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Project Vesperia January 19, 2009

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Reviews, Video Games.
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It was because of Tales of Vesperia that I decided to invest in an Xbox360. I’d never played any of the games in the Tales series; at best, I did get to see my brother plod through Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube (he never did finish it) only to be disappointed at the sheer paucity of cutscenes. But reading about Vesperia prior to its release offered some hope. Indeed, most of its reviews and previews gave the impression that it was the next-generation RPG of its time, a definite must-have title exclusively on the 360.

So I took the plunge. And having finished the game over 120 hours later, I must say that it most certainly lives up to almost all expectations.

From the title sequence alone it’s hard to miss the game’s overall production quality. The cel-shaded graphics are stunning, driven largely by the character designs from Kosuke Fujishima (of You’re Under Arrest and Ah! My Goddess! fame). In fact, playing the game is itself like playing through an anime feature, with in-game graphics giving the animated cutscenes a serious run for their money. The soundtrack is well composed, giving the game its own epic feel. More, gameplay-wise, the action-oriented battles are thoroughly engaging and a welcome break from the “I hit you / you hit me” turn-based system favored by games of the Final Fantasy variety. Finally, the voice acting found extensively throughout the game is actually quite good and another reason why Vesperia evokes the sense of watching first-class anime more than simply playing a video game.

From a technical standpoint, therefore, it’s quite clear that Namco-Bandai have used the 360’s capabilities to their fullest to come up with a remarkable RPG experience. However, for an RPG, Vesperia does fall short in its story-related elements in at least two ways. It’s almost a given that Japanese RPGs like these have a convoluted story to boast of — otherwise it wouldn’t be fantasy — but by any reasonable standard Vesperia’s isn’t as fluid as it ought to be. This is a fault of storytelling more than anything else. The plot zigs where one expects it to zag, to the point that it’s hard to feel an emotional connection with the characters’. The fact that it’s difficult to express exactly what the game’s about (something to do with the abuse ancient technology mired up in a government conspiracy — just read about it on Wikipedia) or who exactly the villain is (I can’t really say, to be honest) are evidence of weaknesses in the storytelling that could have perhaps been avoided with a tighter, more coherent and consistent plot.

Further, I feel that there are Japanese cultural elements peppered throughout the game that are at odds with Western sensibilities. In particular, I took exception to the theme of vigilante justice that underlies a large part of the plot. I’ve never been one to subscribe to principle that the ends justify the means, and playing through the game it would appear that this is a theme that the developers wanted to get across — that heroes have to sometimes resort to extraordinary means to protect those dear to them. That didn’t sit well with me at all. Yet the more I thought about it, this was probably a failed attempt to translate/localize bushido principles for Western audiences, something that would have made more sense in the Japanese context.

Notwithstanding these blemishes, Tales of Vesperia remains a very solid, enjoyable and engaging title. It’s been a while since I devoted over a hundred hours to any game (for RPGs, about sixty is average for me) and even then I wouldn’t have minded if it were longer. It’s everything a modern RPG should be: easy on the eyes, loaded with action and utterly engrossing. A must-have title for the 360? Perhaps. For Japanese RPG enthusiasts? Most definitely. As far as I’m concerned, Tales of Vesperia has raised the bar for what I expect from RPGs for this next generation of consoles, and nothing will ever be the same again.

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