Thus far, I’ve been writing exclusively about games I’ve actually beaten. I don’t think there’s an actual reviewers code or anything along those lines regarding that sort of thing, but it feels right. After all, you can’t really comment on the entirety of the game without having played it through. You can comment on the experience though, and a game really should be getting you interested in playing within the first hour or so of game time.
Tales of Vesperia did that and then some. I got lucky and got it on sale for $12.50, which is an absolutely amazing price for a game of this quality and size. Like several games on the Switch, particularly RPGs, it’s a nearly triple A title from a generation of games or so back. As someone who spent the Playstation 3/Nintendo Wii U/whatever that last system is era playing computer games and exercising with Wii Fit, I kind of appreciate the Switch’s greatest hits mentality. It’s why I’ve put several of these games.
ToV is the tenth entry in the mainline Tales series. I’ve played a handful of these action RPGs before: Tales of Destiny 2 on the Playstation (actually Tales of Eternia; welcome to the wacky world of translating in the late nineties), Tales of the Abyss and Tales of Legendia on Playstation 2, Tales of Symphonia on Steam (which I straight up forgot about) and Tales of Phantasia on the GBA. I beat one of those: that original PS game.
These are action RPGs that include various consistent elements. Your characters utilize “Artes” in combat, which are your various moves and magic, to fight various enemies, sometimes other humanoids, sometimes monsters, etc. The player directly controls one character, while three others join you via AI, which you can program to do what you will.
These battles take place in a sort of circular 3D arena that will take on the shape of the location you find the opponent in, but are still their own thing. Basically you run into an enemy on the map, or engage in a battle via an arena or the like, and are transported to a different area to fight. This should be familiar to literally anyone who’s ever played a RPG before, but it is a bit different for an action RPG.
The story follows Yuri Lowell, a disgraced former Imperial Knight who is at first simply looking to help his neighborhood area. He meets up with a girl named Estellise, who could not more obviously be a princess if she showed up wearing a crown. Along the way they gather what in many ways reads like your standard motley crew of characters: a vampy elf, a genius mage (and best character), a kid in over his head, the pet wolf, a girl who’s a pirate (and also has a quasi obvious backstory), and a guy who’s called “old man” who seems to be about my age.
The story builds gradually in a really interesting, sort of mature way. The initial goals are small: Yuri’s hunting for a stolen magical item, Estelle wants to catch up with Flynn (he’s the knight up there who’s sometimes in the party; I forgot him, but don’t worry: the game does too for hours at a time), Karol (the kid) just wants friends, Rita wants to follow her crush Estelle (more on this in a bit). But they soon start uncovering more and more about the world, but unlike in some JRPGs, this isn’t just one discovery. It builds the little details gradually, by slowly immersing the player in an absolutely immense world.
And for a while, it seems like the plot could truly go in some interesting directions. For a good chunk in the middle, Yuri commits some questionable actions. I don’t just mean little things like leaving the party to go on his own (which he does), but actions that would, under many circumstances outright label him a villain. In a lot of ways, it read and felt like the game was building for a Yuri heel turn, where he’d become a villain. I’ve seen that done before and it sometimes works quite well.
It doesn’t. The dirty deeds come up in a few conversations and his friends essentially say “we’re upset you didn’t tell us, bad Yuri!”
(He murders people guys. Straight up. Murders.)
There’s also some interesting character dynamics that are developing around the same time. When the vampy elf Judith finally joins the party (this is after over a dozen hours in, mind), she and Yuri get on famously. They flirt and joke with one another in a way that is quite obvious by JRPG standards, bordering on PG-13 if not outright adult.
On top of that, there’s what reads very, very much like Rita, the female genius mage, having a crush on Estelle. Any scholar of queer theory knows about the idea of “close friends” as being queer coding: it stretches back for decades. Often properties both modern and archaic would use coding like “friendship” and “best friends” for this sort of open affection for one another. But the dialogue and situations would read like married couples (for some readers, think of Yogi and Boo-boo, or Ren and Stimpy or possibly even Oscar and Felix to a degree).
Rita blushes when talking to or about Estelle; she makes comments about openly changing her personality and opening up emotionally to people because of Estelle; she literally goes nuts and helps lead a charge against the Imperial Knights because of Estelle; she hugs Estelle when they reunite. These two have a better romance than Squall and Rinoa, and Final Fantasy 8 was built around the romance. Plus Yuri’s too busy staring at Judith (or possibly Flynn if you’re into that; the subtext is there too); Karol’s too young; Raven’s thirty something, so too old; and Repede’s a wolf.
For those that are unaware, this is essentially “queerbaiting,” where a creative property will tease a potential queer relationship through various codes and gestures and the like. It utilizes coding and teases to get audiences, particular those that identify with this lifestyle, interested in what’s going to happen. And yes, I’m saying Tales of Vesperia does this and it’s a problem. It is, in fact, a common problem of JRPGs in general, something that’s been frustrating for years, and is, again, part of why I seem to lose my mind whenever there’s some actual, developed queer relationships and/or characters in a game, and why I argued we need games like Ikenfell.
So if you looked at the title of this, you may realize that I haven’t beaten this game, that I’ve gotten frustrated. Part of this comes from the sheer length: I’ve dropped close to 70 hours into the game and I’m not, like, standing in front of the final dungeon. There has been a ballooning of length and content in games.
Now, I’ll level: I sometimes have this almost compulsion with games. I mentally set how long I have until I beat them, and I often want to wring every last bit of content out of a game. I’ve seen videos and critics commenting that technically RPGs aren’t that long: you just have to lower the difficulty and skip side content.
Yeah, and I could just eat the toppings off my pizza too.
There’s just so much to Vesperia that it feels almost like a chore to finish it. It doesn’t help that none of what I was interested in has paid off, and I’m pretty sure it’s not going to. Oh, it was most definitely stupid of me to think it might. To think that Yuri would become a villain, or at least an antihero instead of his plot being washed away. To think that Rita and Estelle would become something more than “friends”. Heck, even the Yuri and Judith relationship would be tame and actually throw off the queer-shippers.
But instead, the plot teases something cooler, queer-baits us into thinking couples could happen, and drifts away. On top of that, I’ve figured out the combat to the point where I haven’t been threatened in the last 5-10 hours of gameplay (spoilers: I control Rita and just annihilate with linked spells).
I know where the narrative is going, because they’ve just drifted right into generic RPG territory. It started cool. It drew me in. The characters are dynamic, interesting, comic, lovable, and well written. The relationships felt real and carefully developed, and adult. But instead, we get a bog standard RPG. It’s not living up to its promise, and it’s part of why I go nuts whenever I see a game that seems to be willing to at least engage on some level, to let these narratives exist, and to do something different.
At the end of my first review for Mercenaries Blaze, I essentially bump the score because the game tries. Tales of Vesperia is why I did that. It’s a really great game that just gives up at the end and becomes a very average narrative with some admittedly cool mechanics. I may end up circling around and beating it; I’ve probably got 5-10 hours of content left by my estimation (assuming I skip some of the last bits of side quest, or just do some). I am mildly interested to see if they have any last twists (and feel free to let me know). But the game just hasn’t delivered on its most interesting promises. It’s disappointed me, and it’s a solid demonstration of why I often offer the reviews and viewpoints I do.
8 with a great beginning that rises to an excellent middle to taper off to a very average end