Until recently, the Tales series has had a spotty history of Western localization. On average, one in three Tales games has yet to reach American shores, and even less for European regions. Namco Bandai is starting to change this, with two Western Tales releases scheduled for 2014, and a simultaneous worldwide release for the newest game being created in the series, Tales of Zestiria (which may be released in 2014 as well). However, there are many gaps in Tales history that have yet to be filled on our side of the world.
Not to say that Namco Bandai hasn’t ever gone back to fill these gaps. The first game of the Tales series, Tales of Phantasia, was originally released only in Japan for the Super Famicom back in 1995. Eleven years later, the game’s Game Boy Advance port was released in North America and Europe. While the release allowed Westerners an official chance to play the first Tales game, the port was generally seen as lackluster. It was still very much playable, but it suffered from slowdown and a below average translation.
Jump forward another eight years to the present, 2014. A new port of Phantasia was released on iOS on January 23rd, and along with it another chance for the West to get a high-quality version of the original Tales game. The question, though, is how good did the port do in presenting the game? Well…
A Chase Through Time
The story of Phantasia remains fully unchanged from previous versions. Phantasia focuses on Cress Albane, a young swordsman-in-training whose town, in typical JRPG fashion, is destroyed, and everyone, save for his best friend, is killed. A knight, Mars, destroyed the town during a search for a pendant that Cress carries, handed down to him by his mother. He is eventually captured by Mars, who takes his pendant, along with one from the game’s main heroine, Mint, to revive a sorcerer who had been sealed away twelve years prior. Said sorcerer, Dhaos, is revived and immediately goes about attempting to kill Mars and main characters before setting out to continue his destruction of the world from before he was sealed away. Before they are killed, Cress and Mint are sent into the past to find a way to stop or kill Dhaos before he can be reawakened in the present.
As Phantasia is the first game in the Tales series, it establishes some tropes that came to be used regularly in future installments. This was the first game to feature Tales standards such as multiple worlds/time periods and antagonists with noble or understandable reasons behind their actions. The story is easy to follow as well, as the iOS release has received a brand new translation.
If There is Evil in this World…
Unfortunately, the new translation is just about all this iOS release has going for it. The gameplay of Phantasia has been seriously mangled from its original forms for this port. Overworld and dungeon controls use the “touch anywhere and a d-pad pops up” controls many touch-screen RPGs have adopted, but the movement feels very loose and difficult to control. Anything more than a small movement on the virtual d-pad sends Cress into a wild sprint in whatever general direction you’re pointing. Movement can also be done by tapping anywhere on the map to have Cress move to the tapped point, but this is hit or miss, as if even a slight swipe is made, the virtual d-pad is pulled up and Cress moves nowhere.
Interacting with the environment is just as difficult. In order to talk with an NPC, you either tap on them (just as finicky as tapping on the environment to move), or use the d-pad to move to them, and then have the discussion activate when you remove your finger. This method can make it difficult to intentional talk to a character, but it sure makes it easy to talk to a character by accident as you’re just trying to pass them by. Opening chests works with the same method. Moving items around the environment is infuriating, as you must line Cress up with the item, stop, then reactivate the d-pad, which is supposed to make Cress grab the item to move. In functionality, this only works some of the time.
The battle system used is quite interesting. The Tales series makes use of a real time battle system, with direct input attacks and various specials done with button combos. For the iOS version, the battle screen is separated into three sections. Tap the bottom section to perform a thrust attack, the middle section for an aerial attack, and the top section for a slash attack. Not using the top section for an aerial attack seems odd, and takes a while to get used to. You can not directly control your character’s movement along the battlefield; characters move on their own as you tap the screen. You can tap the enemy list box to change targets, but if enemies gang up on your character, it’s pretty much impossible to escape. Special attacks are performed by swiping the screen in the direction that the attack was assigned under the main menu. This can become confusing for attacks assigned as “right swipe” or “left swipe” as they remain set for those directions no matter what direction your character is facing.
The major misstep taken in this port is the heavy-handed over-reliance on in-app purchases. The one pushed on the player the most is the “Miracle Orb,” which gives your party an automatic revival upon death in a battle. This is forced into the players head during the first boss fight, where you are given one for free to use. During the fight, the game pushes that you should rely on these items with constant popups, even encouraging losing on purpose so that you can revive with full health and boosted stats.
Namco Bandai pretty much set this game up so that the player will have to rely on these items to even make it past the first few dungeons in the game, let alone beating it. First off, there is no ability to select difficulty like in past releases. The game is locked in at a high difficulty, which makes battles longer lasting and much more difficult. Secondly, many save points in the dungeons are purposely deactivated, especially the points right before boss fights. A handwave is attempted in story by saying that an “evil power” is blocking the use of the save point. Lastly, despite how often the game auto saves, if you do not use a Miracle Orb upon death, all of these save points are erased and you must start again from your last manual save, typically meaning that you have to play the dungeon all over again. To add insult to injury, item prices in shops have been raised to ridiculous levels, so there is little chance you’ll have enough revival and health items to survive battles without hardcore grinding or using in-app purchased items.
As a final note, this iOS port requires an internet connection to play. The game will not start without a connection, and it will not save without a connection. There is no reason for a single-player RPG to have this requirement, although it may be so that the in-app purchase shop will always be available to players.
Visions of the Future
The terrible choices in gameplay engine really hurt, as this game had the potential to be a good port. Case in point, the graphics in this version of Phantasia are quite a step up from the Game Boy Advance release. Rather than using super-deformed character styles on battle screens, the iOS port chooses to go with more realistically proportioned characters. The sprites move smoothly during battle and across the overworld, and there are no hints of slowdown at all. A 3D-style world map is used, which was a nice to surprise to me after playing through the older releases that used a more typical 2D layout.
The game’s environments are pretty much the same as previous releases. The journey through Phantasia brings the party through a number of differently styled dungeons and locales, with each one easily recognizable and unique. Character designs and portraits are also done well, and each character and enemy is easy to distinguish on the overworld or in battle.
The Roar of Battle
In my opinion, the music in Phantasia has never really stood out. It sets the mood well in a few places, but no tracks have been particularly memorable. One standout omission, though, is the original release’s main theme during the pre-game animation. In all Japanese releases of Phantasia, the game’s opening was accompanied by a full-voiced track, which was particularly remarkable considering the original release was on the Super Famicom. The Western Game Boy Advance release did not contain the track. However, with the strides Namco Bandai has been making in localization quality, one would think that modern Tales releases would include these tracks. After all, most modern Tales releases contain fully voiced opening songs, and Xillia, the most recent of them, uses the original Japanese track. The next Tales release in the West, Tales of Symphonia Chronicles, will even have an option for dual audio, a first for the series.
However, this new iOS release of Phantasia decided to go without the original opening track, leaving a generic instrumental in its place. The game itself, though, is fully voiced. Although all of the lines are in Japanese, just about every line in the game has a voiceover.
…it Lurks in the Hearts of Men.
Overall, while it had the potential to be a good port, the iOS release of Phantasia dives headfirst into concrete. While gameplay controls are iffy, this is to be expected in a touch-screen version of a controller-intensive game. The force feeding of in-app purchases, though, is absolutely unacceptable. If the game had full functionality, it would be an easy $10 or $15 buy on the App Store. In compromising the game to encourage these microtransactions, Namco Bandai has torn out the heart and soul of this game and left it a shell of its former self. If there’s one redeeming quality, however small, its the fact the game is free to download and “play”.
It saddens me to see such a poor port of one of my personal favorite games. While the graphics are decent and the story is as good as ever, I cannot in good faith recommend this game. With as much as Tales players in the West have to look forward to this year, having this game as the first release of the year is a horrible, horrible misstep.
~ Final Score: 2/10 ~
Review copy purchased by reviewer for iOS.