As far as eastern RPGs go, we here at AusGamers have a bit of a love/hate relationship going. But this is not for any reason other than the fact most JRPGs are stuck in a time-warp, never moving, changing or evolving.
Thankfully there are JRPG mainstays whose formulas are so intact and complete, they don't necessarily need to expand beyond their core foundation, which is where Namco Bandai's Tales
series comes in.
I've already mentioned that I spent upwards of 70 hours on the GameCube Tales incarnation, Tales of Symphonia
(a sequel of which will be landing on Wii in the not-too-distant future), and some 15 hours into the Xbox 360's Tales of Vesperia, I'm reminded of exactly why. This series is utterly compelling thanks to a heady amount of character and party micromanagement, a real-time battle system, stunning anime/cartoon visuals and a quirky, gripping cast of characters with hours and hours of speech as well as unique expanded character/relationship developments for the truly story-hungry gamer.
Though in saying all of that, you're still going to face that tested Japanese sense of story-telling and character crafting; replete with annoying kid characters, shy girls and over-zealous heroes. It's definitely a little kooky, though nowhere in the realms of a lot of Final Fantasy (or the like) titles.
If you can get your patience past anything annoying though, there's a seriously meaty game here where even more than 10 hours in you're going to be given tutorial segments on new abilities, moves or features. It's an awesome way of making you feel like you've really only scratched the surface of the game, and an inviting factor given this also offers new gameplay options at lengthy intervals to reapproach the way in which you've been playing the game.
Tales of Vesperia centres around Yuri, a young swordsman who lives in the Lower Quarter of Zaphias. The Lower Quarter is the poorer district of Zaphias and when their precious Blastia Core is stolen and their water-supply breaks, Yuri embarks on a mission to retrieve the stolen core and bring the thief to justice. The only problem is, as an ex-Knight of Zaphias and a known trouble-maker, it's not long before Yuri is captured by the authorities and thrown in jail; allowing the thief to escape.
While in jail, Yuri meets a strange character in the cell next to him who helps him escape and on his way out of the castle he also meets up with Estelle, a girl who is clearly royalty but leaves with him anyway.
On the run, and now seen as a kidnapper for having Estelle by his side, Yuri is forced to leave Zaphias and conquer the dangerous monster-populated land ahead in a quest to find the Blastia Core thief and maybe, just maybe figure out his lot in life.
All of this happens in the very early part of the game, and as you'd expect with the genre, the further into Yuri's journey you tread, the more characters you'll acquire; ever-so-slowly building up your party. Management of your team is easy enough, and a mainstay in the Tales series allows you to set AI modes for battle giving your teammates parameters for aggressive, defensive or passive behaviour. It's fairly cut and dry in that you're going to have your healer healing and your tank aggroing while you run around and keep an eye on the battle, but there's a lot of depth in equipping and equipment that makes the simple AI settings worth dealing with.
An all-new Skill system allows characters to earn Learning Points through battle, which can then be applied to skills available through equipping certain weapons and items. Your skill count goes up and eventually you'll be able to partake in Over Limit attacks (there are also base attack skills called Artes). Over Limit is a buff meter that fills during battle with either single character use or use from the whole team (best reserved for bosses), and these can often be spectacular attacks.
Beyond skills, items and weapons, you can also learn to do various things such as cooking or synthesis. Cooking will create much needed MP and HP delicacies while synthesis is the art of combining various drops from enemies and treasure finds to craft new items and equipment. The more you synthesise and cook, the better you'll become at it and the more will be available (each town has a chef hidden; find him to learn new recipes).
On a visual level, Tales of Vesperia is an absolutely stunning title with a solid game-engine. Camera angles are fixed unless you're on the world map, but it's always easy to see what's going on or where to go, while character animations, though limited, are competent and fluid (in battle they're much more varied though).
The presentation sees your characters rendered with a pseudo cel-shaded fill, while the actual game-world (when not on the world map) offers up stunning backgrounds that look painted (similar to cartoons). For the truly story-hungry, Namco Bandai are actually releasing a prequel animated movie that helps fill in a lot of the story blanks, that will feature the same animation style as presented in the game's many cut-scenes and for anime aficionados, as with the other entries, characters here have been designed by manga legend Kōsuke Fujishima (Ah! My Goddess).
Tales of Vesperia's strengths come in the form of its stunning presentation and graphical style, micromanagement, real-time battle system (and skill system) and its progressive nature. There's a fair amount of Japanese kookiness though, so be weary if you're not all that chuffed by Japanese humour and story-telling. It's also a massive game with a huge game-world that does, unfortunately, push you on a somewhat linear story path (meaning exploration isn't really encouraged despite the amount of free-roam room you have on the world map). So if you're more of an exploration junky, you might end up being frustrated at the game driving you to follow story arcs instead of the adventurer inside you, but if you're a fan of intricate story-telling, you're not going to be disappointed.
As far as JRPGs go, this is by far one of the best out there. This series has really etched out a formula that works, with welcome incremental additions that only expand the core foundation and experience, and it's safe to say, as it stands, Tales of Vesperia is so far the best in the Tales lineage (at least until the sequel to Tales of Symphonia lands to contest that crown).