This column originally ran on October 8, 2009.
Tales of Vesperia came out a couple years ago for the Xbox 360, the 10th “mothership” (aka major) title game in Namco’s series. With a PS3 release in Japan last month and a feature-length movie just released on Oct. 5, Checkpoint takes on a JRPG with lavish visuals and a fast-paced battle system, and (with special guest Jason Hagerty) debates the merits and demerits of Yuri Lowell’s grand adventure.
Getting Into Characters
Tales games usually rely on a solid cast of characters who evolve as the story goes on, and Vesperia is no exception. While a couple party members fall into typecasts, there are some unique and memorable folks here. Case in point…
Jason: Yuri Lowell is a badass. He doesn’t take crap from anyone, unlike a great deal of other characters in other games.
Lee: He took it to the ribs like a bitch. Still, unlike previous games, Tales of Vesperia had a main character who wasn’t all about tears.
Shaun: The main thing that separates Yuri from other RPG protagonists — and protagonists in general — is his lack of whining and complaining throughout the title.
Chris: Exactly. And I liked how they wrote his character: he deflected praise from himself, wasn’t interested in glory, and handled things when they had to be done.
Jason: He also didn’t pass judgment on people.
Shaun: I feel like I have seen the character arch for main characters be “I whine about everything, but by the end I only whine about some stuff.” It was growing tiresome.
Chris: Even the earlier Tales games were guilty of that to some extent, which was probably why Vesperia was a pleasant surprise. Lloyd whined and recited Dwarven Vows, Luke whined and cut his hair…
Shaun: Well, Yuri certainly “handled” Ragou and Cumore, in some of the more surprising gaming scenes I have ever watched. Leaving a man to drown in quicksand? Just for “justice?” That’s intense.
Lee: You know, he left Ragou to drown in water, too. I think I see a pattern.
Chris: Yuri Lowell doesn’t kill, nature kills.
Lee: Yuri helps nature along. And who wouldn’t commend a man for that?
Jason: Yuri handled things with his own sense of moral right and wrong. It’s refreshing considering how often protagonists can seem preachy or “paladinish.”
Shaun: Exactly. He just got things done, and wasn’t worried about getting his hands dirty. It’s not that he didn’t feel remorse; he just knew what had to be done.
Jason: He handled things like you, the player, would want. Instead of moaning about it, he just sucked it up and dealt with it.
Chris: And Yuri wasn’t the only solid character. There were a couple typecasts, sure, but for the most part the party members played off each other pretty well.
Shaun: Yeah, my favorite character was Raven. The constant babbling about being an old man — despite him appearing to be in his 30s — amused me.
Chris: Tales games always seem to have a character who is “old,” even though that usually means late 20s or early 30s. Here, Raven plays it up to a T, and brings some much needed comic relief to the cast.
Jason: He served as both a constant source of amusement and a solid character for the others to interact with.
Chris: Raven’s plot twist worked pretty well. On subsequent playthroughs, the tells are a lot easier to spot, but his turn surprised us at the time.
Shaun: I appreciated his attitude as well. He whined a lot, but more for comedy than anything else. When it came down to it, I felt he was the most reliable leader type besides Yuri. Oh wait, I forgot about Karol.
Lee: Repede was one of my favorite characters. An animal with a dagger sticking it to humans around the world.
Chris: Repede really got me interested in this game before it came out. A badass-looking dog with a pipe? Sold!
Jason: His story arc later in the game was both a pleasant surprise and slightly entertaining, despite it not being that hard to do.
Lee: And he was one of the more sagacious members of the group.
Shaun: Yeah, Repede is comically rich as well. His interactions with characters are some of the funniest lines in the game. Surprisingly good character development for a dog.
Jason: “Repede! Your tail?!”
Lee: His attacks and skills weren’t as good as some other characters, but he allowed you to do one thing: rob other people.
Jason: And stealing is always fun.
Chris: I wasn’t a big fan of Estelle, though. And that got worse with additional playthroughs.
Jason: She was way too…passive.
Shaun: Yeah, Estelle bothered me as well, especially her theme song. It’s like they ripped it straight from the ’80s. When she finds the ocean for the first time…
Lee: It was a shame they made her naive. She was cooped up for most of her life, but she had books and interactions with knights that should have tipped her off to the more vulgar aspects of the world.
Shaun: Not to mention she’s a character filled with stereotypes in a game that does a pretty good job of avoiding them. And her hair was pink.
Jason: Hey, I like pink hair. I felt she balanced the otherwise extreme personalities of the other party members well, but it left her feeling like less of a character.
Chris: Unfortunately, she felt like a shell. We’ve seen that character too many times before — the naive noble who’s never left the castle, and has to experience the worrrrrrrrld.
Jason: I liked her “book knowledge,” though. I felt it kept her from appearing too stupid and naive.
Shaun: She served a great purpose, though — her fight with Yuri at the end of part two was one of the most emotionally charged subplots in the game. She wasn’t a horrible character or anything, just one of the most bland of the cast.
Chris: And she did have some fun interactions with Rita. Especially if you’re into 18-year-old-girl-on-15-year-old-girl action.
Lee: Rita was a great spellcaster. She had the background necessary, but she had one annoying obsession: blastia. It’s a machine, it can’t feel and you should stop acting like it can.
Chris: I’m glad she stopped naming them early in the game.
Lee: Every time a blastia broke, you couldn’t hear the end of it.
Shaun: Rita was pretty great. Her obsessions were grating at times, but this served to emphasize her change as a character, when she eventually started caring about, you know, people.
Chris: Plus, it sets her up for her little moments with Judith toward the end of the game — and it fits, because Judith was another character who rationalized things. In a different way, perhaps, but the process was similar.
Jason: Rita’s overly strong personality helped create some of the most entertaining skits in the game. Her feelings toward Estelle helped show she could care about another human being.
Shaun: You couldn’t fault her for sitting on her laurels, either. Even when she just wanted to hurt people, she followed her goals with passion.
Jason: And her hatred of Karol was a reminder of what a hardass she could be.
Shaun: And Raven. Don’t forget how much she hated him too.
Lee: Who doesn’t hate a lecherous old man?
Chris: Actually, her disdain for Raven provided some of the game’s funniest moments.
Jason: Her and Raven had kind of a brother-sister relationship. They loved to hate each other.
Shaun: Yeah, and she was the only girl he didn’t hit on. For the most part.
Jason: Plus, she often resorted to violence through magic to solve problems. I always enjoyed that about her.
Lee: Speaking of girls Raven hit on, let’s talk about Judith. I liked her as a character. She had the same moral ambiguity seen in Yuri, but she applied it to destroying machines, not people.
Shaun: I especially liked how she was nonchalant about everything. She was actually a great character, despite the fact that she seemed designed for other purposes.
Lee: Judith was not only unique in her fighting style, which was based on aerial combos, but she provided a gateway to absolute freedom. She was the one who got you connected to the airship of the game.
Jason: Judith provided a very tolerable “sexy” character. She had the sex appeal, and she knew it, but she never rubbed it in anyone’s face. Except to make Estelle jealous/embarrassed: “Like my boobs could fill that dress!” Or give Raven a heart attack.
Chris: And poor old Raven didn’t need much help to set off a heart attack.
Shaun: Ha, “poor old Raven” might be the most repeated line of dialogue in Vesperia, other than “it’ll give you the runs.” I was surprised at how levelheaded and cool Judith actually turned out to be, not to mention the great twist where she was the one destroying the blastia.
Chris: They were pretty sneaky about that one as well, referring to the dragon rider as a “he” all along.
Lee: That brings us to the final character, Captain Karol. Not really a captain, unless you call fear a ship.
Shaun: What’s there to say about Karol? I guess for an “annoying kid character,” he was tolerable? That’s about the best compliment I have. He also holds the title of “Most Annoying Battle,” in which the game forces Karol to fight a huge monster by himself. Why do that?
Chris: Because it was his coming-of-age scene. And by coming of age I mean he went from a 4-year-old to a 9-year-old.
Shaun: It’s like the game knew no one in their right minds would include Karol in their party, and created a specific sequence for it.
Lee: That battle is actually dependent on who you use the least. Unfortunately, it is always Karol. For everyone.
Jason: The one really good thing I thought he brought to the table was giving Yuri someone to encourage. I feel if Yuri hadn’t had Karol around, he might have gone down that dark and brooding path. Karol offered him a childlike perspective of right and wrong that he clearly lacked at times.
Shaun: No, his importance to the story was integral. His appeal as a character was abysmal.
Chris: Jason has a good point about him being almost like a moral compass for Yuri. I just wish that compass could have been a little less whiny.
Shaun: And maybe not so high-pitched. And useless in battle.
Jason: His abilities were quite good! That’s just how annoying he was.
Lee: I didn’t like his abilities, but I’ll get into that later.
Shaun: Okay, okay, he had some funny scenes. I didn’t outright hate him, he was just the least appealing character.
Jason: So, overall…
Shaun: The cast was one of the best assembled I have seen in a game. Tales games tend to be character-driven, and Vesperia really exemplifies this. The development of the characters is probably Vesperia’s strongest feature — that and the battle system.
Chris: That’s true. The characters, not the plot, saved Symphonia, and they were very well-rounded in Abyss. Vesperia followed that same model, and the characters really drive this game down a successful path.
Save the Population
Jason: Overall, I liked how the world was populated. They had a vast amount of characters with their own goals and desires. A great deal of them were just as clueless as the main characters on a number of plot points. And I enjoyed how they stressed the different ways in which a government and military power could be viewed.
Lee: I really think this cast was loaded with evil characters. Even if they seemed nice in the beginning, almost everyone double-crossed you at one point or another. Some were just outright evil, like Ragou and Cumore. But we all know what happened to them.
Jason: I’ll be honest, I couldn’t stand Cumore. A dude with long red hair, a heart on his chest that showed off just how well shaved he kept it, and a name like that? Pass.
Lee: You could practically point at anyone on the sidewalk and they would most likely have some evil plan working in their heads. Some just didn’t have the resources to get off the ground floor.
Shaun: I have to say I loved the themes explored in Vesperia. They were great. The plot…kind of a mess.
Chris: Yeah, the themes were tied to the characters and their growth, so they worked. Otherwise, it was standard take-over-the-world fare with a couple of plot twists that I wasn’t really sold on.
Shaun: For example, the dichotomy between Yuri and Flynn was really poignant. The plot mechanisms that brought them there tended to be pretty convoluted.
Lee: Flynn was a great character. He had the ideals of someone who would actually come from poverty. He wanted to change the world, but in a way that wouldn’t clash with how it worked.
Jason: Flynn showed exactly the path that Yuri could have taken, but didn’t. They served as friends and opponents to each other, both physically and philosophically.
Chris: Yuri and Flynn’s story was believable. Couple guys on the wrong side of the tracks, trying to reshape the world into a play that was free of the oppression they’d seen growing up. And they were the perfect balance to each other. Yuri did the dirty work, Flynn played the goody goody.
Jason: Two sides of the same coin.
Shaun: Yeah, they were different in every way (even their clothing colors!).
Lee: It could have been a lame story, but they were able to change the world. And they did it by taking their own path.
Jason: It also allowed Yuri to really shine when confronted by Flynn about killing someone. Yuri was free to admit that he knew he did something wrong, but was okay with it.
Chris: On the flip side, Flynn idolized Alexei, while Yuri seemed mostly indifferent toward him — but we never really got to understand why Alexei swerved like he did. Power, I guess. That’s it. Another misguided notion.
Shaun: The final conflict, with Yuri’s party deciding to basically defy the wants of the world and destroy the blastia, really displays this well.
Lee: That’s one of the problems with democracy. Forty-nine percent of people could be right, but still lose. In this case, about nine people knew the right thing to do, and had to force the rest of the world to step up.
Shaun: When you think about it, the plot on the surface is somewhat similar to Final Fantasy VII, which (for some reason) is heralded as a pinnacle of RPG storytelling. FFVII just does it with 100 percent more brooding. Thank God Vesperia didn’t take that path.
Jason: Except Estelle didn’t get killed like a bitch.
Chris: Right. The main villain (who is actually in stasis at the time) doesn’t stab Estelle in the back with a 40-foot-long sword.
Lee: And strangle her to death with his 90-meter-long hair.
Shaun: Actually, what is kind of fascinating about Vesperia is that there isn’t really a true villain for the audience to latch on to. The Adephagos is the ultimate nemesis, but you never actually fight it. It was great that the final boss was actually an ally of sorts.
Jason: Oh, totally. Just like everyone else, he was simply doing what he thought was the right thing to do.
Chris: Tales games have traditionally gone that route: a villain who’s usually on a misguided or misunderstood path. Dhaos was the classic example in Phantasia. It seems like this series ends with a battle of ideologies, not good vs. evil.
Shaun: Again, the themes are great, but if you ask me for a detailed plot synopsis, you would not get much of anything.
The System is Not Down
Chris: Tales games are generally known for their battle systems, which involve no random encounters and an active, fighting-game-like control scheme. Is this a gimmick, or should more developers be taking note of what Bandai Namco has done with the Tales series for fighting?
Shaun: It’s definitely not a gimmick. I think the gamer needs to know what they are getting into, but Vesperia’s battle system is extremely solid, and very addicting, especially near the endgame.
Lee: The fighting system had been improving from Tales of Symphonia, but I think it took one small step back here. The free run aspect is no longer as beneficial as it was. It you get hit, you take an automatic critical.
Jason: Oh, I hate random battles. Hate them. They’re one of the main reasons I don’t play a lot of RPGs. I feel they rob the player of control when there is really no good reason to. The Tales games are on to something good. I hope other developers follow suit.
Shaun: As far as random battles go, enemies appearing on the screen needs to be implemented in every RPG from here on out. Players should be able to choose when they want to fight, not forced into it.
Chris: Games where there are random encounters everywhere can go to hell. It’s one thing if it’s in select, avoidable areas (like, say, Pokemon), but an entire overworld full of it is just ridiculous.
Jason: I also feel that turn based-games have their place; but when a story is going to have dozens of hours to it, I don’t want to wait for my battles to finish. The real-time battles add immediate results and reward you for playing smarter. Plus, if I fall asleep during battle I die, which I think is appropriate.
Shaun: The battle system also makes each encounter engaging. Level grinding (which is not heavily emphasized in Vesperia, thank god), is not a chore like it often is in other games, and this is thanks to the dynamic combat.
Lee: One of the best aspects of their system is the co-operative capabilities. Four people on one screen, fighting in unison. No split-screen refuse like some other games.
Chris: Admittedly, I’m a fan of fighting games, so the similarities are an added bonus for me. Some people accuse the Tales series of being a button-masher, but that’s simply not true. You need skill and the ability to chain together combos to succeed on the higher difficulties.
Shaun: Exactly. If you want to beat Tales on easy, button mashing is fine. If you want to succeed on the harder levels, especially when fighting the optional bosses, you will die quickly by just hitting attack over and over. And it’s fighting, but it’s not on the same “twitch gaming” level of other intense fighters, like Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue.
Chris: Rita (and to a lesser extent, Yuri)’s brokenness are worthy of mentioning. In the endgame, especially in New Game +, those two characters are simply overpowered. Rita’s Tidal Wave spamming is almost impossible to stop…
Jason: “I’m gonna make you – blah blah blah.”
Chris: …and Yuri with Glory (no staggering) and endless combos in Overlimit just devalue the other characters too much.
Shaun: The game has balancing issues, but the system at its core is top-notch. If there was one thing I wanted, it was a faster battle speed, like in Abyss.
Chris: I really think Abyss was the pinnacle of the series, at least for fighting. The speed was quicker, but not too quick. Attacks didn’t have start-up delays like they do in Vesperia, and the Field of Fonons were extremely fun.
Shaun: Yeah, fatal strikes were fun, but not as deep of a system as in Abyss.
Lee: Oh Abyss. Back to the days where running around wasn’t as dangerous. Wanted a little boost in power? Someone else can cast a spell to help you out.
Lee: I am a fan of the new skill system. You get a certain amount of points you can spend, and you learn new skills by using weapons. It was a solid way to get you to try out different combinations.
Shaun: I am also a big fan of the skill system in Vesperia. It’s my favorite type in RPG’s (along with learning skills from different jobs), and I think it adds another layer of depth to the game, both to abilities and equipment.
Jason: The skills allowed you to customize your characters to some extent, which was nice. And it added incentive not just to craft, but to explore and try things out.
Shaun: It’s the same system that Final Fantasy IX uses (complete with weapon synthesis), and it works great there, too.
Lee: Not only did you have to wait to learn the new skills, you had to craft new weapons for better skills. It really set a pace for overpowered items and added a little more anticipation to fighting big bosses.
Chris: I like the flexibility it offers. Some skills overlap, others are character-specific, but it gives you control over how your player is customized. And giving gamers control is almost always a good thing.
Shaun: And it also adds merit to the hundred million weapons found in Vesperia. Most RPG’s suffer from the party frequently finding weapons that are obsolete, but in Vesperia, even a weak weapon can hold a valuable skill.
Lee: In this magical world, even a deck brush can hold untold possibilities.
Chris: Plus, it encourages you to keep weapons around, instead of selling them when a new one comes up.
Jason: Exactly. I’m totally the kind of player who would just go through a story and ignore crafting and side stuff. But in Vesperia, making even one item could grant you a kickass skill. So it was worth it, and motivating to players like me.
Shaun: One of the most appealing aspects of Vesperia, for me, was something that can only be referred to as the game’s charm. For example, the skits throughout course of gameplay were very entertaining, and offered great insights into the characters that you don’t get otherwise.
Lee: This game also added voiced skits, which was help for times when you just didn’t want to read more dialogue.
Chris: Future Tales games have to have voiced skits. Period. Looking back, the older games don’t have the same charm, even though the skits in those games were plenty engaging.
Jason: It allowed for both funny and serious moments to be displayed in an easy to understand and engaging manner, without resorting to word bubbles or cut-scenes like other game do.
Shaun: If you had the time to enjoy them, they were a great diversion.
Jason: It also encouraged you to look around and explore, as well. I mean, once you find out they made a skit for eating ice cream in the snow, you had to wonder what other funny skits were hiding around the world waiting to be discovered.
Lee: Plus, the skits aided character development. Personality is hard to come by when the only thing you have to go off of is battle quotes and story.
Chris: The concept is solid. I always imagined the skits as little conversations the group would be having as they walked around in different places. Seems like most RPGs have the party stop somewhere and talk, which breaks the flow.
Jason: I also feel the “talking portrait” style they use it really solid. It allows for full facial expressions, and full body portraits for emphasis. It’s also funny when Rita’s portrait bumps into Karol’s and knocks it over.
Shaun: Especially for humor. The skits have some pretty hilarious moments.
Jason: I liked the costumes, but wish there were more. I felt that the little “add-ons” were a lot more entertaining to gather and display then the full costumes in most cases.
Shaun: One thing I always hated about games in general is that you are stuck with the same static look of the characters the whole time. It’s nice to be able to shake it up sometimes, and Vesperia offers a decent variety of both ridiculous and awesome alternatives.
Jason: Like Raven’s basket head, Karol and Yuri’s Pringles Man mustache, or the chibi versions of the characters that would ride Repede.
Lee: In previous games, the title system was much more restrictive. You had to balance how you wanted the character to look and what stats you wanted the character to have. In Vesperia you got to dress people how you wanted without consequence.
Chris: Exactly. It was a huge step up. And Shaun’s on the money: again, it’s about being able to customize characters as you want. Each character has a couple costumes that players will want to have them wear for a time, and it’s a great change of pace.
Shaun: You can make Yuri look like a demon-deity or a crack dealer, which is nice. The ability to choose, I mean. Not the crack dealer.
Jason: Some of the costumes were clearly meant for the fans though, which bugged me some. Rita dressing as a cat-girl waitress? I don’t think so. Luckily, she is just as unhappy with it as you’d expect. So in the end it seems more plausible.
Lee: The prize for best costume…Karol in a dress.
Jason: With a mustache.
Chris: And a pipe.
Lee: The only way the costumes could have been improved is if you could have chosen what costume your character wore regardless of the title. That way, they could attach status-increasing traits to the titles and keep the costumes separate. Either that or increase the amount of customization for the current system.
Off the Port Foul
Chris: Tales of Vesperia recently got a full-length movie released in Japan, but more importantly, a PS3 version of the same game. This isn’t just a port, though; the game features a ton of new content, including costumes, battles, music, characters, and much more. Is the Xbox 360′s two-year head-start enough to justify the PS3 getting this much new stuff, or are gamers getting gypped here?
Shaun: The latter. It is unbelievable the amount of bonuses included in the PS3 version. Flynn as a playable character? A brand new character? Fully voiced?
We’re not just talking new weapons/armor here. These changes affect the fundamental experience.
Jason: I really don’t see why they switched platforms. I mean, in some ways it’s just a bitch slap to all the Xbox 360 players that took a chance and got a Japanese RPG.
Lee: I think this is like slapping people who have already bought the game. To turn around and have to spend money to get a newer version of the same game almost seems not worth it. And god help you if you don’t have a PS3.
Jason: It’s really just a whole new game, only with our old one hidden within it somewhere.
Chris: I don’t know if it’s jealousy and bitterness speaking, but this is ridiculous. The new costumes and extra fights in the PS3 version alone justify a purchase. With everything else in play, Jason’s right. This is almost a total revamp, and it’s kind of a shame for 360 owners.
Shaun: It’s a ploy, but I’ll be honest, Namco: it’s working. In my dilemma of whether or not to pick up a PS3, the new Vesperia is a strong argument to shell out the cash. Flynn as a playable character alone is enough for me to check it out.
Jason: The thing is, though, in order for Flynn to enter the party, the story from the 360 version has to change. So we know they are getting something we did not. They are getting a story arc and plot progression that we could have only imagined.
Lee: I do not know whether it is worth getting brand new. I would wait until another price drop in the PS3, unless I found a good deal on eBay.
Chris: I love what they’ve done in that game for the costumes, making references to just about every other Tales game in the series. Tales is always referential, but this takes the cake. Estelle as Chloe? Sold!
Jason: Rita dresses as a male character. I’m not totally surprised.
Shaun: Yeah, exactly. It’s not just surface changes, which is both good and bad. It’s mainly bad for those of us who already have the 360 version. I think they should do the right thing and offer it as downloadable content, regardless of how much space on my hard drive it takes.
Chris: We’ve seen this console-exclusive stuff before, especially between these two systems (Eternal Sonata, anyone?). But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game with this much new stuff pushed onto shelves after an earlier release on another system.
Shaun: Even the Ninja Gaiden Sigmas on the PS3 are pretty different, but not this radically.
Jason: I think that’s part of what makes it so appealing. Even though we’ve played through the game, getting the PS3 version would still be like a brand new game for us.
Shaun: I’ll just have to hope for DLC. That, or cry.
Jason: Probably cry. I’ll hold you…
Shaun: I’ll need that.
Chris: I won’t hold you.
Lee: Don’t touch.
Chris: And I won’t cry.
Jason: Chris has no heart.
Shaun: He would just punch. In the face, most likely.
Chris: Now, if this PS3 version never makes the States…then the tears might fall.
Room with a Review
Shaun: With my limited experience with Tales games, I will say Vesperia is the most technically solid, but not the best. That honor goes to Abyss. But it’s a step above Symphonia, and definitely one of the best RPG’s of this generation of consoles.
Chris: The 360 isn’t exactly hurting for RPGs (Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, Fable II, Fallout 3, etc.), but this is one of the best.
Jason: I’m not a fan of JRPGs. Never have been. But I’m a huge fan of Vesperia. Maybe it was just the characters (*cough*Rita*cough*) or the story or whatever. But it certainly opened up a gaming experience that I am otherwise not very keen on. And I’d give other Tales games a try after playing it.
Shaun: It has the sensibilities of Japanese-style RPG’s, but has one of the most refreshing battle systems. I think Jason makes a good point. Vesperia definitely has me interested in trying out more titles in the series (and giving Symphonia another go). I am also looking forward to Tales of Graces, so you know they did something right.
Chris: As far as its place in the Tales pantheon, it’s up there. Not the best — Symphonia was probably my personal favorite, and I think Abyss is the most technically sound. Without a doubt, it’s better than Legendia.
Lee: When it comes to multiplayer RPG games, the Tales series has been putting out solid product. Not only that, but with each consecutive game they get better and better. I would not be surprised if Namco kept getting more of my money in the future, and I am not ashamed of that.
Chris: I keep hoping the Tales series will get more exposure in the States, and that developers will pilfer some of the staple elements that make these games what they are. Too many RPGs rely on archaic, boring systems, and could use a breath of fresh air like the Tales series provides.
Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.