Tales of Symphonia was a formative experience for me. To my young 11 year old brain, it redefined my understanding of the JRPG genre. The vibrant presentation, action-focused combat, and mature storyline took me by surprise. Weekend after weekend, a friend and I explored the world of Sylvarant together, making progressive progress with each play session. While I had played a few JRPGs before, none had gotten me hooked like Tales of Symphonia had.
Despite my deep reverence for Tales of Symphonia, I haven’t played it since 2004. I really don’t know why. I bought it for PC a few years ago, but it felt wrong to play that game sitting at my desk on any given afternoon after work, almost as if it might tarnish the magic of that experience and the memories attached to it. However, with the release of Tales of Symphonia Remastered, I decided it was finally time to return to this world to see if it was as good as I remembered it to be. The result was a bit mixed.
Tales of Symphonia follows a boy named Lloyd Irving as he accompanies the Chosen One on a globe-trotting adventure. The Chosen One, Colette, instructed by divine prophecy, must “regenerate” the world to end war, famine and hatred. It looks like standard JRPG fare, but the story is darker and much more complex than it initially appears. Despite trying to do the right thing, Lloyd and his companions face moral dilemmas that often leave a trail of destruction in their wake. What makes the story so effective is that it rarely shies away from the consequences of our heroes’ actions. Conflicts are rarely resolved fairly, and the story is all the better for it.
However, what makes the story truly memorable is the excellent cast of characters. To this day, Symphonia still has the best cast of characters the series has ever seen. Lloyd is a charismatic and impetuous boy seeing the world for the first time. Genis is a clumsy spell caster who serves as the perfect best friend and frustrates Lloyd. While Kratos, at first glance, appears to be a cold and aloof mercenary, he quickly becomes a stoic father figure to Lloyd. There is a great dynamic between all the members of the group that leads to some funny, heartwarming and devastating moments over the course of the journey.
The story and characters are at times held back by awkward localization, but the lack of a proper quest tracking system is what really holds back the momentum. Just like in the original, there’s a Synopsis menu that summarizes your adventure so far and occasionally tells you where to go next. The problem is that these “synopsis” entries are hard to sift through and can be vague at times, meaning you could be aimlessly wandering the map until you stumble upon a point of interest that triggers a cutscene. The inelegant but often necessary solution is to open a tutorial. Tales of Symphonia also has a handful of side quests, some of which can be missed. Again, there’s no reliable way to track these quests, so it’s very easy to miss some.
The presentation doesn’t do Tales of Symphonia many favors either. The UI has received some minor tweaks, but it looks nearly identical to the PS3 port released in 2013. Cutscenes are just as stark and awkward as they were in 2004, and the outside world is bland and lifeless. And the classic chibi style feels at odds with some of the game’s darker themes. It’s hard to take some of the most emotional moments seriously when they’re played by cutesy characters.
What sets the Tales Of series apart from other JRPGs is its real-time combat. While you can still pause time to change your tactics, administer unique attacks called Arts, and use items, the combat itself takes place in real time. Success in battle requires some light meter management and the combination of basic attacks with Arts. This basic combat loop hasn’t changed much with subsequent titles in the series, but compared to Tales of Berseria and Tales of Arise, it feels stiff and painfully slow. Eventually, as you unlock more Arts, the combos become complex and, in turn, more satisfying to pull off, but the first few hours can seem like a slog.
To compensate for the repetitive nature of the combat, you can play as different party members. Each character features a different playstyle with unique Arts and custom combos. Spellcasters like Genis thrive on the edge of the battlefield casting spells from afar, while the assassin Sheena, voiced by the incredible Jennifer Hale, uses elemental cards to attack her enemies. However, no matter who you play, you can’t escape the lackadaisical pace of combat.
Although most of the combat encounters are relatively slow and straightforward, the boss fights are the real highlight. These call for thoughtful party composition, smart tactics, and clever item management. Even on the normal difficulty level, players may find it difficult to beat boss encounters like they would normal ones. While the fundamentals still feel a bit clunky, the increased challenge makes the boss fights considerably more engaging.
On the Nintendo Switch, I ran into some technical issues in the first 10 hours. A couple of rooms within specific dungeons suffer from noticeably low frame rates. This doesn’t carry over to combat, so it doesn’t directly affect gameplay, but it’s still annoying to see a 19-year-old game suffer from framerate issues on modern hardware, especially considering the original Nintendo GameCube release aimed for 60. frames. per second. Also, in the city of Asgard, the game crashes every time you enter a building. So far, this is the only instance of this I’ve seen, but it’s another strange issue that, while not directly affecting gameplay, is strange to see.
More frustratingly, my game crashed twice in the first 10 hours. What made these crashes particularly painful is the lack of an autosave feature combined with Tales of Symphonia’s rigid save system. You can only save to certain locations, and some save locations are inaccessible without a specific item. That means that a badly scheduled accident can erase hours of work. I have lost a total of two hours due to accidents. Both accidents occurred during extended gaming sessions of four or more hours. Since then, I’ve been saving regularly and restarting the game every few hours, and haven’t had any crashes since. It’s also worth noting that both crashes occurred before the day one patch, which is now live. Hopefully this means that players picking up the game at launch won’t run into these same issues.