A Decade in the Making
The Tales series of games have become a somewhat staple JRPG franchise here in the west. The past few entries in the series have reliably made their way across the Pacific within a few months of their Japanese releases, and the games have begun releasing on PC as well, opening them up to brand new audiences.
As such, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that it wasn’t always this way. Just about a decade ago, Tales games were never a guarantee to see in English, and some that did manage release here did so in a neutered fashion.
One of the most infamous examples to those in the fandom is Tales of Vesperia. The game was already a bit of an oddball, releasing on the Xbox 360 back in 2008, where all previous entries had stuck to Nintendo and Sony systems. This release made its way to the west, and quickly became what many see as one of the best entries in the series.
In Japan, though, the game received a port to the PS3. A port that greatly expanded the game, introducing new characters and mechanics, allowing once temporary party members to become permanently playable, and just overall making the game feel much more well-rounded and fleshed out. This release, though, never left Japan.
With Vesperia being such a lauded entry in the series, fans clamored for a decade for this upgraded version to be brought to the west. So imagine my shock when, during the 2018 Microsoft E3 showcase, I heard the opening song for the game begin to play during a trailer.
Much to the surprise of the community, the expanded version of Vesperia was finally making its way westward nearly a decade after its Japanese release. Not only that, but it was landing on every modern console and PC. To say I was excited would be an understatement. Now, with the game finally in my hands, the question is: does it live up to expectations, and does this ten-year-old game still hold up?
Developed by Namco Tales Studio and published by Namco Bandai, Tales of Vesperia Definitive Edition was released on January 11th, 2019, for the PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC via Steam. The PS4 version was played for this review.
The Core Narrative
The story of Vesperia centers around Yuri Lowell, a young man living in the “lower quarter” of the castle city of Zaphias. The city has a stark hierarchy system separating nobles and commoners, with the latter living in the lower quarter struggling to get by.
The game’s world revolved around devices called “blastia,” which can do everything from regulate machines to allowing people to use magic. One day, someone steals the core from a blastia that regulates a water fountain in the lower quarter, leading to it nearly flooding the entire area. Led to believe it was stolen by a nobleman, Yuri steps up to seek out who stole it and to bring it back.
Of course, as a JRPG, this little quest eventually turns into a world-spanning adventure. As we learn more about Yuri and the other characters he meets, the plot of Vesperia opens up into a theme of differing views of justice. Much of the story revolves around doing things lawfully vs. taking justice into one’s own hands, with the protagonists and antagonists falling into various parts of the spectrum.
Most of the game’s plot is unchanged from its original Xbox 360 release, for better and worse. The first two-thirds of Vesperia has always been, in my opinion, one of the strongest in the Tales series. The theme of differing interpretations of justice, as well as Yuri not being a typical bright-eyed idealistic JRPG protagonist, creates some intriguing and surprising moments. Unfortunately, the final third of the game is significantly weaker; with most of the interesting conflicts wrapped up, the finale winds up feeling like padding, stretching the resolution to a few smaller plot points much too thinly.
The most significant change to the story in the Definitive Edition release is a brand new character – a young adventurer/pirate girl named Patty. I was initially worried about how slapping in a brand new character would affect such a tightly-told story, but Patty slips into the plot surprisingly well. To be fair, I haven’t played the original in nearly a decade, so there was no way I’d remember everything about the game’s plot, but Patty’s character and story felt like it fit right in.
Method to Madness
If you’re more of a recent fan to the Tales series, weaned on releases like Xillia and Berseria, you may be a bit surprised by how the combat feels here in Vesperia. While recent releases in the series have become much more fast-paced and somewhat button-mashy, Vesperia is built much more like other older series entries: slower and more methodical.
Like other games in the series, you’ll be controlling one character while the AI handles the rest of your party. You have access to two kinds of attacks: a standard combo with one button, and specials called “artes” with another. While your base attacks stay the same throughout the game, you’ll learn various different artes, with up to eight assignable to different button combos.
Different facets of the combat system are slowly unlocked throughout the first portion of the game. While you start off hardly able to hold up more than a five-hit combo, you eventually gain access to new artes that can combo into other artes, a system called “Over Limit” that allows you to chain attacks indefinitely, as well as limit break-style Mystic Artes to really bring the pain. The downside of this is that combat can feel plodding and limiting early in the game, as you don’t have access to many combat options.
After a few hours, though, once you learn a few more artes and the Over Limit system is unlocked, combat becomes much more enjoyable. As I mentioned earlier, rather than spamming buttons as in more modern Tales games, Vesperia is much more combo-centric, requiring precise inputs to pull off successful strings of attacks.
Unfortunately, going back to a late-2000s era game means also going back to late-2000s era AI. While the game does offer up a menu to program the basic AI for each of your party members, there were still many moments I’d become frustrated at my companions either doing something stupid (such as the healer running up to a boss to smack it a bit and instantly dying) or just doing nothing at all. The worst was when my combat mage character would run out of TP (points used to cast artes), and would then just sit at the edge of the battlefield doing absolutely nothing at all until I manually commanded her to use a TP-restoring item.
Outside of combat, Vesperia was one of the last games in the series to be structured like a traditional JRPG, with a full world map and towns loaded up with NPCs that you can talk to. After the town-connecting hallways of Xillia and the empty field maps of Berseria, going back to exploring a traditional world map was a much welcome step into nostalgia.
Lastly, one of my favorite parts of Vesperia‘s engine was the equipment-based skill system. This game takes a page from Final Fantasy IX, where weapons have attached skills that you can learn by using them. Balancing whether I want to equip stronger weapons against continuing with weaker ones while to let characters finish learning new skills creates a nice sense of risk and reward.
An Odd Shift
If there’s one graphical style that seems to be proving itself as enduring the test of time, it’s cel shading. While lacking the detail of a more realistic art style, games that implemented cel shading seem to appear much less dated when looked at through modern eyes, and Vesperia is no exception.
The characters in particular, both the protagonists and antagonists, still look great in this modern re-release. Their designs are unique and instantly recognizable, with things as subtle as facial animations still surprisingly detailed. My only issue is with lipflap animations, which occasionally seem to stop and start at random times during dialogue.
This Definitive Edition includes new story and much more voiced dialogue, which means more voice acting. Luckily, Namco Bandai was able to get back much of the original cast to dub these new lines. Unfortunately, a few did not make a return…including the original voice of Yuri, Troy Baker. Yuri’s new lines are instead voiced by Grant George, who does a respectable job at trying to imitate Baker’s original style, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. It was especially noticeable in the early hours, where George sounds like he is overacting a bit. However, it seems like he grows into the role more as the game continues, and while the switches between Baker and George remain noticeable, they become easier to overlook over time.
The voice actor for Rita, the aforementioned battle mage character, also sounded somewhat different to my ears in the newly voiced lines. The original actor, Michelle Ruff, returned for the Definitive Edition, but it doesn’t sound like she quite hits the same inflections of her original performance. It’s honestly not surprising, though, given the original performances were recorded a decade ago.
For a New Age
Overall, Tales of Vesperia Definitive Edition was a reminder of why I fell in love with the Tales series in the first place. While Vesperia wasn’t the first Tales game I ever played, it was the entry that really got me interested in what else the series had to offer.
Going back and playing it again left me surprised at how well the game has stood the test of time. While earlier entries such as Symphonia definitely show their age, Vesperia still holds up incredibly well, despite a few quirks from its original era.
The only real complaints I have about the game are holdovers from the Xbox 360 release – a plodding third act, limited combat potential in the early game, and some annoying AI.
The new additions here, especially the integration of a brand new character, definitely make this Definitive Edition worth playing for those who have already played the original. For newcomers, this release is the perfect opportunity to jump into what many (including myself) consider one of the best games in the series.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy purchased by reviewer for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.