Tales of Vesperia: The Loveable but Awkward Teenager of JRPGs

Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition is an Action JRPG developed by Namco Tales Studio and published by Bandai Namco. The original version released on the Xbox 360 in the west in 2008. The definitive edition released on January 11, 2019 for Xbox One, PS4, Steam, and Nintendo Switch. It costs $50. I played the Switch version.

I have a friend who loves the Tales series. He has almost a full shelf row dedicated to the games, and he has highly recommended them to me. So, I decided to play the first one ported to the Switch, which just so happened to be Vesperia, a game long-missed by fans until its definitive edition released last year.

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After finishing Tales of Vesperia, I sat in front of his game collection and listened attentively as he talked about how he loved this one or that one, helping me navigate which I should play next. Oh, and there are 18 games in this series. Yes, 18.

And people wonder why it’s hard to get into JRPGs.

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For those unfamiliar, Tales of Vesperia could be described in three ways:

  • The lovechild of a 2D Fighting game and a JRPG
  • Final Fantasy with more punches
  • A cast of fantasy characters that start out predictable, end up subversive, and have pleasantly competent Battle AI
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You just keep saying that to yourself, Karol.

As I started up the game, I was impressed by the anime art style come to life by the cel-shaded models. It blends well into the animated cutscenes. I’m glad I liked the art style so much, because the beautiful locales and monster/character designs were the main thing keeping me going through the beginning of the game. I enjoyed the early banter between the cast, especially Yuri, Estelle, and Karol, but the plot itself didn’t grab me at first. Vesperia spends the first 15 hours building up the world and its magic systems, the story crawling along from point to point.

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These environments are so gorgeous. Such a treat to explore.

The beginning combat wasn’t doing the game any favors, either. The game is less like an Action RPG and more like a Fighting RPG. You can freely move around the battle scene by holding a button, but once you attack an opponent, you are committed to a 2D plane. Think Tekken, only more anime. And honestly, it felt clunky… it took me about the same 15 hours to finally acclimate to it. I was just about to put Vesperia down and claim that the Tales series was not for me.

And that’s when the game finally decided to open up.

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Vesperia’s characters all confront the injustice of nobles and captains abusing their power. Seeing them all handle this frustrating part of reality in different ways made the cast incredibly relatable.

After about 15 hours, a massive shake-up happens and the story changes in a big way. First, the main character, Yuri, (who up to that point was an edgy anti-hero, all bark and no bite) does some rather dark things in the name of justice. At the same time, Estelle, the princess he had been escorting, finally starts coming out of her shell and acquires a wanderlust, desiring to learn more about herself. Then Karol decides to follow his own dreams and begins a guild. And from then on, the story had me hooked. Yuri’s dramatic irony had me attentively listening to every piece of dialogue. And I especially felt compelled by Yuri’s relationship with his childhood frenemy, Flynn. Flynn wanted justice as well, but their differing methods kept them competing with each other. The world-saving plot was fine, but it was the character development of Yuri, Estelle, and Flynn that kept me invested until the end.

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One thing I still didn’t get, though, was all the jargon. On one hand, the writers made a convincingly real world with a grounded magic system. But on the other, many conversations ended up like a word cloud of terms: blastia, entelexeia, apatheia, formulas, aer krene… if you don’t follow along closely, it’s easy to get lost in all the magic talk. In the end, I think the plot is held back by all of these terms clouding up the dialogue, and it’s only saved by the character interactions and their development.

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Patty is adorable, BTW.

The second big change was the combat system started becoming more nuanced and offered me more strategic options. Once I could chain combos together, utilize elemental weaknesses, and pull off more impressive attacks, I finally started to see the appeal of Tales’ flavor of fighting.

After I finished Tales of Vesperia, I felt happy, fulfilled, like I’d read a good fantasy novel. But still I struggled pinpointing my exact feelings. Vesperia feels like a JRPG in transition. First you have these modern advances: the fluid combat, the party sharing exp, and the clean cel-shaded art direction. These heightened my expectations for a sleeker experience. But instead, Vesperia clings to old customs: the slow beginning, the change from overworld to battle scene, and the transition from boats and airships.

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Tales of Vesperia perfectly characterizes the growing pains JRPGs had moving on from the Golden Age of the SNES / PS1 to the games of today. I usually have patience with the Classics because I know they’re aged. For example, when I played EarthBound, I prepared myself to deal with dumb RNG or clunky menus. With the historical context in check, I could enjoy it more. I even play Dragon Quest XI with a different mindset, because I understand the tradition it upholds. For newer Action RPGs, however, I expected a more streamlined experience.

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And so Tales of Vesperia is a problematic game for me. It’s caught right in the middle. You could even say that this is just as much a problem with me as it is with the game. At first I interpreted Vesperia to be a modern JRPG, but then I was put in a Classic story formula. This back-and-forth accounted for my rough adjustment, and why it took me so long to “get” this kind of game.

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In the end, though, I’m very glad I stuck with it, because the later two-thirds of the game was completely worth the early frustrations. I like Tales of Vesperia. And now that I understand what this series is about, I think I can play another Tales game and have a better time with it.

From here, I’m trying to decide between Tales of the Abyss (3DS), Tales of Symphonia (GameCube), or Tales of Hearts R (Vita). Any recommendations would be appreciated!

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