It's hard to have a discussion about action RPGs without the Tales franchise coming up. Through more than a decade and almost 30 games and remakes, Tales has become practically synonymous with the action RPG genre. Unfortunately, as happens with any franchise that releases so many games, it becomes hard for one to stand out, and originality dies a slow death. Tales of Vesperia just might be the kick-start the series needs.
Vesperia takes place on the fictional world of Terca Lumireis, a world of magic and monsters. Humans rely on a sort of magical machine called a "blastia" for their daily lives. Blastia can be used for anything from enhancing combat abilities to providing water for a town. Every blastia uses a substance known as "aer," which can be deadly in large quantities. Terca Lumireis is a well-designed world, and a rich setting for Vesperia. Towns range from sprawling cities to floating sanctuaries, and there is a wide variety of interesting characters and creatures.
You play Yuri Lowell, a rough-around-the-edges byronic protagonist who will do anything to protect what he believes in. His antithesis is the noble and "perfect" Flynn Scifo, royal knight and childhood friend and rival to Yuri. While chasing a thief who stole the aqua blastia from the lower quarter, robbing the lower-class citizens of their water source, Yuri is thrown in prison for his vigilantism. Determined to catch the real criminal he busts out of prison and runs into Estelle, a naive noble looking to escape the castle. From there the story follows a fairly standard Tales path of the heroes gathering more friends working towards a common goal. The story progresses along many different routes, from discovering corruption within the empire to an evil that threatens the world. It's not an original story, but it's well-delivered, and will keep the player entertained.
The characters themselves are much more interesting than those found in most Tales games. The cast forgoes the standard teenage cast for a slightly older and more mature one. Yuri pushes the boundary between right and wrong on numerous occasions. Estelle starts out pretty pathetic but shows good character development and ends up likeable by the end. The cast also includes Yuri's pipe-smoking and knife-wielding dog Repede, the generally annoying but eager young Karol, the genius mage Rita, the voluptuous Judith, and the mysterious and perverted old man Raven. Each character has enough conflict to keep them interesting, and those that are annoying early on develop enough by the end that you still find yourself caring about them. Character interaction is strong. It especially sticks out during the in-game event conversations that pop-up while progressing. These are optional, but are fully voice-acted and deliver entertaining character development.
Vesperia follows these characters across a massive overworld filled with towns, dungeons, and a wide-variety of landscapes. Towns are never so big that they are annoying, or so small that they are uninteresting. Dungeons start out as fairly simple crawls, but gradually add more and more complex puzzle elements. Each dungeon has a unique style and theme, and players will never find themselves lacking for interesting content. Boss encounters can range from one-on-one duals to fighting enormous beasts, and have a great epic feel to them. There are also very difficult world-bosses the player can try and hunt down for extra challenges and loot.
Of course, the most important part of any Tales game is always the combat. Vesperia certainly succeeds here. Combat is done by moving in 2D on a 3D plane. Players can move the character they are controlling in the full 3D plane by holding down the L button. Attacks are done with B, Arts (special moves) with A, and holding directional keys changes the attack or art you use. Players can set the arts their character and party members can use, and stringing together combos of Arts with attacks is essential to successful combat. Both Overlimits and Mystic Arts return, allowing your character to gain the temporary ability to perform multiple arts in a row without penalty, and one super-powered Art by holding down the button after a high-level Art. If all of this sounds familiar to you, that's because it's basically the same combat system found in Abyss.
The one new addition is the Fatal Strike system. After performing an Art there is a chance a Fatal Strike target will appear on the enemy for just a couple of seconds, requiring the player to hit the right trigger quickly in order to deal a deadly blow. It's a nice addition, but doesn't add a lot to the combat formula. At the end of the day there isn't much changed in Vesperia, but the characters do have more unique fighting styles than those in past games. Unlike previous Tales games there is no issue of two characters playing so much alike that they feel worthless, and in general the party is much better-balanced (for example, there is actually a second character that can heal). That said, while the combat system is still excellent and fun, some changes would be appreciated at this point.
In a small change for the Tales franchise, skills are learnt by the weapons you equip on each character. As that weapon is used, the skills are taught to the character. Once a skill is learned it can be equipped without the weapon being used. Players also have the ability to create weapons themselves through synthesis. Synthesis is a simple item creation system allowing weapons, items, and armor to be made or enhanced through the combination of simple reagents, materials, and weapons found throughout the world. It's a decent crafting system and those looking for a distraction from the combat can find a lot of entertainment in it. Cooking, a staple of Tales games, also returns. Players can cook food after combat to give them stat boosts or recover stats after combat without burning through their important in-combat inventory items.
While it's not a style that requires a lot of detail, Vesperia makes excellent use of the cel-shading technique. Vesperia's unique and interesting environments and cities are stunning. Characters are expressive, although move a bit stiff in in-game conversations. The design is simplistic, but artistic, and the wide variety of locations keeps the game fresh. The cutscenes don't fare quite as well. For some reason the game switches between anime, CG, and in-game for the cutscene renders. Each one looks good, but it would be nice if they were more consistent. Overall though, Terca Lumireis is a joy to look at, and Vesperia is the best example of cel-shading on the Xbox 360.
The musical score is one of Motoi Sakuraba's best. It offers a wide-variety of scene-appropriate music that ranges from epic flowing scores for huge battles, to touching quiet melodies for sombre scenes. The j-pop theme song "Ring a Bell" by Bonnie Pink is catchy and fun, and is used well in the few times it pops up in-game. Voice acting is as good as it gets in Tales, but even so does have some missteps along the way. There is no Japanese voice option, so it's a good thing the English voices are so competent.
Vesperia is a good length for a JRPG. It will take most players 30 hours to complete just the main story, and there are up to 80 hours of content for those interested in doing side-quests, exploring, and mastering cooking and synthesis. Difficulty is easily adjustable on the fly and can be very easy or very challenging depending on the player's preferences. It is however a little inconsistent, with one of the hardest boss fights in the game taking place very near the beginning. Still, Vesperia is good value for the RPG gamer, and is rich with content for the dedicated.
There aren't many faults in Tales of Vesperia. It has a rich combat system, great musical score, solid story, interesting characters, and impressive visuals. The one somewhat major problem with Vesperia is the same thing that has hurt the Tales series from the beginning, which is that it still has not evolved. Minor improvements have been made all-around to the formula, but there is still very little here that fans haven't seen many times before. That said, Vesperia is the best Tales game, and still among the best action JRPGs. It is strongly recommended for fans of the genre. Just don't expect it to change the way Tales games or action RPGs are made.