Tales of Phantasia - A Game I should've Given a Chance

 You know, there's no denying that I'm a Tales series fan. When Symphonia came out on the GameCube and everyone was talking about it over at Nintendo's Nsider Forums, I'll admit I was interested too. I never expected to be able to play the game, but it did look cool to me. An action adventure across a fantasy world, with a main character who uses two swords? Why wouldn't I find that cool? Of course I didn't get it, and I didn't even know the game was a part of a series. I didn't know what Tales was, and when I saw "Tales of Phantasia" sitting on the shelf in EB Games (before GameStop took them over), I thought it was a rip off. "Ooooh, now EVERYONE wants to do this 'Tales of' thing. They even tried to copy the name! Way to go people!" Yeah... I wasn't the smartest. In fact, it was seeing Symphonia Dawn of the New World in Nintendo Power that made me realize that more of these games would even come out. And it wasn't until a few years AFTER that, that I even realized there were more entries on top of even that -- and that's when I learned of my mistake.

Tales of Vesperia was my entry point into the series. I was a new 360 owner, and I wanted something different. I had just gotten more into JRPGs around this time (playing games like .hack and Final Fantasy), and I wanted more. The fact that the 360 had an "exclusive" JRPG sounded great to me, and I still regretted not getting Symphonia all those years ago -- so I traveled an hour away to find a copy, and bought it. I regret nothing. I LOVE Tales of Vesperia, and still to this day I consider it one of my all time favorite games.

After Vesperia, I still wanted more. This is when I started tracking down the games I missed, and started playing whatever new Tales of came out. Abyss and Legendia were two I went back to play, while Graces f and Xillia released as new games -- Graces being the first Tales of I ever bought on it's release day. I sadly wasn't able to get a copy of Symphonia until the PS3 release, but it's fine -- I had plenty to keep me busy until then. Jumping ahead to today, I've basically played every entry in the series I had access to, with only a few remaining Japanese exclusive without fan translations. However, despite all of this, there's still one game I've avoided. The game I thought was a stupid knock off. Phantasia.

I'm not sure why I've continued to avoid this game. Maybe because it's older? But that doesn't seem right -- I love older JRPGs. So why? I guess I just ultimately discounted it as being nothing special. It was the start to the series I now love, but it didn't seem to have anything to pull me in. So for the past 13 + years, I've continued to ignore it... Until now. Now this I do regret...

First of all, I was going to play the GBA version as it was portable. When asking about the game online, fans of the series made it clear that I should NOT play this release. So, what options did I have? Well, quite a few actually.

Phantasia originally released on the SNES in Japan (by the team that went on to make Star Ocean -- another favorite of mine), and received multiple rereleases. The GBA version is the worst of them all, and the only version we got in the West. The PS1 port however, it greatly improved the game, and is the version I was recommended to play. (There's also two PSP releases, which are even better yet, but there's no translation.) To play this however, it's not as simple as going out and buying it.

For those of you interested, the current only way to play it is by using a fan translation. If you want to play this on your actual PS1, you will need to go out and buy a copy of the Japanese release, extract the ISO file to your PC, apply one of the translation patches to said ISO file, and then burn the image to a blank CD. It's a pretty straight forward process actually, but it does require a PC and some knowledge of ripping/burning data. In my case, I wanted to play the GBA version mainly at work during lunch, so I instead transferred my PS1 copy to my Retroid. (It could also easily be transferred to a PSP, but my PSP is out of commission.)

As for the game itself... Again, I regret not playing it sooner...

Now I've only been playing this game for a little over a month now, and I haven't finished it -- so I won't be reviewing it. However; I'm already really impressed by it. It's so much more than I ever expected it to be. Right from the get go, we are introduced to the main character Cress and his friend, and the two leave their village and go about their daily life. It's standard JRPG intros, where you expect to get to know their daily life a little bit more, and then you'll eventually be introduced to the main plot. Yeah. This one doesn't do that... Instead you have Cress coming back to the village destroyed, and he watches everyone he loves and cares about get slaughtered! 

Moving forward, things don't get any better for him. The game seriously dives into some dark subject matter right off the bat, and they don't even shy away from showing kids get killed. It was COMPLETELY unexpected. And of course this is what sends Cress out onto his adventure, but even that's not something I expected. Or maybe I should've? Again, this is by the team that went on to make Star Ocean, and both games are actually a bit similar in their plots. In Star Ocean the main cast has to travel back in time to find a cure for a bioweapon that was released but hasn't been seen for hundreds of  years, and in Tales of Phantasia we find out the big bad needs to be defeated using means that were only possible in the past as well. So Cress gets sent back in time, and that's where the main adventure actually plays out. He's trying to survive in his own world's past, and while he's there he's also going up against the same big bad who currently threatens his present. It's pretty unique for a JRPG story (especially considering when this game came out), and the way the game is structured is something you don't really see much of anymore. 

Tales of Phantasia is packed full of character to say the least. It's a 2D sprite based game that looks similar to most other JRPGs out at the time, but sooooo much of the world can be interacted with. It's not just simple, talk to this object and read a description either. Stepping into fire will burn you and get funny reactions. Animals such as crabs and birds roam the world and run away from you when you get close. There's some pretty nice water effects, and heat effects when in hot areas. Some objects can be pushed/pulled, and some puzzles require you to shoot and knock things over. NPCs have constantly changing unique dialogue, and often react to what you are doing on screen as well. It's a lot of little touches that help make this world feel alive, and pulls you into it's story in ways you wouldn't expect. It's something you don't even see with most modern JRPGs, so it's really shocking Phantasia has such things going on. Heck even future Tales of games aren't like this! 

As for the gameplay, it's action based like the rest of the series, but it's battle system is a bit different. The PS1 version includes a full control item you can equip to take 100% control of your characters in battle, but other wise they do move on their own, and run/attack upon pressing buttons. It's dated by today's standards for sure, but it's still a fun system for what it is. Sadly the PS1 version still includes the time freezing for magic attacks, but it's something I can easily live with. 

Like many classic JRPGs, the game does include a world map to explore as well, and the PS1 version introduced voiced skits that play anytime you hit the select button on said world map. If they don't have anything new to say they'll just repeat general advice messages, but other wise the characters will comment on the story, or bring up something you've done lately. Again, it helps make the world feel more alive, and gives you a reason to listen to everything your party has to say. The world map also has many different areas to explore, and the game rewards you for doing so. Heck, some areas can't even be finished until you have explored other places, but the game leaves it up to you to find these spots in order to advance. Of course NPCs will talk about things, so it's not like you're left completely in the dark on what you can/cannot do, but it's not like today's games where you're constantly directed from Point A to Point B. It's a game that wants you to take your time and dive into it's world, rather than just rush through it. Again, something that feels like it's been lost in a lot of modern games today. And then there's the fact that that Phantasia is a "sequel" to Symphonia -- or rather, Symphonia was a prequel.

Not going into spoilers, but I've been pretty surprised by Phantasia and recognizing things from Symphonia. A major plot point of Symphonia plays a huge role throughout Phantasia, but there's also other references as well. It makes me realize why long time fans enjoyed Symphonia as much, because they got to see this the other way around. Players of Phantasia got to see how the world became what it is, while those of us who play Symphonia first get to see what's next for the world. It's just really cool, and helps add even more to my enjoyment of the game. Again, not that the game would've been "worse" without my prior knowledge, it's just it's really cool to me to see these things. Not bad for a "knock off'" of Symphonia.

Overall, I've been simply loving the game. It's something I want to keep coming back to off and on for the next few months, up until I finish it. Even then I feel as if I'll keep checking back just for the side quests, as the PS1 version apparently added a bunch of new extras as well. So I have plenty to keep myself busy with, and currently I'm at the point where I wish the game would never end. It's rare for games to give me that feeling now days (especially with so many games in my backlog to play), but Phantasia is definitely one such game to do it for me. I can't believe I discounted this game for so many years. I'm a horrible Tales of fan.

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