Tales of Graces f was the middle child of the Namco Summer Showcase. Like any good parents, the PR guys were just as positive about Tales as they were about Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Ni No Kuni, but it was clear who the stars were. Namco’s beat-em-up showpiece and the headline grabbing Ghibli/Level 5 crossover are the big tickets, the games with name cache that will grab the attention of european audiences.
That doesn’t mean that you should underestimate Namco Tales Studio’s game, a JRPG from the successful ‘Tales of’ series, because it isn’t the runt of the litter. This little one has bags of potential, a laser focus and a chance to scratch an itch for underfed JRPG fans everywhere.
Hideo Baba, producer of Tales of Graces f is certainly pleased with the game, explaining to GodisGeek how proud he is of “how complete the game is”, whilst paying particular attention to the game’s story. Superficially sweet and light, following the fortunes of young friends as they start to grow up, the Graces f development team are determined to engage the player with the themes of protection and friendship. Baba explains that they want the story to make the audience “think about their life itself throughout the gameplay”. It is certainly a lofty aim, one that is very difficult to achieve, but it is admirable that a studio shows such a focus on this aspect of their game.
Succeed or fail, what Namco Tales already have is a story with plenty of intrigue to go with the earnest, emotional stuff. The section I played saw Asbel – the main character – sneaking around in the hills around his home town of Lhant, making friends with a Prince called Richard and a mysterious girl with no memory. Discovered and separated the morning after they make a pact to be friends forever, Asbel makes a plan to sneak away and visit his friend Richard in the capital city. All the while Asbel’s parents are saying an oddly permanent goodbye to Asbel’s younger brother Hubert, something else for big-bro Asbel to investigate. Here the themes of protection rise up again and the plots and sub-plots pull the player deeper into the story.
Even more exciting is that this seems like mere fraction of the whole story, a story that Baba explains spans several years. In this early part of the game the player controls Asbel as a child, but wonderfully animated cutscenes show him as a young man. “Players can enjoy playing the childhood of the main characters and their youth” explains Baba, with the story following Asbel for seven years as he becomes a man. It is all surprisingly gripping. The bright colours of characters and washed out watercolour backgrounds give the game a cartoonish look, but the story seems determined to address adult themes and give the player something to get their teeth into.
Baba believes the same is true with the gameplay. The theme of protection carries through into the Linear Motion Battle System, a system which will be familiar to fans of the series, where player’s can protect the other characters during fights. Baba sees the gameplay in Graces f as “evolved and improved” from previous games in the series. The system itself is based in simple pad inputs, usually a single directional input and an attack button which can then be combo-ed into other attacks, assuming that the player has enough ‘Chain Capacity’ (CC) points to keep the combination going. There are two types of special attack available to the player: Heavy attacks (accessed by pressing circle) and quick step attacks (accessed by pressing X) which the players can link, each using different amounts of CC points limit. CC points are recharged by dodging and by defending. Early fights were simple, the player able to blaze through the opposition without breaking a combo. But as the enemies got tougher, the fights gain the feeling of a tug of war match, momentum shifting between the player and the AI opposition as CC points get recharged and special attacks get unleashed.
The action is fraught and lightening fast, but when queried Baba didn’t think that the gameplay systems would put players off the game, explaining that “the controls and gameplay are not that complex” so the player could “focus on the strategies for beating up the enemy”. It is this strategic focus that, in Baba’s view, marks Graces f out as unique from other JRPGs. It appears that in gameplay, as in story, that Tales of Graces f needs more than just a few minutes to reveal all of its details. Like with Namco’s JRPG stablemate Ni No Kuni, this will be a game that takes patience to fully reveal itself.
Baba, again, is sure that this patience will be rewarded. The game will feature seven playable characters, all of which will be unlocked by the player on their journey through the world. All these characters were designed by series favourite Mutsumi Inomata, drawn to help the player empathise with the characters. The lengthy single player campaign will be bolstered by “sub-events or scenes”, which focus on particular characters, again encouraging empathy and repeated play. DLC costumes and extra dungeons that will become available when the player completes the main quest. Baba hopes that this content will add to the “100-plus” hours of gameplay in the main quest.
Tales of Graces f is arguably the least approachable of the new Namco titles. Certainly it is the most alien with the fewest obvious selling points for a european audience. However, the game has a devotion to story that few others can match and gameplay mechanics refined over the many iterations of the Tales Of series. Tales of Graces f might be Namco’s middle child, but it has the potential to impress European audiences this autumn and stand shoulder to shoulder with anything coming over from Japan in the next few months.
Tales of Graces f is set for release on August 31 for PlayStation 3.