Originally released in 2009 for the Wii, the English PS3 version of Tales of Graces f has taken its sweet time getting here; but for fans of the genre it was worth the wait. All of the classic JRPG elements are present and accounted for: a complex plot of epic dimensions, an eclectic assortment of heroes and villains, fast paced battles, anime quality cut scenes, loads of dialogue and character interaction, plus plenty to discover, collect, and create along the way.
The game's setting is the country of Windor, where we first meet the main characters as children. While exploring a local landmark, young Asbel Lhant and his brother, Hubert, discover a strange girl who appears to be suffering from amnesia. We are soon introduced to another two key players, and bonds of friendship are forged through their ensuing misadventures. The plot is quite slow to kick off, but soon gains momentum, with the kids encountering a powerful and deadly foe early on in the piece.
Spending this first chapter of the game with their younger selves allows us to better connect with the characters, since we gain firsthand knowledge of their background and personalities. Fast forward seven years, and Asbel is now a young adult on the verge of fulfilling his childhood ambition to become a knight. As the story line unfurls we are re-acquainted with the others, and they find themselves in the midst of a three-way battle for world domination.
While there's an awful lot of information to take in, it is gradually introduced over the first few hours, so as not to overwhelm you with controller instructions, battle tactics, or series-specific jargon. This means you can get a feel for the controls and general layout within minutes. Load times are pretty minimal, so there's a good flow as you move from one screen to another.
Initially you only have a mini map for guidance, but once you acquire a world map it becomes an indispensable tool, with separate tabs for towns, dungeons, and places of interest, as well as merchant inventories and types of monsters you're likely to encounter. You can also acquire books just waiting to be filled with discoveries, enemy stats, and general factoids.
Throw into the mix an array of collectibles, craftable items, and tasty recipes, and you could potentially spend weeks happily pottering around. The PS3 version also features an epilogue, which provides an additional 10 hours on top of the advertised 40+ hours of play.
Driving the storyline are many simple but high quality cutscenes, which in true anime fashion tend to be drawn out and heavy on the drama. You'll either love this stuff, or tolerate it while hanging out for the next big fight. In addition to the cutscenes there are optional vignettes called skits, which dish up amusing character interactions and the occasional useful piece of info.
The skits and cutscenes can be a welcome distraction from time spent traipsing around the countryside, culling the hostile fauna. Incidentally, there are no annoying random encounters in the game; you can clearly see what you're up against on the field map, and once you decide to engage an enemy the view switches to a battle screen... which brings us to what is arguably the game’s best feature: combat.
Tales of Graces f uses a modified version of the series' signature Linear Motion Battle System, which is essentially a real-time mode that can be paused to switch out fighting styles, use items, or cook up a tasty pick-me-up (sure, it's unrealistic, but we're talking high fantasy here... so we'll let it slide.)
Fast paced though it is, there's far more to this slick combat system than mere button mashing, although this will work for a while. Of course, different enemies have unique strengths and weaknesses, therefore choosing the right combination of skills and tactics can make or break an encounter.
One of the best features of this system is that it caters to a broad spectrum of players by offering an unusually healthy level of flexibility. For starters, there's an adjustable difficulty level, which suits everyone from hard core hack'n' slashers to soft bellied tourists.
Then we have the option to go manual (complete control over every move), semi-auto, or fully auto. The advantage of the latter is that you don't have to lift a finger - or tire your thumbs, while your character lays down some serious hurt. The downside is that the AI may not use the artes (attack combos) you want.
While you only control one character in combat, you can customise your companions’ roles and skills. There's also a multiplayer option, where up to three of your mates can jump in and give you a hand with the fighting. Cool or what!
So, how does it look? Pretty darn good, actually, with its HD graphics and clean, simple lines all round. As mentioned earlier, the cutscenes are of high quality (courtesy of animation powerhouse Production IG), and the characters too are well drawn - even if they are run of the mill JRPG fare. We have to remember they were designed with a Japanese customer base in mind, though, so fanciful monsters, doe-eyed females, and silly looking outfits are a small price to pay for what amounts to a very good game.
The soundtrack is wonderful, with a mixture of J-pop, orchestral and rousing rock tracks to enjoy. The game also boasts an impressive ratio of spoken to text-only dialogue, given that there is so much of it to sit through.
If you're looking for a classic JRPG experience and many hours of fantasy fun, Tales of Graces f ticks all the boxes.