JRPG Journey 2022: Tales of Legendia (June)
May’s game: Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
July’s game: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
I debated not finishing Tales of Legendia. It’s awfully long, it’s got the strangest structure I’ve yet encountered in a JRPG, and it’s filled with design decisions that make no sense. Take the high encounter rate, even when using Holy Bottles to lower it, add dozens upon dozens of hours of trekking or backtracking through long dungeons, and you end up with a ton of combat. I like combat in RPGs. Then why is Legendia’s so simple, rote, and option-less? Think Symphonia, except stripped down, which should tell you something, since Symphonia’s systems ain’t exactly complex. To start, you can only assign six artes, or Eres as they’re called this time, instead of the usual eight. Don’t know why the devs forgot about the right stick, but OK. A Climax gauge builds while you fight and lets you freeze time for combo-boosted damage, but there’s no reliable way to build huge combos. (My highest was around 100, paltry for a Tales entry.) Status effects are allegedly in the game; I hardly noticed. I got poisoned a bunch early on and turned to stone a couple of times in later dungeons, but that’s about it. Statuses don’t matter in battles, and after playing games like Berseria, I wish they did.
Senel, the main character, uses his fists, which is cool, but his combos lack creativity, and aerial combat is unwieldly and annoying due to brainless party AI. Knockdown is more prevalent here than in Symphonia, which this game most resembles visually and in terms of combat. Certain Eres always cause knockdown when they hit, and grab attacks can now be used while an enemy is knocked down. However, they work on enemies according to weight, so you’ll be unlocking stronger grabs throughout your adventure. Like so much of what Legendia introduces, this system intrigues me, but the game fails to build on it in any meaningful way. Grabs can’t be chained to other attacks or combos, and the fact they can only be used while the enemy is down means they must take up a precious move slot that could go to a more often useful Eres.
But wait! Grabs tie into the game’s Eres customization system, which lets you combine Eres you’ve mastered into more powerful Eres. This sounded great to me, until I tried it. Turns out all these custom Eres are only situationally useful, like a grab that deals big damage, but only to dragon type enemies. They’re usually more trouble than they’re worth. I don’t want to have a situational Eres equipped all the time, so when I’d fight a dragon, I’d have to remember to swap the special Eres on, fight the battle, then swap it out. They do deal nice damage when used properly, but in general the game tries to make a big deal out of grabs and custom Eres, when they’re not. You could ignore both of these mechanics and do fine. On the other hand, unlocking and mastering new Eres through usage is addictive and fun, and there’s plenty of variety in Eres available to your party members, making each fun to use and a worthy option in battle.
Unfortunately, the entire game is incredibly easy, to its detriment. Boss fights are braindead affairs; nearly all of them have an elemental weakness your party can exploit by only enabling Eres from that type. While that’s typical for Tales, it’s the only strategy required in Legendia. If you set up your spellcasters this way, keep mashing X with Senel, and use your Climax gauge when ready, you will win. Now, I enjoy trying to lock down the enemy, getting knockdowns, and pulling off combos for nice damage, but all that is by no means required, and more importantly, it gets old. These basic systems would probably be fine in a 30-hour game, but my playthrough of Legendia stretched well past 60 hours, and I stuck to the main story. The game’s length kills the fun of the combat, and it is fun… at first. But there are only so many ways I can combine the four best Eres I’ve got until I get bored of doing the same thing over and over, not to mention Senel’s got an Eres that’ll stun lock almost every boss by mashing Circle. (“Swallow Storm!”)
While I experimented with the other characters, on my first playthrough of Tales games I like to stick with one character and truly master them, and Legendia doesn’t satisfy in that regard. There aren’t even Mystic Artes in the game! Man, what really bakes my noodle is that this was developed by a team filled with veteran fighting game devs. The only explanation I’ve got is they were afraid of taking Tales too far in the fighting game direction and over-corrected.
So, the combat’s not deep or interesting enough to fill out the game’s massive length, but why is the game so long in the first place? I’m used to spending 60 hours on Tales, but that’s when I’m exploring every bit of the world, doing all the sidequests I can find, poring over guides to try and get all the titles or unlock. What gives? Okay, I’ve been lying—sort of. Tales of Legendia’s main story technically ends around 30 hours in, after you take down the main baddie. Then, you play through a bunch of what the game calls character quests, each of which focuses on or highlights one of the party characters. But these aren’t cinematic-only sequences or post-game celebratory fluff, they’re full chapters of the game, hours-long quests involving tons of backtracking through dungeons you’ve previously visited and lots of and lots of battling. Again, this is where combat gets old. Not only that, though, these chapters are overflowing with cutscenes like a busted can of biscuits. They appear tacked-on at first; it’s like, I thought the game was over, what’s this? But then they dive into super important details about these characters and events they go through, some of which tie into the main quest, and I’ve gotta wonder, why did the developers structure it this way? It’s like they finished a whole Tales game, then realized they forgot to make their characters interesting, then decided to tack on another 30 hours of “game,” just so they could add 10 hours of cutscenes for character work.
As much as the characters aren’t interesting during the main story, the character quests don’t actually do much to remedy this. For one, they progress slow as molasses off a gecko’s ass, and I’m talking the literal speed of text boxes and animations. Something about this era of Tales games was horribly slow and clumsy, and it only feels worse with time. (This makes me hesitant to go back to Symphonia, in fact.) Part of this is also due to lack of voice acting during the character quests, which happen to feature far more dialogue than the main quest itself. Since the Japanese release has voices, I can’t knock Legendia too hard for this overall, but it makes the English version’s second half tough to get through. Even though I don’t care for most of Legendia’s voice work, it’s better than absolute silence while watching text scroll for minutes on end.
The biggest problem with the character quests, however, is their reliance on the player already caring about these characters, when the main story fails to make me care. I haven’t discussed that yet because you’ve heard it before: it’s a bog-standard chosen one tale, except you don’t play AS the chosen one, complete with the chosen one getting tempted to the dark side and being saved by their friends. Even for Tales, this had been done before. Namely, in Tales of Symphonia! Legendia came out two years later; the writers didn’t even want to try something different? I’m outraged.
So after playing through a dull, 30-hour story, I’m now expected to care about Will, a stern father with zero personality who I stopped using and forgot about once his spells got outpaced by another party member 15 hours ago. There’s 5 more hours of predictable, sappy dialogue that drags on, mulching over the same territory, the same drama between him and his daughter? Then I’ve got to repeat this for every other party member, while slogging through dungeons again? That’s a big ask. I finished the game, but boy, did I turn my brain off and speed-read through most of the cutscenes. While I’ve heard the chapter quests are often considered the most interesting and well written part of the game, I don’t agree, and that might be due to structure.
Legendia feels cobbled together and overly rushed. The story would work better as the first third of a typical Tales game, spiraling into an unexpected direction after that. Instead, it’s a straightforward story about two factions, their history, and a bad guy who wants to reshape (i.e., destroy) the world. And it’s… fine, but I wanted more. If the chapter quests were integrated into the main quest as part of the required story, I’d likely have an easier time getting to know them and enjoying their tales.
Tales of Xillia is an example of how the Tales team later did the whole extended epilogue thing right. The Elympios section in that game is short but doesn’t feel tacked on. Instead, its short length makes it feel like a reward after an already lengthy experience, a peak into a whole new world with a completely different culture instead of backtracking through old dungeons, and it fits perfectly into the story. I’m glad they Namco got it right for that game, because trying a new structure for Legendia didn’t cut the mustard.
Visually, Legendia neither impresses nor disappoints. It looks rather basic for a late-generation PS2 game, but it’s about what I expect from a Tales game of the time, which is to say, about on par with Symphonia. There are some neat touches, like the shadows of clouds moving quickly overheard, since the game’s world is really a giant flying ship, but overall there’s not much impressive here and many sections are downright weak. The scene before the final battle of the main story, for example, ain’t cinematic at all. It shows the party walking up a canyon path, with a totally normal camera angle and no music, as if I’m not even in a cutscene. The party has some dialogue with the baddie, and that’s it, battle starts.
And I’m not saying I want dramatic anime posturing when it’s uncalled for, I’m talking about cinematography only. There’s no camera swoops or pans or any attempt to spice things up, and man, this came out in 2005. There’s no excuse. Well, I get this is mostly due to lack of budget, but my point stands. Even a twist that happens here feels underwhelming because of how boring the scene looks. This problem pervades the whole game, with stiff characters and a sore lack of animations. Thankfully, the Tales team got better at this over the years, largely moving past the problem with Berseria and Arise, but since Legendia is only the second 3D Tales game, it’s readily apparent here.
Out-of-combat gameplay is standard Tales fare, which I enjoy, so hey, that’s a positive. I don’t want to give the impression I dislike Legendia; there’s the occasional touching or funny character moment, even a few musical numbers; just not much that stands out. There’s not many side quests, only one town in the whole game, linear overworld progression with little exploration, and a system of warp tubes to take you to most dungeons. It’s Tales as you know it, but streamlined, almost as if it were designed for handhelds. This could be super fun if the combat were compelling throughout the entire experience, which again brings me back to wishing the game were shorter.
Also, this is a minor thing, but the hub town’s layout is dang confusing until you get to know it. Since you only need to go back there a few times during the main story, it took me until the character quests to get my bearings there, and that was 40 hours in! Some more visual distinction between different parts of town would have gone a long way. This all ties back into the game feeling rushed, or possibly troubled during development.
Even the true ending, after doing all the character quests, underwhelms. The ultimate baddie, Schwartz, wants to remake the world and free humanity by destroying everything. Talk about cliché, even for games in the Naughts. I completely checked out after that. Schwartz means black in German, by the way — how original. Now, Tales isn’t known for being original, and this kind of super basic and obvious symbolism can work when done right, but Legendia doesn’t add enough spice to the formula. Tales of Xillia fits the “god on earth” or “god become man” archetype but it adds plenty of twists and tweaks that make for a satisfying and unique JRPG tale. It’s got cliches but uses them to effectively to tell a new story. Legendia just.. follows the dots, colors by number, and doesn’t attempt anything greater. That sucks because of how, after 20 or so hours, the gameplay becomes rote and monotonous.
The music, though, is anything but. It’s epic as hell. It feels like Dragon Quest on steroids, bombastic orchestra tracks that suck you into the dangerous world atop the Legacy. Practically every single song is superb.. except the first one that plays during the end credits, which has a bunch of clashing, shrill singers that are just slightly off key. Ugh. These kind of super cheesy English renditions of Japanese theme songs almost never work, and here is no exception. Anyway, the rest of the OST impressed the hell out of me for a Tales game, which might be because it’s got a different composer than usual for the series. While I’m a big fan of Motoi Sakuraba’s early work — Shining the Holy Ark in particular — his soundtracks for Tales games fall on the bland and forgettable side, and I can’t help but feel like phones them in, so to speak. They’re fine but don’t stand out. Tales of Legendia’s music demands you pay attention. This is by far the best soundtrack I’ve heard from the series, and I’m getting pretty close to finishing all the games. It’s by Go Shiina, who I thought I wasn’t familiar with, but he actually composed Various Daylife, a weird little Square RPG I happened to review recently — that’s pretty cool. As far as Tales goes, he’s unfortunately only got to work on Zestiria and a bunch of mobile games. What a shame; Legendia’s soundtrack, the best of the series by far, truly is stellar.
I wouldn’t recommend Legendia as someone’s first Tales game. That’s because it’s more like half a Tales game, with another half a Tales game afterward except the halves don’t mesh well and each lacks something the other has. I’d only recommend it if you’re a completionist, like me, and want to play as many of the Tales games as you can, to add to your knowledge. That’s why I don’t shy away from series’ lesser regarded games, anyway. And you know, sometimes I end up disagreeing with the common opinion and find new favorites this way — Final Fantasy XIII’s a good example. Not this time, though. Tales of Legendia is overlong, tedious, uneven, bland, and mostly unexciting. But it also doesn’t do anything outstandingly bad, and I still had fun with the core Tales gameplay. I’m a fan of this series, and Legendia is far from the worst, which reminds me.. next time I play Tales, I’m gonna check out Tales of the Tempest. Wish me luck.
Thanks for reading my latest JRPG retrospective. Look out for an update next month when I review July’s game: Persona 3. I’ve been looking forward to getting into this series for a long time and can’t wait to share my thoughts.