TALES OF PHANTASIA
When anyone mentions JRPGs, most immediately think of games like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, which are certainly the largest names in the genre. New Dragon Quest games being released is actually considered a holiday in Japan. I, however, don’t often hear about the other juggernaut in the room. On December 15th, 1995, Namco released a game titled Tales of Phantasia on the Super Nintendo in Japan. Since that day, there have been more than two dozen games released with the Tales Of name, the newest game is Tales of Arise, releasing next year. In honor of that, I want to take a look back at the games in the series, detailing the evolution of the series as a whole. I will only be really talking about the Mothership Titles, not spinoffs such as Tales of the World, and even then I will focus on the games released in English officially. I hope to not only introduce the series to new people but also teach people some new things about the games as well. So without further ado…
PHANTASIA AND LINEAR MOTION
While Tales of Phantasia was released against Dragon Quest VI, it offered many things not often seen in JRPGs up to that point. While most games in the genre depended on turn-based combat like Final Fantasy and Lufia, Phantasia had a very different approach. While it still had random encounters, the battles all happen in real-time, using a new system called the Linear Motion Battle System. Moving left and right, you controlled a single character in a team of up to four to avoid, block, and attack the enemy using that character’s weapon and special skills and spells. The system isn’t totally unlike playing a fighting game like Street Fighter. This made battles much more dynamic when compared to games using a turn-based system. While slow compared to a modern rendition of the system, due to the lack of true combos, it still had lots to offer when it was created.
The plot also presented itself in a darker way, having death be regular and somewhat often. This gave the plot more urgency and a deeper feeling for the characters involved. The story revolves around a young man named Cress, who suffers a major loss and gets pulled into a battle against the revived warlock Dhaos. This battle sends him and his new friends across their world and even through time. From the very beginning, you get a real feel for Cress and the others as they grow and learn. It isn’t always serious, however, offering many lights, fun moments and humor. In all aspects, the game presents itself slowly, giving the important moments of time to settle and be understood. This gives events more impact, thusly deepening the connection you feel between characters. This is something many games in the series share.
The development, led by Team Wolf, was a troubled one. After failing a pitch to Enix, the title was picked up by Namco. While development went well after the project was finished most of Team Wolf left, eventually forming Tri-Ace in March of ’95. The team would soon start the Star Ocean series.
Phantasia had many rereleases, on the original Playstation, Playstation Portable, and even iOS. The first release in English wasn’t until 2006, on the Gameboy Advance. The game impressively sported limited voice acting, with the PlayStation version adding full voice acting for cutscenes. It was also popular enough to receive a manga and anime adaptation, as well as a CD Drama in Japan. Phantasia is the title with the most remakes in the series.
TALES OF DESTINY
The second game in the series, Tales of Destiny, released on the PlayStation in Japan on December 23rd, 1997, and came to North America on September 30th of ’98. It was developed by the remaining team from Phantasia, and as such retained much of the graphical style of Phantasia, even though it was on a more advanced console. The game was still sprite-based, retaining the Linear Motion Battle System, with the only improvements coming in the form of sprite clarity and cleaner battle animations and speed. A North American publisher noted issues with the simplicity of the graphics, but the Destiny team simply insisted on making an outstanding localization to compensate. As such, the script translation was handled with special care.
The plot of Destiny was rather different from Phantasia. The story follows a man named Stahn, a stowaway on a cargo airship that finds a very precious artifact, called a Swordian. Swordians are blades that can think and feel, as well as bestow powers onto their chosen wielder. This leads Stahn on an adventure to find the other Swordians to combat powerful darkness. Along the way, he meets many Swordian users, such as the Lens Hunter Rutee and knight Leon. While notably lighter than Phantasia, Destiny tried harder to build more relatable characters, like Stahn, who while he was a reliable Fighter, was also very lazy and not entirely smart. This gave players a way to learn about the world as Stahn learned more.
While the battle system was mostly the same as before, the way characters grow and function in battle are different. While not every character can, most gain use of a Swordian during the story. That Swordian becomes that characters main weapon, as it gains power with the user, and allows that user to cast magic. Weapons are still up for purchase in shops, but the Swordians are generally more powerful than weapons you can buy. Each Swordian is also, well, a sword. Unlike Phantasia, where characters had unique weapons to use, most of the characters in Destiny will be using swords, even though they might be able to use a secondary weapon type. While boring in a customization sense, this changes combat very little, and it can be fun to see your characters grow in new ways. They also added the option for multiplayer, an edition that would be added to most titles moving forward.
A remake of Tales of Destiny was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2006, and the Directors Cut was released in 2008, but neither version of the game was released outside of Japan. The 2006 remake offered much-improved graphics, and altered the battle system, putting an emphasis on aerial combat and combos. The Directors Cut also added Leon Mode, telling the story through a different perspective, and added Stahn’s sister Lilith as a playable character. Destiny was popular enough to get not only a CD Drama but the first sequel of the series. That sequel, however, was never released outside of Japan.
TALES OF ETERNIA
Having learned a lot from their first 2 projects, the team begins their work on the third title, and Tales of Eternia released in Japan on November 30th, 2000. A year later, on September 10th, it was released in North America as Tales of Destiny 2. This would add a fair bit of confusion when Destiny got a proper sequel, as Eternia had nothing to do with Destiny. It was believed that this was due to copyright issues with the word “Eternia,” specifically with Mattel and their “Masters of the Universe” toy line, but during an interview, developers clarified that the name change was simply for marketing and brand recognition, due to Destiny being the only Tales game in North America. In that regard, it’s very similar to the numbering issue in the North American Final Fantasy series.
Unlike Destiny, Eternia was a large step up graphically, taking better advantage of the Playstation’s power. Like the remake of Phantasia, Eternia had improved voice acting during story cutscenes, and fully rendered locations, with a fully realized 3D world map. Battle animations were sharpened to a fine point, looking and feeling fluid and clean. Spells and Skills flash bright and colorful, and the sound design made everything feel heavy. This was a vast improvement over Destiny’s muted tones and colors.
Like the two before it, Eternia used the Linear Motion system, but Eternia brought speed into the mix, making combat fast and allowing for full combos. It fully utilized the engine to give more space during a battle, allowing for larger animations and more room to even jump for air attacks. While not completely refined, this will be the basis for future uses of Linear Motion in titles such as Tales of Hearts. Phantasia had created the system, but Eternia set the bar. It is also the first game in the series to have a Cameo Battle, allowing you to fight Cress and Archie from Phantasia in the arena. This becomes a tradition in the series and was even added to remakes of the other two games.
The story begins in the world of Inferia, where a local Hunter named Reid finds a young girl that had fallen from Celestia, the world above Inferia’s skies. With the help of his friends Farah and Keele, Reid learns to speak to the girl Meredy and learn of a cataclysm of the world’s colliding. They then go on a quest to stop the collision of the two worlds. The plot, while a tad cliche, explores racism and segregation in a very defined way as the group discovers more about the history of the two worlds. While this would have appeared a bit in the other games, Eternia makes it the driving point of the narrative and would become a theme in future titles.
While mostly well-received, many review sites, such as GameSpot, found the graphics to be outdated. Others remarked on the quality of the voice acting, saying they sounded bored and unenthusiastic. Even still, Eternia was very widely loved for the improved battle system and the lovable characters. Tales of Eternia got rereleased on the PSP on March 3rd, 2005, and going to Europe and Australia in February of 2006. On the same day as the PSP release in Japan, they also launched Tales of Eternia Online, an MMORPG set in the Eternia world. Service lasted until March of ’07, though Namco never gave a reason for the closing of the service.
In 2001, Eternia also had a full 13 episode anime series released, based on events in the game. It was set to also release in North America, but the license expired before anything could happen.
To this day, Eternia is regarded as one of the best in the series.
While I didn’t get into the series until later (a story for next time), going back and playing these three games was a very lovely experience. While dated, you can definitely tell how unique they were when they were first released. Eternia is actually still one of my favorites to this day. I highly suggest these games to anyone wanting to try new RPGs, though going back to play Phantasia especially might be difficult with how much slower combat is. If you don’t mind playing in Japanese, I suggest importing the PlayStation version of Phantasia and the Director’s Cut of Destiny on PS2. Those are considered the definitive versions and have aged much better. Personally for Eternia, any version is great, just remember that it used to be called Destiny 2.
Next time we will talk about the many PS2 games in the series. Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever played any of the games we talked about and your thoughts on them!
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Wade L. Hilton
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