Tales of Phantasia was the first of the now long-running Tales series, and the first by the development team that would come to be known as Tri-Ace. The main selling point here is the action-oriented battle system, which is seen from a side view and has you controlling one character while the computer AI handles the rest of the party based on basic generalized instructions that you give them. This system would be revamped and worked on throughout the series, and eventually become something pretty decent, but at this point it was still more than a bit clunky and cumbersome.
The story is stock console RPG/J-poppy material. Hero Cless lives in a little village in the corner of the world, and he has Mystelious Pendant that has Mystelious Powars which his parents gave to him. One day, while Cless is out hunting, evil armies of demonic devastation and etc. attack his village and slaughter everyone in the search for his pendant. Now he goes off on some journey for revenge that, coincidentally, will lead to the saving of the world and etc.
You can see it is shot through with cliches, and not only that but the writing is handled pretty clumsily. The wipe-out of the village at the beginning has almost zero emotional impact because we barely know the main character, let alone all these other random supporting people, and he hardly shows any reaction to it. It's like it has to happen, just glossed over because this is the sort of thing that happens in RPGs and we need it to move forward with the demon-slaying narrative. This one was written by the heavy hand of Yoshiharu Gotanda, who would continue with this hackish/fan-fic style through the rest of his game design career, yet meet with resounding success due to having tight game engines, great art and great music distracting people from the utter mediocrity of his writing.
Phantasia doesn't cover for the bad writing as well as later games, however. The art is nice - decent sprite work (though the chibi-ness of everything also makes it very hard to take the story seriously) and some very nice backgrounds. The music, Motoi Sakuraba's first soundtrack, is also pleasant in a generic hero-epic sort of way. There's even a slew of little voice clips, though more often than not it's simply characters screaming out the names of their moves in annoying anime style. The main problem is the battle system, which is where you spend a good deal of your playtime in this one.
First of all, the encounter rate is continually ludicrous. In every area of the game, you get attacked literally every five steps. Battles are over with a little faster and are a little less tedious than the usual RPG due to the action style, but there's still too goddamn many of them. You can tone down the encounter rate with an item called Holy Bottles, but it reduces it to maybe every fifteen steps instead of every five, and only for a short time.
The battle system is OK when fighting common enemies, but it is absolute garbage as soon as you get into a major boss battle. The characters not under your control happily chain-cast spells that heal the bosses, and to cast spells on your own you have to scroll through a slow menu while the battle is still going on, then the idiots insist on walking forward to some particular spot to cast even if means bumping into enemies repeatedly and getting slaughtered on the way. And yes, you can tell characters not to cast certain spells - but you can't do it once in combat, you have to do it from the menu screen outside. This virtually guarantees you'll be forced to die/reset on several boss battles at least once. The bosses also have cheap-as-fuck attacks, impenetrable shields, multiple rushes that you can't block, etc. You also have to wait a ridiculous amount of time between item uses - you have 4 people, why can't they use 4 items one right after the other?
The clumsiness of Cless is forgivable in easier battles but it is a killer in tough boss fights. You first select an enemy to target, then depending on how far they are from you, you either do a short-range or long-range attack when you push A. If you do Cless's normal long-range attack, he runs in, jumps and hits the enemy ... and then inexplicably runs all the way back to his starting point! You can't run to advance on an enemy, you have to walk slowly and tediously towards them if you want to just stand next to them and swing the sword. Oh, and Lawd help you if a flying enemy (half of them are in this game) positions itself directly above Cless's head. He gets picked to death while he swings in futility since none of his attacks can actually reach there, and you just have to hope that a teammate bails you out before he gets ticked to death.
The game also has a number of shitty little "gotcha" moments that Gotanda and designer Masaki Norimoto would come to be known for. Here's my favorite example - the game tosses you an unidentifiable weapon as a treasure find. You get it identified, and find out it is this totally badass ice sword that raises Cless's attack quite a bit. Who isn't going to equip and use that? Well, hey, guess what - the next boss that you fight, very soon after you get the sword? Healed by ice! Oh, and there's no way to switch equipment in battle! Guess what, you get to reset the game and walk through the dungeon again! Oh Gotanda and Norimoto, you scampsters, isn't it fun to taunt the people that just paid $60 for your game?
One final moan about battles - the game really uses a hell of a lot of palette swaps. I think I actually only counted about twelve original monsters, they just keep getting re-colored clones throughout the game.
We never would get an official release of the SNES version in English, but DeJap translations took this one up long before the 2006 localization to the GBA. They may anger "purists" out there with the fact that they took a "Working Designs on crack" approach to the translation, making it a lot more Secksualized than the original apparently was. Personally, I applaud this sort of thing, at least with games like this where the stories are so mediocre you can't really ruin them. At least it kept me awake. The only issue is that it is kind of disturbing at points given the chibi look of the characters (though the translation establishes the age of the girls involved at 17, which is morally if not legally acceptable).
All in all this is an aggravating, very grindy game that gives you only some mediocre anime-caliber story in return and a lot of pretty polish. The graphics are nice, the soundtrack by Sakuraba is very pleasant, the sound effects are an impressive technical accomplishment (though annoying more often than not), but this is not enough to put up with a story and characters that are generic and boring and a frustrating battle engine.
* Gameplay Video