If you're reading this article, we have a hunch you might be planning to pick up Final Fantasy XII. Let's face it: with such an epic coming out at the end of October, is it worth worrying about another RPG? We think so. Consider filling the three weeks from when Tales of the Abyss comes out and Final Fantasy XII's Halloween release with a saga of a completely different stripe.
Tales' claims to fame aren't quite Final Fantasy's. The battles are action-packed. The characters are in-your-face anime - colorful and brash. And though the story is just as broad in scale as anything Square Enix has ever done, it feels... well... different. That's a good thing. Tales of the Abyss succeeds on its own terms.
That's not to say you've never seen this stuff before. You'll be traveling from one town to the next, dungeons in between, hacking up monsters and solving political problems in equal measure. The world has a hard-to-believe mix of technology and magic. Buildings are full of empty, pointless rooms. The characters talk too much - period. The soundtrack was phoned in from the Casio keyboard factory by RPG Robot.
But ignore those flaws - along with the frequent and annoying load times - and you'll find that this is an adventure well worth taking. It starts slowly, with the young Luke fon Fabre, a spoiled young noble locked in a manor with nothing but swordplay to occupy his time. Arrogant and rude, he doesn't think before he talks - and he'll probably annoy you (though any guy who's made it through his teens will wince... this stuff cuts close to the bone.)
But the funny thing is that he also annoys everyone else in the game. And when the first big plot twist hits, they take it out on him - too much. We were swept into the story by then. It only continues to build for the rest of the game's run time... thanks to plenty of cutscenes and text-based skits, you'll get one of the best-developed groups of characters in the history of RPGs.
This is the finest story of the Tales series. Though it sometimes plays fast and loose with logic - like when the characters realize someone's cursed but don't do anything about it until hours later, when he tries to kill Luke - you're going to want to know what's going down.
Above: Luke's easily surprised, like many RPG heroes
But, as anyone who's played a Tales game knows, the battles are what holds it together. Abyss packs the most intense and strategic ones so far - it's the rare RPG where fighting is purely addictive (though you can avoid the monsters if you get tired of it.) Things move fast, as you charge in, swords slashing. Slicing up enemies with a sword is obviously fun - it's the foundation of probably half of all games. Now add in a pile of special attacks, speedy enemies and a new system that - when you get it right - pumps up your attacks for big damage and screen-filling effects... you're in battle heaven.
One of the best things about RPGs is that they let you explore a world, and see beautiful vistas... the creativity of game artists at its peak. Tales of the Abyss is no exception, and though there are some flaws in the looks (background details tend toward the blurry and blocky) you'll still find this world worth the journey.
Here's the thing: the developers felt the need to put in a crappy stealth bit... but when you get caught a couple of times, they give you the opportunity to brute force your way through. That's the kind of game it is: conscious of its limitations, and player-friendly from start to finish.
Tales of the Abyss is nothing new. And some gamers will complain about that. But there's a lot to be said for taking something existing and doing it right. If you played 2004's Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube, expect an evolution of that formula - with a story that actually kind of makes sense. If you put up with Tales of Legendia earlier this year, know that this game is so much more engrossing you'll forget it ever happened. In Japan, Tales stands tall with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. This is the series' answer to DQVIII and FFXII. What more needs to be said?