I have been waiting desperately for this game for a very long time, so I had high hopes. Tales of Vesperia was, all told, the best JRPG I'd played on a current gen console, which made me eager enough for Graces to import it for the US on the release date. I enjoyed it enough to re-purchase the Day-1 special edition now available for pre-order on Amazon UK.
PLOT -- not a lot you can say spoiler-free, but plotwise, Graces is sound for a JRPG but weaker than some of the other Tales games. You play as Asbel, a pretty typical JRPG hero: emotional klutz with a good heart and a drive to protect those he loves. The game launches into the childhood arc -- maybe 10% of the whole game, plot elements of which lay the groundwork for the main story arc. Congrats to Namco; the childhood arc is nowhere near as irritating as comparable 'childhood' sections in other games. The kids are believable as kids without being bratty. It's fully playable, too; no overly long cut scenes, and there are a few genre-trope-flipping twists. There are also a lot of genere tropes to *provide* those twists, but if you cared about that you wouldn't be playing a Tales game in the first place ;)
After the end of the childhood arc the real story begins. Without a walkthrough of any kind, and completing all the easily-found side-quests, there's a solid 40-50 hours of gameplay here. The pace is fast enough that you won't get bored. There are knights, rebels, cross-nation war and politics, kings, demons, etc.. There are actual motives for the baddies. Everyone has back-story, and more of it hidden in the sidequests you'll access later on. Of course you save the world, but in a rounadabout sort of a way, and more importatntly, first and foremost you'll fight to save your friends. And, despite the variable voice-acting and comedy mid-line pauses where the dub has gone horribly wrong, you will genuinely care about those friends.
Lastly, the 'future' arc (the origin of the 'f' in the title) is an extra 20-hour quest that picks up after the main game ends. It's a nice surprise if you forget about it, or aren't sure when one arc ends and another starts. It's just more of the same, really, and rather weaker in the plot stakes, but it takes the gameplay time up to easily 70 hours for a first playthrough, and a lot more if you play to a higher level of completion and challenge the bonus dungeon. There's a whole romantic dimension to the skits here (more on those later) which is, frankly, hilarious at times. It's like they bunged a whole game's worth of love-interest-related skits into the last few hours of the game, and it centres around mercilessly tearing shreds off the two (three) oblivious characters in its midst. It was a surprise, considering the platonic nature of almost all the other realtionships in the main game, and it makes the characters involved more sympathetic and believable, even if it's all a bit sudden.
The plot's sound, all in all. Even once the story degenerates into save-the-world calamities, there are elements of friendship and betrayal that go deeper than most games touch. The angst and dillemma of Sophie, particularly, comes through as more than just plot device (Final Fantasy XIII, I'm looking at you). Some bits could've been better. Others feel rushed, or skimmed over. But it's not bad.
CHARACTERS -- characterisation is both stronger and weaker than Vesperia here. V's Yuki was crowd-pleasing for containing a strong component of the kind of amorality usually reserved for Tales villans. There's none of that here. Asbel's good. Sometimes irritatingly good. But that's fair enough. Sophie's interesting as a mystery early on, interesting later on as she develops, and hilarious in some of the skits when her innocence in all things leads to amusing misunderstandings. She gains yet more depth in the future arc -- and while being, in many ways, the very epitome of a cliched character type, the writing handles these things gently and sympathetically, makes her in many ways the most likeable character of them all.
Hubert's not terribly original, nor Malik, but they have enough backstory to make them interesting. You understand why they act how they do. Pascal is the same, but obviously intended to be the comic relief. A lot of the time this felt weak to me, in many ways because her 'kooky' way of speaking just seemed awkward and contrived. You know how sometimes insecure teenagers act deliberately weird *just to be called weird*? It's that kind of cringe-worthy, her made-up words, and on such a confident character it doesn't really ring true. But otherwise she's sound enough. Hubert's voice acting is stuck-up and stilted, but it fits the character, and Malik's post-battle and skit scenes with Sophie are honestly funny, sometimes. They're all okay. BUT. Cheria.
I have nothing good to say about Cheria. What is she FOR? Nobody will ever know. You could remove her from the plot entirely and there would be very few resulting plotholes. And those plotholes would be cuter, wittier and move diverting than she ever is. I'll stop, now, before I can't.
Richard, though, is great. He's the kind of damaged that you'd honestly expect a prince to be. He's a very plausible character, at least until halfway through the main arc wen the save-the-world storyline takes over. At that point his character development sort of stops, and that's a real shame. But he's honest, and plausible, and on a par with Sophie for likeable believability.
SKITS -- this shouldn't be a category to itself, but the skits have really improved in this game. The Tales series is famous for its skits -- short, optional conversations between party members, ranging from game-hints to pure humorous fluff. There are hundreds in Graces, plus many more in the future arc. Seeking them out adds hours to the game and the character-interactions immerse you deeper in the plot and flesh the characters out in ways that other RPGs cannot compete with. Small face-only anime images in Vesperia have been replaced by whole-body portraits, which allow for changes of pose as well as expression. The characters jostle, push and chase each other as they talk. It's like a lot of semi-animated tiny cutscenes that a player can watch or ignore depending on their mood, and in Graces, they're better than ever.
GRAPHICS/CUTSCENES -- there are surprisingly few anime cutscenes in the game, and the in-game graphics aren't stunning. Vesperia didn't really utilise the Xbox's capabilities, and Graces is the same with the PS3, at least as far as character models are concerned. I don't know if this is a result of the original Wii game being upscaled or a stylistic decision, but the 3D character models look kind of dated. The environments, however, are pretty stunning. It's a nice-looking game overall, because of this. There are several costume-changes for each character available towards the end of the game (some available out-the-box if you pre-order now and get the extremely good value Day 1 Special Edition). So far i've found nothing to stop me having to look at Cheria face, but there are Vesperia costumes and a nice one for Pascal, swimsuits for the perverts among you and a side-quest related special one for each character. You wouldn't think this optional extra would add much to the game overall, but it freshens it up after 70 hours of looking at the same character models.
SIDEQUESTS -- hours and hours and hours. There are a lot of optional basic fetch-quests accessible from inns, and you can use these to gain levels, skills and titles very quickly simply by turning in the drop-items you'll pick up in the course of the game. This pretty much eliminates the need for grinding, at least on the easier difficulties. The synthesis system is (mostly) improved from Vesperia, and greatly expanded. Weapons can be customised to a much greater level through the use of enemy drops, and a player can make use of this as much or as little as they like. There are a few other, deeper sidequests, and most of these are rewarded by extra plot details and titles that let you learn rarer skills or titles.
BATTLE SYSTEM -- the battle system in Graces is the best so far. For the first time in a Tales game there is true 3D freedom of movement, while the parry/guard system has been improved greatly. Moves consume CC (both physical and magical attacks) which recovers quickly when you guard, parry, dodge, carry out combos or otherwise battle like a winner :) As you move around the field, the game will also offer up random little challenges (defeat an enemy with a three-hit combo! Finish the battle in under 30 seconds! etc.). Completing these nets you extra experience and gald, and keeps the combat exciting even on long slogs through dungeons. Battling in Graces is truly a joy, and the option to change the game's difficulty *at any point* means that you can just turn up the enemy's power when back-tracking through earlier areas. The fighting never gets old, even past the 90-hour mark. You can play the whole game without figuring out how to run away, because you just won't get sick of the battles.
OVERALL -- Graces is a great game. It can't really stand up to Vesperia in some respects, but it's very polished in its battles and menu systems, the story's core message is sweet and well-intentioned, and the characters all have high points and well-thought-out stories. The sheer amount of effort that has gone into the game wows you at every turn, and it is nothing if not engrossing. This game is the best value-for-money you'll play this year, by several miles. It's a JRPG of the best kind -- it does almost everything right, and when it lets itself down, you'll forgive it for all the nice little extras buoying it up in every other department. And, of course, it'll be a small first run, as Tales games always are. Read more ›