Skippable dialogue, reduced loading times.
Far too much techno-babble, obnoxious characters, dull combat, poor pacing, excessive backtracking and bland, uninspiring cut-scenes.
Tales of the Abyss has not aged well. Despite gaining modest critical acclaim when it was first released six years ago on PlayStation 2, the JRPG has come a long way as a genre in those intervening years, and unfortunately this 3DS port of the same game has not stood up to the test of time.
The story begins with your traditional (and oddly specific) prophecy about a red-haired hero who will bring prosperity to the world of Auldrant. That hero happens to be Luke fon Fabre, a spoiled seventeen-year-old duke who’s bored out of his mind. To be fair, I would be too if I’d been hauled up in a mansion for the past seven years after getting kidnapped and losing all my memories, but Luke’s arrogant and petulant personality is only the first of the game’s many flaws. From the outset he’s a highly unlikeable protagonist and he makes it extremely hard for the player to truly care about him or the game itself. He shouts, whines and complains about every misfortune that befalls him during the first ten hours, and while his inevitable band of friends are somewhat better cast, they too suffer from shallow character development and unconvincing plotlines.
Irritating characters aside though, Luke and his friends find themselves caught up in a series of conspiracies surrounding the Score of Yulia, a series of tablets which predict the future of mankind. While the citizens of Auldrant are so reliant on it that they’ll even consult it to make dinner plans, those in power are willing to do anything they can in order to ensure their prophesised prosperity– and they’ll even go to war in times of peace if the Score says so.
As Luke and the game’s main villains battle it out over how to free the people of Auldrant from the Score’s shackles, Tales of the Abyss does, admittedly, explore the themes of free will and predestination with some skill. At the same time, however, it’s so bogged down in jargon and ridiculous techno-babble terminology that many of its finer details become lost and incomprehensible. Luke’s lost memories provide the perfect vehicle to fill the player in on all the game’s copious lore and intricate background, but instead of offering clear and easy explanations, the game chooses to overload the player with equally meaningless nonsense. Unsurprisingly, Luke doesn’t understand this mumbo jumbo about “fonons” or “hyper-resonances” either, but when his companions repeatedly proceed to chastise him for being such a half-wit, you can’t help but feel the game’s patronising tone is chiding you as well. It’s such a missed opportunity, and sadly these botched attempts at delivering the game’s story occur several times throughout the game.
Battling monsters can be fun, but button-mashing is sufficient to see you though most fights.
Abyss does redeem itself slightly when it comes to combat, but even this isn’t enough to rescue the game entirely. Enemies roam the land in plain sight, and knocking into one of them (or having them relentlessly pursue you like a homing missile) will trigger a battle. Like many Tales games before it, battles take place in real-time and Luke and three friends are free to move about the screen and attack at will (though actual “free” 360 degree movement only comes when you’ve learned a certain skill). You only control the party leader, but you can influence which “fonic artes” (special attacks) your AI-controlled companions use through the menu. The battle system also offers a variety of strategies for your companions to follow, and stringing together chains of normal attacks and fonic artes is both slick and satisfying.
But when the only way of replenishing your fonic arte meter (aside from using items) is through using normal attacks, this means the entire system often descends into mindless button-mashing. Moreover, most enemies only require just that, leaving little to tempt players into actively seeking out enemies (especially since so many of them are nothing more than colour-palette clones of foes you face earlier on). There’s little joy to be found in level-grinding, and it’s only really the boss battles which stand out as requiring a little more strategy and forethought. But much like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, you end up facing many of the bosses multiple times throughout the game, and each encounter is very much like the last.
The game’s most heinous crime though is that it seems to completely forget it’s an RPG once it enters the middle story arc. The beginning is very combat-heavy with boss battles around almost every corner, but once the story starts to gain momentum, much of your time is spent simply travelling back and forth between various locations, walking down empty corridor after empty corridor and watching cut-scene after cut-scene of bland, uninspiring exposition. You’ll revisit the same towns and cities multiple times in quick succession, sometimes only for a single cutscene, and it often feels like the game is simply dragging you around the world map for no apparent reason (especially when the frame-rate starts to drop). Battles are all but forgotten, with only the occasional dungeon and boss fight to break up the monotonous backtracking and extended cut-scenes.
Skits also make a comeback, but 489 of them are about 400 too many.
There are also several hundred skits you can watch by hitting Start, but unlike many of the game’s voiced cut-scenes, these are completely silent and you can’t skip through the text. Ironically, these actually give you a greater insight into your party characters than any voiced cut-scene, but the speed at which they unravel is painfully slow, and the sheer number of them make them more of a hindrance than anything else.
Abyss also can’t decide whether it wants to hold your hand throughout the entire game or let you roam free. At one point your companion Tear even threatens to tutor you in how to use a shop. Thankfully she doesn’t, but the game is very careful in signposting nearly all of your destinations, sometimes adding entire cut-scenes just to repeat the location of x city you need to travel to. Other times though you’re left completely stranded in a sea of deserted, repetitious (and often superfluous) corridors, making it very easy to get lost. Deviating away from the main story is also frustratingly difficult as you’re often not able to leave a city until you complete your objective.
All in all, there are several words to describe Tales of the Abyss, but unfortunately “good” or “worthwhile” aren’t among them. From its soulless and utterly unendearing cast of characters to its needless backtracking and convulted story, Tales of the Abyss has very little to offer even die-hard JRPG enthusiasts. The 3D does nothing to enhance the game, and when it limits you to saving in designated “memory circles”, it’s also ill-suited for a handheld title. You ultimately spend more time watching the game rather than actually playing it, so do yourself a favour and watch the anime instead.
Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.