Tales of Symphonia was a formative experience for me. For my young 11-year-old brain, it redefined my understanding of the JRPG genre. The vibrant presentation, action-focused combat, and mature story took me by surprise. Weekend after weekend, a friend and I would explore the world of Sylvarant together, making incremental progress in each play session. While I had played a few JRPGs before, none had hooked me the way Tales of Symphonia had.
Despite my deep reverence for Tales of Symphonia, I haven't touched it since 2004. I don't really know why. I bought it on PC a few years back, but it just felt wrong to play that game sitting at my desk one random evening after work--almost as if it would tarnish the magic of that experience and the memories tied to it. However, with the release of Tales of Symphonia Remastered, I decided it was finally time to return to this world to see if it was as good as I remember. The result was a bit mixed.
Tales of Symphonia follows a kid named Lloyd Irving as he accompanies the Chosen One on a globetrotting adventure. The Chosen One, Colette, instructed by divine prophecy, must "regenerate" the world in order to end war, famine, and hatred. It seems like standard JRPG fare, but the story is darker and far more complex than it initially lets on. Despite trying to do the right thing, Lloyd and his companions are confronted with moral quandaries that often leave a trail of destruction behind them. What makes the story so effective is how it rarely shies away from the consequences of our heroes' actions. Conflicts are rarely resolved neatly, and the story is better for it.
What makes the story truly memorable, though, is the excellent cast of characters. To this day, Symphonia still has the best cast of characters the series has ever seen. Lloyd is a charismatic, hot-headed kid seeing the world for the first time. Genis is a clumsy spellcaster who serves as the perfect best friend and foil to Lloyd. While Kratos, upon first glance, appears to be a cold and detached mercenary, he quickly becomes a stoic father figure to Lloyd. There's a great dynamic between all of the party members that lead to some funny, heartwarming, and devastating moments over the course of the journey.
The story and characters are occasionally held back by some awkward localization, but the lack of a proper quest-tracking system is what really halts the momentum. Like in the original, there is a Synopsis menu that summarizes your adventure so far and occasionally tells you where to go next. The problem is that these "synopsis" entries are a pain to sift through and can be vague at times, meaning you could be aimlessly wandering around the map until you stumble on a point of interest that triggers a cutscene. The inelegant, but often necessary, solution is to pull up a walkthrough. Tales of Symphonia also has a handful of side quests, some of which are missable. Once again, there isn't a reliable way to track these quests, so it's very easy to miss out on some.
The presentation doesn't do Tales of Symphonia many favors, either. The user interface has received a few minor tweaks, but it looks nearly identical to the PS3 port released in 2013. The cutscenes are just as stiff and awkward as they were back in 2004, and the overworld is bland and lifeless. And the classic chibi-esque style feels at odds with some of the game's darker themes. It's hard to take some of the more emotional moments seriously when they are played out by cutesy characters.
What sets the Tales Of series apart from other JRPGs is its real-time combat. While you can still pause time to change your tactics, manage unique attacks called Artes, and use items, the combat itself plays out in real time. Success in battle requires some light meter management and stringing together basic attacks with Artes. This basic combat loop hasn't changed much with subsequent titles in the series, but compared to Tales of Berseria and Tales of Arise, it feels stiff and painfully slow. Eventually, as you unlock more Artes, combos become intricate and, in turn, are more satisfying to pull off, but the early hours can feel like a slog.
To offset the repetitive nature of combat, you can play as different party members. Each character boasts a different playstyle with unique Artes and bespoke combos. Spellcasters like Genis thrive on the edge of the battlefield slinging spells from afar, while the assassin Sheena, voiced by the incredible Jennifer Hale, uses elemental cards to attack her foes. No matter who you play, you can't escape the lackadaisical pace of combat, though.
Although most combat encounters are relatively slow and straightforward, boss fights are a highlight. These demand a thoughtful party composition, clever tactics, and smart item management. Even on the normal difficulty level, players might find it difficult to coast through boss encounters like they would regular ones. While the fundamentals still feel a little clunky, the increased challenge makes boss fights considerably more engaging.
On Nintendo Switch, I did run into a few technical issues in the first 10 hours. A couple of rooms within specific dungeons suffer from noticeably low frame rates. This doesn't carry over into combat, so it doesn't directly affect gameplay, but it's still jarring seeing a 19-year-old game suffer from frame rate issues on modern hardware--especially considering the original Nintendo GameCube release targeted 60 frames per second. Additionally, in the Town of Asgard, the game hitches up every time you enter a building. So far this is the only instance of this I've seen, but it's another bizarre issue that, although it doesn't directly affect gameplay, is weird to see nonetheless.
More frustratingly, my game crashed twice in the first 10 hours. What made these crashes particularly painful is the lack of an auto-save feature paired with Tales of Symphonia's rigid save system. You can only save in certain locations, and some save spots are inaccessible without a specific item. That means that one poorly timed crash can erase hours of work. I've lost a total of two hours to crashes. Both crashes happened during extended play sessions of four or more hours. Since then, I've been saving regularly and relaunching the game every few hours, and I haven't had any crashes since. It's also worth noting that both crashes happened prior to a day-one patch, which is now available. Hopefully, this means players picking up the game on launch won't run into these same issues.
Tales of Symphonia Remastered is still a captivating JRPG that's--unfortunately--a bit tough to recommend today given some of its dated exploration mechanics and rough presentation. A few modern conveniences could have gone a long way like auto-saving and quest tracking, but its emotional story regularly subverts expectations and explores the gray areas in what may seem like a straightforward adventure. All told, it's a thin remaster that doesn't shine a very flattering light on one of my favorite JRPGs.