Tales of Symphonia is the first game in Namco's Tales series to be released in Europe, and if it is a good representation of the series as a whole then I can honestly say it's a great shame that the others never made it.
Each of the games in the series share certain aspects in common - most noticeably the real time battle engine. Instead of your typical turn based RPG battles where you keep pressing the A button and just sit back and watch, the fights here are much more hands on. In the original Tales of Phantasia, the battles were purely from a side-on perspective, much like a 2D fighting game like Streetfighter 2 or Mortal Kombat. However, you're not on your own - you have up to 3 other characters in your party that fight alongside you. While you don't control them directly, you can command them quickly and efficiently to use certain special moves or items thanks to the intuitive menu that can be called up with the Y button. In the battles with regular monsters, you probably won't need to use advanced tactics, as mashing the button generally works, but against the bosses you will need to keep a close eye on the HP of yourself and your allies and be ready to jump in with a heal command.
The more recent entries to the Tales series, Symphonia included, have introduced a new semi-3D version of the battle engine. While you are still locked on a 2D plane with the enemy you are targeting, your enemies and allies are free to run around the 3D battlefield. When you want to change targets all you have to do is hold down the R trigger and select someone else to beat up. At the end of a battle, you are graded depending on how much damage you took, how quick you were, etc. These grade points can be saved up and spent on items at certain stores, or held back until you complete the game. Once you finish the game you can start a New Game+ with your old save file, and buy various things such as double xp, the ability to retain your "titles" and many other things. Throughout the game you will earn various titles for you characters, either at certain parts of the story, or for completing sidequests, or for fulfilling certain criteria in battle. These affect how your characters stats improve when you level up, so you can choose a title that boosts HP, TP (required for magic or special moves), Intelligence or many other stats.
Visually, Tales of Symphonia is gorgeous. It's like the pages of a manga book have come to life. Characters are all very well designed, and the towns and dungeons have a very solid and consistent look to them. The one thing that lets the graphics down a little is the overworld map - it's extremely basic and the monsters that randomly walk around all look the same, giving you no indication what you will actually have to fight should you happen to touch one.
The music is composed by Motoi Sakuraba (I hope I've spelled that correctly), who has been very prolific lately, having written tunes for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, Baten Kaitos, the Golden Sun series and more besides. It would have been nice if the music was fully orchestrated rather than synthesized, but that's not to say the music isn't good stuff. It's nice and varied too, and after a certain part of the game you will get new battle and overworld themes which helps to stop the game getting too monotonous. Voice acting in ToS is spot on, but with the range of talent providing the voices it's only really to be expected. The usual suspects (Cam Clarke, Jennifer Hale, etc) put in very solid performances, as do the other actors who I'm less familiar with. I'm especially fond of Collette's voice over.
I have read in other reviews that the plot is quite weak, but actually I think that's nonsense. While the story might start off quite cliched, it soon develops it's own path and there are many interesting twists along the way. Personally I don't think it matters too much if a story has been told before, as long as it's told well, and Tales of Symphonia certainly is that. What really makes the game enjoyable and keeps the plot from becoming boring, are the characters. They are all very well fleshed out, with decent lines and plenty to say. There are hundreds of optional "skits" that can be viewed during the game, most of which offer insights into the personal lives of the characters and help to develop their relationships with one another.
Tales of Symphonia is also one of the longest RPG's I've played in quite some time, clocking in at least 50 hours even if you just follow the basic outline of the story. If you add in all the sidequests, that time can easily be pushed over the 80 hour mark. There's quite a lot of freedom in the order you can tackle events as well, and certain plot strands could be skipped altogether, which adds to the replayability of the game.
All in all, Tales of Symphonia is one of the greatest games on the Gamecube, and I really hope Namco decides to bring future games in the series over to Europe. They currently have no less than three in production - Tales of Legendia and Tales of the Abyss for the PlayStation 2, and Tales of Eternia for the PSP, so the series shows no signs of stopping now.
Lloyd Irving, hero of the story
Collette Brunel, Chosen One, angel, love interest and heroine of the story.