TALES OF SYMPHONIA / Namco / Gamecube
Purely in terms of story, Tales of Symphonia is a shambling collection of cliched tropes and concepts pirated from other games, and often seems like it's just being made up as it goes along. The good news is that that's pretty much the only bad news! The rest of the game is pleasantly well-designed, moves at a brisk pace, and the enjoyability of the action-oriented battle engine and the likable characters tends to override the weak writing.
There's no real connection to previous Tales games, so you're free to jump right in if you're new. The story stars the amusingly thickheaded Lloyd Irving, a school-aged teenager living in a rural country village, as he accompanies his childhood friend (and "Chosen One") Colette on a quest to "revive the world." Initially, this seems like a straight lift from Final Fantasy X's basic plot, but there's a number of twists and turns over the course of the game's 2 discs such that it ends up bearing little resemblance to Teeedus's quest in the end. Not to say you won't notice the game "borrowing" a lot of familiar ideas along the way, particularly from all the PS1-era Final Fantasy games, but weakness in the writing comes less from plagiarism and unoriginality than it does from simply having a sparsely populated world that isn't really fleshed out much and the writers simply pulling things out of their bum when convenient and/or necessary.
As I said before, however, the writing largely doesn't matter thanks to the upper-tier execution of the game's other qualities. Those that hate grinding and slow-paced menu-based JRPG battles will love this one - enemies are all visible and often avoidable, but there's little reason to as the battles are an enhanced version of the action style of the previous Tales games and are smooth and fun to play. Not only does your typical battle with enemy mooks last no more than about 30 seconds or so, the battle engine is much better than that seen in previous games, employing a field with three dimensional depth for increased movement possibilities over the stiff 2D style of the previous games. It's enjoyable enough when going solo, but the bonus is that up to four players can take control of characters to participate in battles simultaneously! There's some issues with the camera staying focused on Player 1 and losing sight of everyone else, but any kind of a well-executed multi-player action RPG is a relative rarity. Loading times are also virtually non-existent.
Aside from the unique battle system, the game also has Lufia 2-esque puzzles to prevent the dungeons from becoming a grind. In fact, dungeon puzzles resemble Zelda more than anything else, in that the whole dungeon is usually one interlocked puzzle you have to roam around and solve. The game never really approaches the artistry or complexity of Zelda's dungeons but there's some memorable locations and a few challenging spots. And grinding is virtually unnecessary in this game - if you're fighting the majority of the common battles you come across, you'll be more than powerful enough to see through all the game's challenges as you first encounter them, and the challenge is more in fielding a strategically complementary party and knowing when to block, dodge and press the attack in combat.
Another quality not often found in JRPGs - replayability. The main quest is a solid 50 hours or so if you do the bulk of the optional side stuff, but there's also a New Game + mode that allows you to use points earned during your previous playthrough to buy various carry-overs of things from your last game. There's a couple of major branches in the story depending on your actions, and some stuff you can't unlock and see without multiple playthroughs. It's probably not something you'll want to play back-to-back, but it's nice to have a little variety for a couple years down the road when the game seems fresh again and you feel like giving it another run.
The graphics and music are decent, though not anything special. There's some really nice background vistas and area design, but the character animation uses an odd quasi-cel-shaded style that's sometimes fluidly animated (when you're running around) and other times bizarrely stiff and lacking in animation (in most of the game's cut-scenes.) Motoi Sakuraba's name is on this one, but the tunes are decidedly more workmanlike and generic symphonic than his previous work. I get the feeling they did what Uematsu does now where he just did a handful of tunes to get his name in the credits, but most of the actual score was handled by some yeoman composers. The music is decent, but not outstanding and not really something you'll want to listen to outside of the game.
I'm not sure if it will win over non-JRPG fans, but those that already enjoy the genre will likely appreciate the smooth playability, well-executed action battle engine, good characters and goofy and amusing dialogue.
* Completion Guide
* Gameplay Video
* Tales of Symphonia anime