The Next Big Genre
Following the release and rave reviews of Final Fantasy VII in 1997, publishers went on a race to bring over as many JRPGs as they could to the West. Just about anything with an anime aesthetic and hit points was up for grabs. After all, JRPGs were becoming the “next big thing” in North America. The JRPG boom brought us classics like The Legend of Dragoon, Xenogears, and the first entries of the Persona series. Namco decided to drop one of their games into the mix, bringing Tales of Destiny to the Western audience.
Tales of Destiny is the second entry into the Tales Of series, following Tales of Phantasia, originally released on the Super Famicom and unreleased at the time in the West. Destiny would be the first taste of this series North American gamers would get. The game was released for the PlayStation 1 on September 30th, 1998, making this year its fifteenth anniversary of release.
The War Between Heaven and Earth
The story of Tales of Destiny begins rather simply. Stahn Aileron, a country boy, stows away on a military ship with the hopes of traveling to the capital city to enlist as a knight. After being caught and imprisoned, the ship is attacked by monsters. In a bid to escape, Stahn finds a sword deep within the ship. The sword, somehow, begins talking to Stahn, saying it is named Dymlos and it is what is known as a “Swordian”. Stahn uses Dymlos to escape the ship and begins a journey to find out more about this Swordian. Along the way, he gets swept up into a quest to find the “Eye of Atamoni,” an ancient super-weapon that has been stolen by the high priest of the world’s resident church.
In traditional Tales Of fashion, the story takes a major twist in the halfway point, bringing in new enemies and revelations about the main characters and the Swordians. Things become more complex as the small starting group of characters begins to expand exponentially, adding in more and more major players, NPCs, and enemies. The faults begins with all of these new characters, as outside of the core party, not many of them are very fleshed out. A number of characters are introduced, get a five-minute conversation with the party to establish them, and then show up hours later as enemies all-of-a-sudden. Antagonists come and go rather quickly without much explanation, either.
This issue is prominent due to the localization job on the game. Players of the Tales Of series will be familiar with the skit system in most of the entries. Skits are conversations between characters outside of the main story that help develop the characters, their relationships, and story details as a whole. Destiny does not include these skits. At least, not in the North American release. Namco decided to cut all of these skits upon localization, taking much of the story and character development along with it. Interestingly enough, these skits can be seen in the game’s sound test menu upon completion, but none of them are translated. The excision of the skits also makes a large window on the world map screen showing the characters seem like a useless addition to unfamiliar players, as this window is where some of the skits were performed.
Overall, while the story is coherent and easy to follow to the end, it is missing the details that would draw players even further into it.
The Swordians Are In Your Hands
Most of the gameplay in Destiny is handled in a very traditional JRPG style. An expansive world map with multiple environments is traversed by foot, and eventually by sea and air. The map connects various towns with NPCs to talk to, shops to buy from, inns to rest at, and mini-games abound. Multiple dungeons are explored with puzzles often presented. Finally, of course, there are random battles.
The battles are where Destiny takes a turn from tradition. Rather than a turn-based system, battles in Destiny are done in real time. Players take direct control of Stahn on a 2D plane, moving him around the battlefield and attacking directly. Attacks and combos are performed like a simple fighting game, with different button combinations releasing different attacks. Other characters in the party are controlled by A.I, but can be given commands via menu in battle, and their general actions be customized in the main menu. The game begins with semi-auto control over Stahn (the player still has direct control over his actions, but the game will automatically position him for an attack if performed far from an enemy) with the option for full manual control gained within the first couple hours.
As this is one of the first entries in the Tales Of series, the battle system does not get much more complex than that. Stringing together attacks is nearly non-existent, and due to this, combos are difficult to pull off. The A.I. can be weak at times, and will occasionally refuse to attack until an enemy is directly in their face. Multiple characters eventually become available for the party, but the main four Swordian-wielding characters quickly become overpowered compared to the rest. Difficulty eventually becomes negligible near the end, as these characters gain such powerful attacks and ability to cast them near-indefinitely. In my playthrough, the final bosses all went down without ever being able to attack back, due to being stun-locked by the constant stream of spells and attacks.
Dungeons are a love-it-or-hate-it affair in Destiny. A large variety of dungeons are offered, many of the twist-and-turn maze variety. The battle rate is abnormally high, so many dungeons last much longer than they should. For every dungeon with an interesting setup and puzzles, there is another with monotonous mazes and puzzles so obtuse they can become impossible. One dungeon had a mistranslation in one of its puzzles, making it impossible to complete without a guide.
The Ever-Changing World
Unlike most post-Final Fantasy VII RPGs released in the West, Destiny decided to stick with a 2D aesthetic. The game looks very much like a Super Nintendo release, with pixelated sprites abound. While the world map can look samey throughout, many of the towns have their own unique designs, to the point that it’s easy to distinguish between the major cities with a look at a screenshot. While the town design looks great, the characters can sometimes look like a jumbled mess of pixels (although this may be due to the fact I was playing the game stretched across a wide-screen television). The small details, though, are what make Destiny stand out from other 2D JRPGs. Cherry-blossom petals flowing across the sky, ripples and reflections in the water, and the sound of seagulls squawking and flying away as you run over them. Many small details add up to make the world more lively than it initially appears.
Graphics in battle are fairly impressive for the game’s time and style. All of the character sprites are large and easy to distinguish, and there is a large variety of enemies to fight. Attacks and spells eventually become bright, bombastic, screen-filling affairs. Despite all the flashy attacks occurring, it’s easy to keep track off the characters and what is going on.
The game also offers a few anime-style cutscenes at the beginning, end, and center points of the game. While quite compressed, the animation is fluid and easy to follow.
Calling Your Attacks
The music of the game is mostly unremarkable. None of the tracks seemed to stand out, and the final dungeon and final battle themes in particular seemed out of place. What is interesting, though, is the voice acting added to battles. Characters and some enemies are constantly calling out attacks, creating a chaotic atmosphere around the easy-to-follow battles. The voices, though, went untranslated. The characters use the original Japanese voices, which can make the translated names of the attacks feel off on occasion. For me, one particular damning translation was with one of the spells. The spell “Indignation” went on to become the series’ traditional ultimate attack magic, much like “Ultima” in the Final Fantasy series. When a character casts the spell, they clearly call out “INDIGNATION!,” yet the spell is translated as “Holy Wrath”. A small personal issue, but its noticeable across a number of other attacks and translations.
Through The Lens
Despite its faults, Tales of Destiny was still a fun game to play through. Pushing through difficult (and occasionally infuriating) segments, the game still stands out as an entertaining experience. It’s always interesting to go back to a series’ roots and what developed in future installments. Destiny, though, is one of those cases where going back after playing modern entries in the series can be difficult. Many of the adjustments in later entries were done to make gameplay smoother and more interesting, and playing through Destiny makes those improvements shine all the more. However, an interesting (if detail-lacking) story and a fun battle system still make this game worth a playthrough, especially if it is one of the first Tales Of games one decides to play. Just be prepared for the old-school JRPG aesthetic.
~ Final Score: 7/10 ~
Review copy purchased by reviewer for PS1.