Tales of the Past: A Tales Series Retrospective Part 1

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By Hayes Madsen on September 8th, 2021


The JRPG genre has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades, and throughout that time there are a few series that have remained mainstays. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest may remain at the head of the pack, but the Tales series has been a constant presence for the last 25 years as well.

The Tales franchise has built a dedicated fanbase through strong storytelling and its iconic action combat system, which debuted at the height of popularity for turn-based RPGs. With the 25th anniversary and the release of Tales of Arise, it’s the perfect time to take a look back at the long and winding history of Tales, especially through a lens of how the series has evolved in the West. We’ll focus mostly on the history and design of the series, but as an avid Tales fan, I’ll be looping in some personal experience as well. We also will exclusively be talking about the mothership titles in the franchise, and won’t dive into the dozens of spinoffs from over the years.

Defining Tales

Tales of Phantasia – 1995

December 15, 1995, is where the Tales series begins, releasing on the Super Famicom in Japan. Tales of Phantasia was developed by a studio known as “Wolf Team,” which was originally a part of Telenet Japan. There’s some complicated history of Wolf Team leaving Telenet and then rejoining, but essentially the team behind Phantasia was having serious problems with Telenet. After unsuccessfully pitching the game to Square, they managed to strike a deal with Namco to publish “Tale Phantasia,” which was based on an unpublished novel by one of the game’s main programmers, Yoshihara Gotanda.

At this point, Namco pushed for some big changes in the game, including changing the name to Tales of Phantasia. There were a ton of changes to the core story of Phantasia, and even though the game helped launch one of Namco’s biggest series many of the key development figures, including Gotanda, would leave and found tri-Ace, the studio best known for Star Ocean.

Tales of Phantasia was strikingly different from other RPGs at the time, namely because of its real-time combat known as the Linear Motion Battle System, which is still used to this day. The system was inspired by fighting games, and combat even featured voice-acted lines for key phrases and special attacks.

Tales of Phantasia set the foundation and key members of its development would keep influencing the series for the next two decades. It’s also important to point out that the score was written by Motoi Sakuraba, who would be the key composer for the entire Tales and Star Ocean series. Despite the influence Tales of Phantasia had, the game wouldn’t actually release in the West until 2006 on the Game Boy Advance.

Tales of Destiny – 1997

Tales of Destiny is a momentous entry in the series, as the first game to ever release in the West in 1998. This was the first game to sport character designs by Mutsumi Inomata, who’d serve as the main character designer on a majority of the series. Unfortunately, Tales of Destiny failed to really catch on in the West, which could partially have been due to the release of Final Fantasy 7 a year before. Final Fantasy 7 was a monumental change for JRPGs, and graphically Tales of Destiny couldn’t stack up, also sporting a more typical “fantasy” type story.

Tales of Destiny is inarguably more influential than Phantasia, and its dramatic story and robust cast of characters basically created the foundation the series would build off of. Some of the best characters in the whole series were introduced here, like the brooding swordsman Leon and the happy-go-lucky Rutee. Tales of Destiny also introduce the feature that the franchise might be best known for, Skits. This does come with a catch, however, as Skits were only in the Japanese version of the game and weren’t featured in the North American one, likely because of the costs for localizing such a large amount of extra text.

As I said earlier, Tales of Destiny simply didn’t catch on in the West, which also means that the remake, Tales of Destiny: Director’s Cut, never made it West either. The remake sported a wealth of new features including a revamped battle system, 3D environments, redrawn sprites, and more. Tales of Destiny remains the third best-selling title in the franchises and the best-selling Tales game in Japan with roughly 1.63 million copies sold.

Like with Phantasia, I didn’t experience Tales of Destiny until many years later after I’d already played the bulk of the series. The PS1 game is incredibly hard to find these days, and I actually ended up buying a copy off of eBay for nearly $100 in 2016. Although I don’t have a nostalgic connection to it, Tales of Destiny is a fascinating game to play, in order to see where so many of the ideas and themes of the series came from.

Tales of Eternia – 2000

Western fans may know Tales of Eternia under another name, as the game released as Tales of Destiny 2 in 2001, despite bearing no connection to the previous title. Again this was because of the series’ lack of recognition in the West and Namco wanting to capitalize off of any perceived connection players might have.

Tales of Eternia didn’t do much to push the series forward in terms of gameplay design, but it was the first game to feature the idea of two co-existing worlds. This would become a recurring trope used in multiple titles like Tales of Symphonia, Tales of Graces, and Tales of Xillia. Tales of Eternia would also go on to inspire the first MMORPG for the series, Tales of Eternia Online. Launched in March 2006, the Japan-only game would only run for one year before being shut down.

A 2001 IGN interview with Aki Kozu, the localization producer on Tales of Destiny 2 (Eternia), also helps shed some light on the decisions the company made during that time. When asked why Namco chose Eternia over the PlayStation version of Phantasia they responded “Timing and market demand were two of the major reasons why TOP was not localized. The team responsible for the Tales series was already in the midst of developing TOE, and could not provide support for a localization effort. We also felt at the time that TOE was going to be a much better game than TOP and had a better chance of succeeding in the US market. So, we decided to focus our localization efforts on TOE.”

One final interesting fact lies with the PSP re-released of Tales of Eternia. The port went unreleased in North America despite having a demo featured at E3 2004, although it was distributed in Europe by Ubisoft, of all companies. Because PSP games are region-free, the European PSP version was the way I experienced Tales of Eternia, and it’s likely still a better option than the PS1 version for any collector’s hoping to pick up the game.

Tales of Destiny 2 – 2002

Outside of Phantasia, Tales of Destiny 2 is the first game in the series to never receive a Western release, as the series still hadn’t caught on by 2002. Set eighteen years after the events of Tales of Destiny, the sequel follows Kyle Dunamis, the son of Stahn and Rutee. In a surprisingly ambitious twist, Stahn dies near the beginning of Tales of Destiny 2, setting the stage for a revenge story.

Tales of Destiny 2 was actually the last game to be developed by the original “Wolf Team,” as it would soon be rebranded as Namco Tales Studio. In terms of new additions, this was the first game to feature the GRADE system, rewarding players for performing well in combat. These GRADE points could then be carried over at the end of the game to unlock perks or bonuses for the next playthrough, and the system has been a staple all the way through Tales of Berseria.

I won’t spend too much time delving into Tales of Destiny 2 as Retroware has another article, Lost In Translation, covering the history of the title. Unfortunately, like many fans, I’ve never had the chance to play Tales of Destiny 2, but the Lumina Destiny fan project is hoping to change that soon.

Evolving a series

Tales of Symphonia – 2003

Tales of Symphonia is the first title that really hit in the West, and it remains the most successful entry in the franchise in North America. It’s also one of the most narratively ambitious Tales games out there, and the place that I started with the franchise. Tales of Symphonia tackles some incredibly heavy themes like racism, religious dogma, and false imprisonment. It may not dive into these topics as deep as other games, but Tales of Symphonia does a remarkably deft job of juggling these hard topics and actually having something to say on them as well. Perhaps most interesting about this, is that Tales of Symphonia’s story was planned secondary to gameplay according to a 2008 interview in Tales of Magazine. Takashi Hasegawa, Game Designer on Tales of Symphonia, said “We first decided how we wanted the gameplay to be, then we approached the scenario group with that as a baseline: ‘we want to do this and this, so please make the story accommodate these ideas.”

Hasegawa goes on further to explain the branching structure of Symphonia, “We asked ourselves, what new ideas could we bring to Symphonia that would be different in shape and form from previous RPGs? We wanted to try adding a non-linear, multi-branching structure to the overall game. The biggest “multi” aspect of Symphonia is in the branching paths the story can take and the way you can choose who to befriend via the affection stat. Had we not had that overall “multi” theme for the gameplay from the start, I don’t think the story would have been structured in the same way.”

Tales of Symphonia was also a turning point for the franchise in terms of gameplay, as it represented the first jump to 3D graphics. This iteration of combat is called the Multi-Line Linear Motion Battle System, representing how characters still move on a 2D line but can move on multiple lines around a 3D environment. Without Tales of Symphonia, it’s doubtful the series would have ever hit prominence in the West, as the game’s cult classic status on GameCube helped cultivate a dedicated fanbase.

Tales of Rebirth – 2004

Despite the innovations brought to the series by Symphonia, Tales of Rebirth opted to go back to a 2D sprite-based style, although the combat system was highly changed from past 2D titles with the camera zooming in and out on characters instead of being static. Although combat is 2D there are different “lanes” characters can move to, granting a brilliant amount of depth to the system.

Tales of Rebirth’s main theme deals with ethnic conflict, and boy does the game jump full force into it, as the story deals with an all-out war between Huma and Gajuma. For lack of a better term, Rebirth’s story is one of the more “mature” of the franchise. One of my personal favorite elements of Tales of Rebirth is the skits, which feature full-body animation for characters instead of the usual static faces, and I really wish more Tales games used it.

Sadly, Tales of Rebirth has never seen an English release, which could have to do with the utterly massive size of the game. The core story of Rebirth is substantially larger than Symphonia, and despite the latter’s growing cult status Tales simply wasn’t a recognized series in the West. It would have been a massive undertaking at the time, but it’s still kind of baffling that Namco Bandai hasn’t released a port of any kind in recent years.

Tales of Legendia – 2005

Tales of Legendia is a fascinating fusion between classic 2D Tales and 3D; sporting a 3D world and characters, but a battle system that takes place entirely on a 2D plane. Legendia also has a markedly different feel from other titles mostly because of its change in character designer and composer. Character designs are done by Kazuto Nakazawa, the artist behind characters designs for anime like Final Fantasy Unlimited and Samurai Champloo. Meanwhile, Legendia is the first Tales game with Go Shiina as the soundtrack lead, lending it a much more epic orchestral score.

Tales of Legendia wasn’t received nearly as well as other titles, both in Japan and the West, but it does have some very interesting ideas. Chief among these are the character-specific epilogue stories that take place after the main story. These epilogues do a phenomenal job of fleshing out the characters and world and help solidify Legendia’s unique feeling even more.

In a 2005 interview with IGN, Producer Jun Toyoda talked about the setting and idea for these epilogues,

“In the past, the settings for the Tales series took place across an entire world. However, the story this time is set on an ancient relic – a huge ship known as the Legacy. Even though it’s technically a ship, the size of the gameworld is no different from those in the other Tales series titles. As players advance through the game, they will soon discover the secrets behind this ship, such as who made it and what purpose it serves as well as its hidden powers.

The structure of the scenario is unique to Tales of Legendia. Once the main scenario has been cleared, the player can then go through the character quests. These have the same scale as the main scenario, but with a greater number of event animations. There is a total of more than 70 hours of gameplay, so players can take their time to fully indulge in this game.”

To be continued…

That’s all for this installment, but stay tuned for part 2, where we’ll look at the later Tales franchise, and how the series continued to change and evolve ahead of the release of Tales of Arise later this September.

Settled for being a writer, considering Gundam Pilot isn’t a real occupation.


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