The Tales games are a long running series that started back on the Super Nintendo with Tales of Phantasia. Tales of Graces started off on the Wii in Japan only, but was later released on the PS3 in Japan and America as Tales of Graces f.
At its core, it is a typical Japanese RPG. You travel from one location to another, watching cut scenes for the story, and fighting enemies along the way. You gain experience points, leveling you up and increasing your stats. But, that’s just the beginning. Tales of Graces has a wide array of systems that make the game more complex and interesting. At the same time, you don’t need to understand all of the systems in order to have fun playing the game. This gives it a nice balance, allowing both casual gamers and serious JRPG fans to enjoy the game thoroughly.
On top of a typical leveling system, there is also a Skill system. In this system, you gain Skill Points which then apply to Titles that you earn by going through the story or by accomplishing certain feats. These Skills include stat increases, new attacks, new abilities, and upgrades to those attacks and abilities. It allows you to have more control over the capabilities and skill progression of your characters.
There’s also a flexible crafting system, called “dualizing”. It allows you to create a variety of new items, from new weapons and equipment to consumable items for battle. You can even upgrade the same weapons and armor multiple times, allowing you to create better and better equipment.
To help you get the items you need for dualizing, as well as to help you in battle, you are given an “eleth mixer”. You can select items that you want, giving you a certain percentage chance of that item being generated, at a cost, as you walk around. Additionally, it allows you to select food dishes that are cooked during or after a battle based when certain conditions are met. And, finally, it also lets you equip spell books that do a variety of things, such as reducing damage in battle, increasing your movement speed, or making your eleth mixer improve at a faster rate.
Even shopping gets a neat system in which using a shop will earn you stamps. If you get 10 stamps, you unlock a new item that can be purchased from that shop.
To help the player understand all of these systems, tips are provided in little bits as you play through the game. Additionally, on the easier difficulty levels, you can ignore many of these systems and just play through the game without it slowing you down.
As with any RPG, the fighting system is arguably the most important. Tales of Graces has a fast-paced real-time battle system where, in addition to determining which attacks to use, which enemy to attack, and what items to use, you also need to carefully time your attacks and spells, as well as block or dodge enemy attacks. This is a staple for the Tales series, and one of the aspects that separates it from many other JRPGs.
As you fight, to give yourself the best chance of winning, you need to be aware of the different types of attacks you have and which ones your enemy is weak to. This isn’t always critical for winning a fight, but it always helps you do more damage.
You can change characters at any time, including mid-battle. However, you will have to adjust your play style at least a little bit for each character, because they each have their own nuances and abilities that significantly affect what methods are effective from one character to the next. This variety goes a long way in keeping the game fresh as you play through it, which can take anywhere from 80 to 120 hours for the first full playthrough if you are taking your time.
Unlike many other JRPGs, you can change the difficulty at any time, except in the middle of a battle. You might think it unfair, but it is balanced by a risk and reward system. On a fight-by-fight basis, the higher the difficulty, the more experience points and Skill Points you get, and the better items you receive. Thus, it is to your advantage to always play on the hardest difficulty you can manage. This setup allows newcomers and veterans alike to enjoy the game from beginning to end.
Tales of Graces supports up to 4 simultaneous players, but only during battles. Additionally, it only supports 4 players when you have 4 characters on your team, which is for most, but not all, of the game. In order for other players to join, though, you have to know a couple of things that aren’t immediately clear. First, you have to make sure that the second character in your team is the one that player number 2 wants to play as. The position of the team member dictates which controller gets to play as that character. Second, that character must be set to either semi-manual or manual modes, which you set character by character. The game does not auto-detect that you are trying to play with multiple players, nor does it have a clearly labeled option for enabling multiplayer.
That being said, the multiplayer is a bonus to an already good JRPG. Still, due to the unclear way in which it is enabled, it leaves significant room for improvement.
If there’s anything that is more important to an RPG than the fighting system that consumes the majority of the player’s time, it’s the story. In Tales of Graces, the story manages to have multiple layers of story arcs that are entirely contained within other story arcs, which each layer getting larger and grander than the one before it. By the end of the game, you do have a story that can arguably be described as epic.
However, to get to all of this story, you will have to put up with a number of clichés. The primary story arc starts with amnesia. Trust and betrayal are reoccurring themes. The story includes sub-plots like child rebellion and a love story. It even includes a coup d’etat, complete with a revenge plot. There are a few more clichés later in the game used as plot twists as well.
As long as you can get past the clichés, the story is very enjoyable. Additionally, Tales of Graces goes one step further by including a complete After Story without requiring DLC. The extra story occurs 6 months after the end of the primary story, and significantly expands the backstory of the main antagonist. Without this extra story, the game would feel incomplete due to the way that the main story abruptly ends. However, with this extra story, it adds an extra dimension to the overall story.
For many players, replayability will not even be a consideration with this game due to its length. If your goal is simply to enjoy the story, the game can be a 40 hour experience, but a typical playthrough can easily exceed 100 hours. Even so, Tales of Graces offers an attractive New Game+ option.
Different accomplishments during a playthrough will earn you points that can be spent when starting a New Game+ to unlock more starting titles, skills, and more. You can double how fast you earn experience points and skill points, or even multiply that rate by 5 if you have enough points from a playthrough. With these upgrades, it makes it easier to handle the higher unlocked difficulties, like Evil or Chaos, while also making the game generally more fun. Even if you play over 100 hours on your first playthough, you will likely be tempted to at least try out the New Game+.
If you enjoy colors in a video game, this game will give it to you, but that is unfortunately the nicest thing that can be said about the presentation. The graphics are nice overall, but they are far from perfect. There are some scenes in which the characters inexplicable shake, and some scenes are surprisingly blurry, including the title screen. This likely stems from its origins on the Wii.
In general, though, the presentation is colorful, and doesn’t detract from the gameplay or the story too much. Just don’t expect it to compare with similar titles that are built for the PlayStation 3 from the beginning.