Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tales Of Vesperia

The Tales series, is an anarchistic one. Existing in some parallel universe where the J-RPG didn’t just survive but thrived and evolved. Thoroughly traditional and yet never stale. Its more or less exactly what I want from a video game. It does sadden me, a little, that I get it so seldom outside of this series. In a major ways Video Games have left me behind. It's not something I’m bitter about, I’m not a fanboy sulking “That things were better back in my day.” I’ve played Eternal Sonata, I know how bad RPGs can get when they insist on trotting out the same old shit. The fact is I could have kept up if I wanted to. Which seems to beg a larger question.

It’s not that I don’t like videogames anymore, its just that with the responsibilities of the real world my freetime is limited. So if I have it I’m much more likely to use it to write, watch a movie, or read a book, or gasp go outside, then I am to invest it in something that I know is going to take up forty hours of my time at a minimum. That’s just fact. Tales Of Vesperia took up an astounding (to me) sixty hours of my time and I didn’t even touch the sidequests folks, that’s just the game. When I hear about the scope of something like Fallout 3 or Dragon Age Origins, games where it is literally impossible to see and do everything in them, I feel something close to what I can only term “The screaming meemies”. The days where I could just blithely sign over a weekend to fucking around with some RPG are gone. This isn’t some value judgment about Videogames as art, though I think that issue is more complicated then either side of the argument is willing to concede. It's just where I am right now.

And that’s what makes the Tales games so ideal for the casual gamer. The series plays like it was designed with me in mind. Carefully preserving the tropes I love without simply going through the paces. Basing itself around a battle system that’s intuitive enough to pick up and play, and more importantly remember after a weeklong gap of play time, but rewards both strategy and improvisation. Anime style graphics both detailed yet easy on the eyes. And a story line and characters that if clichéd are at least very well done.

If anything the story is just a touch too ambitious, going for George R. Martin and landing somewhere around Robert Jordan instead. I can’t blame the guys for trying, neigh I applaude it. Its just that there are so many factions and races and ancient technologies, that it becomes frankly tough to remember, or really care just who is manipulating who to what end and why. The game often hinges its plot around characters you met once thirty hours ago who are then revealed to be of great import. It was not at all uncommon for my characters to gasp in shock at some revelation and leave me just wondering “Who?”

Still the way the game tweaks its expectations ever so slightly make things infinitely more rewarding. The traditional J-RPGs are built upon a series of standard tropes; to put it politely. Burning villages, bickering comic relief sidekicks, nihilistic bad guys, evil empires, a surprising amount of sexlessness despite the oft exaggerated female leads (If I had a nickel for every passionate hard fought romance that culminated in a hug I’ve played through I would be a man with a lot of nickels). Vesperia sticks to some of these tropes like holy writ and completely throws away others. And look as rote as this can get, I have an enormous amount of affection for this kind of storytelling. (I’m actually about a quarter of the way through a novel I’ve been playing with that is more or less a direct response to this kind of genre.)

If I can take it a step further, in many ways I feel like Videogames, as philistine as this might sound are the perfect medium for Fantasy. It has the runtime that film doesn’t, allowing you forty hours, at least to invest yourself in the characters and world. And yet delivers information much more efficiently then a book does. Even a work as lively and light on its feet as Brad Sanderson’s Mistwalker can’t help but bog itself down in page after page of descriptive prose to make its world come to life and its rules make sense. In a game you pick up the rules on the fly and the details are for the taking. When you walk in an RPG city from say the poorer theater district to the noble section. You don’t need to be told about the changes in architecture and temperment, and crowdedness and how the buildings get older. You see it. Absorb it unconsciencely, unlike the very conscience way such material is delivered and paradoxically must be delivered for the novel to work.

Still the Tales series always has a skill of paying these standard tropes off, while never quite doing it as your used to, that is nearly Tarantinoesque (in narrative if not artistic terms).

Its just the little details, The Empire in the game isn’t some maniacal evil kingdom that wants to conquer the world, but an organization that has allowed some dark things to fester in its bureaucracy. The person who ends up being the main bad guy isn’t the ten billionth Kefka/Sephiroth rip off you’ve seen but has excellent reasons for doing what he does. The hero is neither a Pollyanna nor a sullen pretty boy, but instead goes so far as to straight up murder a couple of bad guys at a few points, instead of allowing them to live and fighting them at regular intervals in time honored JRPG tradition. AND THE GAME DOESN’T EVEN CONDEM HIM FOR IT.

The games other characters similiarly fit the clichés of the genre pretty much beat by beat and yet have genuine life to them. You have the optimistic ingénue, spunky tomboy, shameless moppet, lazy “old” 28 year old man, etc. etc. But they’re a well written an likable bunch and a pleasure to spend sixty hours with rather then a chore. And its supporting cast is rewardingly weird. I have a particular affection for Yeager, a minor villain who talks like Klaus Nomi, is as crazy as Klaus Kinski, has David Bowie's fashion sense, and kicks ass like Rowdy Roddy Piper. He is thirty one flavors of awesome.

(I Love This Fucking Guy)

Part of the adtvantage of not playing games as regularly anymore means I get to be blown away by things others take for granted. There’s nothing quite like fighting your way from one end of a sewer to another, for about fifteen minutes, then casually look into the background and realize you can see the ladder you climbed down to enter the place, and know if you so desired you could walk back there without so much as a single load time. That’s fucking nuts.

The game does move its battle system from two to 3D. Mostly the change is cosmetic aside from the one on one fighting which becomes much harder for some reason. Still it happens rarely and isn’t a major issue.

The other change the entry makes is jettisoning the epilogue that the last few entry’s have supplied. The Tales series has of late allowed you to explore the world after completing the main game, tying up loose ends at your leisure and embarking on a minor quest or two. Is actually an addition to the traditional RPG that I think really adds to it. Acting as a kind of methadone when you’re not quite ready to leave the world yet. And I was sorry to see it not employed here.

Tales Of Vespiria may not reinvent the wheel but it does give the wheel a thick coat of new polish, and invites you to push the wheel around a bit and remember how awesome it was. It brought back wistful memories of wasted Saturday afternoons, but survived on more then nostalgia (Nostaligia can’t sustain sixty hours. At least not from me.) Simply put it was a lot of fun. And hey isn’t that what games are supposed to be?

1 comment:

Charon said...

Um. You'll probably have forgotten this by now, but Vesperia is really awesome! (Okay I'm admittedly a fangirl but heh.) It gets better after a couple of playthroughs, but I understand if you're unwilling to throw another 150 hours of your life into an RPG (like I did)