the highly cinematic style of Square’s JRPG offerings, Tales of Symphonia employs an anime-esque cel shading technique. No player could confuse the style for an attempt at realism.

That dark blob there represents an enemy encountered while exploring the world map. If it is touched, the game transitions to a battle sequence. Source: Longplay Archive

Namco Tales Studio also modernized the franchise’s battle system, updating its mechanics for the first time since the series’ debut under the new name Multi-Line Linear Motion Battle System. Battles are started by encountering abstract versions of enemies while exploring dungeons and the world map, rather than the random encounters typical of 16-bit and 32-bit JRPGs, and are now set in a 3D combat arena. The arena resembles surrounding terrain from the preceding exploration sequence. Players still control only one character, assigning AI behavior patterns to the rest of their party members, but can now reorient the 2D plane along which they move by switching between targeted enemies roaming the 3D space. Additional players with controllers can also directly take control of the remaining party members.

Battles now occur in fully 3D arenas, though the player can only move along a 2D plane at any given time. Once an enemy is defeated, that plane reorients itself to focus on another enemy. Source: Longplay Archive

The narrative is set in the same world as Tales of Phantasia, albeit a millennia before that game’s events. The player takes on the role of Lloyd Irving, an idealistic young man, and is joined by Colette Brunel, a woman destined to sacrifice herself in the pursuit of world peace; Genis Sage, a half-elf child prodigy; Kratos Aurion, an enigmatic mercenary; Raine Sage, Genis’ older sister and ruin fanatic; Sheena Fujibayashi, a ninja; Zelos Wilder, a comedic man with a tragic past; Presea Combatir, a lumberjack; Regal Bryant, a corporate president; Emil Castagnier, a Jekyll/Hyde figure with dramatically different split personalities; and Marta Lualdi, a woman seeking vengeance for her mother’s untimely death. Skits featuring dialogue between the characters remain a core part of the player’s experience, though this is now augmented with a hidden affinity system. The affinity system measures Lloyd’s relationship with each of his party members and has an impact on how plot events unfold.

You know a game’s going to be good when it opens with characters discussing non-aggression treaties. Source: Longplay Archive

A spin-off/sequel was released for the Nintendo Wii in 2008, though the critical reception to this game was appreciably cooler than that which greeted its predecessor. Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World sees the player control Emil, a young man orphaned during a large-scale conflict which follows the events of the original game. He escapes an abusive aunt and uncle, traveling the world in pursuit of his parents’ apparent murderer – Lloyd Irving – and the restoration of balance to an environment thrown into disarray by the climactic events of Tales of Symphonia. Emil can recruit monsters to his cause as he encounters them in battle. Those battles play out using a new set of combat mechanics called Flex Range Element Enhanced Linear Motion Battle System (FR:EE-LiMBS), which primarily differs from Tales of Symphonia through its integration of an elemental grid; the grid, in a style reminiscent of Rock-Paper-Scissors, enhances or decreases an attack’s power in relation to the element of the attack’s target. Finally, Wii motion controls are included as an input mechanism for navigating around the world map via pointer rather than on-foot exploration.

The world map in Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World constitutes a major departure from earlier Tales games. The player simply selects his or her intended destination from a menu and the characters travel there without any direct navigational input. Source: WishingTikal

Tales of Symphonia would be a spectacular critical and commercial success, selling over 100,000 units during its first two weeks in the typically JRPG-averse North American region. The Tales series had finally achieved mainstream notoriety outside of its native Japan. Subsequent ports to the PlayStation 2 in 2004, PlayStation 3 in 2013/2014, and Windows PCs in 2016 only further cemented its reputation as the franchise’s breakout hit. Not even the release of a critically panned sequel – which would be packaged alongside the original title in later HD releases – could reduce the game’s identity as one of the Tales’ series most enduring entries.

Tales of Rebirth (2004)

Characteristic Genre: Where You Will Be Reborn RPG

Due to the differing conditions and skills involved in creating 3D games, Namco Tales Studio was split into two teams around the time that Tales of Symphonia went into development. The first team, Team Destiny, would be responsible for 2D titles while the second team, Team Symphonia, would pursue the series’ expansion into 3D game design. The former had worked on Tales of Destiny and Tales of Destiny 2, and would likewise develop the sixth Tales game.

The visual style of Tales of Rebirth is very similar to Tales of Destiny 2. Source: FlamingGnats

Tales of Rebirth is a peculiar experiment, stepping away from the natural evolution represented by Tales of Symphonia. In its place is a throwback to an earlier mechanical era based strictly on exploration of 2D planes. Since traditional 2D game design was unpopular during the mid-2000s, this is presented in a visual style that hews closer to so-called 2.5D design. Characters and enemies are rendered as sprites during dungeon and town exploration as well as battle sequences; backgrounds are comprised of lightly textured polygonal landscapes in towns, dungeons, and battles. The world map features a less detailed 3D landscape and a simple polygonal character avatar.

As with Tales of Destiny 2, the world map is fully polygonal. Source: FlamingGnats

Battles bear a passing resemblance to Tales of Symphonia, since sprite-based enemies exist at multiple layers of depth on 3D battlefields, but the structure of battles is more similar to older Tales releases. All action occurs along three 2D planes, with characters able to leap into the foreground or background to engage foes on each plane. No true 3D movement occurs, nor are 2D planes reoriented upon the defeat of an enemy as they were in Tales of Symphonia. The mechanics of standard attacks, special attacks, and dodging are functionally identical to earlier series titles.

Note that the player character and an ally are fighting in the foreground as an ally battles another enemy in the background. Source: FlamingGnats

Tales of Rebirth’s plot represents a surprising departure for the series. Rather than hewing to the franchise’s traditional reliance on grand adventures and anime tropes, it instead focuses on the navigation of racial tension in a world struggling with a monarchy succession crisis. This is articulated in the game’s world through a tenuous peace between Huma – humans – and the beast-like Gajuma.

Dialogue skits are presented with much larger, detailed portraits of the characters than in earlier Tales games. Source: FlamingGnats

The resulting story is heavier, at least by Tales standards, but the greatest emphasis remains the cast of characters. The protagonist Veigue Lundberg is an emotionally reserved swordsman joined by Claire Bennett, an optimistic young woman whose family raised Veigue after he was orphaned as a child; a mysterious amnesiac named Mao; Eugene, an exiled royal bodyguard; Annie Barrs, a Huma who bears an intense grudge against Gajuma following past trauma; Tytree Crowe, a crossbowman who aims to improve interracial relations; fortune teller Hilda Rhambling; and Agarte Lindblum, the heir of Gajuma King Ladras Lindblum.

The PSP port features no significant alterations in appearance. Source: Passaro

In spite of Tales of Symphonia’s commercial success in the West, neither Tales of Rebirth’s original 2004 PlayStation 2 release nor its 2008 PSP remake would be translated into English. Both received praise in Japan and previewed well among North American press outlets. The game has remained entirely locked to Japan, however, with no reason clearly identified; the decision might be attributed to its hybrid 2D visual design or lengthy script, though no source has confirmed this. As of early 2019, Tales of Rebirth is only accessible to worldwide enthusiasts through fan translations.

Tales of Legendia (2005/2006)

Characteristic Genre: Where Bonds Spin Legends RPG

Tales of Legendia was developed by yet another internal group at Wolf Team/Namco Tales Studio as Team Destiny worked on Tales of Destiny 2 and Team Symphonia worked on Tales of Symphonia in the early 2000s. Team MelFes would only exist to produce this title, and bears the unique distinction of including developers from Namco series Tekken and Soul Calibur. The result would be a game that had more in common with the one-on-one fighting genre than any of its predecessors.

Kazuto Nakazawa’s striking character designs are recognizably different from the art of earlier titles. Source: Blondguygamer

Tales of Legendia would also make some audio-visual changes to its series’ highly traditional style. Soundtracks to all core series entries from Tales of Phantasia to Tales of Rebirth had been composed by Motoi Sakuraba, but Go Shiina would take over for the series’ seventh release. Character illustration was carried out by Kill Bill (2003) anime sequence artist Kazuto Nakazawa rather than former Tales character designer Mutsumi Inomata. Finally, battle animation was directed by Yosuke Kadowaki and made use of motion-capture technology previously utilized in the development of fighting game Soul Calibur 2 (2002).

Fist-fighting a bear seems like a questionable strategy. Source: Blondguygamer

Animation was not the only element of the traditional Tales battle system to be updated. Instead, it belies a wider effort to make the game feel like a hybrid between the fighting and JRPG genres. A 2005 interview even saw Namco producer Jun Toyoda explicitly identifying the studio’s intent: “this game is highly recommended for anyone who has felt a story to be lacking in fighting games. On the other hand, players who find the traditional RPG battle system to be tedious will also enjoy it.”

Setting up character combat abilities and strategies between battles grows very complex. Source: Blondguygamer

The new combat mechanic is called X-LiMBS (Crossover Linear Motion Battle System), and it represents a modification to LMBS rather than a complete overhaul. Battles occur entirely along a single linear plane, stepping back from the 3D battlefields of Tales of Symphonia and even the multi-plane 2.5D combat found in Tales of Rebirth. Rather than being a thoughtless retread of traditional gameplay, though, X-LiMBS instead centers the player’s attention squarely on moment-to-moment actions in battle. One face button executes a standard attack, one blocks, one activates a special attack in concert with a directional button press, and the right and left trigger buttons command allies in battle to use predefined special attacks in real time. The combat engine may feel simplistic during the game’s early hours but expands to become one of the franchise’s most robust by mid-game. Battle visuals are, of course, fully 3D.

While combat typically occurs randomly while wandering in the wilderness, clearly identified Chaotic Zones offer opportunities to intentionally take on higher-level foes. Source: Blondguygamer

Not everything about the battle system is an improvement, however. Multiplayer is not implemented despite its popularity in Tales of Symphonia. Additionally, random encounters replace the ability to see and engage or avoid foes while exploring dungeons and the world map; this had likewise been the case in Tales of Rebirth, but that game had not been localized for the North American market and was consequently not subject to as much scrutiny from Western audiences. The Japanese market tended to have greater affection for traditional mechanics, so contemporary Western reviewers were more likely to regard the high random encounter rate as a step backwards for the series.

In contrast to earlier series entries, Tales of Legendia features a single major hub settlement called Weritas. Weritas is linked to other areas through the teleportation device pictured in this image’s foreground. Source: Blondguygamer

Like Tales of Rebirth, Tales of Legendia‘s story is self-consciously different from earlier series entries. The plot centers on a young man and his sister, respectively Senel and Shirley Coolidge, as they drift through a seemingly endless sea and eventually reach a massive artificial continent called Legacy. Once on board, the two discover a settlement full of people and start to unravel the mysteries buried within the structure. This promising introduction, sadly, leads to a tale which suffers from a preponderance of cliches and an execution that echoes the text-heavy JRPGs of the 1990s rather than the increasingly cinematic presentation of its contemporaries.

Character interactions veer wildly from the serious to the silly. Source: Blondguygamer

The character roster is perhaps Tales of Legendia’s strongest element. Senel and Shirley are joined by sheriff Will Raynard; sword-wielding knight Chloe Valens; self-deprecating Norma Beatty; bandit leader Moses Sandor; young strategist Jay; and amnesiac Grune. The characters form strong bonds through frequent dialogue sequences as they explore the Legacy, but Tales of Legendia offers a surprising twist to the franchise’s traditional character-oriented storytelling: following the conclusion of the central narrative, players can work through post-game subplots wrapping up each character’s personal journey.

Puzzle sequences, which break up linear dungeon-crawling, typically feature a combination of block-moving and laser-pointing. Source: Blondguygamer

While it performed well in Japan, the international version of Tales of Legendia would receive a mixed critical reception upon its release for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. An infusion of new talent and an updated battle system were not enough to overcome the impression that Tales storytelling had become stuck in an earlier era. Even still, Namco would push on ahead with an international release for the next game in the franchise.

Tales of the Abyss (2005/2006)

Characteristic Genre: Discovering the Meaning of Life RPG

Thanks to a 2011 interview of Tales of the Abyss director Yoshito Higuchi by 1UP.com’s Kevin Gifford, we know more about the development of this game than many of its predecessors. Higuchi had been brought over from Namco’s Soul Calibur development team to Symphonia Team during the development of Tales of Symphonia several years earlier. He attempted to implement a free run feature in battles, owing to his background with the more open combat arenas of Soul Calibur, but found it impossible to integrate this with work already completed on Tales of Symphonia‘s battle mechanics. Happily, there is always another Tales game on the horizon and Higuchi would soon have the opportunity to implement his proposed system.

Environments like this regal dining hall are richly detailed, likely due to the fact that they can typically only be viewed from a limited perspective. Source: Stefan Homberger

Tales of the Abyss would launch on the PlayStation 2 in Japan in December 2005 and in North America the following October. It was reasonably well received, though Western critics sounded a characteristic refrain – the narrative again hewed too closely to well-established genre tropes. Long-time fans, though, found much to celebrate.

Enemies can once again be actively avoided or engaged while exploring dungeons. Source: Stefan Homberger

The battle system has undergone a significant revision for the first time since Tales of Symphonia. Indeed, it’s a much more ambitious modernization than that offered by Team Symphonia in 2003/2004. Battles are no longer random, reverting instead to the Tales of Symphonia model in which enemies can be avoided or engaged while exploring. Once in battle, a Free Run mechanic allows the player character to navigate anywhere in the 3D battlefield at any time during combat. This 360 degree movement is made possible through a single button toggle and, once un-toggled the player character again snaps to a linear plane facing their selected opponent. The updated combat structure is called the Flex Range Linear Motion Battle System (FR-LMBS).

Characters can freely run around 3D battlefields for the first time in the franchise. Source: Stefan Homberger

Layered on top of the player’s newly expansive range of movement is the Field of Fonons (FoF). FoF sees the player character and allies attempting to power up a circle on the battlefield using special attacks of a single elemental affinity. If they are successful in doing so, the circle will take on the color associated with this element and a special attack of the same elemental affinity launched by a character standing within the circle will be supercharged. This plays an offensive role as players coordinate their assignment and activation of special attacks more strategically, but also takes on a defensive role when enemies create their own circle and attempt to charge it up.

Luke receives a tutorial in the Field of Fonons technique. Source: Tales of Creed

Tales of the Abyss’ story represents thematic continuity with its predecessors. The player takes on the role of Luke fon Fabre, a teenage noble isolated in a manor following his boyhood kidnapping and subsequent loss of memory. A clash between Luke’s mentor and a would-be assassin leads to a tear in space that transports Luke to a distant land. In the course of returning to his native Kimlasca, Luke finds himself embroiled in an international and metaphysical conflict centered on Fonons, elementary particles that power the world’s magic and indeed compose the very foundation of the planet.

Oh no, not a tear in space! That’s the worst kind of tear. Source: Stefan Homberger

Luke is joined on his quest by Tear Grants, the aforementioned assassin; Jade Curtis, a misunderstood colonel; Anise Tatlin, a mage attempting to marry into wealth; Guy Cecil, Luke’s childhood friend; Natalia Luzu Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, Luke’s fiancee and an archer princess; and Ion, the young leader of a preeminent religious and military institution called the Order of Lorelei. The cross section of socio-economic lines and geopolitical backgrounds render the conflicts and interpersonal relationships between these characters as interesting as any Tales cast. As in most JRPGs, their allegiances become blurrier and more problematic over time.

Character skits revert to the traditional “head in box” style of earlier Tales entries. Source: Tales of Creed

The visual palette of Tales of the Abyss is engaging if unremarkable. No cel-shaded graphics or sprite-based character models are present, and Namco Tales Studio instead presents their work with an uncharacteristically contemporary 3D look. Characters and environments are polygonal, though the player cannot independently adjust the camera within towns, dungeons, or battle screens.

Character models retain an anime aesthetic, but they are more realistically proportioned and less heavily stylized than earlier 3D Tales games. Source: Stefan Homberger

Tales of the Abyss would review extremely well in Japan while receiving a more checkered, yet still generally positive, reception in North America. Between its Japanese and North American releases, Namco would merge with Bandai to become Namco Bandai (later renamed Bandai Namco in 2014). This would not have an immediate impact on Namco Tales Studio, though.

Tales of the Abyss’ 3DS port features a lower resolution but is otherwise a faithful reproduction of the PlayStation 2 original. Source: ZetaMage

As with earlier Tales titles, a portable version would eventually follow the home console original. Unlike any predecessor, however, Tales of the Abyss’ 3DS port was published worldwide in 2012. The closest earlier analogue was Tales of Phantasia, as the Super Famicom game’s GBA port was released in North America, but this was the only version released outside of Japan. Tales of the Abyss’ 3DS release seems instead to have heralded the Tales franchise finally achieving the level of prominence in North America that had formerly evaded it. In Europe, meanwhile, the 3DS port was so commercially successful that it directly inspired the timely localization of future series entries.

Tales of Innocence (2007)

Characteristic Genre: Connecting Thoughts RPG

Work on Tales of Innocence began in 2006 with the goal of creating a portable title which captured the full scope of a home console release. It was developed by Alfa Systems, rather than Namco Tales Studio, as that team had been responsible for several successful portable Tales spinoffs already. Namco would release the game on the Nintendo DS in Japan on December 6, 2007.

The Free Run system of Tales of the Abyss is fully implemented here for the first time in a portable format. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

Visual design and gameplay are both reminiscent of Tales of the Abyss, albeit in a stripped down form. Exploration and battle sequences, along with all characters and enemies, are fully 3D. Though the battle system is nominally referred to as LMBS, it does permit navigation along the z axis as its direct predecessor had done. Tales of Innocence’s most significant concession to less powerful hardware is the presence of only three characters on the player’s team in battle rather than the typical four.

Despite comparatively limited processing power, the Nintendo DS renders enemies on the map so players can consciously avoid or engage them. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

A new guild mechanic supports the DS’ “pick up and play” design ethos. Guilds are present in each town, offering side quests which require the navigation of a dungeon. These side quests are detached from the game’s main plot but provide quick sessions of action and exploration. The player character and his teammates acquire experience points from these missions and raise their standing with the guild, offering benefits for more lengthy gameplay sessions in which the player progresses with the story.

Character models are impressively rendered, though the DS’ native resolution ensures that they are rather more pixelated than those in earlier series’ entries. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

The narrative sees the player stepping into the shoes of Luca Milda, the avatar for a divine being called Asura, as he meets a fellow avatar and seeks to protect her from Regnum, an oppressive military regime. Regnum and the neighboring state of Garam are locked in a seemingly perpetual war, so the government of the former has begun attempting to unlock the supernatural powers of avatars in an attempt to conquer its rival. These avatars serve as the vessels for reincarnated souls who originally lived in the mystical realm of Devaloka prior to its downfall.

Character models on the Vita port are visibly smoother thanks to improved screen resolution and more powerful hardware. Whether this enhances or reduces the strength of the art design is subjective. Source: iMackshunGames

Unfortunately, Tales of Innocence represents one of the few core Tales entries not localized outside of its home country. A PlayStation Vita port (Tales of Innocence R) would follow the DS version in 2012 but this too remains exclusive to Japan. Series producer Hideo Baba attributed this decision to poor “timing and feedback from Western branches” in a 2012 interview with JP Games.

Note: Cover image from Amazon.

Tales of Vesperia (2008)

Characteristic Genre: Enforcing One’s “Justice” RPG

While Alfa Systems was working on Tales of Innocence, Team Symphonia was developing the first Tales game built for high-definition consoles. The early days of the seventh console generation were challenging for JRPG developers due to the relatively high level of resources needed to generate art assets in HD. Consequently, many studios abandoned the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in favor of the more secure return on investment represented by the lower-resolution DS and PSP. Surprisingly, Namco Tales Studio decided to develop their next release for the Xbox 360 in spite of that platform’s relative lack of popularity in Japan. This decision seems to have been down to the unavailability of a PlayStation 3 development kit when Tales of Vesperia began production in 2005.

The cel-shaded art style allows character models to be highly expressive during cinematic dialogue sequences. Source: Turom

One of Team Symphonia’s earliest challenges when developing the next Tales game was the decision to aim either for increased photorealism or a self-consciously “toon” aesthetic. They chose the latter, opting for a cel-shaded look. Environments are fairly expansive and the framerate is impressively smooth. Characters are each distinctively rendered in bright, colorful tones that help them to stand out at a glance. Faces are given particular attention, with the comparatively simple look of earlier titles giving way to fully drawn character expressions.

Thanks to a new lighting engine and HD visuals, dungeons are particularly atmospheric. Source: Turom

The battle system is almost identical to Tales of the Abyss’ FR-LMBS, though it’s now named the Evolved Flex-Range Linear Motion Battle System. No random encounters are present; instead, enemies in the field either ambush or are intentionally engaged by the player character and combat then plays out in a 3D battle arena designed to reflect the area being explored. Repeated combo attacks can now result in a Fatal Strike, a powerful finishing move that kills weaker foes outright and does heavy damage to boss enemies. Attacks performed without sustaining any damage also fills an Over Limit meter. Once full, the Over Limit meter activates a character’s ability to continually attack or use special moves – each mapped to a controller shoulder button – without the casting time typically associated with these techniques.

Battle sequences can quickly become chaotic, but note the attention to detail as UI character icons present unique expressions based on characters’ actions in combat. Source: Turom

As with all earlier games, the player directly controls only one team member while up to three others are controlled by AI. Their actions are determined by conditions and behaviors assigned by the player through a menu. Alternately, additional players can each take control of one character. This popular feature had only intermittently been included in Tales titles since its introduction in Tales of Destiny.

The opening anime cutscene, memorably scored by Bonnie Pink’s “Ring a Bell,” is among the series’ most exciting. Source: Jay RPG

The player takes on the role of Yuri Lowell, a gruff former soldier who defends the poor working class of a city named Zaphias. As he attempts to restore a magical device – known as a blastia core – to power their water reservoir, Yuri is drawn into a wider conflict that takes him across the world of Terca Lumireis. Yuri is joined by Princess Estelle; Repede the wolf; Karol Capel, a hammer-wielding boy; researcher Rita Mordio; the irreverant Raven; and Judith, a tribal warrior. The tone is somewhat more mature than preceding Tales releases, an intentional decision made by Team Symphonia and conveyed early in the game’s narrative by the older age of its protagonist.

The scale of cities is particularly enhanced by Tales of Vesperia‘s underlying technology. Source: Turom

Though Tales of Vesperia was already noteworthy for being the series’ first HD entry and the first Tales game to include fully voiced skits, an expanded edition was published in Japan on the PlayStation 3 in 2009. This version was not localized for Western audiences at the time of its release. Tales of Vesperia proved to be among the franchise’s most enduring iterations over the following decade, however, and a visually enhanced version of the expanded PlayStation 3 edition would be released worldwide on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Microsoft Windows platforms to coincide with its tenth anniversary in 2019.

Tales of Hearts (2008)

Characteristic Genre: A Meeting Between Hearts RPG

Development began on a Tales of Destiny remake for the DS in late 2006, though this project rapidly evolved into Tales of Hearts. This process involved both of Namco Tales Studio’s two main groups, Team Symphonia and Team Destiny. Two years would pass between the beginning of the game’s development and its Japanese release on the DS in December 2008.

The CG version of Tales of Hearts‘ opening movie looks alarmingly like Final Fantasy. Source: phoenix1291

The slow schedule is likely down to several divergent and experimental decisions. Producer Hideo Baba hired two separate companies to design cutscenes for the game, resulting in one version featuring anime cutscenes (by Production I.G.) and one featuring computer-generated cutscenes (by Shirogami); both were released to retail stores and the latter proved more commercially successful. The DS hardware was also a source of delays, as Namco Tales Studio experimented unsuccessfully with touch controls and struggled with an interface intended to capture the scope of earlier titles on limited screen real estate. The resulting game was the series’ most traditional entry in years as developers reverted entirely to 2D sprites moving on 3D backgrounds.

Though characters are in 2D, 3D backgrounds include animated elements like a rotating fan in this bar. Source: Zeke Belforma

The resulting game is extremely faithful to the model established by console Tales titles and the preceding DS entry developed by Alfa Systems. The player takes on the role of Kor Meteor, a young man who seeks to help a girl named Kohaku. Tales of Hearts’ inciting incident is the shattering of Kohaku’s spirit – a physical embodiment of her emotions – by a nefarious mechanical being named Incarose. The conflict grows to encompass an international conflict and the religious leaders of the Maximus Empire, as these things often do.  Kor and Kohaku are joined by Hisui Hearts, Kohaku’s older brother; shop owner Ines Lorenzen; Beryl Bonito, a runaway artist; and Kunzite, a mecha-knight.

When they say aerial, they mean it. Source: Zeke Belforma

The newest iteration of Tales’ LMBS mechanic is Combination Aerial Linear Motion Battle System (CNAR-LMBS). This is similar to early 2D games in the series, with no Free Run implementation, and emphasizes aerial combat in a manner similar to Tales of Destiny. The player’s party is able to build up Combination Gauge (CG) in battle and then execute Artes once it’s full. Multiple characters coordinating their Artes can result in the party calling in characters from earlier Tales games or entirely unrelated Namco franchises to aid them in battle.

For better or worse, Tales of Hearts R has been redesigned from the ground up. Note the presence of a fully 3D battle arena and 3D character models. Source: TheGamingPilgrimage

Though Tales of Hearts was not published internationally upon its original release, a graphically enhanced edition was developed for the PlayStation Vita and localized outside of Japan in 2013. Tales of Hearts R integrates new characters, fully 3D visuals, a heavily revised combat system, and story additions to its later chapters, but the most surprising aspect of its publication history is a bonus available only to fans who purchased the first print run of the physical edition. Each buyer received a download code for Tales of Hearts R: Infinite Evolve, a 2D action-RPG that makes use of the original DS version’s sprite art. The title of that bonus game refers to an infinitely increasing difficulty level that challenges players to see how far they can make it in combat before their party finally falls.

Tales of Graces (2009/2012)

Characteristic Genre: Discovering the Strength to Protect RPG

Team Destiny’s next project was a game developed for Nintendo’s unique Wii hardware. In contrast to its competitors, Nintendo had released a console in 2006 which emphasized a distinctive control scheme rather than HD graphics. The Wii would come to be associated with unique experiences, for better and worse, as studios sought to integrate motion controls into software published on the platform.

Environments are as active and detailed as they had been in Tales of Vesperia, though the poor resolution undermines their appearance. Source: pikawhopikachuX3

Surprisingly, in spite of the motion control input present in Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World (2008), no such concessions are made to the hardware in Tales of Graces. Instead, Team Destiny delivered a title with few major alterations to the series’ template. It would necessarily represent a visual step back from the HD quality achieved in Tales of Vesperia, but would otherwise maintain the gameplay and art design that fans had come to anticipate.

The field maps of Tales of Graces are similar to the world maps of earlier Tales games with a more realistically drawn character-to-environment scale. Source: pikawhopikachuX3

One small update concerned the world map. These had gone out of style across the genre during the 2000s – much to the dismay of some long-time genre fans – and Namco Tales Studio had already begun to move away from explorable overworlds with Tales of Hearts’ pointer-based map. The overworld is omitted entirely in Tales of Graces, replaced by realistically-scaled interstitial field maps that characters explore between towns and dungeons.

The battle sequence should be familiar to anyone who played Tales of the Abyss or Tales of Vesperia. Source: pikawhopikachuX3

Combat mechanics are similar to most series entries since Tales of the Abyss, though the battle system’s newest permutation is called the Style Shift Linear Motion Battle System. It distinguishes itself from its predecessors primarily through the introduction of Chain Capacity (CC). This gauge permits the player character to activate actions and diminishes with use, after which it must be recharged. The player’s party also has an intersecting mechanic, the Eleth Gauge, which rises during battle and, once full, offers unlimited CC for a time.

Heavily anime-influenced character design was a good call, given the relative weakness of the Wii’s hardware. The strange, Late Period Elvis-like costume of lead character Asbel, on the other hand… less successful. Source: pikawhopikachuX3

Tales of Graces’ plot is set in the fantasy world of Ephinea. The young protagonist, Asbel Lhant, and his friends are saved by a mysterious amnesiac named Sophie at the cost of her life. Years later, having joined joined the Barona Knight Academy, Asbel discovers a revived Sophie along with extensive political intrigue between his own kingdom and the neighboring regions of Strata and Fendel. The journey to help Sophie eventually leads Asbel and his allies on an international, then interplanetary, quest. These allies include Hubert Oswell, Asbel’s younger brother; Cheria Barnes, a healer and granddaughter of the Lhant family’s butler; Richard, a well-respected prince; Malik Caesar, a veteran idolized by Asbel; and Pascal, an onomatopoeia-spouting technician.

The PlayStation 3’s Tales of Graces F is less of an upgrade than most earlier series entry remakes – its changes are almost entirely cosmetic. Source: ThorHighHeels

No English localization was produced for the original Tales of Graces. This may have been related to a widespread series of bugs that saw copies of the Wii game recalled and replaced by Namco Bandai. Thanks to a swell of requests delivered through an online survey, however, the studio quickly developed a high-definition PlayStation 3 port and localized this version outside of Japan. Tales of Graces F, which features enhanced graphics, additional character costumes, and an extended plot would be published in Japan in 2010 and then released worldwide in 2012.

Tales of Xillia (2011/2013)

Characteristic Genre: RPG of Unwavering Confidence

Tales of Xillia would be the first Tales game developed from the ground up for the PlayStation 3. It is a conservative title even by the standards of this highly traditional series, as little about it represents a meaningful evolution on central gameplay features or visual design. This is not to say that the game is unsuccessful – Tales had not become a popular, long-running series by reinventing itself with each entry, after all.

Though the visual design overall is impressive if not a major leap, the opening cutscene is as pretty as these have ever been. Source: SieffrePlays

The Dual Raid Linear Motion Battle System is functionally identical to Tales of Graces’ Style Shift Linear Motion Battle System with one key exception. The player can now link his or her character to an ally, permitting the use of distinctive special attacks called Linked Artes. In addition, a Linked Arts Gauge rises as two characters are connected and, once full, confers a status called Over Limit on the player character. Over Limit lets the player character unleash attacks in rapid succession and guards against being staggered by enemy blows.

A dynamic camera in battle sequences zooms out to reflect the wider actions occurring on the battlefield. Source: omegaevolution

A kind of skill tree, nestled in the game’s menu system, is introduced for the first time in the series’ history. Rather than leveling up after acquiring experience points in battle, characters instead acquire GP at the end of battle and manually apply these to activate new nodes on a web called the Lilium Orb. Each node grants stat improvements or abilities, so players can tailor their characters’ growth in a manner reminiscent of the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X (2001).

The character selection is unique to Tales of Xillia. Source: omegaevolution

Tales of Xillia is set on Rieze Maxia, a landmass divided into two countries called Rashugal and Auj Oule. These two nations are outwardly peaceful even as they secretly plot against one another. At the story’s outset, the player chooses one of two characters to guide through the complex web of international and spiritual conflicts which define the game world: Jude Mathis, a young doctor, or Milla Maxwell, an interdimensional traveler. Both interact with the narrative and party members differently, so two runs through the game are necessary to fully experience its story. The two protagonists are joined by Alvin the mercenary; Leia Rolando, an apprentice nurse; summoner Elize Lutus; and butler Rowen J. Ilbert.

Outside of battle, Tales of Xillia represents the first time that players can fully control the camera while exploring. Source: omegaevolution

Early sales for Tales of Xillia exceeded all expectations, as over 500,000 copies were purchased in its first week on store shelves. The game would be released in the West two years later. Between Tales of Xillia’s initial release and its Western localization, however, Namco Tales Studio would undergo the most challenging period since its foundation as Wolf Team in 1986 as the studio was dissolved by Namco Bandai on January 1, 2012. Fortunately, most of its members would be hired as employees of its parent company shortly thereafter.

Tales of Xillia 2 (2012)

Characteristic Genre: Choices That Spin the Future RPG

The first game developed by newly reorganized Tales staff would be a direct sequel to the series’ most recent entry. This was likely an elegant way to ease the transition, as some staff members had not been retained when Namco Tales Studio was absorbed into the newly created Namco Bandai Studios. At the time, series producer Hideo Baba also speculated that more crossover would occur between the staff assigned to Namco Bandai’s various projects, so keeping the next release based on an established Tales entry may have served to inform the integration of new staff members unfamiliar with the series’ development practices. We unfortunately have only limited English-language glimpses into that process.

No matter how much changes throughout Tales history, dialogue skits remain prominent. Source: omegaevolution

Impressively, Baba and Namco Bandai Studios managed to deliver a largely successful title in spite of behind-the-scenes turmoil. Tales of Xillia 2 would be released on the PlayStation 3 in Japan in November 2012 and worldwide in August 2014. The game remains a traditional entry in the long-running franchise but offers glimpses of modernization.

Dialogue options occur regularly. Source: omegaevolution

Exploration and battle sequences are identical to the preceding title. The most conspicuous update to the Tales formula is the presence of choices made by players. These choices affect the ongoing story arc and were designed to make players feel more immersed in the development of lead character Ludger Will Kresnik. Uncharacteristically for the series, the lead character is silent outside of choices made by the player.

Rollo the cat is an amusing character in Tales of Xillia 2, but also points toward an extensive minigame called Kitty Dispatch in which the player seeks to find 100 lost cats. Source: omegaevolution

Ludger is joined by a cast comprised of new allies and returning characters from Tales of Xillia. These include Elle Mel Marta, a girl seeking a mythical land; Jude Mathis, now a researcher; Alvin, now a businessman; Leia Rolando, now a newspaper reporter; Elize Lutus, now a promising student; Rowen Ilbert, now a Prime Minister; Milla, a version of Tales of Xillia’s protagonist Milla Maxwell from an alternate timeline; Gaius, a noble King who depends on Rowen; and Muzet, an inter-dimensional traveler associated with Milla. Though many of these characters appeared in Tales of Xillia, most have undergone visual and personality development in the time between the two stories.

Tales of Xillia 2 is among the most urban games in the Tales library. Heck, it’s even got turnstiles! Source: omegaevolution

Tales of Xillia 2 is primarily set in Elympios, a counterpart planet to Tales of Xillia’s Rieze Maxia. Its technological advancement and cosmopolitan society contrast with Rieze Maxia’s spirituality and medieval technology. The plot is set one year after Tales of Xillia and focuses on Ludger’s employment by Spirius, a corporation with mysterious motives, along with Elle’s efforts to reach the distant Land of Canaan.

Though much of the narrative occurs in cities, exploring wide-open landscapes remains a major part of gameplay. Source: omegaevolution

Reception to Tales of Xillia 2 was positive if reserved. It did little to advance the franchise overall even as it offered a greater sense of player choice and expanded upon the events of its predecessor. Still, its most important legacy is likely the confirmation that Namco Tales Studio’s dissolution would have little to no impact on the series’ ongoing development.

Tales of Zestiria (2015)

Characteristic Genre: Passion That Illuminates The World RPG

To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Tales franchise, Namco Bandai Studios turned to former team members who had helped in development of its earliest entries. Among these, composer Go Shiina and character designers Mutsumi Inumata, Kousuke Fujishima, Daigo Okumura, and Minoru Iwamoto are particularly noteworthy. They intended to return to the roots of the series – Tales of Phantasia – while attempting to reach an even broader worldwide audience. To that end, it would be among the only Tales games to launch worldwide in the same year as its Japanese debut.

The Seraphim village in which Sorey lives at the game’s start. Source: omegaevolution

Tales of Zestiria’s narrative concerns the Seraphim, supernatural beings typically invisible to humans, and their intersection with two warring states: the Hyland Kingdom and the Rolance Empire. The main character is Sorey, a human who was raised by and can interact with Seraphim. He is joined by Mikleo, a Seraph and childhood friend; Rose, the leader of a merchant guild and an assassins guild; Alisha, a knight and princess of the Hyland Kingdom; Sorey’s Seraph tutor Lailah; Edna, a Seraph who hates humans; Dezel, an outlaw Seraph; and the prankster Seraph Zaveid. Tales of Zestiria’s cast has an uncharacteristically conflicting set of loyalties and not all remain allies throughout the entire adventure.

There’s nothing games of the 2010s love more than open worlds. Source: omegaevolution

In a nod to broader game design trends of the 2010s, the series’ fifteenth core entry features an open world. Producer Hideo Baba acknowledged in a pre-release Famitsu interview that this approach contrasts with earlier titles, which he described as feeling like moving on a highway. The result is largely successful, returning to the sense of scale associated with earlier releases featuring a world map rather than recent series entries. The addition of world navigation skills that depend on the presence of certain party members, like removing obstacles or discovering hidden treasure, makes navigation more lively than in previous installments.

Though they are no less prominent, skits have once again changed in presentation and now reflect the upper half of characters rather than only their faces. Source: omegaevolution

Combat is reminiscent of Tales games produced in the late 2000s, though it features a new wrinkle. Enemies encountered while exploring initiate battle on the field exploration map rather than transitioning to an isolated battle arena. This makes it possible to use areas’ topography as the party engages foes. During combat, players make use of the Fusionic Chain Linear Motion Battle System. In practice this articulates very similarly to the assorted LMBS variants of recent series entries, though humans Sorey and Rose can each fuse with a Seraph character to use new abilities associated with that Seraph’s corresponding element (fire, water, earth, and wind). A rock-papers-scissors-style structure governs the efficacy of elemental attacks against enemies associated with each element.

Mystic Artes kick off slick special effect sequences. Source: omegaevolution

Reception was overall very positive in both Japan and the West, with particular attention drawn to its new mechanics. The open world and seamless combat transitions were generally praised, though a corresponding loss of visual fidelity and performance did come under criticism. Japanese fans raised concerns about the handling of a major piece of downloadable content (DLC), however. Alisha After Episode: What is Reflected in the Eyes was published following the initial game release and fills in the story for a character absent from much of the main game; it was controversially received, as said character had been marketed as one of the main playable party members in the base game. This was an unfortunate complication for an otherwise compelling, ambitious entry in Bandai Namco’s increasingly popular JRPG franchise and indeed a questionable way to introduce story-driven DLC to a series which had so far resisted that widespread industry trend. The DLC controversy would prove fleeting, however, and Tales‘ popularity would otherwise remain on the ascent worldwide.

Note: Cover image from Bandai Namco.

Tales of Berseria (2016)

Characteristic Genre: RPG of Discovering Your Own Reasons to Live

For the first time since Tales of the Abyss, Hideo Baba would not act as producer on the next core Tales game. He instead moved into a supervisory role and was replaced as producer by Yasuhiro Fukaya. Though Tales of Berseria would be the first series entry published on the PlayStation 4, it was actually developed for the PlayStation 3 and then tweaked to improve appearance and performance on the new platform. The game was released first on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 in Japan during August 2016 and then made its worldwide debut on those platforms, along with Windows PCs, only five months later.

Even the opening of the game is dark. Source: omegaevolution

Tales of Berseria features a darker tone than any of its predecessors. Set in the same world as Tales of Zestiria, it tells a story set a millennium before the events of that game. Protagonist Velvet loses her village to an attack by monstrous Daemons and subsequently becomes one of these supernaturally-enhanced demi-humans. Following three years of imprisonment by a corrupt religious institution, Velvet escapes and uses her newfound daemonic powers to seek vengeance against her captors. As one would imagine, this quest eventually takes on apocalyptic significance.

Velvet takes daemonhood very seriously. Take that you lousy werewolf. Source: omegaevolution

The battle system is similar to Tales of Zestiria, though implementation of a LMBS variant is nominal. Players instead control one of up to four party members as they engage enemies while exploring the world. No linear targeting mechanic is present, as players now fully control their player character’s free movement and actions throughout the field. Exploration occurs across numerous islands which make up the Holy Midgand Empire.

Battles occur directly on the field map with no boundaries for the first time in the series history. Source: omegaevolution

Velvet is joined in her quest for revenge by a surprisingly trim cast. Laphicet, member of a supernatural race called Malakhim, slowly serves to humanize the vindictive Velvet. Eleanor Hume is an exorcist who lost her mother to Daemons. Rokurou Rangetsu is a Daemon who has retained a human form and emotions. Magilou Mayvin is a sorceress aided by the Malakhim Bienfu. Finally, Eizen is an ancient Malakhim who pilots a ship.

Don’t you long-time fans worry, though, Tales of Berseria can still get plenty kooky. Source: omergaevolution

Tales of Berseria was hailed upon its release as one of the franchise’s most successful entries. Much of the praise was directed towards its anti-hero Velvet, who stands out as particularly distinctive when juxtaposed with earlier Tales protagonists. The presence of no story-driven DLC suggests that Bandai Namco learned from the controversy surrounding Tales of Zestiria’s Alisha After Episode: What is Reflected in the Eyes.

Spinoffs

According to series producer Makoto Yoshizumi at a 2007 press conference, Tales titles are divided into “mothership” and “escort” titles. Mothership entries are intended to represent core games in the franchise while escort entries serve as spinoffs. There is some ambiguity – notably the aforementioned Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World and Tales of the Tempest, which will be addressed below – but Bandai Namco has typically divided the Tales series into these two categories. Though Tales‘ has also been adapted into anime series and audio dramas, this article will concern itself exclusively with interactive media. Unless otherwise noted, none of these have been released outside of Japan.

Tales of Phantasia: Narikiri Dungeon features what is likely the most stripped-down version of LMBS in the series. Though this is a still image, it’s not much more animated in motion. Source: KamonPeachFox

The first escort title, long before such an official designation existed, was 2000’s Tales of Phantasia: Narikiri Dungeon. Released on the Game Boy Color and later remade for the PSP in 2010, Tales of Phantasia: Narikiri Dungeon is set 205 years after Tales of Phantasia and concerns the tale of two children who are adopted as infants after they fall to the planet via shooting star. Due to the input limitations of the hardware, Tales of Phantasia: Narikiri Dungeon utilizes a simplified form of LMBS for its combat encounters.

By the time that Tales of the World made it to the GBA, its visuals had caught up with the Super Famicom’s Tales of Phantasia. The dialogue, on the other hand, leaves a bit to be desired. Source: FlamingGnats

In spite of a title which associates it with Tales of Phantasia, Tales of Phantasia: Narikiri Dungeon would also serve as the prelude to a sub-series of spinoffs called Tales of the World. The first official entry in that sub-series was released on the GBA in 2002. Though Tales of the World: Narikiri Dungeon 2 largely looks and plays similarly to the worldwide GBA port of Tales of Phantasia released four years later, it features a self-contained narrative and its own LMBS variant known as Condensed Linear Motion Battle System.

Though the perspective is shifted from top-down to isometric between Pocket King (left) and Tales of the World: Summoner’s Lineage (right), the gameplay is roughly identical. Sources: Vysethedetermined2 and Habib Jackson

Tales of the World: Narikiri Dungeon 2 was followed by what might be called a spinoff of a spinoff. The GBA’s Tales of the World: Summoner’s Lineage (2003) is a tactical RPG, in the style of the Final Fantasy Tactics series, which is set in the Tales of Phantasia universe 206 years after Tales of Phantasia: Narikiri Dungeon. Surprisingly, this title repurposes gameplay mechanics and even visual design elements from an unrelated Namco Game Boy Color game, Pocket King (2000).

Tales of The World: Narikiri Dungeon 3 has characters move around maps using a tactical interface but battles play out in a characteristically Tales fashion. Source: Kevassa02

A third numbered entry in this sub-series, Tales of the World: Narikiri Dungeon 3, would be released for the GBA in 2005. It is set in a semi-futuristic world and features as protagonists two children who are aware of the events of other Tales games, regarding them as legends from the distant past. Julio Sven and Caro Orange joined their friend, Dr. Brown, as they make use of a time machine to visit these legendary time periods and save their world from annihilation. The game is noteworthy for its cosplay system that allows the characters to dress as various Tales protagonists and an element of tactical strategy-RPG (SRPG) gameplay layered on top of its simplified LMBS combat. This gameplay mechanic is distinct from the tactical combat of Tales of the World: Summoner’s Lineage, as battles see units taking turns moving around a grid before transitioning into real-time LMBS combat once they come into contact with an enemy.

Dungeon design is not thrilling, but at least Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology eschews random encounters. Source: iMackshunGames

Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology, released for the PSP in 2006/2007, is the only Tales of the World game to be localized outside of Japan. The player creates and controls his or her protagonist as they fulfill quests in the style of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), though no multiplayer component is present. The acquisition of Fame points through the completion of quests allows the player to recruit characters from mothership Tales entries to their party. Battles make use of Tales of the Abyss’ FR-LMBS combat mechanics.

The ambitious battles in Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology 2 are roughly equivalent to those in the core series during the same time frame. Source: DreamSword

Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology 2 (2009) and Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology 3 (2011) continued in the vein of their direct predecessor. Both are fully 3D adventures on the PSP featuring a player-created character, quests collected from a guild headquarters, and an abundance of party members drawn from throughout the franchise’s history. The former offers 50 characters from prior Tales mothership titles while the latter offers 80.

Are you tired of manually moving your characters around Tales games? Sick of battle mechanics? Well then, boy howdy is Tales of the World: Dice Adventure for you. Or it would be if you were reading this in 2012. Source: PlayscopeAsia

Tales of the World branched out of dedicated game consoles and into the web browser format with the free-to-play Tales of the World: Dice Adventure in 2012. For little more than a year, players could access this digital board game by visiting an associated URL and creating a Bandai Namco ID. The mechanics involved rolling dice to move the player character across a linear board and engage in battles. Players could acquire characters from Tales mothership titles to join their party and trade real-world currency for in-game rewards. Though Tales of the World: Dice Adventures was never localized outside of Japan, international players could log on through the internet and play the game in Japanese prior to its discontinuation on June 28, 2013.

Tales of the World: Tactics Union has more in common with Final Fantasy Tactics than the core Tales series, but it certainly captures the sometimes-cluttered battlefields of the latter. Source: TheMastertales

Nearly a decade after Tales of the World: Summoner’s Lineage hit the GBA, Namco Bandai published the tactical RPG Tales of the World: Tactics Union (2012) on Android devices in Japan. It shares more in common with Summoner’s Lineage than Tales of the World: Narakiri Dungeon 3 since, unlike the latter, no real-time combat of any kind is present. Instead, players navigate party members around gridded battlefields to engage in turn-based combat with opponents. iOS and Nintendo 3DS versions were released in Japan following the game’s successful release on the Android platform.

Tales of Commons‘ exploration and battle sequences are startling similar to Tales of Phantasia for a game developed for a mid-2000s mobile phone. Source: Vercsase

Though the Tales of the World sub-series was among Talesmost popular spinoffs, other sub-series were simultaneously being released. The largest category of titles is Tales Mobile. 19 distinct Tales escort entries were published for the NTT DoCoMo FOMA 900i phone service in Japan. These feature a variety of gameplay formats, including tactical RPGs, card games, puzzle games, and even compilations of minigames featured in other Tales titles. A trilogy of standard JRPGs – Tales of Breaker, Tales of Commons, and Tales of Wahreit – featured mechanics inspired by the mothership franchise and were the centerpiece of this sub-series. Access to Tales of Mobile required a subscription service which has since been discontinued, though fan efforts to recreate and localize the games outside of Japan were being pursued as recently as 2017.

Tales of the Tempest is a visually odd game. It is extraordinarily ambitious for a DS title, though the developers made the peculiar decision to put dialogue on an adjacent screen. This all but ensured that the game would not be ported to other platforms. Source: Tales of Creed

Interestingly, one escort title was originally promoted as a mothership release before being reclassified. Tales of the Tempest (2006) was produced for the DS through a collaboration between Namco Tales Studio and Dimps, a Japanese video game studio which had previously developed the Sonic Advance series of GBA games. Its gameplay is similar to other mothership Tales titles, including exploration of an overworld, towns, and dungeons – along with real-time combat based on a variant of LMBS – but is distinguished from its predecessors by the inclusion of a dedicated multiplayer mode. In multiplayer, up to three players independently navigate a dungeon and cooperate with one another to reach the dungeon’s treasure. The game was beset by delays and would be released to generally negative reviews in Japanese media outlets.

In a charming twist, the developers of Tales of VS retained the typical LMBS status bars at the bottom of the screen despite characters against one another rather than monsters. Source: Não Muito Nerd!

Tales of VS (2009), a fighting game in the style of Dissidia: Final Fantasy (2008/2009), was developed by Matrix Software and published by Namco Bandai three years later on the PSP. It features 35 characters drawn from throughout the franchise’s history battling one another using LMBS as they seek to save one of four kingdoms in an original world called Dailantia. Beating the Story Mode unlocks a delightfully odd 2D sprite-based minigame called Tales of Wallbreaker, in which the player character attempt to smash a crystal wall by repeatedly hurling popular Tales series heroes into it. A tie-in mobile release, also called Tales of VS., was part of the aforementioned Tales of Mobile subscription service.

Tales of Wallbreaker is deliriously silly. Source: Vercsase

The next independent Tales escort title was the PSP’s Tales of the Heroes: Twin Brave (2012). Players choose one of 15 pairs of characters drawn from prior Tales mothership games and hack their way through waves of foes on battlefields in the style of Koei’s popular Dynasty Warriors franchise. A combo mechanic called Aggressive Chain Capacity (A.CC) sees the player combining special techniques and, once the A.CC gauge is depleted, refilling their stamina through standard attacks or battlefield exploration. Humorously, character models can be replaced with super-deformed “chibi” versions through the acquisition of special in-game items.

The bonus chibi models of Tales of the Heroes: Twin Brave are perhaps a touch more alarming than adorable, truth be told. Source: Abyssal Chronicles

Still more mobile releases were published following the shuttering of the Tales of Mobile service. These include Tales of Kizna (2011), Tales of Bibliotheca (2013), Tales of Asteria (2014 – 2017), Tales of Link (2014), and Tales of the Rays (2017). Most featured limited narrative scope and stripped-down LMBS variants. All have been discontinued at the time of writing in early 2019. A new entry in this series of mobile games, Tales of Crestoria, is currently scheduled for a Japanese release in 2019.

Conclusion

Critics have likened Tales to the JRPG genre’s twin titans, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. This is only part of the story, though, as Tales has faced a much longer road to acceptance among Western players. Dragon Quest‘s localization droughts pale in comparison to the period from 1995 to 2008 when, aside from Tales of Symphonia, the Tales series was only intermittently successful outside of its native country. Still, the 2010s have seen the franchise become almost as much a fixture among international JRPG fans as its two stylistic predecessors. Tales may rarely rise to the notoriety of these juggernauts, but Bandai Namco has assured audiences of its commitment to delivering anime-influenced character-driven fantasy adventures with unrivaled consistency.


What do you think about Tales? Have you been playing the games since they were only accessible to Western players through bootleg translations? Are you a recent adopter? What’s your take on the criticism that the series traffics in cliche? What’s your favorite LMBS iteration? Let’s discuss below.

Next week we’ll be ripping and tearing through the history of Doom. Join the conversation at 9:00 AM EST on May 17, 2019.