It’s always nice when a publisher takes note of what the fans want. Much to the delight of their audience, Bandai Namco has been steadily releasing games in their flagship Tales RPG series every few years. None have ever quite reached the acclaim of series sweetheart Tales of Symphonia, but neither have any been particularly poorly received. Yet there’s always been one specific request pointed squarely at the publisher: remaster Tales of Vesperia. Released in the west in 2009 exclusively for the Xbox 360, a console with a notably smaller RPG fanbase than rival PS3, fans would clamor for a multiplatform release for almost a decade – and it’s finally here.
Similar to the Final Fantasy series, Tales games are rarely connected, instead, existing in their own solitary narrative universes. With a few exceptions – Symphonia and Xillia both got direct sequels – and the occasional humorous character cameo, every game in the series is independent of the others. Although it can be disappointing to become so invested in one game only for the sequel to feature a completely new cast and story, it does help to keep the series fresh. In much the same way as Final Fantasy games are inevitably compared with Final Fantasy VII, every post-Symphonia entry in the series has big shoes to fill.
As a JRPG, Tales of Vesperia is something of an oddity –, especially for its time. The story is a slow burn, taking a while to fully reveal what’s at stake. There’s no world-ending catastrophe, to begin with. In fact, the initial impetus driving the plot is comparatively humble: protagonist Yuri Lowell sets out to recover a treasure stolen from his neighborhood. The game does, however, contrive to have him bump into and team up with various people of note along the way, of course. There wouldn’t be much of an adventure at all if you weren’t joined by an eclectic band of exceptional, like-minded people.
As both main character and driving force behind the story, Yuri is a high point for the series, and he stands tall amongst RPG protagonists in general. Sarcastic and aloof, but not without compassion and a strong moral compass, he’s both immediately likable and easy to empathize with; loner-type characters aren’t at all uncommon in this genre, but rarer are the ones who so readily put aside their reclusive nature for the sake of their companions.
The rest of the main party are similarly compelling. Yuri is joined early on by Estelle, a secretive but naïve noble, full of compassion and curiosity; Karol, a young boy with a weapon easily larger than himself, who aspires to fame as a monster hunter; and Rita, a belligerent but talented mage with a slight anti-social attitude. That’s only half of the lot – let’s not forget Repede, Yuri’s canine companion who carries around a smoking pipe in his mouth – but I won’t spoil the later additions for you. In a game of many great things, the cast is easily the most enticing aspect of the experience. They’re developed further through skits, a recurring element of the franchise that shows optional little chats between the party. Unlike cutscenes, you can’t skip through the dialogue, which would have been a nice feature and isn’t an issue in later titles.
Although the story does take its time to really find its footing, there’s something to be said about starting off small and keeping the stakes more personal. Yuri cares deeply for his people, and that’s evident in the lengths he goes to in order to retrieve what was taken from them. Likewise, it’s easy to see the weight of his companions’ personal endeavors: Estelle wants to escape her sheltered upbringing and see more of the world, for example. Rather than starting off with the threat of an ancient and deadly menace, like Tales of Zestiria does, Vesperia really takes the time to consider the individual goals of its cast.
Battles feature the series’ trademark, action-packed combat system, eschewing turn-based commands for real-time, combo-focused sparring. Unlike many Tales Of games, which allow you to switch characters whenever you like, you’re stuck playing as Yuri for about the first third of Vesperia’s story. Wielding swords and axes, he’s a competent all-rounder with some serious damage potential in his combos. When you do finally unlock the ability to control other party members, it’s worthwhile trying out each one and find which works best for you, but there’s nothing at all wrong with being stuck with Yuri for a while.
The core of your moveset is standard strikes, called base artes, which you can combo into a stronger arte – arcane artes, which often have a suitably dramatic name like Wolf Strike. To begin with, your repertoire of artes is limited, and you’ll often be using the same over and over again. As artes come with specific voice lines attached, you’ll inevitably hear party members yelling the same handful of phrases over and over (and over) again. After a couple of hours, though, Tales of Vesperia’s combat truly shines, letting you set up brutal combos, with your backup units healing and buffing as necessary.
As is standard for Tales Of games, you gain access to some truly fearsome techniques as the game progresses. These start with the Over Limit function, which allows you to incessantly chain base and arcane artes, and culminates with each character learning their own Mystic Arte technique. These are the ultimate, game-changing finishing moves, and come accompanied by their own impressive cinematics. Although Vesperia’s combat system is simplistic to begin with, it adds layer after layer in quick succession.
Exploration is done via an honest-to-goodness world map. Remember those? Yuri and company can explore a huge overworld full of enemy mobs and places to explore. Not all of is accessible to begin with, but more locations can be reached as you acquire new means of travel. Besides the nostalgic feel – note to RPG developers: bring back traversable world maps – it also looks lovely: the shadows of overhead clouds drift lazily across the land and sea, and the magically powered shields protecting settlements beckon to you with their distant shimmers.
Given its age, Tales of Vesperia can look plain and unimpressed in places. Environments are flat and often lacking in detail, and certain places reuse assets to the point of simply copy-pasting them from one place to another. One early dungeon in particular is made up of the same two rooms used over and over again, with only minimal changes to the décor. On the other hand, characters themselves still look lovely to this day, their cel-shaded designs ensuring that not even a decade passing could spoil their looks. The occasional anime-esque cutscenes, lovingly crafted by animation studio Production I.G., are similarly a joy to watch.
How well does it come together, then? As a game, Tales of Vesperia combines an engrossing story, a charming visual style and a compelling pairing of narrative and characters to create an experience undiminished by age. It’s only in the remastering department that the game falls short. Bandai Namco has had a decade to work on this so-called Definitive Edition, but numerous frustrating issues still remain. At almost every new town you reach, for example, a cutscene will remove everyone from your party, interrupting one of the oldest traditions in RPGs: the first visit to the weapon and armor shop. You’ll be prevented from leaving the area and getting into fights whilst your party is away, so having them all unavailable for a brief two-minute scene serves no purpose.
There’s also the frequent issue of having to advance the story by sleeping at an inn. “Let’s head back to the inn for now,” quickly becomes the party’s catchphrase, and story events won’t continue until you’ve purchased a room for a night. With each subsequent town you visit, inn costs get steadily higher. When you factor in just how costly buying a new set of gear can be – new weapons and armor appear frequently, and regularly deplete my Gald when they do – as well as how slowly you earn money in the early hours, it’s frustratingly prohibitive to force players to pay to advance the story. In the grand scheme of things, it’s hardly a deal-breaker, but it’s the little frustrations that can so easily add a “but” to the end of “I’m really enjoying this.”
Whilst it’s true that more could have been done here than just getting the game to run on current-gen systems, it’s also fair to say that Tales of Vesperia was an excellent game ten years ago. It would have taken serious negligence to change that. From its eloquently written and expertly voiced characters to its personal, evocative story, this is an RPG that has aged about as well as anyone can hope their game would. With its satisfying combat, effortless charm and an immense amount of content, this is a game that could easily keep you coming back for another ten years yet.