It's been a rough few years for JRPGs. As the genre is left behind by the technical and storytelling advancements made in western RPGs, the once proud JRPG has gotten a bit stuck in it's ways, with only the occasional flash of innovation (eg Xenoblade Chronicles, Demons Souls) brightening up what is mostly a genre that has stayed fairly static for the past two generations of consoles. However, saying that... it does happen that we occasionally get a title that is unashamedly JRPG in nature and does everything juuuust right to remind us why we enjoyed such games in the first place. Tales of Graces f is one such game.
The plot here doesn't even try to bring anything new to the table as events kick off with you in control of a group of kids: Brothers Asbel and Hubert and their sickly female pal Cheria, as they stumble across amnesiac girl Sophie and begin to help her investigate her missing memories, a task which inadvertently draws in a young prince called Richard, who becomes friends with the group. So you lead the gang into various scrapes and adventures as you might expect... For the first few hours at least... because tragedy strikes and the kids are all seperated from each other, with Asbel consumed with guilt over his inability to save the life of a friend, leading to him leaving his hometown to join Knight school. So, events jump ahead seven years to put you in control of an adult Asbel, who is now a lot more responsible and skilled (And also the spitting image of the character Suzaku from anime series Code Geass), but has had no contact with his family or friends since leaving home. Imagine then how awkward it is for him when right as he finishes his training to become a knight, old friend Cheria turns up with some bad news for him that will see him forced to return home to confront his past, prevent a war, and also unravel the mystery behind the emergence of savage monsters across the land and how it connects to the tragic events of the start of the game. There's little here that's new ground for the genre, but at the same time it's never anything less than entertaining thanks to some well judged pacing, mostly unintrusive and not overlong cutscenes and (Most importantly) a cast of characters who possess genuine charm and likeability(Mostly). It does have some of the usual juvenile humour and sugary sentimentality you get all the time in Japanese RPGs of course, but at the same time I found the plot could be surprisingly dark and downbeat for a Tales game in places, and the character development is of an extremely high quality throughout, with the sense of relationship between all of the main controllable characters always being clearly defined so you always know what one character in the group thinks of another, thanks in large part to the well written 'skits', which for the first time I've seen are now fully voiced and are actually funny. This may not sound like such a big deal, but when I was playing this attention to detail on the characters' personalities helped tremendously with my emotional investment in the story, which is something I've never really felt all that strongly in Tales games past. The plot is by-the-numbers, sure, but it's still entertaining enough despite that and the game itself also appears to be a lot longer than past Tales games, taking me around a dozen or so hours more to get through than previous current gen Tales title, Tales of Vesperia... and that's before you even factor in the additional 15-odd hour add on epilogue story you can unlock by completing the game. A fun story with a hell of a lot of it? It certainly hit the JRPG sweet spot for me... even if the unbearable "niceness" of Asbel occasionally made me want to punch the TV at times. Word of advice? If you're going to play a drinking game while playing Tales of Graces f, don't make the rule 'Take a drink every time Asbel says 'protect'. You'll be dead from alcohol poisoning in no time if you do.
Gameplay is much like other Tales games have been in recent years, with a fixed camera, set pathway structure that gives the game's field exploration more than a passing resemblence to Final Fantasy X, especially in how it makes you actually travel between areas the 'proper' way (On foot, by boat/aircraft or handiest of all: by giant turtle) with no shortcuts for most of the game (A more traditional 'world map' is opened up to you much later in the game to make things a bit more instant). This can be slow going, yes, but it works well enough and no random battles is always a plus. The game offers a pretty enormous amount of stuff to do, with a multitude of side quests, hidden challenges and bonuses to uncover. Obviously most of these are of the fetch quest variety as you'd expect, but there are a LOT of them to do, with every town/city in the game offering it's own unique job board which is constantly updated with new quests and jobs throughout the game, all of which usually provide rewards that are actually useful. In addition there are a lot of unique sidequests with their own sub stories, including a very nice 'tournament arena' that sees you having to tackle survival rounds against waves of enemies with one character. Which brings me to the battles themselves, which are nothing short of spectacularly well put together. On the surface it may appear like the usual Tales "hack and slash" battle system, but several tweaks and updates have been made that add a whole new level of strategy to the proceedings, with the most notable change being the introduction of the "CC gauge", which essentially functions like an 'action points' system, where during combat everything is controlled completely in real time, no turn based nonsense or any of that, but every attack you use costs 'CC' (Which stands for Chain Combo if you care), with basic physical attacks costing 1 CC a hit, with tons of combos available and unlockable as the game goes, and special attacks (Artes), cost anything from 2 to 10 CC depending on the move. The CC gauge immediately begins recharging once you stop attacking, so as you can expect, this means you often need to plan attacks carefully, especially considering there are often elemental factors in play that force you to adapt your strategies, such as monsters with protective 'Nova' barriers that can only be destroyed with anti-Nova Artes, which are rarely learned attacks. There is also a rather neat feature that sees a two stage gauge on the left of the screen during battle fill up as a result of actions taken by you or your enemies, with one part of it filling with the player's meter and the other part with the enemy's meter. When your gauge fills your characters enter a kind of 'super mode' state, where they temporarily have infinite CC, can't be staggered by enemy attacks and gain access to 'Super Artes' techniques... all of which obviously gives a significant advantage in battle, however... the enemy gauges fills up? The enemies get the same advantages over you, and the best part? The gauges full levels carry over between fights, meaning choosing how full a super gauge you enter a tough battle with(For either you OR the enemy) can determine the outcome very early on. It's a great combat system and makes what could easily have felt like tedious grindfest dungeons quite engrossing to dominate. Additionally, I personally appreciated the quick pace of the battles and how fast they initiate and end. It becomes common place in later stages of the game to touch an enemy to fight them on the field and have the battle begin and end with you back to roaming the field all in the space of less than ten seconds. It's nice and quick, just how I like it.
On a graphical level, Tales of Graces f is a fairly sub-par release. For those unaware, this game started life as a Wii title, but there were apparently "issues" with the Wii version when it was released in Japan(Not least of which was apparently lower than expected sales), so the developers fixed any problems, added a bunch of content and upscaled the game for release on PS3 instead. As a result the visuals, while still well designed, well animated and smooth running, have the unmistakeable look of an upscaled title (ala Dead Space Extraction for example) and look rather dull and lifeless compared to the colourful sharpness of Tales of Vesperia. After a while you'll probably not be bothered by the last gen appearance of much of the game, but it took me a while to get past I can tell you. Soundwise things are thankfully a much brighter story. While there is no Japanese language option, the english voice acting is actually of a fairly high quality so this isn't as much of an issue as it could have been. The voices all fit each character perfectly, even if some of them play things a bit overdramatically. The soundtrack is equally quite nice to listen to... even if I could probably do without hearing that sickening pop song during the intro animated sequence again... ever!
All in all this is a superb JRPG that will do little to turn you onto the genre, but if you like these types of games then this is about as good as it gets. It's fun, it's fast paced, the characters are charming, the story is enjoyable (If a bit 'familiar'), the fast paced combat system is engrossing and the game has an epic amount of on-disc gameplay content, with a longer than usual main story, a 15-20 hour follow up story, and all the bonuses, hidden stuff and new game plus features you've come to expect from Tales games. Honestly, if you enjoy JRPGs at all, you really have no reason to NOT get this game... unless you're offended by low-res, upscaled to HD visuals or something anyway. Buy it.