It has seemed to us of late – though we are prepared to accept it may be a subjective observation – that the Japanese RPG genre has been stuck in a rut for some considerable length of time now. True, there have been some exceptions across the span of this current generation. Lost Odyssey’s adult tone was, many believe, enough to stand it apart, and Dark Souls, well, is Dark Souls. But for every rarity, there are a dozen or more that stick so closely to the middle of the road that you can accurately predict moment-to-moment what will be said, how each battle will play out. Some JRPGs are so unimaginative that playing through each inevitable moment very quickly becomes a chore.
Tales Of Graces F is the epitome of this type. Following the story of young Asbel, son of a local nobleman in the village of Lhant, the first few hours of the game take place when he is a child. Perhaps it is because we are thirty-somethings that we didn’t wholly enjoy such exciting tasks as ‘reach the top of the hill to look at the flowers’, but this portion of the game is largely spent marvelling at how, five minutes in, we’ve already met the mysterious girl, Sophie, who has amnesia (naturally), and disowned our father because he won’t let us ‘keep’ her – a person Asbel never before met and to whom he owes nothing, yet is already declaring he will protect until the day he dies. Most of this period of the game, however, is spent whacking bouncy turnips with a wooden stick as you’re taught the ins and outs of combat.
If you’re taking the time to read this review, chances are you played Tales Of Vesperia on the Xbox 360. Combat here – and a great deal of other elements – is much the same. Artes are moves split into two different types: A-Artes and B-Artes, the former physical, the latter magically infused. Although attacking and blocking take place in real-time, there is still some turn-based stuff going on beneath the surface. The number of attacks you can combo together each ‘round’ is determined by the weapon you are holding and by a counter on your character’s portrait, which sits at the bottom of the screen during combat. When not attacking, the number recharges very quickly. Combat, then, is a matter of attack, block, recharge, repeat. There is more nuance, of course.
The AI characters in your party can be programmed to do certain things and behave in particular ways, and swords and armour can be upgraded by ‘Dualizing’ them – mixing rare items to supply them with additional effects. Our biggest issue with the combat system is that it just doesn’t feel all that tactical. For us, an RPG’s battles should tend a little more towards brain than brawn, and we couldn’t help but feel that the combat in Tales Of Graces F was not only quite mashy-mashy at times, but was also very similar no matter what it was we were fighting. It could also feel very random at times. One boss attempt may end in the party being entirely wiped out, and the very next attempt, even though we didn’t go about it differently, saw the beast utterly trounced. This happened a lot.
Tales Of Graces F is just so old-fashioned. Take navigation, for example. Given the choice, surely any well-designed game, JRPG or otherwise, would choose to offer players a map with their objective marked on it? In fairness, it sometimes does, when the mission is of huge story importance and when you’re travelling outside the limits of the game’s towns and cities. But within the settlements themselves, it’s often as clear as mud where you’re supposed to go next, and this is the truly bizarre bit: rather than tell you where to go or mark it on your map, the game instead puts temporary invisible walls in all the places you’re not supposed to go. The result? A lot of frustrated walking around and tutting. Asbel grows up, and while playing him as a teenaged knight is marginally preferable to playing him as a child, the entire cast of characters are so immature that it really was a struggle for us to find any level on which we could identify with them.
Tales Of Graces F consistently makes stabs at pathos whose payoffs it hasn’t a hope of earning with its simplistic, on-the-nose dialogue, and has its characters swearing to fulfil missions they have no apparent reason to accept. It all falls flat. Equally irritating, to our minds, is that in all but a sprinkling of cut-scenes throughout the game, speech bubbles appear from the characters’ mouths, which would not be such a problem were it not for the fact that Tales Of Graces F is fully voiced. Why is it that, in Japanese games particularly, we are forced to read the words we’re already hearing? That is not to say that Tales Of Graces F is completely without its charms. Certainly, for the younger gamer, the type that is not as cynical and bitter as us critics have inevitably become, there is a fair bit to like. Visually, things look pretty close to hand-drawn anime – an illusion sometimes destroyed by the intercutting of actual hand-drawn anime. It’s bright and colourful and happy. But if you put any value in the game mechanics that have arrived over the last 20 years with a mind to prevent tantrum-inducing frustration, you might want to steer clear.