When the topic of classic Japanese role-playing games is brought up, people tend to focus on a set few titles. Final Fantasy VII will forever be etched into the history of the genre for obvious reasons -- as is the case with several other entries in Square Enix's beloved series -- and most would probably give nods to properties like Dragon Quest, Suikoden, Breath of Fire, and specific titles such as Chrono Trigger and Xenogears. All of these games are considered classics for a reason, but only every so often does Bandai Namco's long running Tales franchise enter the conversation.
Believe it or not, Tales of Vesperia is over ten years old. It began life as an Xbox 360 exclusive, back in the days when Microsoft was looking to gain some sort of foothold in Japan -- a strategy that ultimately didn't amount to much. Needless to say it was later ported to the PlayStation 3, but much to the disappointment of many, this enhanced re-release never made it West.
It's worth noting Vesperia's age because now, in 2019, it falls into a particular category of games. It's now old enough to be remembered especially fondly by those who played through it when they were teenagers or young adults, but it's not quite a "classic" in the same way that the previously mentioned JRPGs are. And really, that's a bit unfair, because there's a reason Tales of Vesperia is widely regarded as one of the best titles in the series.
But as hinted, the Tales franchise has never found itself traversing the same JRPG landscape as the titans of the genre. By and large, it's always been regarded as a kind of "b-tier" property. If JRPGs were food, Tales games would be reasonably priced takeaways. They taste good while they last and they certainly fill you up, but they're not the best grub that money can buy, and chances are, they won't last long in your memory. That is, until you order another one.
And we're not going to sit here and argue that the series should be revered in the way Final Fantasy is, or that Tales games in general are criminally underappreciated, but we will stick our neck out and say that Tales of Vesperia is a cut above the majority of its brethren. If any Tales title can be considered a classic, based on age and quality, it's got to be this one.
So thank the gaming gods that we've got Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition on PlayStation 4. This is the re-release that some of you have been waiting a decade for, complete with the additional playable characters and story scenarios that were packaged into the PS3 port all those years ago. It runs at a silky 60 frames per second, the updated graphics look pretty, and most importantly, it's still a darn good JRPG.
What sets Vesperia apart from its kin is its rather unique personality and feel. It features a primary cast of misfits that are all lovable in their own way -- a band of stubborn weirdos who just want to find their purpose in the world. It tells a story that deals in a fair amount of cliches -- world altering crystals and all that, obviously -- but it's the characters that you stay for. Yuri, the game's protagonist, remains one of the best realised heroes in the series, his aloof exterior hiding relatable insecurities, a dangerously dark streak, and a passion for dumb jokes.
Yuri's surrounded by a party that you can't help but care for as their motives clash and their relationships bubble. Estelle, a noble who's spent her whole life reading books behind castle walls, is indecisive and incredibly naive, but Yuri and the gang's stern support guides her through a great character arc. The fact that the main cast butt heads so regularly gives them a dynamic that you don't often see -- especially in JRPGs -- and it's refreshing when one of them has to put their foot down and tell it like it is.
It gets to a point where you're not even sure whether you're actually playing as the good guys. Yes, there are designated baddies scattered throughout, but there's a greyness to Yuri and the gang's actions that keeps things interesting. Right or wrong, the party's journey raises some surprisingly thought-provoking themes.
But for all the praise Vesperia deserves due to its characters and engaging plot points, there's no getting away from the fact that its storytelling can be hit and miss. This is largely down to janky cutscene animations that haven't aged all that well, and patches of awkward dialogue and voice acting that scream "this game was first localised in 2008".
What's more, the scenarios that were added in the PS3 re-release have all been freshly dubbed in English. That in itself is a good thing, but it leads to some jarring inconsistencies. For example, in the original, Yuri is voiced by the one and only Troy Baker, but according to Baker, he was never asked to come back for the Definitive Edition, and so we're left with a replacement actor doing his best Troy Baker impression. It sounds fine until you eventually catch on, and then you'll never be able to stop yourself from thinking "hey, this isn't Troy Baker, this must be a new scene!" Needless to say, it takes you out of the experience.
Yuri's not the only character who suffers, either. Several secondary characters have also been thrown into the hands of new voice talent, and some don't even try to hide the fact that they sound completely different. Fortunately, you can play through the whole game with the Japanese voice track, but it's obviously not an ideal solution for those who want to hear the story acted out in English. All in all, the discrepancy isn't a deal-breaker, but it's a damn shame.
Moving on, how does the gameplay hold up over ten years later? Well, we won't lie: we found ourselves wishing for any kind of minimap when traversing towns and dungeons, and going back to a zoomed-out world map when moving from place to place feels archaic in 2019, but aside from that, Vesperia's traditional JRPG gameplay loop has aged well. Locations are memorable and exploration is almost always rewarded with a treasure chest or two, and the game's skill system, which lets you customise your characters with various boosts learned through equipping and wielding specific weapons, is straightforward and effective.
Of course, tying exploration and character progression together is the title's action-based combat, which, while not as fast or as fluid as the fighting that's found in more recent Tales games, stands strong as a tactically nuanced and combo-heavy hack and slasher. The somewhat methodical pacing of battle can take a little getting used to -- attacks tend to leave you open once they're through so correct timing and spacing are important wrinkles -- but it feels fantastic once you're up to speed.
That said, difficulty spikes during early boss fights can be an issue, but it's a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. Before long, you'll have a wide array of powerful special moves and combos at your disposal, and you get a real sense of accomplishment upon mastering each new mechanic that the game sends your way. And if you're only here for the story, you can just hit up the easy difficulty at any point and save yourself the trouble.
Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition brings one of, if not the best Tales game to PS4, and that alone will no doubt be enough to persuade fans of the series. But really, ten years after its original release, Vesperia deserves more credit than that. It's a borderline classic Japanese RPG, and one that still holds up in 2019 thanks to a great cast of characters and some finely poised action.