Just wanted to make sure you’re awake.
The beginning of the year is usually slow for game releases (unless you’re 2017), so having Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition to sink into has been cozy, to say the least. It also helps that the 10th-anniversary edition of the fan favorite in the long and storied Tales franchise is utterly delightful. Better yet, it plays gorgeously on modern consoles, including the Nintendo Switch, which is my preferred platform for enjoying the familiar rhythms of Japanese RPGs. Vesperia‘s colorful world and terrific characters (except Karol — screw you, Karol) enamored me quickly, pulling me completely into its farcical world that throws around high-fantasy words lovingly, like “artes” and “blastia” and “aer” and “Children of the Full Moon”. It’s all very charming and JRPG as hell. Although the battle system can be mind-numbing, and there were a number of times where the writing made sexist jokes that left me exhausted, the majority of my playthrough was spent grinning from ear to ear.
For the unfamiliar, bear with me for a few seconds because I’m about to use a whole bundle of words that will barely make sense to you. In the fiction of Vesperia, the world relies on magical sources called “blastia”, which are essentially infinity stones without the genocide ramifications. Towns in Terca Lumireis use blastia cores to keep their citizens safe from monster attacks and as a valuable resource for power. In Vesperia, players control Yuri Lowell, a sword-wielding, swashbuckling, Hawthorne-Heights-listening badass that is on a mission to recover the blastia core that was stolen from his city. Unlike the imperial knights, Yuri likes to think he actually gets things done. He doesn’t wait for the powers on high to give him permission, he solves problems as they arise and asks for forgiveness later. Unfortunately, this attitude often gets him in trouble, but it also leads to a series of quirky events that make for a terrific video game.
While the story beats aren’t tremendously original, they feel fresh enough to keep me engaged, which is high praise considering most JRPGs leave me bored and rapidly clicking through dialogue so I can get to the actual gameplay. As the many layers of the plot began to unfold, I found myself increasingly interested in each one. There is a lot going on in Tales of Vesperia. You have the eclectic group of characters, each with their own motivation and story arc, like Estelle, the mysterious yet gentle princess; Raven, the weird assassin that constantly has jokes thrown at him because of his age; stupid Karol, the twelve-year-old idiot who just wants a group that accepts him but is annoying as hell. The definitive edition even throws in two extra playable characters as well, Flynn Scifo, Yuri’s best pal, and Patty Fleur, a pirate girl that might be younger than Karol (where are the parents in this world?).
Then there are all the main plots: Yuri chasing after the blastia thief, the Empire almost waging a war on the Union, the influx of aer in the world driving monsters to become more erratic, the mysterious dragon that calls Estelle a poison of the planet. That’s not even all of the main arcs, and I haven’t gotten to sub-plots, such as Yuri and dumb, dumb Karol forming a guild, the mysterious dragon rider that inexplicably wants to destroy blastia, or the fact that there is an NPC called Don Whitehorse. That last one isn’t a plot device, I just wanted to write his name down so that other people witness how funny that is. But you get the point — Vesperia pulls no punches when it comes to slapping on extra story elements, both through the characters and the story itself. Somehow, it’s able to reign things in before going off the rails, a feat that is applause-worthy and head scratching.
As I mentioned above, sadly the writing is not immune to stereotypes and crappy jokes. At best, the writing is enchanting, providing a refreshing fantasy tale that was a positive respite from the world around us that I desperately needed. At worst, though, it can show its age through tired jokes at women’s expense or degrading the so-called “manliness” of its male characters. I understand that the game was initially released in 2008, a different time for what was acceptable in comedy and writing writ large, but that’s no excuse. It’s like Jerry Seinfeld saying he doesn’t play college shows because the crowd is too sensitive: they’re not too sensitive, he’s just too stubborn to write better jokes that don’t poke fun at marginalized groups. Jokes like Yuri deeming one of the members of the party “eye candy” while clearly objectifying them, or another character calling everyone “pansies” to devalue their bravery, are tone deaf and a shining example as to why comedy desperately needed to re-evaluate its identity in recent years. We should have known better in 2008, so it makes the writing that much more glaring in an age when these type of jokes are largely labeled as lazy.
Thankfully, those moments are few and far between, and the rest is a vibrant romp through various locales as you battle through legions upon legions of monsters. Combat in Vesperia adapts the series’ long-standing Linear Motion Battle System. Though it can be unusual at first, it’s no different than hack-and-slash combat where you have basic combos to build up damage and special abilities, or artes as they are known in the game. Each character has their own fighting style and artes to go with them to provide certain advantages on the field. Yuri uses quick paced martial arts to bombard the enemy and pile on as much damage as he can. Estelle operates as the paladin, offering healing and resistance buffs as well as select melee abilities so she isn’t completely defenseless. It can be dizzying at the start with so much activity on the screen, but after a few battles, I easily fell into the cadence of combat.
As much fun as combat can be, there are points after the ninth or tenth battle where it can become annoyingly thoughtless, especially toward the beginning of the game. Enemy types are varied enough, but because you’ll mostly be controlling one character in battle, combat eventually boils down to simple button mashing rather than strategy. In turn-based JRPGs, the player has a chance to experience and enjoy each character’s abilities, which always gave me something to look forward to as they leveled up. With Vesperia, each character gets their own set of arte abilities as they level up, but I never get to experience them in concert because I can only control one player while the rest are AI. It takes the fun out of leveling up, and it makes me feel like I’m missing a key element to the battling system when they acquire unique abilities that I can’t use unless I manually switch to them before battle.
Fortunately, there are multiple layers to battles that are distributed piecemeal throughout the campaign, so as time went on, fighting became much more satisfying. Systems like limit breaks, which allows a character to overcharge their damage and use special burst artes, or finishing moves that deal a ton of damage and normally defeat enemies in one hit. There was always a degree of repetition as I mashed away on my controller and waited for the encounter to end, but I at least began to appreciate the finer side of battling that the game doesn’t outright tell you.
This was the first time I spent a large chunk of time with the Tales franchise, and I think they found a new fan. Tales of Vesperia is a terrific game that fits perfectly on modern consoles, especially my sweet, sweet Switch. It can be a long, complicated game that at times feels like a slog between the monotonous combat and eye-rolling comedy, but ultimately triumphs through its story, jovial attitude, and cast of characters. Not Karol, though. Karol sucks.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Bandai Namco.
Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition continues to be a wonderful entry in the long-standing Tales series and fits perfectly on modern consoles.