[Review] Tales of Destiny – Director’s Cut

テイルズオブデスティニー ディレクターズカット
Trailer (Director’s Cut)

In 2006, Tales of Destiny (the second entry in the series, released a couple years after Phantasia) received a gorgeous-looking remake exclusively for the PS2, and then two years after that, it was further improved upon with a Director’s Cut version: aside from some balancing changes and extra content, this edition also added a new game mode called Leon’s Side, allowing you to re-experience the storyline from the perspective of everyone’s favorite dual-wielding bishounen. But putting that aside, the game itself is probably most notable for having the best 2D battle system in the entire franchise, which, I would say, is no exaggeration at all: when it comes to 2D Tales combat mechanics, it doesn’t quite get any better than ToDR.

Now, as someone who’s never actually played the original Destiny on the PS1, I can’t exactly tell you how different the remake is by comparison, but… I mean, just look at it. They completely remade this thing from the ground up. So I imagine it’s gonna feel like a whole new experience even to returning fans.

The plot focuses on the adventures of a young swordsman by the name of Stahn Aileron, who leaves his quiet little village to become a soldier in the king’s army. Spoilers: he gets caught up in something way bigger than that and ends up embarking on a quest to save the world from ruin. Yeah, I’ll just go ahead and say it: the story is disastrously clichéd and doesn’t really offer anything outstanding or original, nor does it have a solid initial hook to get you invested. You spend the first half of the game traveling from town to town as you chase after this one dude and the Ultimate Artifact of Power that he stole. And then in the second half, Another Dude shows up and tries to enact his terrible, terrible doomsday plot and you once again meet up with your friends to stop him. This time, instead of towns you’ll be traveling from one futuristic dungeon to another as you collect all the various thingamajigs needed to enter the final dungeon. There’s no intricate, suspense-filled plot or great underlying mystery to tie things together; instead, it feels more like you’re constantly just given a list of Shit To Do and you go through the items on that list one by one. And then at the end of it, you save the world. Big surprise, I know.

So the unfortunate state of affairs is that the plot isn’t all that captivating on its own, and it’s likely the battle system that will get you hooked on ToDR, not the narrative. It’s always just “we gotta keep chasing the bad guy” or “we gotta do X and Y to get us closer to defeating the bad guy”. The real final boss only shows up at the very end and does the usual “I’m gonna create a new world for the chosen people and wipe away the impurities” schtick and doesn’t really evolve from there, meaning he’s about as one-dimensional as villains get. He is, however, voiced by the awesome Horikawa Ryou (Dunban in Xenoblade!) so at least listening to him is a pleasant experience. Anyway, the plot on the whole is still slightly better than Phantasia’s, and despite what I’ve implied earlier, it does actually feature a few minor twists and emotional moments, even if it’s standard JRPG drama for the most part. ToDR is also one of the shorter mothership titles, by the way: it took me only 36 hours to finish it, though admittedly that was strictly just the main storyline with little to no sidetracking. And I haven’t checked out the post-game dungeon, either.

Luckily, Destiny’s characters help liven up the otherwise generic plot, and this is partly thanks to the game’s relatively creative skits. I say “creative” because the way Destiny does skits is by representing each companion with a full-body character card. The cute thing about that is how each character card will actually do little motions during skits to illustrate the character’s actions: it’ll vibrate when the character is cold, tilt slightly forward when a character bows, or even fall over completely in that one scene where Mary gets a heat stroke and collapses, lol. The cast itself is nice-ish, but it feels more like certain characters were added in just to fill up the roster. I mostly mean Kongman and Johnny here, neither of whom I particularly cared about all that much and I’d describe both as purely filler characters for being kinda redundant in the grand scheme of things. Not to mention that their involvement in the plot is beyond minimal. Hell, Johnny’s barely even in the game: he temporarily joins you for an early dungeon and then leaves and only comes back near the finale, and Kongman literally just goes “oh hey I’m coming with you, hope ya don’t mind”. I wasn’t really fond of Woodrow, either, mostly because he’s just so bland and serious all the time.

The other half of the team is pretty fun, though: Stahn is your typical good guy but also a lovable dumbass, Rutee’s the roguish, quick-witted treasure hunter oneesan, Leon is a male tsundere (I guess YMMV with that, though), Chelsea’s the loli archer with a fondness for Woodrow and four-character kanji compounds and Philia is a holy woman with a very obvious crush on Stahn and an amusing darker side. And, uh, Mary likes cute things. And is Rutee’s partner. Okay, so she’s not that interesting. But anyway, I found most of their interactions to be fairly amusing, all in all: I especially enjoyed how Stahn and Dymlos’ relationship developed over time, and the “romance” between Stahn and Rutee near the end of the game is also pretty cute, mostly because Rutee is a delightfully far cry from your typical timid/soft-spoken JRPG heroine. I mean, don’t expect any of it to be super deep or fleshed-out, and frankly, other games in the series have had way better characters than Destiny (Lailah, Rose, Edna and Magilou come to mind), but overall the main cast is still a serviceable enough JRPG hero package.

ToDR is also filled with superstar VAs that all give their respective characters an extra dose of personality and charm: Leon is the character that single-handedly made me fall in love with Midorikawa Hikaru and Seki Tomokazu as Stahn is similarly memorable, but there’s also Yamadera Kouichi (Spike from Cowboy Bebop) voicing Johnny, Okiayu Ryoutarou lending his iconic voice to the Swordian Dymlos, and the recently-retired Imai Yuka pulling off a pretty memorable performance as Rutee, just to name a few.

It is, however, a colossal shame that Lilith, Stahn’s ass-kicking sister, is only available as an optional, and therefore missable, bonus character who’s never fully integrated into the story. She does trigger a few skits when she first joins you and functions as a full-fledged playable party member in battle, but she doesn’t appear in any cutscenes and the game kinda just pretends she doesn’t exist, which is a disappointment, to say the least. I would’ve loved to see her put the final boss in his place with a frying pan and some harsh words, but oh well. At least she officially joins you this time around; from what I’ve heard, in the original PS1 release you could only recruit her by cheating or using a glitch.

Anyway, as a battle character she’s pretty fucking good and is really fun to play as; apparently she’s been nerfed a bit in the Director’s Cut but honestly, she still felt really powerful to me, and her Rainbow Arch is probably one of the most disgustingly spammable skills in the game (especially if you also equip her with an accessory that restores CC after each defeated enemy…) The one major downside to using her is that she only has one Blast Caliber, and it’s not even a good one. Oh, and if you’re wondering how to recruit her, this sums it up. In short, go back to Stahn’s house after getting the sea dragon horn and watch the scene there, then use Stahn to beat Stage 1-4 at the Arena in Noischat. Defeat Lilith and she joins you.

Let’s move on to level design. With a few exceptions, Destiny’s dungeons have enough individuality to them to provide a moderately satisfying overall experience, plus they come packed with actual puzzles. Sure, they don’t exactly put too much of a mental strain on you and I wouldn’t consider any of them to be particularly challenging, but hey, at least this game has puzzles. You can expect stuff like pushing around crates, fiddling around with switches and moving platforms, finding key cards, figuring out secret passwords, solving riddles, changing the water level to alter the layout of a floor… and so on. Hell, there’s even a short puzzle that expects you to be familiar with the Chinese zodiac signs. The bottom line is that there’s almost always something other than fighting to do in dungeons so you actually have to survey your surroundings and learn the lay of the land, so to speak, instead of merely putting your brain on autopilot and apathetically cleaving through enemy after enemy.

My personal favorite was probably that late-game dungeon with the colored moving platforms (see above), as some of the puzzle rooms in there kinda forced me to stop and think for a few seconds before I figured out what to do, so that was definitely cool. Oh and special shoutout to Dycroft, aka the final dungeon, for not sucking. Some Tales fans seem to absolutely loathe the place, but I honestly thought it was fine. It has multiple parts with a different feel to each and while it is admittedly a very long dungeon, it gives you a bunch of cool puzzles to keep things fresh in every area. Sure, that part where you have to split your party in two is a little frustrating at first, but it wasn’t that bad in retrospect. So I dunno, I didn’t really mind the place. I remember Berseria’s last dungeon being way more of a mind-numbing slog.

The real crown jewel of the overall ToDR experience is, of course, the battle system. It’s fast-paced, flashy and satisfying, giving you access to a variety of different skills and play styles depending on who you choose to control. And while a lot of games make the protagonist the most comfortable character to play as, I actually went out of my way not to control Stahn here, because I didn’t feel like using yet another swordsman archetype that learns all the series’ staple Artes (Majinken, Kogahazan, etc). Instead, I went for the more unorthodox play styles and favored characters like Rutee, the ice magic-wielding combat medic/rogue, and Chelsea, the primary archer of the group who launches herself up into the air and zips across the battlefield while raining down death from above. She was actually really damn addictive to play as, because chaining up her skills in a certain order allowed me to pretty much stay in the air for longer periods of time and avoid being hit while also filling the screen with arrows. As for Rutee, her moveset honestly makes playing as a healer pretty empowering, as her swift slashes (she wields a sword) and powerful AoE ice magic can make short work of most enemies. I actually just used these two characters for most of the game, and then Lilith once I unlocked her, so… yeah. You know how it is: once you find your favorites, it becomes kinda difficult to switch to someone else. Anyway, ToDR’s battle system is fantastic and makes those earlier 2D installments seem sluggish and awkward by comparison. But don’t just take my word for it: go have a look yourself.

Mystic Artes are called Blast Calibers here btw, and the best part is that you don’t have to wait half a lifetime and sacrifice a dozen goats to be able to use them. In fact, your Blast Caliber gauge fills up fast enough that you can comfortably fire one off every few battles, which also means you don’t really have to stress about trying to save them for the best possible situation. Higher level Blast Calibers obviously take a little longer, but still. Generally speaking, Blast Calibers aren’t these mythical, highly elusive techniques that you can only pull off once in a blue moon if the stars align just right (like in Rebirth, lol).

Difficulty-wise, ToDR is surprisingly challenging. Its Normal is basically what might count as Hard in other games, with bosses capable of completely mopping the floor with your party if you go into the battle unprepared. And by “mopping the floor with your party”, I mean they’ll shove their fist up your ass, grab you by the lower intestines and start bashing you against the ground like they were re-enacting the Hulk/Loki encounter in the first Avengers movie. So yeah, ToDR’s boss battles are actually pretty refreshing in that sense. Like in most Tales games, there are, of course, multiple difficulty levels to pick from, so if you’re having trouble, you can always dial things back. Or if you’re looking to have your intestines grabbed on a more regular basis, go ahead and start with Hard right off the bat. The default difficulty is not unforgivingly punishing, but I did get wiped a handful of times during the course of my playthrough, as the bosses definitely put up enough of a fight to prevent you from sleeping at the wheel. The last form of the final boss is actually pretty fucking beastly, even on Normal.

ToDR also ditches TP altogether and instead opts to utilize the so-called CC system. If you’re familiar with Tales of Graces’ battle system, this is something very similar: instead of having a finite mana pool of sorts for casting Artes, CC is a number that constantly fluctuates as you execute various actions in battle, but it also never permanently runs out and will automatically regenerate. Every attack and Arte has a CC cost, and your current CC at a given time determines how large a combo you can chain together: like, if you have 8 CC, you can go 2 + 3 + 3 for three attacks, just to give you a random example. Once you’ve used up all your CC, you have to wait a second or two for it to regenerate before you can jump back into the fight. That probably sounded way more complicated than it is, but trust me, it’s actually very simple once you see it in action, so, uh… if you’re interested, there’s a Wiki page for it. Personally, I prefer the CC system because it’s kind of a pain in the ass when you run out of TP in the middle of battle and have to wolf down Orange Gels by the dozen.

I found the crafting/upgrade system to be pretty neat as well, because it’s simple, easy to understand and lets you further customize your team to your needs. First off, it’s worth noting that some of the playable characters are so-called Swordian Masters who, as the name implies, wield Swordians, that is, legendary sentient swords with the personality of a specific person implanted in them. Each Swordian Master is limited to their own personal Swordian, in other words, it’s gonna be the only weapon they can use throughout the entire game and it can’t be swapped out for anything else. You might think this would be restrictive, but in reality, it’s actually the opposite, as each Swordian grants you access to a wide selection of tiered passive bonuses (increased stats, more CC, gaining HP after a defeated foe, etc.) that can be learned and mastered over time by participating in battles. Of course, the lower level bonuses need to be mastered first before the higher-tier ones get unlocked, so it’s a continuous process throughout the game. As for characters that aren’t Swordian Masters and are forced to wield regular (and strictly non-sentient) weapons, you can simply upgrade them by spending Lens, a special type of material dropped by enemies. Even here, the game lets you choose exactly how you wish to upgrade your gear, as most pieces of equipment, with some exceptions, can be evolved into three different kinds of higher-tier gear, each with its pros and cons.

Needless to say, not only weapons and armor can be upgraded: during your travels, you’ll also find special minerals that come with a variety of unique latent abilities. Some will increase your minimum or maximum CC. Another one will cut all incoming fire damage in half. Yet another one will make you immune to various status ailments. Which is all cool and stuff, but we’re not done yet: when you actually craft accessories out of these minerals, you have to infuse them with a gem of a specific color (you choose which one) that increases one of your basic attributes: red is for attack power, blue corresponds to defense, purple means critical chance and so on. You can probably see that this results in quite a bit of customization potential, as you can pair any one mineral with a gem of your choice, and the resulting accessory will both increase a basic attribute based on the color of its gemstone, plus it also keeps the latent attribute of the mineral used as the base. What’s more, you’re not even locked into the gem color you pick at the start: every time you upgrade to a higher tier, you can change your mind and switch to another color, so you’re never in a position where a high-level accessory you spent tons of Lens to upgrade suddenly becomes worthless.

There’s also cooking, and the way it works in ToDR is pretty hassle-free, like most things in ToDR. You don’t actually have to manually fuck around with cooking different types of food (which is the main reason I usually can’t be bothered with cooking systems in JRPGs), but instead you place recipes in your Food Sack where they’ll be automatically used once certain conditions are met. These conditions can be stuff like “when a party member’s HP drops below 30%” or “when someone gets KO’d” and so on. You can also arrange your recipes in a specific order within the Food Sack and give priority to those higher up on the list. It’s a bit like FFXII’s Gambit system, in a sense. Except with food.

Okay, so you’re probably also curious about Leon’s Side, and I left it for last because I wanted to keep the focus of the review on the main game. Like I said at the beginning, this mode is essentially the story from Leon’s perspective, with him as the main character, so to speak. As such, it does feature new scenes and skits that weren’t in the original release. The in-game menu/interface also changes to a smooth and sexy purple instead of the original’s yellow, and the battle theme becomes a really badass rendition of Irony of Fate called Fate of a Fencer. And Leon gets a third Blast Caliber and a couple new Artes. As a side note, if you’re completely new to ToDR and haven’t finished Stahn’s original campaign yet, it’s generally recommended to beat that first before jumping into Leon’s, as the latter includes spoilers for things that are otherwise only revealed much later.

The campaign begins with Leon receiving a report about Stahn, Rutee and Mary having been spotted at the village of Harmentz. If you remember, Harmentz is where you meet Leon for the first time as Stahn. After that, you’ll mostly be following the same storyline as the Stahn route (which makes sense, considering how Leon traveled alongside his group) with plenty of overlaps, meaning you’ll have to basically play through many of the same dungeons all over again. There will, however, be a handful of new Leon scenes injected into the narrative, mostly at points where he was off-screen in Stahn’s route.

Now, I realize that playing through the same stuff twice sounds pretty tedious, but it’s actually not as bad as it could be, for two reasons: one is that you can mostly just skip through all the old scenes you’ve already seen in Stahn’s campaign (hold down X and Square), and the other is that if you start Leon’s Side as a NG+ (by loading up your Stahn’s Side clear data), you can optionally inherit all your Artes, meaning you’ll be able to bust out powerful late game spells right from the get-go, making it somewhat easier to rush through the game to get to the new Leon bits. I will say this, though: even with the inherited skills, battles in Leon’s Side felt noticeably more challenging compared to the vanilla game, which is another reason it’s probably not a very good idea for newcomers to start with it. So, about the new Leon scenes… well, as expected, they further flesh out Leon as a character, touch upon his relationship with Chaltier as well as Marian, and explain why he acts the way he does. But just to be clear: Leon’s Side isn’t an alternate timeline or anything, it’s just a retelling from a different POV. New scenes aside, the story itself remains the same and ends exactly the way you expect it to. The whole thing took me 10 hours to beat, but I was skipping through dialogue I’d already read in Stahn’s Side.

All in all, this mode is a decent little bonus if you really like Leon and want to know a bit more about his feelings and motivations, but I think a lot of his extra scenes could’ve just as easily been integrated into Stahn’s Side, with slight modifications to avoid spoiling certain things too early. It kinda made me question if there really was a need for this to be a separate game mode, as there’s simply not enough new content in it and too much of the journey is identical to the original game. Most of the new Leon-centric stuff occurs at the end of the first story arc, after you reclaim the Eye of God and the party go their separate ways. If you’re playing Stahn’s Side, this is the point where you return to his home village of Leane, but here, you continue to play as Leon and see exactly what he was up to during that three-month period. This part takes about 2 hours and consists of more new scenes with Chaltier and Marian, as well as a couple of solo missions you need to do for the king, but… honestly, they’re not particularly interesting and feel like the game trying to pad out its length. Which is a shame, because I think a lot more could’ve been done with the concept of a “Leon route”. Sure, there are a few scenes that add to his characterization and should’ve probably been part of Stahn’s Side to begin with, but aside from those, I don’t think Leon’s Side is essential for the full ToDR experience, as you can pretty much grasp his motivations and general situation without needing to explicitly see it through his eyes.

So in conclusion, what can you expect from Tales of Destiny? Well, an amazing battle system, okay-ish characters, crisp and colorful visuals, solid dungeons, and… a largely forgettable story. And that’s kind of a big problem, actually, and the sole thing that prevents this game from being as good as it could have been. I’ve always been the kind of person who plays RPGs primarily for the storyline and characters, so I was obviously a little bummed out by how generic Destiny ended up being. It’s like… the game gets so many things right, but falls flat in one of the most important areas. But even with its weak story, I still think ToDR is absolutely worth your time. It’s got neat mechanics, great presentation and a satisfying level of polish, and that sweet, sweet battle system really does carry the experience.

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