Some series are instant classics. Every sequel is treasured. Others have one brief moment in the sun, one game where it all comes together - and so far, the Tales series is definitely that kind. Fortunately for GameCube owners, that one brilliant game is Tales of Symphonia. It's hardly perfect, but it's so enjoyable and attractive that it's hard not to get swept up in its charm. It's easy to overlook its shortcomings.
Speaking of which, things here are pretty by-the-book. In a fantasy world of elves, half-elves and humans - and a lonely dwarf - one girl is chosen to journey from temple to temple to fulfill a prophecy. Of course, there's more to the story than it seems - and you soon figure out that the good guys are really the bad guys, some of the bad guys are actually good guys, the real bad guys are led by an immortal megalomaniac and there's a whole separate world across the sky.
This would still probably be too dull and confusing to take if it weren't for the game's characters. Lloyd, the game's lead, is basically just a good kid trying to do what's right, without the canned anger of most RPG heroes. Collette, his best pal and the focus of that prophetic journey, is really just a ditz, but she's nice and gives the other characters something to play off of. Best of the bunch are kid genius Genis, his sarcastic sister Raine - who likes to smack around anyone who gets out of line - and the enigmatic swordsman Kratos. There's also a playboy, an escaped convict and a sexy ninja girl.
What helps make the characters so likable are the skits that play out when you hit the Z button. Each adds a few moments of optional dialogue that has little to do with the story but a lot to do with giving you an idea of the way these characters think. Result: the usual "fantasy racism" plot is trotted out again, but thanks to how vulnerable and likable Genis and Raine are, it's barely irritating. You'll laugh, and grow to like everyone in the cast.
It's the gameplay, though, that makes Tales of Symphonia so addictive. There's no turn-taking here. You run right up to your enemies and smack the living daylights out of them. You'll control Lloyd (typically, though you can choose to control anybody). He's got a whole mess of special moves to pick from, all easy to execute. The feel of the sword-slicing action is just right; there's weight and impact. The rest of your party doesn't just stand dumbly by either. They'll let loose their own attacks and spells - though if you want something specific done, you can always give them direct orders. The battles are almost constantly fun to play, with creative enemies and challenging bosses.
The world of Symphonia is also so appealing you'll want to explore it. The game doesn't force you to go where it wants you to - at least, not nearly as much as most RPGs. Each town and dungeon looks special and different. Sure, it's all fruity fantasy stuff, so if that's not your taste, you're going to get bored fast. But if you like to look at these bright and cartoony graphics, you'll find yourself in a paradise of color and shape.
When you take all of this together - likable characters, crazy but OK story, brilliant battles and a beautiful world - you get an adventure that's well worth playing. It's a traditional game that blows away expectations by simply gushing quality. Yeah, there are places where you can point to really dumb things: the story has so many twists it sprains itself, the characters aren't allowed to figure out really obvious things, and the puzzles in the dungeons only really make sense two-thirds of the time. These are just details, though. This is a game that's simply fun and likable enough to be worth the bother of seeing all the way through. How often can you say that?