Saturday, October 2, 2021

Tales of Phantasia: Cross Edition


Cress Cross

Namco’s Tales series commenced on the Super Famicom back in 1995, although it wouldn’t receive any spotlight outside Japan until a fan translation over a decade after its release, with North America’s first exposure to the franchise being Tales of Destiny for the Sony PlayStation. Phantasia would see a remake on the PlayStation, although this too remained in Japan, one on the Gameboy Advance hybriding elements from the SFC and PSX iterations that would see an English release, a fully-voiced port to the PlayStation portable, and a touched-up version released on the PSP with the remake of Narikiri Dungeon entitled Tales of Phantasia: Cross Edition, to date the definite version of the game.

Phantasia opens with warriors from the past sending an evil lord named Dhaos into the future, where their descendants seal him inside a sarcophagus. Years later, the son of two of said warriors, Cress Albane, goes hunting with his best friend Chester Burklight, during which soldiers incinerate their hometown of Totis in search of one of the pendants used to seal Dhaos that Cress received from his father Miguel as a birthday gift. Cress eventually separates from Chester and meets other companions such as the healer Mint Adenade, whose mother had also participated in the sealing of Dhaos.

Cress and his companions’ journey will take them through the past and the future of their world, during which they meet other companions, including the summoner Claus Lester, one of the primary tasks of the narrative being his formation of pacts with various elemental spirits. Aside from the somewhat-tried time-travel aspect, the game generally tells its story well, with the heroes and villains largely being believable, alongside some potential variations in the form of extra characters such as the ninja Suzu and, new to Cross Edition, the time-traveling Rondoline Effenberg. There’s also a subquest involving two star-crossed lovers that can have differences depending upon the player’s choices.

Fortunately, the gameplay backs the narrative experience well, with random encounters on the overworld and in dungeons whose rate is mercifully less than in the Super Famicom version, and increasable or decreasable respectively through Dark and Holy Bottles. Phantasia sports a combat system with side-scrolling two-dimensional gameplay reminiscent of a fighting game restricted to two dimensions, the player controlling protagonist Cress and the AI controlling up to three active companions. Cress can chain attacks of either the slashing or thrusting varieties (most of his weapons having different attack power for each type), and execute TP-consuming special skills.

Cress can master physical skills after a hundred uses for each, allowing for the use of combination abilities that he largely gains by purchases through warriors across mostly in the past and future. His companions’ abilities also necessitate the use of TP, although enemies can interrupt the use of special skills by Cress and his confederates, and the AI admittedly isn’t always cooperative when it comes to Cress’s magic-centric allies. Fortunately, the targeting system is actually much better than in other action-based RPGs in that the action pauses while the player is switching enemies for Cress to target, most effective in Semi-Auto mode.

Also helpful is a minimap that shows the locations of the player’s characters and enemies on the linear battlefield, even showing when units on either side are in the process of casting magic, giving a bit of foresight as to whom to focus Cress’s attacks on. Eliminating magic-based antagonists is largely preferrable in that their spells, especially late in the game, can be especially deadly and decimate the player’s party easily, in which case death results in the typical Japanese RPG kusottare of a trip back to the title screen, wasted progress if far from a checkpoint, and needing to reload a previous save.

There are admittedly areas that would have benefitted from better placement of save points, although the gameplay is generally fast and as long as the player is playing on Normal difficulty, there isn’t a huge amount of time possibly wasted. Winning battles nets all living characters in the party, even those on the bench, experience for occasional level-ups, money to purchase new equipment and consumables, sporadic items, and a number of grade points depending upon performance largely stemming from who’s survived the battle and the maximum number of hits chained that the player, after an initial playthrough, can use to carry over certain elements into a New Game+.

Characters such as Claus, Arche, and Suzu don’t learn new skills from leveling, but rather in the first character’s case story events when contracting with spirits, the second’s case of purchase from NPCs and treasure chests, and the last’s case mostly the same as Arche. One element changed from previous incarnations is the replacement of the food sack system with a cooking system, new recipes gained from a chef found mostly in food shops, with successful cookery of dishes resulting in certain effects such as partial recovery of party HP or TP.

Perhaps the biggest improvement over prior versions of Phantasia is that, during the player and enemy’s spell animation, the action of battle still continues, accounting for faster combat and reducing the fluff in previous iterations. Generally, the gameplay works well aside from some occasional annoying enemies and fetch quests that necessitate the player gain random drops from certain enemies (two dungeons respectively needing fire and ice-protection accessories equipped on all characters to prevent death from field damage), and I can provide some tips such as using transformational Rune Bottles on stat-increasing items to increase their potency.

Control does have its positive aspects, such as the easy menus, shopping, quick dash, skippable text, and whatnot, although there are things that could have been better such as the absence of maps for the sometimes-convoluted and consequentially annoying dungeons, not the mention the odd placement of save points at times, with occasional long distances between save points and mini-bosses. Given the language barrier, as well, a guide is almost wholly necessary to make it through the game without a hitch, and there are a few points where, after completing dungeons, the game makes the player tread all the way back to their entrances, and exit items and magic would have been nice. Generally, the game doesn’t interact with players as well as it could, but things could have certainly been worse.

One of Motoi Sakuraba’s early soundtracks, the music is one of the high points of Phantasia, aside from the absence of the main theme from the PlayStation and Full Voice editions, with plenty of nice tracks such as the town theme, the main battle theme, mini-boss theme, “Fighting Spirits” (the summon boss battle music), and so forth, with other pieces such as “Aviators” definitely making the player stop and listen to the whole track loop. The voices also fit the characters in and out of battle, and aside from the typical seiyuu butchery of English names for skills, the sound is definitely one of the highlights of Cross Edition.

The visuals outside battle also imitate those of the PlayStation remake, with pretty colors, good anime art direction, and characters sprites that actually look like the luminaries they represent unlike in the SFC version, although their chibi design might be an acquired taste. One major difference from previous versions, however, is the battle graphics, with the player character sprites having much better anatomy, the spell animations being pretty as well. Perhaps the biggest strike against the visual presentation, however, is the heavy degree of recycling in terms of palette-swapped enemies and many rooms in dungeons looking exactly the same, but generally, the graphics are very much easy on the eyes.

Finally, the game will last players around twenty-four hours, with plenty of extra content such as the deeper floors of the Mines of Moria, and plentiful lasting appeal in the form of a New Game+, with a Grade Shop allowing players to carry over elements from their last playthrough into a new game, although some of the issues regarding the annoying enemies and dungeons may make the player hesitant to go through again.

Even so, Tales of Phantasia: Cross Edition proves to be the definitive version of the Namco classic, given its fast and fun battle system made even quicker through the lack of standstills during ability animations, well-written narrative, excellent soundtrack and voicework, and pretty visual direction. As mentioned, though, it does have issues regarding elements such as the ease of death at times and sometimes-convoluted dungeons, although it definitely puts prior incarnations of the title to shame, and certainly warrants a rerelease onto contemporary consoles, given the franchise’s rise in popularity outside Japan during the previous decade and odd lack of remasters during that time.

The Good:
+Fast, fun battle system.
+Great story.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Nice visuals with some touch-ups.

The Bad:
-A lot of annoying enemies.
-Likewise, dungeons.
-The language barrier.
-A lot of graphical recycling.

The Bottom Line:
The definitive version of Phantasia.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 9.0/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 9.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 8.0/10
Difficulty: Slightly Hard
Playing Time: ~24 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

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