When I think of action-RPGs I usually think of titles like Diablo, Phantasy Star Online, and so on and so forth. I'm not sure what to call games like the Star Ocean series and this game. An RPG with action-game elements? An action-game with RPG elements? Okay screw it I'm just going to call this game an action-RPG as well. Tales of Vesperia is yet another entry into Namco-Bandai's Tales series and combines everything we love and loathe about Japanese RPGs...I mean action-RPGs.
What I always found fascinating about this series is that to date it's starting to rival Wizardry in terms of number of sequels/spin-offs. I could have sworn this franchise only started back in the Super Famicom days with Tales of Phantasia. I also think it's notable that Phantasia is probably the only great thing a developer from Wolf Team has ever accomplished. The battle-system alone makes up the identity of this game and is very cool as well. Battles typically take place on a 2D plane(though this entry and a handful of others allow for free-roaming) and the player takes control of one member of the party and wipes out the enemy through battles that resemble fighting games. There's combos, special moves(commonly referred to as "artes"), super moves, and a lot of the terminology we usually associate with fighters like chip damage, dizzies, and hit-stun.
The other commonality between all of the Tales games is the focus on the characters. Over the course of each game the people that join your party will develop and grow in ways that can't be explained with a number. Instead these characters are given titles. Some start off as a "lonely orphan" or "spoiled princess" but over time they become a "master swordsman", "vigilante", "determined leader", "hopeless romantic" and so on and so forth. It's a veritable gauntlet of anime cliches but for the most part the character development is handled well and at times they might even grow on you.
So essentially you have combat, characters, and cooking. Oh yes I forgot there's also dozens of secret recipes to find in each game. These are nice as food can add temporary stat buffs or another method of healing after battle but it's ultimately not required. Regardless this feature has its fans and the Tales series does enjoy catering to them.
The rest of the game is similar to any number of other RPGs. Progression is tied to a town -> dungeon -> town affair, there's a world map, and encounters are of the "run into creatures on the map to initiate battle" style. Some games in the series handle this differently though as Phantasia for example is completely based around random encounters. There's also whiny townspeople, tons of secrets, and possibly some hidden goodies like new outfits and a sauna scene(don't expect much though as the goodies tend to be hidden).
As I mentioned before Tales of is all about the combat and Vesperia certainly excels at that. While there aren't that many playable characters they have a very large variety of moves/spells and one can find themselves favoring just one of them for several hours learning all of their nuances and intricacies. New moves are constantly doled out whether via level or repeated use of earlier moves, there are even a handful of special attacks learned from certain skills. The skill system is also great as while there's standard stuff like "more HP" and "higher attack power" there are also skills that can customize how each character plays.
At first I found the actual fighting in this game to be rather dull. This is mostly due to the lack of impact that attacks tend to have and it's especially annoying when the enemy doesn't even flinch. However as the game progresses new abilities are picked up and the fatal strike system comes into play. I'm particularly fond of this move as it's easy to trigger and it's very satisfying to perform on bosses. It also helps that after every battle the player is ranked by a ton of conditions which creates an incentive to do better even if it's on the lowliest of combo fodder.
Where the combat falters somewhat is in regular enemy variety. I must not have been paying attention or something cause suddenly it feels like every RPG enemy is one of ten different types. It's kind of like how in early RPGs players would run into the same enemy only a different color with higher stats. These days the different colors are replaced by different skins or maybe some extra horns or a second tail. The problem with a low enemy variety is that a lot of the attacks are the same so certain strategies are repeated throughout the game. At least the player will be using different moves and/or a different character in hour #30 as opposed to hour #1 so it's not too much of the same. At least all of the bosses are unique though on the normal setting they're not much of a challenge.
Replay value is a huge part of Vesperia(or any Tales game for that matter). The biggest example of this is after the game is completed. Every point gathered from fighting battles can be used to buy special features for the next playthrough. This can include things like having all skills/artes available at the start, double the experience, and so on and so forth. There are also harder difficulty settings and in a rare and very intelligent move the difficulty can be selected at any time. Why this isn't standard in every RPG is beyond me. In any case there's enough here to last for hundreds of hours. While I have no interest in playing through this game again any time soon I figure I can shelve it for awhile and come back to a fresh and slightly different experience, and customizing the next playthrough the trim away the fat somewhat by having less grinding or doubling rare drop-rate.
What makes Tales of Vesperia worthwhile is a bit hard for me to explain. I mean personally I think it's great, probably the best in the series. On the other hand despite all of games in the franchise that have been released I think I can count the number that actually hit the US on two hands. Furthermore at least two different teams handle the development of all these games so if you liked Symphonia and Abyss without a doubt you should pick this one up as well. Some prefer the more challenging games from the team behind Tales of Destiny, Eternia, and other related titles. So in the end it's the best out of the games I've played, which is Phantasia, Eternia, Symphonia, and Abyss. This isn't accounting for Tales of Destiny 1 or 2, the new one Tales of Graces, or any of the others.
The most frustrating aspect of the Tales franchise is that so few of the games actually reach our shores. At the rate Namco-Bandai publishes these titles one could expect to have a new game waiting for them just when they've gotten bored of the last entry. For fans this is great as there's always a new game to look forward to. Over here we're lucky to get the occasional bone thrown our way. Still if nothing else I don't see anything wrong with giving this title a go.