Tales of Phantasia (SNES)

While RPGs appeared on consoles in America during the 8-bit era, many considered them a niche genre, and greater popularity didn't come to them until around the PlayStation era. Similarly, during the 16-bit era, it was a crapshoot over which RPGs saw release outside Japan and which stayed there, like all the Dragon Quest games for the SNES and remakes of the first three games in the franchise. Towards the end of the 16-bit era, Wolf Team developed, and Namco published, the first installment of their Tales series, Tales of Phantasia, which wouldn't see any kind of translation until over a decade later thanks to fans, and, while somewhat rough around the edges, was a decent beginning to the series.

Like many other RPGs in its time, Phantasia features random battles, with a somewhat high encounter rate, though players can rectify this with Holy Bottles for less stressful travel. Battles take place on a linear two-dimensional field with a side view with the protagonist, Cless, and up to three allies, the player manually controlling Cless alone, although the player can open up the battle menu and order magicians to cast specific spells if they aren't doing so. In the main game menus, the player can adjust party formation, though a minor inconvenience is that the game sometimes readjusts the formation automatically, mostly when characters join or leave the party.

Cless has two types of normal attacks, a slice when the player presses the attack button alone, and a stab when the player presses up and the attack buttons, with either attack sometimes doing different damage depending upon his current weapon. If Cless is far from the enemy the player is currently targeting (with the player able to switch targets, though unlike in future Tales games, doing so doesn't pause the action of battle), then he'll charge the enemy and attack, afterward returning to his previous position, with the player then able to press the right or left button to stop. This can sometimes be annoying if the player wants to keep attacking a certain enemy, although since Cless tends to jump during his charge, this is sometimes necessary to bring down aerial foes.

Outside battle, the player can equip Cless with up to four skills, two short-range skills executed respectfully with pressing the special skill button alone or with the button and up direction button, and two long-range skills that follow the same pattern. The player can use skills up to a hundred times to master them, which is necessary to unlock special combination skills the player can sometimes purchase from random swordsmen. Meanwhile, the A.I. controls Cless's allies, who consist mostly of magicians, with spells for Arche acquired from treasure chests or magic vendors, and summon spells for Klarth acquired through story events. Only Mint, the healer, gains new spells through leveling.

The number of A.I. options the player has for each of Cless's allies are somewhat limited, and attack magicians may sometimes use spells that heal enemies, though the player can deactivate spells outside of battle (with this option unavailable in the middle of battle). Ultimately, the debut of the Linear Motion Battle System is somewhat rough around the edges, with some other flaws such as the continued action of battle when the player is selecting an ally to use spells manually and the delay when using cure magic or healing items (not to mention the longer delay when reviving an ally). There is also the consequential schizophrenic difficulty through the game, but most battles tend to be fast, despite the action halting when an attack magician uses magic, and the battle system works decently overall.

Controls are superficially decent, with a simple menu system and easy shopping, though there are some like the inability to dash without an accessory (and some accessories are the difference between victory and defeat), the poor direction at times on how to advance the main storyline, and the lack of warp magic (though players ultimately gain the ability to fly). Ultimately, interaction could have been better.

Aside from the poor direction of the story at times and the fact that Chrono Trigger had just had a time-travel plot, the story is decent, with a nice cast of characters (though Klarth in particular somewhat lacks development), good antagonists, and decent backstory. It does suffer from the typical brevity of most RPG storylines at the time, but still helps the game more than hurts.

The soundtrack is the first joint venture of composers Motoi Sakuraba and Shinji Tamura, with both providing a nice series of tracks with plenty of emotion. There's also voice acting in battle, a rarity for a game at the time, which is decent for the most part aside from the typical Japanese butchering of some English words like "Fasto Aido" instead of just "First Aid." Still, an excellent-sounding game.

The graphics are nice as well, with decent scenery and mostly-good sprites, albeit with some exceptions such as Mint's sprite looking to wear a female sailor's hat instead of a nurse's hat like in her portrait and Klarth's sprite looking to wear a graduation-cap instead of a pointed wizard's hat like in his own design. There are also only two anime stills in the entire game, inexcusable given that other 16-bit games such as Phantasy Star IV had tons of them, but otherwise, the game looks decent.

Finally, playing time ranges from twenty to forty hours, depending upon how much time the player spends with sidequests, with an unlockable hard mode sure to be nightmarish given the standard difficulty. Ultimately, the original Tales of Phantasia isn't as enjoyable as future Tales games or its subsequent remakes, what with some rough edges around its battle system and consequentially inconsistent difficulty, although it has plenty going for it such as a nice story, soundtrack, and graphics. It's a decent game, but definitely falls short of the title of masterpiece, and if you've played future incarnations, you aren't missing much, aside from the liberties the fan translation takes with the script.

The Good:
+Debut of the LMBS.
+Good story.
+Nice music and graphics.

The Bad:
-LMBS is somewhat rough around the edges, with schizophrenic difficulty.
-Sometimes poor direction on how to advance.
-Not much replayability.

The Bottom Line:
Not as enjoyable as future Tales games or the PlayStation remake, but still a decent title.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Super Famicom
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 7/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 5/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 20-40 Hours

Overall: 7/10

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