A Beginner's Guide to Tales RPGs

by Gabriella Ekens,

Deluging the market with a new game every year or so, the Tales series is the biggest JRPG franchise that you might not know about. While still slightly beneath the notice of the average Western gamer, the series is a huge deal in Japan, ranking just below Final Fantasy and Dragon's Quest in popularity, and Tales is still only getting bigger, having recently hit its stride in reaching out to an international audience. We're getting more Tales games now because they're getting localized way more often than they used to. They also transitioned to a sequel system, where games come out in narrative pairs, and series publisher Bandai-Namco is also investing a lot more in cross-media promotion. Two of their most recent games, the Tales of Zestiria/Berseria duology, even got an anime adaptation courtesy of ufotable, the studio that produces some of the best looking made-for-TV anime. The franchise is only on the rise right now, so what makes this series special, and where should curious new fans start?

WHY ARE THEY POPULAR?

Like all JRPGs, the immediate point of comparison is Final Fantasy. Like that industry monolith, most Tales games have no story connection to one another. Each one invents a new setting with its own distinct worldbuilding, usually a hybrid of fantasy and science fiction – the kind where knights run around slaying dragons, but they also make use of future technology like swords that turn into guns. But while Final Fantasy mostly sets itself apart from anime's silliness by aiming for a tone of high fantasy elegance, Tales embraces a lot of anime's baser tropes. Prepare for plenty of jokes about bad cooking, hot springs episodes, and references to women's “melons.” While this might make the series a little less classy than the competition, it also makes it more recognizably “anime.”

In many ways, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest have wandered off to do their own things. The latter is currently pursuing a sort of J-pop pretty boy ultra-realism, while Dragon Quest remains dedicated to Akira Toriyama's 80s-tastic art style. While both approaches have their virtues, they may not mean much to a young otaku mired in the contemporary light novel craze. Your average Tales character wouldn't look out of place in the next season of Sword Art Online, so in terms of both aesthetics and the overall writing style, Tales hews closest to what anime looks like right now.

It also helps that other big JRPGs – your Final Fantasies, Dragon Quests, and even up-and-comer Persona – are now once-in-a-decade events. Tales games come out reliably every one or two years, so there's always something new to look forward to.The downside is that this can result in some quality control issues. Two of the most recent games, Xillia and Zestiria, have been derided by fans for shoddy features and sloppy storytelling. However, the series still hits homeruns often enough to truck through these. It's quantity over quality for Tales games, so while they've produced some truly standout titles, it's best to pick and choose the ones you play.

WHAT ARE THE GAMES LIKE?

Lots of jokes get made about the stereotypical JRPG plot. It usually involves a Chosen One, lots of babble about crystals, animal people as a thinly-veiled metaphor for other cultures, global Armageddon, and organized religion somehow being behind it all. Tales plots generally aim to stand out as the most JRPG as them all. This means that the church is always evil, the Other is always being discriminated against, and you can bet your crystals that someone is going to try to blow up the planet. (It's probably the main character's long lost father/mentor/clone/dermatologist.) There's also a lot of jargon. Prepare to use the blastia to keep the Desians away from the Sephiroth trees, Serenes.

Tales may pull all of its basic storytelling ideas out of the anime fantasy playbook, but that doesn't mean that the writing has to be poor. On the contrary, these games have a heavy narrative focus, so they wouldn't have succeeded if they didn't give the audience something to care about. In particular, they excel at creating a lovable cast of characters. Even with games I wasn't too hot on like Xillia, I still felt affection for the party. Their dynamic is fleshed out through “skits” – optional conversations between party members. Some expand on the characters, while others are just there to deliver a quick and dirty punchline. Either way, skits are a series hallmark that go a long way towards making the player feel intimately acquainted with the cast. In general, Tales games are great at including tons of small, entertaining character moments.

Sometimes, Tales can even execute some fairly complex character writing. Other times, you get to control a dog that's smoking a pipe. It's always fun, but sometimes it even gives you a bit to chew on.

Complex stories aside, the big draw to these games is the battle system. Since the beginning, Tales' combat has been modeled after fighting games. This includes eschewing the turn-based combat system that's been synonymous with the genre since its inception. In Tales games, characters fight in real time via button inputs while moving forward and backward across a 2D plane. Later games have expanded this to 3D, but the basic premise is the same – you hack and slash in a way that's much more dynamic than the combat conga line that most other RPGs have stuck to.

It's a heck of a lot of fun! There's even a co-op option. While the series has four-member parties, you can only control one – the rest are handled by the AI. But if you have enough controllers and friends, they can take over and meld the two definitions of “party.”

WHERE SHOULD I START PLAYING?

With 16 games in the main series alone, the Tales franchise could be intimidating to someone looking to break in. With that in mind, I've written up some recommendations based on availability and quality. Keep in mind that I'm only talking about games that are available on recent-ish consoles so you don't have to go digging PS2 cables out of your closet.

Tales of Symphonia: The furthest I'd recommend going back, Symphonia was Tales's breakthrough title in the West and one of the most acclaimed entries in the franchise. It's not unfair to say that every Tales game made since has been an attempt to capture this one's magic. That's the most I can say without spoilers, but it's my favorite story of the bunch, easily the most epic of the entire franchise. The downside is that this is very much a Gamecube game from 2003. The graphics mostly hold up as cute and colorful, but you can expect the CG models to look quite rough in HD. If you're going back to this game from more recent entries, the combat might take some getting used to, as 3D maneuverability hadn't been entirely implemented at this point. Also be aware that Symphonia is probably the longest game on this list. Despite these caveats, I'd say that it now stands as a classic early 2000s JRPG on par with Final Fantasy X. You don't have to scrounge up a Gamecube to enjoy it either, because Symphonia (along with its sequel, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World) was re-released for the PS3 in 2013, and it's also available on Steam.

Tales of the Abyss: The second game in the running for Best of the Franchise, it's the first of what I'd call the modern Tales games in terms of both art style and gameplay. This is where they implemented the now standard full 3D combat and dropped the chibi character models they'd used in previous 3DCG games. While Symphonia is the biggest in terms of the story twisting and turning, Abyss is probably the tightest as an overall package, featuring the best character writing and theming of the series. Initially released on PS2, the graphics hold up as colorful and attractive. It was ported to 3DS a few years ago, so it's available on modern consoles.

Tales of Vesperia: A solid entry in the franchise and the most recent one that people really seem to love. I'd say that this one strikes the best balance between quality and potential appeal to modern gamers, but it suffers from some unfortunate accessibility issues. Outside of Japan, it was only released on Xbox 360. Unfortunately, the PS3 version (which includes substantial bonus content) was never released outside of Japan. It's the one with the pipe-smoking dog, and yes, you can fight as him.

Tales of Xillia and Xillia 2: The most recent games I'd recommend playing. The gimmick is that there are two “routes” based on which of the two main characters you pick at the beginning. (90% of the games content is still shared, so it barely matters.) The first game's story is a bit of a mess, but the second one improves on that. This is also where they started letting you put visual accessories on characters, so you can have your party all wear matching fedoras. Compared to the previous three games, Xillia 1 is the most bland, but it's not actively bad, unlike the next thing that I have to discuss...

Tales of Zestiria: Not quite a recommendation, but I have to mention this as the Tales game currently in stores and the most likely to have caught new fans' attention through the Tales of Zestiria the X anime. Zestiria is the latest in the series and the first one on modern consoles. Unfortunately, I can't recommend this game to beginners since it's widely considered a disappointment. This game tries out a new art style that doesn't work very well, and it isn't too memorable in terms of story either. The gameplay, while interesting, marks a significant deviation from all other Tales games. A distant prequel, Tales of Berseria, has already been released in Japan, but won't make it to North America until early next year. Sorry, Sorey.

That anime looks great, though! So what are your favorite entries in the Tales franchise, and what would you recommend to beginners? Let us know in the forums!


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