“That looks different” I remember thinking upon seeing the cover art for “Tales Of Symphonia”. Isolated on a shelf in my local Blockbusters, huddled in the pre-owned section, among other distinguished yet rejected GameCube titles like Mario Kart Double Dash and Super Monkey Ball. All in various stages of disrepute where they had been handled a little too much, with some displaying far more distinctive visible traces of fingerprints, dents and other blemishes, Tales stood apart with its relatively polished veneer and striking vibrant cover. It was the only copy there, looking almost pristine against the neighbouring filth, with the exception of the enormous pre owned sticker unceremoniously fastened to its corner. I recall almost walking away thinking that it’s a game I should research before committing to such an exorbitant purchase, around £20 if memory serves. But I felt compelled as well as abnormally confident that buying it now, without prior knowledge of the software was categorically the most justified act of uninhibited spontaneity I would ever experience. And it was.
Tales Of Symphonia is one of those rare games that I endeavoured to play and complete at least once a year. It’s like an annual itch that needs consistent scratch to appease the irritation, stimulated by a game that on the surface could be considered unremarkable. It doesn’t necessarily have the best graphics, nor the most inspired dialogue. It relies heavily on a rudimentary narrative consisting of a “chosen one” ordained by prophecies and lineage to save the world from biblical destruction, a process referred to as the journey of regeneration that is supposed to rejuvenate the decaying world. Aided by a select group, elected by the chosen one herself they undertake the task of completing this noble task by traversing to specific shrines around the world to begin the process of regeneration. But it’s once the real concept is revealed that it takes on an entirely different orientation. You soon discover that a self-proclaimed deity, the one that has created the world of Sylverant has manipulated two worlds to benefit his own selfish agenda, with the chosen one merely a sacrificial vessel for the soul of his long deceased sister to inhabit, which is a genuinely startling discovery.
Every cliché, Troupe and banal reveal that had been clumsily exacerbated up to this point felt like a deliberate rouse, instigated to throw you off the subverted truth. It’s such a strange turn of events that has serious repercussions for your own perception of the story but also the progression of the characters. When these characters faith and convictions are challenged in such a shocking fashion, with everything they’ve ever believed revealed to be a lie, the one-dimensional characteristics that consolidated this groups persona deteriorates, allowing each individual to grow, developing independently from one another. Characters once repressed by formulaic convictions begin to make sense, developing actual personalities as opposed to quirks to make them distinct, but not rushing that development.
Relationships take time to develop throughout, progressing naturally as they would do on such an arduous journey. Characters adapt, gaining maturity through their conduct and the experiences that impede them along the way. Lloyd Irving for instance is initially a very impulsive adolescent, with his impetuous demeanour inciting the collective ire of his home town following a well-meaning intervention of abuse to an elderly woman and subsequent altercation with the aggressors, that causes the death of many residents as well as destruction of the village itself as recompense for his actions. It’s also an incident that forces him to kill the very person he was trying to protect. By the end of the game he not only refines his skill as swordsmen, but his maturity as well. Embracing a diplomatic authority rather than recklessly instigating violence as an appropriate deterrent to the perceived notion of evil. Instead he reasons the virtues of his ideologies and why antagonizing the purity of such sophistry is a callous abuse of power, fundamentally erroneous to the preservation of a civil society, that warrants the forceful interventions of Lloyd and his companions.
Another defining attribute that really enriched this games diverse and often complex conceit, along with the explorable and vibrant dungeons, seething with elaborate puzzles was something a little more simple: the combat. It introduced a system that promoted a dynamic engagement of provocation, with more immediate fluidity that you controlled, as opposed to the benign turn based tedium adopted by almost every other Rpg. As a result you felt much more absorbed in the conflict, combining a melody of vicious, interchangeable combinations that not only provided an immense capacity for quickly disposing of combatants but made you look good doing so. You could pick any of the 9 or so characters to do this with, with each adhering to a specific style or weapon, though I favoured the much more aggressive katana wielding proclivities of Lloyd, others may prefer a more supporting role like Raine and her ability to heal or Genis and his elemental magic. Best of all is when you link up together to initiate a devastating amalgamation of your combined utilities, completely overpowering an enemy that up to that point had the advantage.
It’s also worth noting that the villain of the story, though flawed worked well as a kind of allegory for the story. The so-called process of regeneration is revealed to be a lie, much like the villain. He’s a charlatan, admittedly one of sizable influence and power, that has altered he’s own appearance to resemble something much more befitting of his immense capabilities. Crafting a pretense of illustrious strength and prominence that belies the scared and lonely child behind the illusion. He isn’t “evil” because he wants money or power (he’s a God, he has all the power he needs!) but because of circumstance. He had been discriminated against as a child, racially segregated no less. His desire to destroy the world, or in his damaged mind unite it by making everyone the same is a product of societies intolerance towards others deemed abnormal or foreign. Strip away the fantasy elements and embellishments and you’ve got yourself a world not too dissimilar to our own.
It’s actually been a couple of years since I’ve played Tales Of Symphonia and perhaps nostalgia has somewhat clouded my judgement of the game. The animation probably hasn’t aged well, and the cut scenes used were always rather basic. But the fact that I was able to pluck most of this information from my usually sieve retaining memory demonstrates just how much this game still resonates with me. Tales Of Symphonia was the most played GameCube game I owned, by far! Though its involvement in my life has somewhat diminished over the years, it influences will remain embedded long after I’ve forgotten my own name. Which is why Tales Of Symphonia is my #8.