Friday, June 06, 2014

As Usual, When The World Needs Saving, Turn To A Band Of Oddballs

The one problem I tend to have with JRPGs is the level grinding. As you progress through a game, the monsters and other foes get stronger, and you have to get stronger as well. But that can be time consuming, and since I'm never sure how strong the next boss will be, I'm caught between wanting to fight enough that the battle will be winnable, and wanting to skip all that and get on with the story.

Which is why, outside of Persona 3, I don't tend to revisit the JRPGs I play after I beat them, even if I otherwise enjoyed them a lot. The grinding is just too much hassle. I haven't tried yet to test it, but I think Tales of Vesperia is going to be one of those I'll actually play again.

Vesperia has the sort of standard RPG story outline I'm accustomed to. Yuri is a surly, cynical guy who frequently gets in trouble with the authorities because deep down he actually cares a lot about people and hates seeing power abused. While escaping from a stint in jail, he meets your standard naive princess type who very much wants to help people with her impressive healing abilities, but has never been outside the castle. If you wanted to take a moment to ponder why they put their jail in the palace, which is presumably full of people that you'd want kept away from criminals, that's fine. I'll wait.

*whistles Cheyenne's theme from Once Upon a Time in the West*

Estelle (that'd be the princess) was looking for a Knight friend of hers, who also happens to be a friend of Yuri's. He wasn't there, but an assassin was, so the two set out on a quest to find their friend and help him. As things usually do, the threat continues to escalate. There are piece of ancient technology called blastia which can't be recreated, but can be used for all sorts of things, notably creating barriers which keep monsters from overrunning all human settlements. Someone is going around stealing the cores which power these, and someone else is flying around on a dragon destroying some of the others. This soon rises to a threat to the political structure of the world, and then a threat to the existence of the world itself. As this is happening, Yuri and Estelle meet a cast of oddball characters who throw in with them for various reasons. Each character is caught in a situation or place in their life dictated by earlier decisions, and being part of this group seems to help each of them decide whether that's really what they want to do and generally change their outlooks on life. So there's a lot about friendship, desire, dreams, resolve, stuff like that. There's also quite a bit of humor, as certain characters end up being the butt of jokes frequently, or there are running gags (Karol's knack for coming up with terrible names, Repede and Rita tormenting each other over their respective phobias, pretty much everything about Raven).

Though the game can be a little too gabby at times, I did find myself invested in the characters. Each one has a defined personality, and the game is long enough the player is able to watch as prolonged exposure to the rest of the cast changes them in different ways. There are a number of villains I hated in the game. Most of them aren't completely evil - the game makes sure to demonstrate such absolutes don't exist - but they are annoying in ways that makes me really want to beat them up. The game also has skits that will run at certain times, or after certain events. You don't have to watch them - when one is available, the game will let you know it can be triggered with the "back" button, or you can skip it once it starts - but they do add to the overall experience. Some are sweet, most are funny. I liked their inclusion, because it's a quick way to see a the characters interact in different ways, and also serves to flesh them out.

As for the beating up part, the game has a very nice combat system. Eternal Sonata had a set-up where during battles, characters could move around, either to get near or away from given enemies or allies. This was different from most of the other JRPGs I'd played, where you tell a character to attack, and they do, but then return to their original spot once they're done, without consequence if they run right past another enemy. But it was still turn based. You moved on your turn, then that character sat motionless until it was their turn again.  

Tales of Vesperia took the moving approach and made it constant. Everyone involved in the battle is doing something all the time. You can give general commands to the other characters in your party, but the computer will determine how they follow it. So there's more of an ebb-and-flow to the fight. You can see everyone going on full attack against a boss, but then if there's healing needed, maybe Estelle falls back and focuses on that. If we're getting trounced really badly, maybe other characters fall back as well. The boss may try to press the attack against them, but I can use Yuri (or whoever) to try and keep him occupied and hope the healers keep me from dying in the interim. In, say, Wild Arms 3, if a monster wanted to attack Jet, there wasn't a whole lot Gallows could do to stop them, unless his turn came first and he could kill it on the first attempt.

I wouldn't say I mastered the combat system by any means. I never figured out the Mystic Artes (which are each character's ultimate attack, that's what Rita's doing up above), and I was usually only comfortable controlling Yuri. I didn't understand Fatal Strikes until probably 30+ hours into the game. The good news is you can still win battles without understanding that stuff. It's a little slower, but it's still possible.

So I mentioned level grinding is the thing I struggle with on JRPGs. So it pays for a game to have some way to entice me to fight lots and lots of battles against cannon fodder enemies. Vesperia earns points with me right off making those random encounters visible on-screen so I can try to avoid them if I wish. The other thing the game does is the idea of Synthesis. While there are stores that sell a lot of different things, some items and weapons can only be obtained by creating them through synthesis. Which means you have to find the necessary ingredients, many of which are dropped by monsters you defeat. But they won't drop the thing you want every time, so you may have to fight the same kind of monster many times to get enough of the thing you need. But if it's a good enough item, I'll do that, and I'll level up in the process.

Now synthesis isn't a new concept. Dragon Quest 8 had the alchemy pot, which is basically the same idea. But the alchemy pot could only produce one thing at a time, and you had to wait what seemed an eternity to get that one thing. Tales of Vesperia does require you visit a town and find the local Fortune's Market, but once you're there, you can make anything you have sufficient ingredients (and money) for, instantaneously. That's service, and it encourages me to grind, because I know the instant I have what I need I can zoom over to a town and make the sword I want. I won't be stuck waiting for it to finish cooking or whatever.

One other thing I like about Tales of Vesperia is all the additional, optional things the game provides. You can synthesize accessories which serve no function or than altering you character's appearance. Make them look goofy, badass, hot, whatever you feel like. I was able to make a Black Hat for Yuri that was pretty awesome, and he wore that the rest of the game. There are also a lot of optional sidequests. I probably completed at least 20, but there were probably that many I missed. I completed the Fell Arms quest (which also makes the final boss fight much harder, fyi), but barely scratched the surface of the cooking sidequest. I'm not sure how I was supposed to know about them, short of visiting each town and talking to every person after every major story event, but that's why they're optional. A lot of them are silly, and only offer new titles to adorn your characters with (though the titles sometimes come with a new outfit if you're feeling bored). But they also serve as an opportunity for more character interaction and development, and it's another excuse to level grind, because you usually have to travel, and traveling means you may have to fight things. That's what I really need in these games, a reason to be fighting monsters other than a transparent attempt to get strong enough to kill the final boss. I need things that make the fighting feel like a natural part of the story. Running around in the same field for an hour killing monsters simply because I'm worried I can't beat the next boss is boring. Killing those same monsters because I'm trying to acquire some fur or claw I need to build a weapon for Repede, or to bring to someone else makes it feel like there's a purpose, rather than stalling. Plus, it helps flesh out the world around the characters by introducing me to more of the people in it who re at risk.

I would easily put Tales of Vesperia in my Top 5 Games for the 360, were I to make that list right now. Top 3, actually.

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