I’ve spent a good portion of my teenage and adult years enamored with Namco Bandai’s Tales of Series. These games all follow the same naming convention, Tales of <Usually some made up word>, such as Tales of Symphonia or Tales of Xillia. These are pretty traditional Japanese RPGs in most respects. You control a group of teenagers and twenty somethings whose personal trials eventually give way to a quest to save the world. Swords are swung, monsters are bashed, and out-of-place side activities are completed. What really makes the games stand out from the crowd is the battle system. A real time system taking some cues from fighting games, the real joy is playing cooperatively with up to four players. In my younger days, I tackled these with friends, while nowadays my wife and I eagerly await each new release.
It’s a shame the series seems dead set on destroying itself.
There were a few things that really made Tales games stand out besides the battle system. Wide casts of characters with varied fighting styles, side quests ending in new titles and sometimes costumes for your characters that would change their stats or give them a new look in cut scenes, interesting callbacks to previous games despite each installment taking place in a unique world. While story quality varied wildly, every fan of the series finds their favorite. My wife and I love Tales of Vesperia. It features more mature and somewhat darker main characters who nonetheless maintain a sense of humor and hope. The visual style gels with our sensibilities, and at the end of the day there are few truly evil characters- just opposing groups. We played this game on our XBox 360 for ages, racking up four playthroughs and some change, and hundreds of hours. Unfortunately, this installment also marked the beginning of the series’ turn.
This was the first game in the series that I saw DLC for. Luckily, it was all avoidable- level boosts and unlocks for costumes that were accessible in games. We safely ignored them, preferring to reach those milestones by playing the game. No harm done! Later on, however, we found out that a PS3 version of the game was released with some extra features. This had happened before, with ports of the games getting some gameplay tweaks to improve the overall feel, but it never seemed like a big loss. For Vesperia, however, we found that we missed out on two playable characters and plenty of side stories. We never saw the PS3 version in America. This was a bit of a bummer, as we adore the game and at least one of the playable characters looked like they were planned from the beginning and cut for time, but the game we had was a complete package and played perfectly well. It was, unfortunately, the start of a trend.
Tales of Graces released on the Wii in Japan in December of 2009. The game was fairly well received, but complaints rose about the costumes, previously a Tales staple, being moved from gameplay rewards to DLC. Fans also felt the game ended quite abruptly, with little in the way of story resolution. This was highlighted a year later when Tales of Graces F released for the PS3. In addition to the original game, the upgraded version included another entire act with a new playable character, new gameplay mechanics, and a more polished ending. Many diehard tales fans purchased a Wii simply for the game, and felt betrayed when they felt the Wii version was a buggy, incomplete beta test done on the players’ dime. By the time we saw an American release a year and a half later, we only received the PS3 version. While we still saw most of the costumes go to DLC, we never had to deal with the initial bugginess or incomplete story. The game didn’t click as well with my wife and I, but that was pure personal preference on gameplay and story- some feel Graces F is the most technical, entertaining entry in the series.
Over the next several iterations, this became the norm. Pieces of content were removed for the sake of a future release or DLC. Levels and gold became a purchasable commodity, while previously unlockable costumes and equipment started coming with the price tag of three dollars per piece per character. The price of DLC started outstripping the price of the game itself, even if you bought it on day one for full retail price. The multiplayer combat that I grew up with has stuck around and kept my wife and I playing, though experiments on the formula have left recent games hobbled if you play with more than two players. The most recent entry, Tales of Zestiria, is already drawing fire in Japan for seemingly dropping heavily advertised characters from the game for the sake of DLC, announced soon after release.
It’s a tough path to see a beloved series go down. On one hand, I still eagerly await each new installment, excited to experience the story with my wife and to see what changes the battle system has gone through. On the other hand, every new release fills me with mixed emotions as I see more day one DLC, and wonder if the version I’m purchasing is the definitive edition. There is content I know I will never get to experience, as the price is outlandish, and many of the series’ more amusing sidequests have been stripped away over time. It’s hard not to connect any negative change in the series with the sprint to release more DLC, hoping for more money.
Plenty of western fans look at games like Evolve or Borderlands and criticize the DLC policies at work, but in many ways Japanese RPG developers have been at it for longer, and doing it less scrupulously. Regardless of who’s doing it though, as a consumer there’s really just one way to let the developers know what you like. Buy what you like, don’t buy what you don’t. Don’t pre-order unless you know what you’re getting into. I’ll continue to play the Tales series, but I have not and will not be spending money outside of the core game.
That said, the series is one of my favorites for a reason. If you enjoy your RPGs and have a healthy tolerance for anime tropes, they’re worth checking out. The aforementioned Tales of Vesperia is a great jumping on point, as is the more recent Tales of Xillia. For the most part, the games stand alone and you can simply pick whichever looks the most interesting. Bring along a friend or two and there are plenty of hours of fun to be had, DLC be damned.