テイルズ オブ ジ アビス
Despite its severe issues with backtracking and overall pacing, Tales of the Abyss is still, I would say, one of the most consistently enjoyable and well-made titles in the franchise that genuinely feels like a complete package with tight combat mechanics, a dramatic, twisty-turny plot, memorable characters and environments with a satisfying degree of visual polish and variety. I mean, sure, the Tales franchise is kind of the McDonalds of JRPGs in a sense, and for the most part Abyss is no different in that regard, but it still manages to be one of the juiciest, most succulent and content-rich burgers on the menu.
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So in Abyss, your main protagonist is one Luke fon Fabre, a young aristocrat with a luxurious crimson mane of a hairdo, living a secluded life inside his parents’ mansion without ever being allowed to go outside. And unlike most Tales MCs, he’s, uh… kind of a jerk. If you find arrogant and self-centered protagonists annoying, you may not like him initially, although I personally found him to be refreshingly entertaining compared to the usual goody two-shoes main lead you see in every other JRPG… even if he does end up turning into that very thing later on, ironically enough. He also goes through a frustratingly selfish phase that made even me roll my eyes a bit, but it honestly doesn’t last long and he soon gets a pretty big wake-up call that eventually leads into his character development. Now, I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the way he turned out and I really wished he could’ve had a bit more backbone, but I’d say it’s all fairly understandable given his circumstances and the shit he had to deal with. If people were in his shoes, they may very well be just as troubled and lost as he is at various points in the storyline.
And that’s the thing about Abyss: you might not come to fully love every single character, you might not always agree with their way of thinking, hell, you may even think they’re being unreasonable or whiny, but you can at least understand them. They’re not perfect and they make mistakes, but they learn from them and manage to grow in the process, and I found their flaws to be what made them more interesting. In fact, some of the questions or doubts I had on my mind were often addressed by the characters themselves in-game, demonstrating that Abyss is very much aware of what it’s doing in terms of how it handles the development of the main cast.
With that said, one of my personal favorites was Jade, who kinda falls outside that above rule. He’s quite a bit older than the rest of the cast and is usually the only one able to calmly analyze a situation even when all the others are too caught up in their emotions. His “okay youngsters I hope you’ve all calmed your hormones so we can move on” moments were pretty hilarious and I could definitely relate to him quite a bit. Also he’s voiced by Koyasu Takehito which automatically makes him cooler than everyone else in the room. The other character I really liked was Natalia. Putting aside the fact that I have a weakness for princess/ojou-sama type ladies and cute archers, I just found her inner conflict and development to be really interesting; I’ll go so far as to say I would’ve preferred her as the main girl instead of Tear. Plus she had the backbone and strength of character I was missing from Luke.
As for the plot, it starts out great. You’re in the middle of training with your swordsmanship instructor when a mysterious young woman attacks your mansion and you accidentally get teleported off to an entirely different continent. So now you’re stuck with this chick you know nothing about, and you’ve no idea how the fuck you’re supposed to get home. And you’re in a hostile country to boot. This all happens in like the first 30 minutes, by the way. The pacing is honestly fine for the first 15 or so hours, but after that, some problems begin to show. Namely, you keep going back to towns you’ve already visited because you need to talk to X and Y, and by the time the last act rolls around, you’ll probably be sick of having to take yet another quick trip to Grand Chokmah or Daath or Baticul and so on. For a while this is bearable since there’s all sorts of interesting new plot events happening and the game gives you more dungeons to explore and stuff, but the last few hours are pretty notorious for dragging like a motherbitch, including even sending you back to previously cleared dungeons. It’s not as bad as Legendia, but still. This is probably why so much of late-game Abyss is just a huge blur in my mind, since a good chunk of it is spent revisiting old areas to talk to people and discuss Stuff and Things about fonons and hyperresonance and shit. Just to be clear, I didn’t make those terms up: the game actually gets pretty technical and science-y with its lore, which is kinda cool but later on the characters start throwing around so much lingo in every scene it’ll make your head spin.
It’s also worth mentioning that Abyss in general feels notably more serious compared to various other installments in the series. It’s not like Legendia where the writers worked a gag or two into almost every scene or ToDR where every other skit is a comedy routine: the mood in Abyss stays heavy most of the time, and although there’s obviously some comic relief peppered throughout the narrative, it feels insignificant in comparison to the general feeling of angst emanating from the game as a whole. To go further with that, while previous Tales entries had a bit of a standard fantasy RPG-esque feel to them in the way you traveled around continents collecting summon spirits to save the world from evil or whatever, the plot in Abyss instead spends a lot of time dealing with war, politics and diplomacy. Even most of the main skits are largely about discussing current events or the characters just feeling bummed out about this or that. Which is a recurring theme, because this is the kind of game where almost everyone has a dark past or a tragic backstory. Even the cute mascot character. Granted, I’m not trying to make fun of it too much since it still beats following around a group of bland cardboard cutouts with no backstories. Nonetheless, get used to listening to this gloomy-ass track a lot. It’s the song the game pulls out every time something depressing happens, which is like every five minutes. Well, not really, but you get my point. Many of the characters also have this fetish for mumbling something ominous under their breath, only to go “o-oh, nothing, let’s keep going” when asked about it, which can get a little aggravating because I feel like it would’ve helped if certain characters talked openly about things instead of keeping shit to themselves, but oh well. Animu games gotta animu.
Abyss is also a tremendously long journey even if you disregard the copious amounts of optional content available: it took me 60+ hours to finish my run, and while I did do a whole bunch of side quests, I also skipped quite a few of them. For people who like being thorough, this is definitely a game they can really sink their teeth into. Just make sure you follow a guide very carefully, because Abyss is absolutely obnoxious with its missables, and some of the cutoff windows are pure horseshit. This is the kind of game completionists have nightmares about.
Pacing issues aside, the storyline is fairly cool with plenty of twists and does a pretty nice job of fleshing out the world. There’s the concept of the Score, for example. Basically, there’s this all-knowing prophecy called the Score that literally predicts the future, so people rely on it to lead their lives the optimal way; it’s essentially become part of daily life to the point where people even get Score readings for their birthdays and such. Readings of the Score are handled by the church, so you can imagine how this makes them the big political players of the land and how much of an influence they have on the populace. Following the Score will supposedly lead mankind to prosperity, so people see no reason not to adhere to it. Of course, this brings up the inevitable question of free will vs. predetermination, which is (surprise surprise) one of the major themes of Abyss. The storyline also touches upon topics you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in JRPGs of this kind (like the fact that “defeating” enemy soldiers actually means taking their lives), and deals quite heavily with the weight of individual human lives as well as the importance of claiming your own identity. Oh and the ending is great. That epilogue scene is still one of my favorite things in anything Tales; it’s so well-executed and the music is fucking perfect. I go back and watch it on Youtube from time to time and it never fails to give me goosebumps.
The battle system can more or less be summed up as “like Symphonia but not shit” with a few extra bells and whistles added into the mix, such as the so-called Field of Fonons (FOF) system. Basically, what this means is that most skills leave an elemental residue of sorts on the ground represented by a circle-shaped area. So, let’s say Jade summons a big-ass lightning spell. When that hits, there’ll be a lightning elemental circle left in its wake – and if you stand into that and use the right kind of Arte (one that’s compatible with lightning), it’ll transform into something more powerful.
The other main difference compared to Symphonia is free running, and boy oh boy is this thing broken as all fuck. So Abyss basically lets you freely run around the map by simply holding down a button. There are no penalties for doing this, which means you can essentially run in circles around an enemy and dodge all their shit while they continue to cast their most powerful spells without hitting anything. I think the most hilarious example of the brokenness of free run was when the final boss used his Mystic Arte and I basically just… ran away and left him there, letting him fire off the thing into thin air. The combat in Abyss also just feels way better compared to Symphonia, with tight, responsive controls and really fun, flashy animations. Still, I’ll admit that swordsmen like Guy and Luke were far easier to play as compared to someone like Natalia, whose archery takes a lot of getting used to. My main complaint is probably that her arrows don’t feel like they have much weight. With Guy or Luke, hacking and slashing away at enemies is super satisfying, but with Natalia, it felt like I was shooting toothpicks. As for spellcasters, I never really tried them so I dunno how viable they are.
Dungeon-wise, I have little to complain about with Abyss. Sure, the occasional backtracking is a pain, but other than that, the dungeons themselves are pretty distinct and most of them give you different tasks or simple puzzles to solve. Like, one dungeon will have you ring bells to distract guards, another will make you collect colorful orbs to progress, and there’s even a brief stealth section in a forest where you have to play hide and seek with vigilant soldiers. I mean, nothing really stands out as fantastic and this game doesn’t have as much of a hardon for puzzles as Symphonia, but it’s all quite… neat. It’s what you’d normally expect from a standard JRPG, is what I’m trying to say. The only parts where I felt the quality dropping were the world map dungeons, because it’s literally just you running around on a secluded area on the world map while the game pretends it’s a “dungeon”. But there’s only like… two of them, if I remember correctly? So they’re more like the exception than the rule.
Another minor thing to mention is the Capacity Core system, which honestly felt a little pointless to me. You can basically equip your party members with Capacity Cores that give them various stat bonuses (like, +2 strength and +1 physical defense) whenever they level up. The earlier Cores only give minor bonuses and you get the beefier ones later on, so it’s almost like the game doesn’t want you to grind levels early on if you want to get the most out of your characters. Anyway, like I said, this system felt kinda meh because it’s just a passive thing and you don’t have to worry too much about it. Depending on what kind of stat bonuses you accumulate, you’ll also unlock AD Skills for your characters which do all sorts of things, such as increase your movement speed in combat and so on, but you can probably go through the game on Normal difficulty without putting too much thought into this whole thing. Nonetheless, some of the better Cores are potentially missable, so like with everything else in this game, make sure to consult a guide frequently if you want to get the most out of your level ups.
Abyss’ other upgrade system comes in the form of Fon Slot Chambers, which basically means you can add a colored orb to each of your Artes to give them a boost. The type of boost your Arte gets depends on the color of the orb: some will grant more damage or increase the healing potential of a healing spell, others will reduce the Arte’s TP cost and so on. This is yet another thing you don’t have to worry too much about on Normal. Just put all the red orbs on your favorite offensive skills and your healing spells and you’re golden. And since the bonuses level up the more you use a given Arte, prioritize characters you actually control in battle.
So overall, Tales of the Abyss is just a really solid game on all fronts. Sure, it tends to drag at the end. And yeah, I could’ve done without all the backtracking. But like I said in my intro, it’s consistent. I can’t really point at anything and go “yep, this is the one huge bottleneck that holds the game back” like I did with other Tales entries where either the gameplay or the plot were too weak compared to other aspects of the game. Even with all its flaws, Abyss provides a quintessential Tales experience worthy of the “10th anniversary” label that should work as a great entry point into the series for newcomers, and if you’re already a fan of the franchise but somehow still haven’t played it, you really should.