Last weekend I finished Namco-Bandai’s Tales of Vesperia for the XBox 360, a game which delivers the “Tales of” series’ characteristic action-chaos combat, lovely anime-flavored visuals, and little else. That’s not how things begin: Vesperiapresents a deeply unjust world and a genuine moral conflict about how to change it. The game’s meandering, inattentive writing, however, leaves this initial promise unfulfilled. As a consequence the story is endlessly boring and deeply disappointing.Spoilers follow, but trust me, there’s not that much to spoil.
The world of Vesperia, Terca Lumireis, is politically dominated by an Empire that maintains its power through a monopoly on the distribution and sale of magical devices called blastia. Because Terca Lumireis is inhabited by numerous and exceedingly vicious monsters, blastia are believed to be absolutely necessary to survival: nearly all humans live in towns protected by “barriers” (there’s no indication of how agriculture functions in these conditions). The Empire is very stratified, with a caste of nobles having crushing dominance over the commoners. As a result, many people choose to give up their citizenship and live in cities run by the Guilds. In tribute to MMO convention, each Guild is a group of adventurers with similar interests, not an organization dedicated to monopolistic domination of crafts and the exploitation of child labor. Blastia are exclusively artifacts that must be excavated, but all the world’s archaeologists belong to a Guild, making the origin of the Empire’s monopoly on the devices a curious and unexplored mystery.
The main protagonist of the game, Yuri Lowell, is a citizen of the Empire who once joined its corps of knights to try and redress the grievances of the common citizen, but left because he could not embrace their rigid adherence to protocol. By contrast, his childhood friend Flynn Scifo stuck with it and is now a celebrated member of the knights. Yuri has not managed to change the lot of the common man since leaving the knights, but Flynn hasn’t had any success either. Like many RPG heroes, Yuri isn’t able to simply stand aside when he sees injustice. Fortunately, he doesn’t possess the excessive enthusiasm or angst typical of the genre. Rather, he comes across as a grounded individual, talented with a sword, who is profoundly dissatisfied with the state of the world and unsure how to change it.
In the course of the game, Yuri comes to a kind of answer, in that he murders two of the Empire’s less redeemable officials, demonstrating his teleological approach to ethics. Flynn, pinch-hitting for deontology, acknowledges that the victims are criminals who escaped justice with the help of a corrupt system, but points out that if the system isn’t transformed then it will just produce more untouchable criminals. Yuri can’t kill them all. The story doesn’t pick sides between the two men. Flynn achieves some good despite his inability to fully correct the system. Yuri, by contrast, is depicted as being cruel (especially in killing Cumore), and his approach is taken to its logical conclusion by the principle villains Alexei, who decides to get rid of the Empire by killing everyone in it, and Duke, who decides to correct a man-made environmental disaster by killing everyone everywhere.
The Guilds seem to be the natural alternative to the Empire, but as the history of the young character Karol illustrates, they don’t have a system to support people who haven’t found themselves. In the Empire such a person can at least scrape by; Karol simply gets abandoned. Moreover, the Empire manages to lurch forward even without an Emperor, while the Guilds descend into chaos after the death of the strongman who held them together.
You could do things with this, especially in light of the fact that the character Estelle is one of the candidates for the imperial throne (the worst-hidden twist of the game), but the social justice angle fades in the late game without really getting resolved. Instead, the endgame focuses on the side-effects of the blastia technology. There is an explanation for this, involving enough magibabble to make a Star Trek writer blush, but the primary upshot is that if the blastia continue to be used the world will be destroyed by a gigantic monster. There seems to be an pass made at a metaphor for anthropogenic global warming here, but it never connects because all the major problem-solving takes place off-screen, and nobody really seems to resist the destruction of their entire way of life… not even the ones who must literally die in order for the plan to work. Moreover, the connection between the social injustice of the Empire and the environmental destruction caused by the goods that give it power is never seriously explored.
If the larger dynamics get short shrift, then you would think that the characters would get a fuller development. Unfortunately, most relationships between characters are only lightly drawn, with the exception of that between Yuri and Flynn. Although he doesn’t ooze angst, Yuri is a very calm, restrained character in most scenes. The breakdown of this control does a good job showing the connection between the two of them. Unfortunately, the writers frequently use Flynn as a tool to move the story along or magically solve problems, meaning that he must be an NPC. As a result, we are treated to only brief encounters.
The characters in the party clearly develop a sort of squabbling family relationship, with Yuri as the ersatz father, but none of the individual connections come close to that between Yuri and Flynn. Rita and Estelle clearly develop some kind of connection, but the strongest demonstrations in that relationship tend to get obscured by the plot. Yuri and Repede have a bond, but there’s just no getting around the fact that Repede is a dog. Yuri and Karol begin to connect, but this sort of peters out after Zopheir Drifts. In every case, the development of these relationships is significantly hindered by the meandering of the narrative and the flatness of the character arcs.
In an RPG of Vesperia‘s construction, the purpose of the story is to keep the action moving between dungeons, to motivate the player to finish each dungeon, and to imbue important battles with emotional impact. This narrative has trouble with all three. One major problem is that each time a town is entered, the story stops dead as the player must wander around trying to find and talk to each member of the party. These conversations rarely move the story forward and often repeat themselves (more on this in a moment). Momentum is also drained by the fact that the narrative meanders significantly. There are times when you firmly know where to go next and why you are going there, but there are also too many times when it’s not clear where to go or why you would bother going there.
The absence of a strong direction for the general plot also sinks down into the individual character stories, which I hesitate to call “arcs” because that would imply a trajectory that is nowhere to be found. Rather, the characters remain in stasis until a critical event, and then adopt a new stasis afterwards. The effect of this is to repeatedly begin the character’s development. Estelle is indecisive and impulsive; Yuri and Judith challenge her to make a firm decision. This is fine the first time, but after this has been repeated for the fifth time it wears very thin. Then, after a particular event, this characteristic simply isn’t mentioned again. It almost seems like the writers forgot that they’d already shown us a scene in which Yuri demands that Estelle decide whether or not to continue her journey, so they just keep treating us to nearly identical dialogue in town after town after town ad nauseam. Similarly, the fact that Karol is a coward gets repeatedly repeated until you’d rather stab yourself in the eye than suffer through hearing it discussed again. Then a particular boss battle occurs and suddenly he’s not a coward anymore.
The repetition involved here would get to be dull and annoying even if there was any doubt about how Karol and Estelle would eventually turn out; in the absence of that doubt it is almost unbearably boring. Moreover, this kind of behavior flattens character development. There’s no building of tension here, no character arc at all: the characters just stay the same until they abruptly fall off a cliff into a new state and are different. On the other hand, most of the characters never find that cliff at all. Yuri, Judith, Raven, and Rita all seem to make it through the story without experiencing any significant growth beyond the occasional clichéd revelation.
The inattentiveness of the writing really shows through in the vast collection of loose ends the story picks up from very early on. The motivation for Estelle to leave Zaphias with Yuri is that she has some warning she absolutely must convey to Flynn; once she leaves the city this is never mentioned again, not even when our heroes do at last catch up to him. The Knights become very well aware of Yuri’s murder habit, but after a number of speeches about how he will have to face the consequences of his actions, from Flynn himself no less, no action is ever taken. Several of the characters form their own guild, but despite how important they make this obligation seem, nobody mentions it as they discuss their plans to go their own ways after the final confrontations. Then we have the essential abandonment of the social justice theme that dominated the early action, the biggest loose end of all. It’s easy to overlook this if you’re not paying attention to the story, but if the story only works when the player pays no attention to it, why have one in the first place?
The other main failing of the narrative in Tales of Vesperia is that it never manages to truly embody the actual antagonist. It is not Alexei who must be opposed, nor Duke, nor even the Adephagos per se. The system is the enemy, the entire way the denizens of Terca Lumireis have been living. An abstraction like that can’t be engaged in combat, but one could assemble a cast of villains who represent the evils of that system, or who stand in the way of correcting it. The desperate chaos of the combat system would mesh well with such cathartic battles. Instead, Vesperia regularly forces you to defeat your allies in battle—the few systemic representatives it presents mostly die by Yuri’s hand in cutscenes. Knowing this, you often feel like you shouldn’t complete the current dungeon. Moreover, the largest boss battles seem meaningless, because you never confront the real enemy. The story makes these fights seem like empty exercises rather than important confrontations.
The consistent thread in all of this is a lack of care and attention. The constant repetition of character moments makes it seem like the writers forgot what they’d already done. The loose ends make it feel like they couldn’t remember what they promised. The fact that the major themes never really get tied together, although it could easily be done, makes it seem like they just couldn’t be bothered to put in the effort. So why should you?
Despite it’s lame, scatterbrained story, Tales of Vesperia isn’t a terrible game. The high-action, Smash Bros.-style combat works as well as ever, although the frequency of enemies in dungeons and the unusual difficulty of avoiding them turned the game into a bit of a slog at some points. The anime-inspired visuals are solid, the voice actors do an excellent job, and the score is lovely (if badly handled on occasion). Those aspects seem wasted, however. There’s no reason to have an art department create an overworld, towns, and NPCs, no point to hiring quality voice talent, no reason to make anything other than battle music, if this lame tale is all you’re going to use them for. You’d do just as well to excise those things completely, package up the battles and character progression into a rail-movement dungeon crawl and sell the whole thing as a combat minigame collection.
The greatest disappointment is that things didn’t have to turn out this way. Tales of Vesperiahas atypical heroes, some strong relationships, a genuine sense of moral conflict, and a setting that links aggressive social and economic injustice to environmental abuse. You could take those elements and create a deep, compelling story, if you paid attention to what you were doing.