Review: Tales of the Abyss (3DS)

Abyssmal?

In the nine months or so that it’s been on sale, the 3DS has had a number of obstacles thrust upon it, but one major problem for early adopters to lament has surely been the distinct lack of quality software available, with only a handful of truly great games seeing release. Of course, in the last few weeks that’s picked up somewhat, with Nintendo treating us to a bevy of brilliant new games. However, the 3DS has also found itself home to just as many — if not more — remakes of older titles, as publishers seek to capitalise on the stereoscopic 3D as an easy way to enhance games from years ago

Tales of the Abyss is a port of the PlayStation 2 game of the same name, a Japanese RPG that strictly adheres to many conventions of the genre, while straying away from others in a few key areas. One tradition that Tales of the Abyss adopts with gusto is that of an epic storyline that finds unlikely heroes banding together to save a world in peril.

Luke Fon Fabre is the 17-year old son of Duke Fabre of the kingdom of Kimlasca who lives the life of a privileged aristocrat. Unfortunately his kidnapping seven years ago left him with no childhood memories, and his subsequent confinement within the Fabre mansion has left him with very little understanding or knowledge of the outside world. One day, during a swordfighting training session with his master — Van Grants — a young girl named Tear appears from nowhere and sets off an unfortunate chain of events that lead to Luke and Tear finding themselves lost and alone far away in the kingdom of Malkuth. Before long, Luke and Tear become entangled within a plot that sees Kimlasca and Malkuth go to war with each other, and are joined by various other denizens from both kingdoms as they set out to prevent that war from ever coming to pass.

So it’s all very typical JRPG fare then, truth be told, with the story occasionally serving up some genuinely tense or emotional scenes. Its biggest accomplishment in terms of storytelling is undoubtedly the off-the-wall Japanese humour that permeates the personality of almost every character, beautifully breaking the ice whenever things get overly serious. Luke’s initial social inadequacies, Guy’s irrational phobia of women, Tear’s secret love of all things cute and the relationship between Luke and Mieu — a little blue animal called a Cheagle, who finds himself the constant victim of Luke’s verbal and physical abuse — never fail to raise a smile. The decent English voice acting — well, it’s no worse than the English dub of any anime you’ve ever watched, anyway — helps prevent the story from becoming stale over the many hours you’ll spend with the game, although it would be remiss of us not to mention Mieu’s irritating high-pitched squeaks. Every JRPG has a character with Mieu’s traits, and Tales of the Abyss is no different.

Of course, the real bread and butter of any JRPG lies within its battle system, and Tales of the Abyss — like other instalments of the Tales series — ditches turn based fights in favour of real-time battling. This battle system is deceptively simple to begin with, but gradually becomes more complex the further you are along on your journey. Whenever you encounter enemies (be they human or monster), the game switches to a battle area in which you’re able to move either left or right. Should you need to gain a more strategic position, holding down the left shoulder button allows you to move around freely. The fundamentals behind fighting against opponents are relatively simple: the A button attacks, Y blocks and X opens up a menu, from which you’re able to access your inventory: handy should you, for example, ever require the use of healing items in a pinch. Combining either attacking or blocking with a push of the Circle Pad will yield different results, allowing you to string combos of moves together while dodging your enemies’ attacks, and new techniques are unlocked as your characters gain experience and subsequently level up.

Another set of skills — unique to each member of your party — that you learn as you progress come in the form of Artes. These are essentially special moves that can deal out massive amounts of damage to your enemies, provide beneficial stat boosts or heal your friends' wounds. Sussing out enemy movement and attack patterns and chaining your Artes together with your basic attacks and evasive techniques is the key to success in Tales of the Abyss’ battles. Further options become available during battles by way of the Field of Fonons system, which involves rings of varying colours appearing on the ground, powered by any and all Artes that have one of six elements corresponding to them. When these rings appear, you’re able to perform regular attacks within them, which will be transformed into a substantially more powerful super-attack.

While it’s a complex and oft-bewildering system — especially if you’re a newcomer to the series or the genre in general — should players take the time to wrap their heads around the ins and outs of its intricate battles, they will find that Tales of the Abyss’ precise controls make using all the techniques at their disposal as hassle-free as possible, with the more hands-on approach also allowing more scope for strategic planning, making that final killing blow to the particularly challenging foes all the more satisfying.

And you’ll vanquish many foes, as Tales of the Abyss — like any good JRPG — certainly offers up an adventure of substantial length. Players who stray from the main quest to explore the numerous towns, cities, forests and other locations that litter the game’s enormous world map will unearth all manner of special items and side-quests. Make no mistake, if you pick up Tales of the Abyss, be prepared to lose well over 60 hours before you finally reach its conclusion.

It’s a lovely looking game as well, with every location gorgeously rendered and exuding its own unique vibe. The various special moves you'll perform during battles boast flashy effects that really make you feel like you’re unleashing Hell on your opponents, while character models are animated fluidly, even if they move somewhat more stiffly outside of the battles. Everything is accompanied by a wonderful musical score that sets the mood of every scene or location brilliantly: you’ll be aware you’re walking into a quaint village before you even begin exploring, while the music that plays out during battles is suitably fast and heart-pounding.

There are setbacks, however, even if they’re never so detrimental to the playing experience as to be truly game breaking. First of all, throughout the game you’ll be prompted to press Start and sit through a “skit”, which sees all present characters exchanging words and filling the player in on what’s going on in even more depth, often by revealing background information or suchlike. Unfortunately, while most of the game’s script is delivered by way of full voice acting, these skits are presented in text form only, accompanied by barely animated images of everyone present. Thus, should you be interested enough in the plot to be hungry for more insight into what makes these characters tick, you’ll have to sit through this text. This wouldn’t be so bad were you able to scroll or skip through it at your own leisure, but you can’t, so — depending on your reading speed — you’ll either be tapping your fingers waiting for the next block of text to appear or sit there frustrated as they whizz by before you’ve had the chance to properly read them and absorb the information.

Additional headaches arise from that classic trope of JRPGs: save points. You can’t simply save wherever you feel like in Tales of the Abyss, instead needing to seek out specific points at which to record your progress. This might not sound like a major sticking point, and indeed it wouldn’t be on a home console, but on a handheld this seems counter-intuitive. Granted, you could always close the 3DS should you need to stop playing for whatever reason, but given the 3DS’ abysmal battery life, you could very well find yourself up a certain creek without a paddle should that red light begin to flash.

To top it all off, the 3D effects — something that should in theory enhance the visuals and provide a welcome sense of depth handy for positioning yourself more precisely and strategically during battles — are awful in Tales of the Abyss. Characters become blurry, the visuals lose their crispness and vibrancy and the text balloons that accompany the voice acting pop out so far in front of everything else on screen that they distract from what’s actually happening. You’re far better off ignoring stereoscopic 3D here and enjoying Tales of the Abyss’ otherwise stunning visuals.

Conclusion

The 3DS doesn’t yet offer much choice for those who favour lengthy adventures over quick-fix pick-up-and-play games. However, if you are such a person, Tales of the Abyss should quench your thirst. It might not make the best use of the 3DS’ unique visual capabilities and certain omissions might be cause for minor grumbling, but this is still a shining example of a great JRPG and one that any fans of the genre would be foolish to pass up on.