nilFM

tales of the abyss retrospective

2021-11-06

I've been playing Tales of the Abyss off and on since April. As a long time fan of the series and veteran of Symphonia and Phantasia, Abyss has been one of the ones I've always wanted to play, but since I never owned a PS2 growing up, the closest I got was a couple hour- or two-long installments staying over at friends' houses. Now, with the power of emulators, I've gotten to enjoy it from start fo finish, and it's a spectacular piece of art.

The story follows young Luke fon Fabre, son of a duke of the Kingdom of Kimlasca, as he stumbles his way into a journey that uncovers the secrets of his amnesia and the fate of the world of Aldurant. This journey, in typical Tales fashion, explores both the origins and grand fate of this rich and detailed world, putting the player in a tough position of deciding the meaning of justice, reponsibility, and self-determination. Tales of the Abyss is interesting in its storytelling devices, using words, concepts, and imagery from Judaeic lore to help tell its story. These range from the origin of magic and life force as Fonons (corresponding to the Word in the Old Testament), to structured reinterpretations of Kaballic concepts like the Sephirot and Qliphoth. The story also explores what it means to be human from the perspective of Replicas, those born from experimentation in Fonic duplication with no memory, used for purposes outside of their comprehension and put to the test to find their own meaning in life; as well as touching on ideas like de-growth, the meaning of family, eugenics, and the machine of war.

Coming into Abyss having played through Symphonia and Phantasia I was very pleased in the different direction the art style and lore was taken -- and it's worth saying I absolutely love the lore, character design, and world building of Symphonia. This slight departure from a classical fantasy aesthetic seems to have stuck with the series as a whole, from what I've seen of Xilia and Graces. The way the plot unfolds and draws the player in is fantastic, and leaves you hungry for the next peice of world-building lore to be uncovered.

Mechanically, the Field of Fonons gimmick was a bit to get used to, but I really liked how it fleshed out late-game. Basically, an elemental attack will leave a Field of Fonons on the battlefield for a short time, and if a character uses a certain special move within (or targeting) that field, it changes the attack into a more powerful one with an elemental effect. This was a risky design move that I think paid off. In Symphonia, which was the previous game in the series, there were Unison Attacks where after filling a gauge you could initiate a group attack, and depending on what skills each member used, they could combine to form new moves. This led to some pretty spectacular moves, but the mechanic was a bit forced and repetitive. The Field of Fonons mechanic feels a lot more natural and dynamic, although it takes more skill to get the hang of.

I do have a couple gripes with the game. First, and most importatly, it seemed like in the second half of the game, most of the changes in setting seemed rather forced -- going from city to city to talk to such and such person, even to the point of the game just dropping you into the next city to speed things along. This is in contrast to, for example, Symphonia where the entire game maintains an excellent pace driven by equal parts character development and grand scheme, so that trudging (or flying) across the map to the next destination didn't feel like an obligation but a natural extension of the story's latest events. My other gripe is that it seemed that there wasn't a great variety in enemy designs -- they were overwhelmingly human, compared to the creative multitude of monsters, humanoids, and constructs seen in other RPGs of this calibre. Still, I don't take it too heavily, as the plot, mechanics, character and level designs make up for it, and the plot being very human-centric (even for an RPG like this), sort of makes the lack of enemy variety make sense. Humans are, after all, the real monsters.

Overall, I liked Tales of the Abyss a lot. Despite its flaws, it shines as a well told story with memorable characters, an immersive world, and excellent gameplay mechanics. I highly recommend playing it if you have the chance. Tales of Arise came out recenlty, and now that I've finished Abyss, after a bit of a cooldown period I hope to get it running on yggdrasil.

Spoiler Alert - The Final BossFight!

Here is my recording of the final battle, along with the philosophical dialogue that precedes it. I have battle voice-overs turned off so you can't hear some the dialogue that occurs mid-battle or Tear's song, and I don't include the ending in this video -- if you want that much of a spoiler, there are plenty of other videos on the net you can find!

[download the video]