Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Tales of the Abyss
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
Luke fon Fabre has spent the past seven years of his life under house arrest in his family's estate, a direct result of having been kidnapped as a child. He resents his captivity, although he has his fiancée Princess Natalia, his swordmaster Van, and his guard and best friend Guy to keep things interesting. The arrival one day of Fon Master Ion and a mysterious young woman named Tear changes everything – suddenly Luke learns that the world is nothing like he assumed, and he and his friends embark on a quest to try to set things right. Not all of them will make it to the end, however, and betrayal awaits around unexpected corners as Luke searches not only for adventure, but learns to become a better person and maybe even save the world.
Like most stories in the extensive “Tales” series, Tales of the Abyss, a 2008 adaptation of the 2005 game of the same name, is highly ambitious. It seeks to tell a sweeping story of man's inhumanity to man, the way religion can be used to shape society and history, and what it means to be human. That's a lot to cram into even twenty-six episodes, and while it's clear that the series is making a real effort to give every plot element its due, it doesn't quite come together as well as it ought to.
Part of that issue is that it feels like the series doesn't know what to cut out from the game (a few plot points definitely feel like side quests) nor how to weight its thematic elements. Ostensibly the two most important pieces of the story are Luke's issues with reconciling the truth about his existence and accepting who he is and the imminent destruction of the world. While those are given a more time than some of the other pieces, the show could have done without some of the other characters' backstories, which ultimately don't contribute to the plot. Is it interesting to learn who Guy was in the past and how he ended up at the fon Fabre manor? Yes. Is it integral to the whole saving-the-world bit and Luke's acceptance of himself? Not so much. We do need to know what Guy's stake in the larger plot is, but giving over an entire episode to it feels like time that could have been better spent looking into other aspects of the story. Then when we do have a character whose past is important to the overarching plot, such as Ion, the pertinent information is rushed through, as if the series squandered its time on earlier episode content and now needs to hustle to get to the end.
That's a shame, because there really is an interesting story here and it covers some very good themes. Among those pulled through is the idea of free will versus the church, in this case the Yulian religion based on magical artefacts known as “scores,” which record the history and future of the world. Religious leaders want to believe that the scores are absolute, with no room for humans to tamper with anything, while others believe that life should not be lived – or lost – according to what's written on some ancient magic green rock. This forms the basis for the major plot conflict between heroes and villains, and there's a sort of wonderful vagueness as to who believes what about each concept. While at times it can make for muddled viewing comprehension, it also feels oddly grounding, because in reality issues of belief are rarely clear cut.
It also serves as a way to make Luke grow as a character. He begins the show as a naïve little rich boy who gets a very abrupt lesson in violence, which he has a believably difficult time accepting. He moves into being an entitled brat who allows talk of his foreordained heroism go to his head before getting a very harsh dose of reality that sees him feeling almost suicidal. Ultimately he must then progress to not only understanding himself, but liking himself and believing that he has a right to exist, something that contributes to the ultimate Tales of Zestiria-like finale. Interestingly enough, the other characters must also come to accept Luke's humanity (and that that means he isn't going to be perfect), which leads to some very frustrating content in the middle section of the series where it feels like Luke becomes the punching bag for everyone else's (and, admittedly, his own) failure to suss out the bad guy. This is where Guy really proves his worth as a good friend (he certainly gets the best line about it) and Asch, the off-again on-again antagonist, shows his true weakness, and of all the plot threads carried through this ambitious title, that's the one that stands out as the best developed and most impressive.
The story feels largely as if it happens in eight-episode chunks, with episode eight itself kicking off the major quest and allowing the story to get darker and the final eight episodes taking a deep dive into melodrama territory. While this does mostly work, it also seems to allow for some pieces of the story to be lost for entire storylines, such as Tear's ability to sing fonic hymns that do things like put enemies to sleep, which would have eliminated the entire mess with Arietta. The format also stymies some characters' development as well; Tear doesn't feel like much more than the Attractive Mage figure, and Anise struggles to get out of Annoying Loli character territory, although the effort is made. Jade also feels difficult to pin down, but there's a sense that that is a deliberate choice rather than a side effect of the show's approach to storytelling; the same can be said of Emperor Peony.
The art and animation are a bit inconsistent, although generally attractive. Animation is at its best during fight scenes – there are some beautiful rolls executed by Luke – and character designs have a slightly toned-down look from the elaborate style seen in some other “Tales” titles. Luke's abs are probably the most inconsistent piece of the artwork, as they seem to change definition even within a single episode, but color is well used in general, making this no chore to look at. This Funimation release, a complete collection as opposed to the earlier sets put out by Bandai, is sub-only with a very good cast, including Takehito Koyasu and Yukana. Extras are limited to company trailers on the final disc, which is a bit of a letdown.
Tales of the Abyss never quite pulls itself together and suffers from a surfeit of ambition, but it is a decent enough show. Its themes are interesting and Luke does show a lot of development over the course of its twenty-six episodes, and if it makes an occasional pass at absurdity (Ligers! Riding griffons!) it doesn't generally get too carried away. “Tales” fans are likely to at least find it interesting, and if you're looking for a non-isekai fantasy title to spend some time with, this is good enough.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Good opening, interesting themes, good character development for Luke
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