“What would you do if you weren’t really you?” This is one of the main questions at the heart of Tales of the Abyss, the 8th mainline entry in Namco Bandai’s long running Tales series. Initially released in 2005 for the Playstation 2, it has since become one of the most beloved entries in the franchise, along with Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Vesperia. Today, let’s take a look at it in depth and see what made it such a well-regarded classic.
We begin our story with Luke Fon Fabre, a young spoiled noble living his day-to-day life confined to his manor in the Capital city of Batical in the kingdom of Kimlasca. While in the midst of a sparring session with his instructor Dorian General Van Grants, they are suddenly interrupted by a mysterious woman infiltrating the manor in an attempt to assassinate Van. When Luke clashes with the would-be assassin, the two suddenly begin to glow, and before anyone can respond, the two are suddenly whisked away to parts unknown in a brilliant flash of light. When Luke comes to, he finds himself in a beautiful field of flowers overlooking the sea, along with the mysterious woman checking him over, who introduces herself as Tear. Feeling guilty for getting him caught up in her attempt on Van’s life, she offers to escort Luke back to his home in Baticul. Luke, having no other option, agrees. However, the trip home becomes more complicated as Luke finds himself caught in the middle of the political tensions between his home of Kimlasca and the Malkuth Empire, as well as frequent clashes against the elite God Generals of the Order of Lorelai, who seem to be moving towards some unknown plan. And what of this red-haired man among the God Generals, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Luke? What begins as a trip home amidst political intrigue, soon evolves into a tale involving fate, identity, atonement, and the very meaning of life itself.
Tales of the Abyss does an incredible job in telling its story, allowing its world and characters to gradually build towards the big moments of the narrative while rarely feeling like it’s dragging its feet to get there. Further complimenting the pacing is the much improved cutscene choreography coming from Tales of Symphonia. Many cutscenes involve dramatic camera shots and angles to help better sell the emotions and intensity of the game’s many moments, both action and dramatic. The choreography of the character’s themselves has also seen a marked improvement, with many animations feeling tailor-made for the given scene when compared to an entry like Symphonia which needs to rely on a small pool of reusable animations.
Sealing the deal is a phenomenal cast of characters to experience the story through. The Tales series is famous for having amazing characters, and Abyss is a shining example of why. Each member of the main party, from Tear, Guy Cecil—Luke’s best friend, the eternally sarcastic colonel—Jade Curtiss, the spunky twelve-year-old elite guard—Anise Tatlin, to the Kimlascan princess Natalia, all manage to bring a unique personality to the table that allows for great banter and chemistry. All the while, the game manages to allow time for each of them to experience character growth that feels satisfying and well worth the time investment.
I feel I need to give special mention to our main character, Luke, and his personal journey throughout the game. Starting the game as a spoiled brat (with a very hard to find heart of gold), Luke slowly starts to grow and change as the story unfolds around him and as his place in it begins to come into question. Luke, by the end of the game, is a vastly different person compared to the Luke players meet at the start, and this development is one of the game’s shining highlights. This is all while still retaining a strong personality that allows him to bounce off of and connect with the rest of the party.
It’s not just the main party; the story features a well-rounded group of antagonists in the form of the God Generals—all of whom have a personal connection with someone in the main party, allowing for more chances for character growth and exploration as well as increased tension in the moments when the two groups clash. The main villain is similarly well developed with a clear backstory, motivation, and philosophy driving his actions that makes the struggle to defeat him all the more compelling when combined with everything else mentioned so far. All of the characters are further done justice by a terrific cast of voice actors lending their talents to bring them to life, including Yuri Lowenthal, Johnny Yong Bosch, Kirk Thorton, Stephanie Sheh, Erin Fitzgerald and many more.
While I praised the pacing earlier, there are moments when the pacing does fumble. This is predominantly in the middle of the 2nd act when the party is bouncing between different towns, with only minimal headway made between each visit towards the main problem. Another negative to note is the sheer volume of technical terms the game throws out and simply hopes you understand (take a shot everytime “Fon” is said and you will probably die). While these are far from ruining the experience, they can hamper what is otherwise an amazing story with an amazing cast of characters.
Tales of the Abyss, like the rest of the series, uses a modified version of the “Linear Motion Battle System” that has helped define Tales since 1995. The basics are mostly the same—you are stuck in line with the enemy you’re targeting with normal attacks assigned to one button that can be influenced with a directional input, special attacks or “artes”. Four “artes” can be assigned to commands involving another button, plus a direction on the control stick; an additional four can be assigned to the cardinal directions on the right stick. You can customize the AI of your party with the tactics menu, influencing how much “TP” they’ll use before relying on normal attacks, what kind of enemies they’ll target first in combat, and which “artes” they’re allowed to use, among other things. But Abyss changes things up in a few different ways. The biggest change, and one that will stay with the series moving forward, is the inclusion of “free run”. At any time, you can press and hold L1 to break free from your line with the enemy and run anywhere on the field. This opens up many possibilities for evading attacks and finding openings in your opponent’s defenses. The 2nd biggest addition are FoFs or “Fields of Fonons”. When an elemental attack is used enough, it will leave behind a colored ring on the battlefield that you can then walk into. If you use a compatible “arte” within this circle your “arte” will change and come out as something far more powerful. And it’s not just physical “artes” either; both magic and support “artes” can also change in “FoF”s. Different “artes” will change in different elements of “FoF”s, and the game heavily encourages experimentation. The inclusion of “FoF”s adds a fun additional factor to battles, as it becomes possible to coordinate when spells or elemental attacks go off in order to take advantage of the increased damage and range of FoFs. Additionally, later into the game it even becomes possible to use FoFs in a single characters combo as their pool of “artes” increase and they pick up more elemental attacks.
Like most JRPGs, Tales uses a standard leveling system where characters slowly gain experience to incrementally increase their stats and learn new “artes”, but there are a few additional systems that influence how your characters grow. The first of these is “capacity cores”. Early in the game Luke will receive his first “capacity core”, and these will give him and the other characters additional stat buffs each time they level up, depending on which “capacity core” they have equipped. This not only has the obvious benefit of better stats but it’s also how you unlock skills, which are additional passives and extra abilities that can completely change certain parts of the combat, such as giving you additional attacks for your normal attacks or letting you use “artes” in different orders.
The capacity core system is an interesting idea on paper, and the additional stats per level up are nice, but there’s a big problem in actually obtaining skills in Abyss. Skills are awarded once you reach certain thresholds of bonus stats (i.e., Luke has 30 “attack” normally and then +10 from his “capacity core”) but what stats are needed for which skills are never mentioned in game. This is a problem because some of these skills are almost critical—like “item thrower”, which allows characters to use items on other characters. Some can just be intuited like the skill “dash”, which increases your movement speed and is obtained by increasing your AGI stat. There are many more, however, that you either have to guess or follow a skill guide to determine. This all sadly means that on a first playthrough you will likely be missing out on a lot of incredibly useful skills. The 2nd additional system for character growth is the “fon” slot chambers. These are small, helpful items that you can attach to a single “arte” to improve their capabilities—from how much damage they do to their knockback, and more. Aside from one type of item they are ultimately negligible, however; you could ignore them entirely and you wouldn’t feel much of a difference.
The last thing I’ll touch on is side quests. The quests themselves are generally pretty good with a nice variety in your tasks along with many of the side quests adding to the lore, characters or both. However, some are incredibly missable with small windows of time to activate or continue them and often with large leaps in assumptions to figure out what to do next. Like with skills, if you aren’t following a guide on a first run you could potentially miss out on a large swath of content, including stuff that can grant you new “artes”, weapons, or greater insight into parts of the story.
Graphically, Abyss doesn’t look bad for the Playstation 2. While it doesn’t quite stack up against the graphical juggernauts of Final Fantasy XII, Metal Gear Solid 2, or even something like Jak and Daxter, it still manages to achieve a charming and pleasing cel-shaded art style that helps make up for the lack of sheer graphical fidelity. Character models are decently detailed, and the aforementioned cel-shading helps to make them pop out nicely. Where the graphics shine the best is in many of the environments from the calming flower fields of Tataroo Valley to the ancient temples and ruins. The towns in particular manage to invoke a lot of personality and presence in their design, from the holy city of Daath to the flowing water city of Grand Chokmah.
While Abyss isn’t a graphical powerhouse, one aspect of the presentation that is truly phenomenal is its soundtrack. Composed by series veteran Matoi Sakuraba along with Shinji Tamura and Bump of Chicken vocalist Motoo Fujiwara, there are a wide range of memorable tracks, from hard rock inspired battle tracks to slower violin and piano pieces for the sadder scenes. Personal favorites from the soundtrack include Crimson Pride, The Arrow was Shot, Awkward Justice, Wish and Sadness, The Meaning of Birth, and the three final boss tracks.
Tales of the Abyss is a truly remarkable RPG for the Playstation 2. With an incredibly gripping story, a colorful cast of fully realized characters, a fun and addicting combat system, and a wonderful soundtrack, make for one of the best RPGs on the system and of the entire generation. While the skill system and many side quests may be frustrating or difficult to figure out, that’s not enough to take away from what is otherwise an incredible JRPG. If you’re a fan of action RPGs, Tales of the Abyss is a great game to check out—especially if you’re a fan of any of the other Tales games. PS2 copies thankfully are not very expensive, like many other RPGs on the system, so if you have a PS2 lying around, it’s not hard to track down. The game is also available on 3DS, though it is sadly not available on the Nintendo eShop, so you will need to track down a physical copy if you want to try the game for yourself. The 3DS version is the same content-wise, but with vastly reduced loading times and the removal of several bugs that existed in the original PS2 version.
Tales of the Abyss is a shining example of what the Tales series is capable of, and I believe it has more than earned its reputation as one of the best the series has to offer.