Most literature instructors assert that the beauty of haiku or a sonnet can be found in the tension between expression and formula. Articulating complex emotions while conforming to a strict structure can be a daunting task. With reoccurring themes such as amnesia, imminent apocalypses, and friendships fated to stop these disasters, JRPG’s face a similar quandary by attempting to create a novel experience out of customary elements.
The first few hours of Tales of Graces f do little to transcend these recognizable tropes. During the commencement of the game, players are introduced to the two dissimilar sons of the reigning Lord of Lhant. The elder Asbel is the requisite impetuous lad, while younger brother Hubert’s assumes the role of prudent sidekick. After wandering up a nearby hill, the siblings discover a mysterious, purple-haired girl, who has no recollection of her past, fulfilling the trifecta of familiarity. Thankfully, the title soon thwarts convention, jumping ahead seven years in the future. Players find the naïve protagonists unsettled in the wake of tragedy, with their aspirations skewed by the gravity of misfortune. While many eastern RPGs deliver a gratifying character arc, the title’s post-introductory storyline is particularly poignant, nearly plumbing the pathos of Tales of Vesperia.
The game’s narrative is also complemented by optional dialog sequences known as skits, which have been a hallmark of the Tales series. Regretfully, North American gamers have often had to follow these conversations without the benefit of voice-over, diminishing their emotional impact. Thankfully, Namco-Bandai went the extra mile with Graces, adding speech to these habitually smile-inducing scenes. Of course, purists may still take issue with the lack of a Japanese voice track in the game, even though the English dub is quite competent.
Yet, what truly elevates the title over its role-playing brethren is the game’s absorbing combat system. The Tales franchise has consistently offered gratifying real-time battles- however, the amount of nuance implanted into Graces’ encounters permits conflicts to be persistently pleasing. At the game’s onset, characters are capable of initiating Assault Artes- basic, predetermined, swift strikes. Later, the adventuring party are granted access to Burst Artes, which offer customizable attacks that sacrifice speed for devastating power. Although novices may find themselves button-mashing their way through fracases (especially on the easier difficulty settings), Graces’ Chain Capacity system rewards skillful evasion and blocking with longer combat combos.
Players wishing to fully immerse themselves in battle can even switch characters on the fly, unleashing overwhelming sequences of attacks on foes. For most gamers, allowing the AI to direct your fellow party member will suffice, as you can manage their combat roles. Between the ability to lithely sidestep around foes and the requirement to study enemy attack patterns, Graces’ skirmishes can feel more like a fighting game than the genre’s often turgid, turn-based, approach. Smartly, combat with lesser enemies moves at a quick clip, with the game sporadically bestowing bonuses for engagements settled before the ten or twenty second mark.
Each character’s selection of Artes emanates from the game’s compelling title system, which offers a nice reprieve from conventional leveling systems. Assigning a title to a character allows the adventurer to learn up to five new skills. Although the urge to garner as many abilities as possible is palpable, characters receive a stat bonus for equipping a maximized title. Items unearthed during exploration of acquired during battle may be combined through a process called “dualization”, allowing for the creation of quest items, sundries, improved gear, or even a bit of coinage. Additional diversions ranging from side missions, a gladiatorial arena, and a collectable card game vie for a player’s attention, endowing Graces with a gratifying amount of diversity. Remarkably, these supplemental activities are consistently engaging and rewarding, rarely feeling like manipulative methods designed to pad the title’s playtime.
Graces’ visual delivery rarely divulges the game’s ancestry- which grew from the Japanese-only release of a Wii title. Returning artist Mutsumi Inomata’s aesthetic makes the transition to a high-def system unscathed, rendering cleanly drawn characters with sharp lines and fostering a persistently fluid framerate. Beyond the addition of supplemental costumes and titles, the game also includes the Lineage and Legacies epilogue which offers an additional ten hours of arduous adventuring to test the resolve of experienced explorers. Additionally, players can earn additional items by participating in Trials of Graces- a mode which offers twenty-seven battle challenges to conquer.
Tales of Graces f is the rare JRPG which dutifully obeys tradition while rarely allowing convention to constrain the title’s aspirations. Amid persistence discussion of the stagnancy of the genre, developers would be wise to note Graces’ involving combat and distinctive system of character development. For players longing to rekindle the elusive charm of the PS2-era Japanese role-playing game, know that Graces’ moniker is no misnomer.