Review: Ors ors ors! That's how otters roll.
With roots reaching as far as the SNES, it was only a matter of time before the PS2 would be graced with a localized version of a Tales game. Although four Tales titles had been made for the system, Tales of Legendia would be the first overseas. It's also the first of the main series not to be developed by the usual Wolfteam. Does this mean Tales of Legendia is a grand departure from the series? I'll just answer this from the get-go: absolutely not.
Senel Coolidge and his sister Shirley are being pursued and have taken flight into the ocean, a bad thing due to Shirley being allergic to ocean air and water. Their boat tossed around at the mercy of fate, they eventually find themselves shipwrecked upon the Legacy, an ancient vessel that's designed to emulate land, complete with flora and fauna. Already populated by people of varying nationalities, the Legacy holds immense power for those who can unlock its secrets. Armies bent on abusing the Legacy have arrived and are also hunting down the Ferines, people of the sea, since special ones known as Merines' are the key to the Legacy's power. Shirley just so happens to be a Merines and before Senel can get his bearings she's whisked away by bandits.
By that description, it's your standard RPG plot. Which it is. Racial tensions, betrayals, superweapons; it's all here. While not terrible by any means, there aren't many surprises. Fortunately, the characters make it all more enjoyable. Although the antagonists are lacking in substance, watching your party grow more amiable with each other is a pleasure. Senel is a jerk to anyone aside from Shirley. Chloe Valens is a righteous knight-in-training with an old vendetta to settle. Will Raynard is the strict guardian of Werites Beacon who has a fascination with natural history. Norma Beatty is a happy-go-lucky treasure hunter with a habit for branding others with nicknames. There's more, but finding out your party is half the fun, isn't it? In the beginning, there's plenty of distrust and dislike but the more they work together, the closer they get. The supporting characters aren't all that bad either, like the Bantam Bouncers who actually have a sing-and-dance number or the all-too-cute otters. It's the light-hearted moments that make Tales of Legendia more endearing.
This may not seem that important, but it really does matter in the long run, especially when there's quite a bit of dialogue. Most of it's fully voiced. Again, another point often taken for granted. Voice-acting doesn't matter as long as it's decent, right? Not when you have to listen to them for up to 40 hours. Does Tales of Legendia suffer the bane of bad sound? No. It's downright fantastic, with recognizable people like Cam Clarke (Metal Gear Solid's Liquid Snake) and Tara Strong (Final Fantasy X's Rikku) in tow. Script-wise, it's nothing special but great voice talent raises it up a notch. The musical accompaniment by Go Shiina is suitably epic and J-pop artists Do As Infinity provided the opening song. Although it's only present in the Japanese version, the melody was incorporated into parts of the soundtrack.
There should also be mention of the pacing throughout the game. The ?character-quests', where you learn more about the individual characters in your party and their reasons for being on the Legacy, are done a year after the main storyline. In a way, this makes sense; what with the urgency of the situation?there isn't exactly time to explore personal problems. In fact, the character-quests all build together to create another story arc. It's interesting to see the group's dynamics mature from start to finish, while also adding extra hours of playing time. Sadly, there's the notable absence of voice acting in this part. I've seen this in a few other games, making me wonder if this trend of ?continuing' afterwards will become popular.
And here we reach the deciding factor of whether or not this is a Tales game: the battle system. Completely played in real-time, it almost resembles a 2-D side-scrolling fighting game. That's right; the Linear Motion Battle System is still here?and unchanged. You control a single member of an active party of four, while the others are in the hands of the AI. You can set your allies' style of combat to suit yours, such as keeping them from the frontlines or limiting their use of eres, eres being the name for magic in Tales of Legendia. Action is fast-paced, as it should be, since defeating enemies quickly and efficiently gives you bonuses to your score.
Your allies' AI is tolerable, sometimes helping you whittle away at enemies, maintaining health, or keeping a combo going. Ultimately you're the deciding factor in battles, often won by simply mashing the attack button, mixing it up with special attacks and guarding. There's nothing complicated, but it can be very easy to let yourself be killed in the midst of battle. There's always a delay in spell-casting and your healers often wait until your health lowers past a certain point, which may be too late. Later enemies also have the tendency to do massive damage in a single hit, making the level grind necessary. Yes, the battles are random and plentiful, making dungeons and the overworld a chore. The frequency isn't to the point of Megami Tensei quantity but it's still an annoyance. Thanks to this, level grinding is done almost accidentally.
The now-orthodox battle system is somewhat dragged down by the repetitive dungeon design. Everything is bright and colourful but the graphics themselves are rather bland. Prepare to dive into caves and more caves with little difference. It's actually not that bad until you're forced to backtrack through already cleared dungeons, which you will have to do on several occasions. In the second story arc you'll even have to revisit all those previous dungeons. The overworld map also isn't quite clear, making pathfinding difficult. You could head towards your destination only to realize too late there's a mountain blocking your way. Thankfully there are warp-points throughout important areas, so you only have to trek there once before taking the shortcut, as long as you remember to activate it. Consider this fair warning if you don't like running around, encountering monsters on a constant basis.
The character models are all rather odd. They're small and not quite detailed but perhaps that's merely the graphically style Team MelFes was going for. They have few actions and aren't too emotive out of battle, but conversely, in battle they're fluid and responsive. Close-up like that, they don't seem all that bad. Of course, you're going to be looking at them a lot more through the simple cutscenes, all in the in-game engine. These cutscenes are usually accompanied by large character portraits of the speaking characters, designed by Nakazawa Kazuto of Samurai Champloo fame. It's a shame they seem underused, since his artwork is marvellously stylish. Also scattered throughout Tales of Legendia are animated cutscenes at major plot points. They're a joy to watch but are extremely short and sparse.