Also available on PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, Game Boy Advance, and iOS
I got Tales of Phantasia as a birthday present last week when I turned 25. I had been wanting to explore some more Japanese 8 and 16 bit RPGs since I can use translation patches on my Retron 5, and one of my college buddies came through for me by ordering me a copy of this. I also wanted to play it because my buddy darsparx was also playing it (and had a good bit of a headstart, so I wanted to see if I could beat it before he; I did).
The story is fairly standard for a 16-bit RPG - evil magic guy kills a lot of people, plucky band of ridiculously underaged heroes tries to save world, every kingdom on the planet ends up indebted to them, yay player. The story definitely isn't bad, and there are a few parts that just crush your heart underfoot, but it's not going to do much to surprise you if you're familiar with the standard RPG formula. The characters, however, are extremely likable. Or at least Arche is. She's incredible, especially if you use the DeJap translation patch (it takes a few entertaining liberties with the dialogue translation).
As for the gameplay, it plays like a bit of a blend of JRPG and ARPG styles. It's got the inventory management, part setup, and overworld system and random encounters of your standard JRPG, but the actual combat takes place in real time on a 2D plane. You can pull up a menu that pauses time to use items or have your party members use a magic spell, but they mostly act on their own depending on which of four "tactics" options you picked. They're also not exceptionally bright; they have a tendency to use spells repeatedly that end up healing certain enemies, so you've got to keep on top of your AI management. The combat is where the game started to lose me. I love JRPGs. I like ARPGs. I'd prefer my RPGs pick one of the two. I know a lot of people really like that hybrid style, but I'm not a big fan of it.
My other big gripe with the game is the encounter rate. Jesus Christ on a bicycle, it's like every four steps, there's an enemy. I know that's fairly standard for older JRPGs, but still, it got really old really fast. The one bright side to that is that you (almost) never need to grind for money for exp because you spend so much time massacreing owls and stepping on fairies. By no means does the enconter rate break the game, but it gets REALLY irritating when you're trying to figure out how to get through a dungeon, and throughout most of the game, it says "irritating." It doesn't make thing "hard" until the last couple dungeons when enemies and environmental hazards really start doing a number on you.
One thing that I absolutely have to point out is the audio design. The soundtrack is really stellar, and it reminded me all over again of why I usually prefer the Super Nintendo sound chip over that in the Sega Genesis - the music is just so smooth and well done. I know that's partly because Namco really has its shit together, but I can't help but think that it just wouldn't sound as smooth on Genesis. But as great as the music is, that's not the most impressive part of the sound design. The most impressive part is the voice acting. Yes, voice acting in a 16-bit cartridge game. It's not like fully acted cut scenes, but each spell has recorded dialogue that plays when its used, and there's some EXTREMELY impressive dialogue in the game's opening. I know it's not unheard of - there's a little bit of that in a couple of my Sailor Moon games - but the extent to which it's used in Tales of Phantasia and the quality of the voice recording really impressed me. It may not be a "technical marvel," but it's certainly very impressive. Another thing that impressed me was how smooth and detailed the paralax scrolling is. I know paralax scrolling is common on the Super Nintendo, but the smooth fluidity and detail of the backgrounds really impressed me. Other flaws aside, the game is extremely please to hear and see.
I have my own gripes with some stylistic choices for the game, but I can't hold subjective preferences against it. Tales of Phantasia is an extremely well made and good looking RPG, and it's a shame that it took more than a decade for it reach American shores. I can't attest to the quality of the remakes since I played the Super Famicom original, but I was extremely impressed with the qualty Namco coaxed out of the hardware, and I thoroughly enjoyed most of my time playing it. I wouldn't recommend it for casual RPG players, but for serious fans of the genre and of the Super Nintendo in particular, this needs to go on your game queue.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.