So, I got back home for spring break, and immediately sank myself into Tales of Vesperia. I was about 2/3 of the way through it, and just managed to finish up this afternoon. So, having played through the full game, let me give you my rambling review that will bear little resemblance to anything like a real review and basically consists of me just talking about the cool shit that went down in this game!
Now, let me say right out- Tales of Vesperia is nothing special. It pushes no boundaries and does nothing unique you haven't seen before. It stays firmly within its comfort zone. If you've played another jRPG, you can probably guess half the plot twists. The worldbuilding is simple and basic, the only twist being that monsters are genuinely present as a threat. We don't get a lot of information on it or a great deal of backstory about any of the characters. Saying that, it tells a well-crafted story, the characters are excellent, the world is fracking huge, the villains are well-crafted, no one in the plot suffers any major Idiot Ball moments, and combat is fun. In short, though it pushes no boundaries, it does what it sets out to do extraordinarily well.
Let's get s0me technical praise out of the way. On my big ol' HDTV, the game looks fantastic. There are a few areas that took my breath away, and that's tough to do with a cutesy styled game like this. There's almost no slowdown in the combat that I've seen, and the cutscenes are all great. There, that's done.
The story is fairly simple at first, and I like that. Unlike Tales of Symphonia, which starts off with this massive plot to save the world, Vesperia starts off with Yuri Lowell, your Robin Hood-esque main character meeting up with Estellise (Estelle as she's known for the entire game). They each have their own objectives- Yuri wants to get back a stolen Aque blastia- basically the control device for the local fountain, and Estelle wants to find Flynn, Yuri's friend and a Lieutenant in the Imperial Knights. For the first part of the game, the plot deals with fairly mundane issues- corrupt officials and conflict between the guilds who control one continent, and the empire on the other. The second part of the game mainly deals with Estelle and discovering her identity-there's a lot of this for the whole cast as well. The third part is a standard save the world plot. Again, nothing new, but it's all very intelligently done- there's no moment where I said "boy, you guys are idiots", and it was genuinely fun to play through. I would have liked it more if there had been less focus on the "save the world", but I'm weird that way.
Your main cast is composed of six people and a dog.
Yuri Lowell is your protagonist. He's cool, tough, and very sarcastic at times. He's your standard chaotic good character, with an emphasis on personal freedom and personal choices- so much so that he's willing to commit murder, which sets him apart from a lot of other wishy-washy antiheroes. He's still committedly awesome, if you ask me. He wields a sword or an axe. Really, he's not particularly involved in events, but his presence is such that people rely on him- he tends to take a lot on himself, which inevitably leads to him becoming more entwined with the plot. His best friend, Flynn, I'll talk about later, but the conflict between how they do things is essential for his character.
Estelle is a pink-haired princess. She looks like she's going to be stereotyped as your typical "naive noble"- she's never been outside the royal palace before the journey starts, and in a way she is. But she's still an awesome character, and never gets annoying. Part of that is because she is one of the nicest people you will ever meet, and comes preequipped with healing artes to compliment that. Another part is that she's got plenty of book smarts to make up for it, and part of it is that she's willing to learn and adapt. She suffers a bit from not knowing what she wants to do with her life, but basically she finds out she wants to help people. Simple, really.
Rita Mordio is a young mage, your typical bratty tsundere type. Really, there's not a great deal to say about her. She's loyal to her friends, particularly Estelle (from what I've heard there's rather active shipping of those two), she can come up with solutions to most of the party's blastia-related problems, and she's wonderfully sarcastic, which oftentimes makes her great fun to listen to. Michelle Ruff does a standout job voicing her, giving her a lot of personality she'd otherwise lack. I listened to a few lines from the Japanese version and eurgh!
Karol is another fairly stereotype, stock character and he's probably my least favorite. He's a young idiot hero out to prove himself despite the fact that a lot of things scare him. He comes to learn the value of teamwork and not being headstrong and doing things on his own, which is an odd lesson to teach someone who is so involved in guilds. Meh, whatcha gonna do? He's certainly not a bad character, but there really isn't much to say. Yuri, Rita and Raven get a lot of good jokes at his expense, so he's not all bad.
Judith is a Krytian, a member of an elfin species that is supposedly separate from humans but really doesn't get elaborated on. She starts off alone with her companion, a dragonish thing named Ba'ul out to destroy those blastia that are utilizing aer (magic energy, mana is something separate here) at a dangerous rate, earning her the ire of Rita, who researches and loves blastia. She meets up with Yuri while the two are in prison and tags along with the group, becoming ingratiated and working towards the group's goals over her own- that they happen to present a better solution doesn't hurt. She's wonderfully witty and calm, and very fun to use in battle. But really, not a great deal to say.
Raven is an old, fairly laid-back man who tags along with the party for his own reasons. He fights with a bow or knife as the situation depends and tends to complain a lot. He gives advice to the rest, and has his own reasons for doing things, which are spoilerriffic, so I won't bother. He's not terribly well-executed (those of you who have played will know what I'm talking about), but not horrible. Props again to his voice actor for turning in a stellar job.
Repede is a dog, and Yuri's friend. Not anything else to say.
Minor characters- Flynn is your textbook Lawful Good without being Lawful Anal- he abides by the laws, sometimes to a fault, but he never stops being a good, nice guy. He's set up as Yuri's foil and it works very well. Sodia is an interesting character, but again, it's spoilerriffic. Don Whitehorse is another awesome leader-type, and Cumore makes an awesome villain to hate, if only because Liam O'Brien turns in a creepy performance.
Combat is hella fun. The Tales games have always been fighting games for their combat, and this one's no different. In Tales of Symphonia, I was only really comfortable using Lloyd, but in Vesperia I got to the point where I could use Yuri, Judith, or Rita well, and my goal in my next playthrough is to master everyone. Combat consists of an open field, where you use basic attacks and special artes to deal damage and the like. Yuri's a typical frontline fighter with emphasis on multihit combos along with several knockdown attacks, Estelle is a backline support/healer who can hold her own in melee (figuring her out in close combat is where I'm at now) and is apparently an incredible tank, Repede is a quick mover, I think (didn't really use him much at all), Karol is slow and heavy hitting and uses up TP like there's a hole in his pocket, Raven is an all-around midrange/longrange jack of all trades, Rita is a longrange spellslinger who can be incredibly broken in Over Limit and has a few decent close combat moves, and Judith specializes in aerial combat, something that's ridiculously fun. I got to be good with Yuri and Judith, and Rita's really easy to use- pick a spell and target it. The game at times was ridiculously hard, but either I got better (not likely after the break I took) or the game got easier towards the end.
So, it's a long (took me 50 hours), fun game with great characters and an interesting if formulaic story. Best game I've played in a while.
But here's something I've noted about stories as a whole. There are two main types of stories- character-driven and event-driven. Most stories tend to be character-driven. There's something that only they can do, or it's less about the events and more directly about how the characters do it. To give examples, Battlestar Galactica is all about the characters. William Adama, Starbuck, Baltar, et al are essential to the show, how it works, and how things get resolved. More so, they tend to trigger the events. Whereas if you look at Lord of the Rings, it's very event-driven. Apart from Frodo and Sam, there's not a lot about what the rest of the fellowship does that couldn't be done by someone else- there's nothing inherent about the character's personalities that means that they are perfectly suited for this task. Events are driven by the fact that they have to win the war, and little personally. In fact, we learn very little about most of the fellowship's personaliteis and motivations. Halo is another one- for all its focus on the Master Chief, he's little more than a mask. The story is all about the war. I tell you this because, despite all the awesome characters, Tales of Vesperia is event-driven. Someone's gotta get the aque blastia back, someone's gotta save the world, etc. It's an interesting observation.