As both Tales of Legendia
and Grandia III
have shipped in the same month, one thing has become instantly clear: the Japanese love their suffixes. Apparently, titling a Japanese RPG simply requires a vaguely important sounding word, like "legend" "grand" or "power," the suffix "-ia" and some accompanying redundancies. Someday, we will review The Legendaria of Poweredia VII: Tactics
. And we will write it while eating Pocky.
Of course, a great deal more goes into the content of an RPG, and although you might think you know what Tales of Legendia is about before you play it, you might be surprised. You might think that it contains a large cast of allegorically stale characters, many sporting pointy hair and squeaky voices. You might think that the main character is a pugnacious youth who likes to fight but is flummoxed by his coming of age among a band of cute, flirtatious girls with magical powers. You might think that there would be chests with treasures in them, and you might think those treasures would be useful items with funny names like "Apple Gel" or "Foe1 Charm." You might think that you would get into lots of random battles with animals. You might think that you would save the world.
And you might be right. Tales of Legendia seems content being just another entry in the Tales series, featuring the same real-time combat and hackneyed plot as its various forbears. The result is a fairly typical RPG that doesn't live up to its epic name.
If you've played any Japanese RPG in the last twenty years, you've heard the story before. The main character is Senel, a punchy fellow who only wants to protect his sister, Shirley. Sure enough, Shirley is targeted by a number of suspicious factions because of her magical powers. She gets captured more than once, forcing Senel to join forces with, among others, the 28 year-old "old man," a cutesy adventurer named Norma (where did they get these female names, a 1930's baby book?), and a man named Moses who wears tribal gear, owns a creature that looks like a Liger, and speaks with a southern drawl that's faker than my resume. Lots of cartoonish characters will join your party at various times, and all of them obey the usual laws of RPG characterization; they are cute, young, confused, and have unbelievable fighting abilities.
That's where the combat mechanic comes in. When you encounter an enemy, battle begins on a 2D fighting stage - think of a scrolling Street Fighter with lots of characters and noises. The battle occurs in real time, turning what's usually a strategic affair into a button-mashing frenzy. As in most fighting games, a string of hits will net combo bonuses that bolster your reward at the end of the fight. This scheme pleasantly injects some action and timing skill into the often dry turn-based battles of most RPGs, and since there are palpable rewards for premium performance, you actually have something to fight for besides getting back to dungeon crawling.
But behind the great pace of the battle system hides an assortment of conceptual problems. You can only control one character during a battle, while the others cast spells and attack according to basic A.I. parameters. You can tweak the A.I. settings for each character and even call for a specific spell to be cast, but you never really feel in control of the battle. One of the joys of leveling up characters and equipping gear in an RPG is using them, but in this case, the computer gets all the fun.
Combos are very hard to achieve, as the various "Eres-attacks" (special attacks) have different timings. You'd think that with time and practice, performing multiple attacks would become second-nature, but when they do occur, they happen accidentally. It just never feels satisfying. This reduces the battles to exercises in button-mashing and a reliance on artificial intelligence to do the right thing. And as we all know, computers rarely do the right thing.
The omission of complex strategy from the fighting wouldn't be such a big deal if you had a big world and a balloon zephyr with which to freely explore it. Unfortunately, Legendia only features the former. The game is as linear as algebra, as plotted as Nebraska. Senel and company are shuttled from area to area by mountains and other environmental walls in order to ensure that you will never stray from the path. You never acquire overland vehicles to help explore casually.
This single-minded linearity is rendered even more absurd by the strange decision to include all the sub-quests at the end of the game. Only when you've completed the main game will Legendia open up the various character sub-quests. While it's nice to get a completion reward, it's even better when the sub-quests are included in the actual story as optional or secret bonuses for exploration.
Even more annoying than the linearity or the lack of strategy is the frequent in-game pauses and cut-scenes. While to some extent necessary, the amount of scripted action might well compose more of the game than the actual moving around and playing. Every time something that looks like fun occurs, like a sea battle or a multi-party riot or a hair-breadth escape, it is narrated through slow-paced movies. In other games, some of this is integrated into the gameplay - you might get to actually play the various exciting scenes. Here, it's time to reheat the popcorn.
That leaves just watching and listening as the game does its own thing. Thankfully, both the music and the graphics are strong. The former covers a variety of genres with plenty of catchy tunes, while the graphics are lush and bright. The characters enjoy expressive animations and the backgrounds are appropriately fantastic.
For all the high production values, however, the voice-acting veers from passable to abysmal depending on whether or not the voice-actor is attempting to invent an accent. The people of Legendia talk like parrots raised in an ESL school deep in Europe. It's awkward at best.
There is a smattering of nifty features in Tales of Legendia. A few nice block puzzles break up the flow. Characters can combine skills and spells to create new specialized ones. A "climax meter" (yes, that's what it is actually called) allows you to freeze your opponents during battle for a short time. It's not entirely thin, plus it last quite a long time.
But "long" doesn't equal "fun." Sans battle strategy, overland exploration and gameplay variety, Tales of Legendia is carried mostly by its bland story and flawed if interesting combat. And that's just not the stuff legends are made of.