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Dawn of the New World is a tale of two realms caught in a parasitic balancing act that threatens to destroy both worlds forever. Fitting then that the gameplay suffers from the same abrasive dichotomy, where half the ideas succeed while the other half sucks the life out of the whole project. For every memorable moment or little touch that made us crack a smile there was something equally annoying to bring us back down to “oh god how much longer is this game?” territory.
Let’s start with the cast, which mainly consists of Emil and Marta. They play off each other quite well at first, with Marta always energetic and sure of herself while Emil feels inadequate in every way. Once he forms a pact with the soon-to-be-revived monster king Ratatosk, however, Emil gains an aggressive split personality that takes control whenever there’s danger. Kind of neat, but in reality this means Emil grows as a character extremely slowly, always jumping in and out of wishy-washy whiner (and oh man, does he ever whine) and red-eyed leader instead of developing on his own. Only far later does he start to shape up, and even then he’s still a bit too baby-ish for our tastes.
Above: Emil, as possessed by Ratatosk, tries to make a Pokemon-esque pact with a monster
Part of Emil’s newly acquired skillset is the ability to form pacts with the 200-plus monsters that populate the game’s real-time battles. Each has its own strengths, weaknesses, affinities and class, which very much makes the collection of said monsters feel like an extension of Pokemon. Emil and Marta are the only mainstays in your party, so the rest of the battle slots are filled by these customizable monsters. It’s easy to become obsessed with catching these suckers, trying to make a team that perfectly complements each other for huge combo attacks against some of the tougher bosses. It’s almost as pleasantly addicting as Pokemon itself.
But, to balance things out, it’s borderline unnecessary to spend all that time building up a perfect team. Emil and Marta are highly effective on their own, and once the cast from the first Symphonia game start popping into your party (including Colette, Genis, Raine and Sheena) you find they’re typically better than any monster you may have, even though their equipment and stats cannot be changed. So the question then becomes, are you willing to sink a lot of time into an aspect of the game that can practically be ignored altogether? If so, hey, you’ve got a lot of material to cover. If not, one of the game’s biggest bullet points is meaningless.
Above: Emil and Richter fight with two capture monsters on a battlefield that’s just been completely turned to the blue element
Then there are the games many side quests, which are acquired by visiting the Tales-staple Katz Guild. Each side quest awards some trinket of varying import, but we found the time invested did not match up with the payoff; weapons won by delivering a package or saving a lost researcher were sometimes weaker than those in the town’s shop. What’s even weirder is the fact that the game introduces quests to you early on, then recommends you don’t begin them until level 12. We were at level 7 or 8 when we attempted the first and got creamed. Why bring it up if we can’t really take advantage of it for an unknown amount of hours?
The Tales series is known for its chatty dialogue scenes that pop up while you roam the map. They’re only there for entertainment purposes, but serve to connect the party in ways the main plot never could. Entire conversations take place in these scenes that reveal character traits, interests and hobbies that flesh them out wonderfully, and we happily listened to every damn one we could. Then, as this strange balancing act would have it, the in-game dialogue between Emil, Marta and the various friends and enemies are so horribly clichéd and trite it’s like they were pulled from a third-rate, Japan-only RPG for Saturn. How can the bonus voicework and exchanges be so fun and then the ones that matter be so boring?
Above: Sheena looks good anywhere, but only sounds good in the dialogue breaks
The next half-good/half-bad point really ticked us off – many of Dawn’s action scenes are animated beautifully, with fluid, lifelike movements from every character on the screen. You hardly ever see JRPG characters behave like this, leaning into runs and realistically bending all their joints in the appropriate manner. When they’re on the screen, it’s hard to look away. And then for no reason at all the other half are just as stiff and robotic as every other JRPG released since the PlayStation One days. We expect the latter at this point (even the super-spiffy Tales of Vesperia is guilty), but it’s even more of an insult when far better scenes exist in the same damn game. This, coupled with the inane dialogue and the next point we’re about to drop, are what really hold the whole thing back from greatness.
The main quest is about Emil trying to find magical cores that will help him awaken Lord Ratatosk, the monster who’s lending Emil his power during battles. Along the way you keep running into Lloyd Irving, the hero of the first Symphonia from 2004, who’s apparently gone off the deep end and is killing people left and right, Emil’s parents included. This twist was known from the first press releases, but it’s still an amazingly unique and cool idea to pursue. Make the previous beloved hero, whom you spent 40 hours with, the villain of the sequel? Brilliant… except that you spend far, far more time dicking around with the downright dumbest quests we’ve seen in a while.
Above: Lloyd is constantly at odds with Emil and Marta. Too bad these encounters take forever to come around
Instead of pushing ever onward, always one step behind Lloyd and feeling like there’s an actual chase or vendetta at hand, you’re usually scattered from one task to the other in a very artificial let’s-extend-the-game kind of way. Here’s an intentionally long-winded example:
You need to cross the ocean to chase Lloyd but can’t because the town has an arsonist loose who’s setting everything on fire. They won’t run any boats until he’s caught. They thought they caught the culprit, but then another fire broke out, so he’s probably not to blame. You check this culprit out and sure enough he’s someone you know that can’t get out of jail because the one person who could stand up for him was knocked unconscious by the last fire. Checking him out reveals a toxin in his body that can only be cured by rosemary, which is in a cave outside of town. You claw through a huge dungeon to find the rosemary wilted without sunlight. After finding a way to get sunlight on it and instantly grow it to proper size, you fight a boss then take the rosemary back to heal the dude to vouch for your friend to help you find the real arsonist. Once healed, the guy says it was a magic frog that knocked him out, and your team deduces it’s all the seafood in the town that’s attracting these explosive amphibians. Now you plan to lure it into town and take it out… only the town’s conveniently out of the main component, jellyfish. Now you’re off to another town to fish and retrieve one sole jellyfish, return to fight the magic frog and still not cross the ocean to do the one thing you’re interested in doing.
Above: Get used to this screen, you’ll see it a lot
Then, cutting back on that annoyance ever so slightly is the overworld. Some might complain about the lack of a walk-there-yourself map, but in this case we happily chose our destination from a pre-set list and instantly teleported there. It’s fast, it gets you where you need to go and helps alleviate some of the back-and-forthiness of the main story.
We don’t want to come down on it so much, but here the mediocrity, which might have flown anywhere else, mucks up the works even more than usual, thanks to the parts of the game that work quite well. Collecting monsters, visiting old Symphonia locations, listening to the dialogue scenes and watching the motion-captured characters act out the drama suck you in like few other Wii games can, only to have the hackneyed plot devices and persistently obnoxious sidetracking annoy the living crap out of you.
If you can look past the last-last-gen flaws that absolutely should be gone by now, there’s a totally playable bit of gaming here that’ll scratch your RPG itch for the time being. But if you’re unsure as to which new Tales game you should play, Vesperia or Dawn of the New World, go Vesperia.
Nov 13, 2008