Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World – Staff Review

The main features of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World are an engaging and solidly balanced combat system, and a somewhat overbearing and at times saccharine story. In this, it is a fairly typical Tales game. That isn’t to say ToS:DotNW is a bad game — on the contrary, the game is quite well constructed — merely that it comes off as a bit derivative, particularly where the story is concerned. ToS:DotNW does try a number of new things with the series with varying levels of success, but overall, it’s unlikely that anyone who already has an opinion about the Tales series will find their position swayed one way or the other due to this game.

Taking place two years after the end of Tales of Symphonia, the combined worlds of Tethe’alla and Sylvarant are not faring quite as well as hoped. Although the two worlds merged more or less without a hitch, the respective cultures of those worlds are having a harder time coming to terms. This has lead to open conflict between the Tethe’allan Church of Martel, and the Sylvaranti Liberation Front, also known as the Vanguard. Set against the backdrop of a planet whose weather has been badly shaken up by the world merger, this conflict forms the backbone of the story, as told through the eyes of the hero Emil and his partner, the ex-Vanguard Marta. The two of them are tasked with reawakening Ratatosk, a Summon Spirit who holds sway over the world’s monsters, and who should be able to rebalance the world’s climate.

Marta is a weird combination of healer and pinwheel-wielding ninja.
Marta is a weird combination of healer and pinwheel-wielding ninja.

The plot itself covers a number of disparate and often difficult to reconcile elements, ranging from world climate to political rebellion to the split personality Emil develops after he awakens as a Knight of Ratatosk. Each element is dealt with more or less in turn, with the overarching theme being somewhat similar to that of Tales of Symphonia; questioning what actually makes a person good or evil, the nature of discrimination, and so on. Although there is something to be said for the fact that ToS:DotNW handles its issues with less of a sledgehammer than its predecessor, its intended message isn’t always entirely clear, which at times forces the characters involved to act rather foolishly in order to set up somewhat ham-fisted declarations of purpose.

The cast of characters forms one of the more divisive subjects of discussion where this game is concerned. Marta tends towards the chirpy side of the cliche jealous clingy girl, while Emil’s split personality flips between the embodiment of hormonal rage and a walking doormat. Thankfully, both characters evolve towards being more tolerable during the course of the game, but neither of them ever fully outgrow their most obnoxious character traits. And given that these two characters are likely to be the only human members of the active party for most of the game, Emil and Marta can become extremely grating at times.

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World‘s combat system, known as the Flex Range Element Enhanced Linear Motion Battle System, or NAMBLA, combines elements of Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss into one of the more tactical incarnations of the series’ traditional combat system. With the player normally moving along a straight line between Emil and whatever monster is being targeted and free movement available by holding down the Z button, ToS:DotNW‘s system plays very similarly to Tales of the Abyss. The main differences lie in that Tales of the Abyss had very little penalty for using free movement more or less constantly, but in ToS:DotNW, characters using free movement will take more damage and will be more susceptable to dizzy. Though this does encourage players to stick more to the linear form, it can also make it exceptionally difficult to avoid enemy attacks while surrounded, meaning Emil will often require heavy-duty assistance in tightly-packed battles.

The most immediately apparent change to the combat system is the introduction of recruitable monsters, which will form the bulk of the party for most of the game. In order to acquire a monster, the player is first required to Spellbind them, which occurs when the element grid on the lower left of the screen, which shifts depending on the element of the skills the player uses, shows four or more of the same element in its slots. Emil will attempt to convince one of the Spellbound monsters to join the party after the battle is over, though without assistance from other party monsters, the success rate is rather low. On their own, monsters level up, learn new Skills and Artes, and eventually become capable of evolving into newer, more powerful creatures through the use of a somewhat pared-down cooking system. Overall, the monster collection part of combat is an interesting and unusual change from the typical Tales system. The only real complaints to be had here are that the capture system is not very well explained in-game, and the fact that Emil is incapable of more than a few odd elemental attacks for most of the game, which makes capturing new monsters exceptionally difficult at times.

Aside from Emil, Marta, and their monster companions, the player will have access to more or less the entire playable cast of Tales of Symphonia, but with one major and rather disappointing caveat; none of them will gain any experience points. Though this was most likely done to encourage players to make use of monsters rather than Tales of Symphonia cast members, the practical upshot is that there is little point to having characters from the previous title in the party at all, since having them in combat only reduces the amount of XP received by those who are actually capable of leveling up. Given that a major point of any direct sequel is to revisit characters from the previous installments, this comes across as a very poor choice by the development team.

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World doesn’t make very strong use of the Wii’s motion capabilities, relegating pointer use to aiming the Sorceror’s Ring and some navigation on the world map. The way ToS:DotNW uses the Sorceror’s Ring is actually a bit sloppy; for example, the Ring is often used to hit a switch which is being guarded by a monster. Presumably, the game wants the player to defeat the monster in order to proceed, but since the Ring doesn’t actually draw a line between Emil and his target, it’s fully possible to simply point at the target and fire without first dealing with the monster in front of it. The fact that the pointer’s cursor is always active is a bit obnoxious as well, since any mistaken swipe of the remote will send the sparkly feather cursor flailing distractingly across the screen.

ToS:DotNW has an extensive and varied soundtrack, but due to the default volume setting of the music and the repetitive nature of some of the tracks, the music tends to fall into the background a bit too much during most of the game, especially in combat. The voice acting, on the other hand, is far more reliable. In particular, Johnny Yong Bosch plays both halves of Emil’s splintered personality with equal aplomb. Unfortunately, next to none of the actors who worked on Tales of Symphonia return for ToS:DotNW, but the new actors do a solid job. In fact, the only real complaint to be had about the voice acting is that the pause between lines in cutscenes is far longer than it really needs to be, breaking up the action unnecessarily, but that’s really more about cutscene pacing than the actual voicework.

The Katz guild makes a return, this time managing Emil's monsters and offering a long list of side quests.
The Katz guild makes a return, this time managing Emil’s monsters and offering a long list of side quests.

The overall visual style of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is fairly solid, though there are a number of areas that tend to clash with each other. For example, the design of newer cast members often comes off as closer to Tales of the Abyss than Tales of Symphonia. Newer characters sport highly decorated, very complex costumes, which tend to clash a bit with the simpler and more blocky design of the Tales of Symphonia characters. New areas tend to have very Abyss-like lines, with long, thin, looping curves, while older areas stick to the blocked color look of Tales of Symphonia. The heavy use of motion capture technology for cutscenes and some minor character animations really stands out, particularly when compared to the more rigid character animation used in combat. Some skillful direction throughout the game, and the fact that most of the visuals are from Tales of Symphonia, helps to bind the visual style together, though there are a few places where the visual shift can be a bit disturbing.

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is balanced a bit more forgivingly than most games in the series, perhaps due to the element of uncertainty introduced by the monster system. Whatever the reason, a well-prepared player can expect little or no trouble breezing through ToS:DotNW in around 35 to 40 hours.

Though possessed of a number of unfortunate flaws, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is ultimately an enjoyable and fairly well constructed title. Though the plot is a bit predictable and covers ground already seen in Tales of Symphonia, the fact that it sets its sights further afield means it often comes up with unusual takes on the same ideas. Similarly, although the combat system is little different from that seen in other recent Tales games, the introduction of monsters and the element grid offers a wealth of new possibilities. In the end, the changes ToS:DotNW makes to the series formula are probably not enough to change opinions about the series — at its heart, this is a Tales game very much in the same direction that the series has taken lately — but it is at least a solidly built, engaging title in the series.

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