Tales Of Graces F
Platform: Playstation 3
Tales Of Graces F was orignally released for the Wii and PS3 in Japan back in 2010. Traditionally, JRPGs are a bit hit and miss with the western gaming market, with the Final Fantasy series and Chrono Trigger being very welcome exceptions. Despite comparitively low EU sales (Call Of Duty and GTA needn't be worried), gamers who do choose to experience the colourful and exciting worlds created by Namco Bandai Games' Tales series tend to be extremely dedicated.
This is not a game you can just dip into - Tales Of Graces F has a fully formed universe, with a detailed storyline that tackles the problems that occur within a family dynamic, the nature of class within a feudal system, and the machiavellian political ruthlessness required to hold on to power in a society where a simple misunderstanding between Lords can result in all out war. If all that sounds a bit heavy, I wouldn't worry too much. This is all wrapped up in cel shaded anime artwork style graphics, and has adopted a lot of the tropes typical of the more cheesy end of the anime spectrum (cue lots of huge smiles, extreme close ups and sound effect speech bubbles).
You start off the game as Asbel, the ten year old son of the Lord of Lhant, a relatively peaceful town just across the water from the capital. One day, whilst exploring the cliffs outside of town with your younger, and more intelligent, brother Hubert, you come across a mysterious girl who's completely lost her memory. It turns out she's quite handy in a fight, so you as Asbel take it upon yourself to be her guardian until you can find out more about her past and identity. Your father, Lord Aston of Lhant, is none too keen on this arrangement as he's all too aware of how irresponsible you can be. One day, a mysterious visitor arrives, complete with entourage, and you are given strict instructions to stay away from the stranger as they happen to be extremely important, and Lord Aston doesn't want to spark a diplomatic incident. Of course, you ignore these instructions and soon become fast friends with the VIP, who happens to be the crown Prince, Richard of Windor. This sets into motion a series of events that will see your brother Hubert adopted by another family, and Asbel's self imposed banishment to train as a Knight. It's not until 8 years later, when Asbel has come to the end of his Knight's apprenticehip, that the game's story really kicks into full swing.
Overall, the game is a great blend between modern and classic JRPG systems. Motoi Sakuraba's score won't win any prizes, but compared to the J-Pop style music that's become the norm in other JRPGs, it's practically a masterpiece. Text is spoken out loud by the characters in cut scenes, alongside comic style speech bubbles, but simple dialogue in game is still exclusively text based. The battle system takes place in a separate battle screen, and can take some getting used to, as it occurs in real time (as opposed to the Final Fantasy series, where players have to wait their turn before choosing a corresponding attack or defence action). This allows the character to execute a number of moves as part of a chain of combos, and grants the ability to switch between targets and characters at will. It feels a lot like they've taken the idea behind Final Fantasy XIII's damp squib of a battle system, and improved upon it to make it more urgent and organic. Admittedly, I spent a lot of the early stages of the game button mashing, but when it finally clicked, it became a lot easier to pull off 15 plus combos.
Navigating the world of Tales Of Graces F is pure classic JRPG. Leaving a town or city takes the player to a gargantuan world map, with a host of different enemies to practice your battle skills against, and every city is ripe for exploration, with lots of NPC interaction, and open houses to explore (and plunder - I'm still not sure why the people who live in these JRPG world's don't have a problem with a complete and utter stranger raiding their kitchen cupboard, or opening the family treasure chest).
If you fancy yourself a bit of a collector, then this game will not disappoint: there are plenty of landmarks dotted around the game that can be added to your discovery book, an item creation system (Dualizing) that allows you to combine two items to create new ones, and an almost overwhelming amount of special moves and skills (Artes) to be learnt using the game's Title system. Basically, each succesful fight awards the player XP that advances their progress towards whichever Title the player has activated (think Fallout's perk system, except a dedicated player can grind until all of their titles are fully maxed out).
So, the ultimate queston: is this game any good? On the one hand, it's a fantastic example of a traditional JRPG done well, but it does have its flaws. The voice acting can be a little grating, and it can at times become a little repetitive - however, that's a criticism that can be levelled at any RPG, Japanese or otherwise. Also, the graphics are pretty basic for a PS3 title, but then that's to be expected from a game that was originally designed for the Wii. However, the characters are fully formed, so you genuinely care about what happens to your party, and there's an incident early on in the game that feels like a bit of a kick to the stomach, but I'll let you find out for yourselves.
Is this game for everyone? No. If you're not a fan of quirky anime, or RPGs in general you should definitely stay clear - there's nothing here that's going to change your mind. But if you, like me, have been following Final Fantasy since its inception, yearn for a decent Chrono Trigger port on the PS3, and have already dipped your toe in Namco Bandai's Tales series via Vesperia, then you should definitely pick this up. It's a great addition to the series, and makes me wish Square Enix would take a long hard look at their current output of FFXIII sequels, and go back to the basics that made their games "must have" for gamers around the world.