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September 16, 2012

Tales of the Abyss: The Rundown (Part 1)

If there’s one series I can count on to put a smile on my face, it’s the Tales series.  I’ve had a fixation on JRPGs ever since my fateful encounter with the (supposedly inferior) PC version of Final Fantasy 7 back in 2000, but I find myself disappointed as often as I am delighted.  I’m not just talking about FF13, even if it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back and then made liberal use of a jackhammer to its spine for good measure; I may be more analytical than I’ve ever been, but even a younger version of me can tell when a game is putting me through some grade-A bullshit.

Everything past the first quarter of Grandia III.  The hiked-up bromance in Kingdom Hearts 2.  Trying to pass off Vaan as the main character in FF12.  Corgan’s “I have no knowledge of such things” shtick in Septerra Core (even though that’s not a JRPG, but close enough).  I don’t give Past Me a lot of credit -- and can you blame me? -- but I wasn’t exactly a lost cause.  I knew what I liked, and what I didn’t.  I knew what I thought was good, and what I thought was bad.  And in terms of the Tales series, it could only be good in my eyes.

But I had to put it through the paces.  I had to give the games -- Abyss, first and foremost -- a shot to see if they were as good as I thought, and if they were still good today. 

And the answer?  To put it simply, it’s a game that’s easy to love…and easier to hate.  Know what I mean, Asch?

(Warning: spoilers to follow…although it’s, like, six years old now.  Is it really necessary to add a spoiler warning?  And would you really be here if you weren’t interested in an informal analysis?  And a commanding knowledge of the game is nothing but a boon.  

On the other hand, midriffs.)

You can probably guess what camp I belong to.  In spite of everything -- no shortage of evidence stacked against it -- I still like Tales of the Abyss.  And I like it even if public opinion tends to vary; I’ve heard there are those that like the game, those that hate the game, and those somewhere in between.  I hear that Luke is one of the more popular leads in the franchise according to Japanese polls, having ranked in the top five.  I sincerely doubt he’d favor as well in the west.  (Though it WOULD be interesting to see a poll centered in the States.)

This is a divisive game, and I can see why.  I’m torn between blasting it for having a number of nitpick-worthy elements and general annoyances…but at the same time, I want to praise it for so many intelligent efforts.  I don’t even know how to tackle everything I want to in a single post; should I focus on the themes?  The characters?  Or just dive right into what ticked me off?

All right, here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to talk about things in a sort of “stream of consciousness” format.  Each point will be highlighted by a bold header.  Pay close attention to the color of each header; if it’s green, it’s a positive point.  If it’s red, it’s negative.  I’d suggest that you could tally them up at the end and whichever one wins out suggests the “proper” opinion, but…well, not every point can be weighed equally.  So unless you have some sort of mystic measuring device, you’re probably better off just reading along and not thinking too hard about my suspect formatting.

We clear?  Then let’s get started.

Natalia is now my favorite character.
Ah, the mysterious “strong female character”…how you evade us writers so.

I’d argue that Natalia is a strong female character and then some; she’s just an all-around strong character.  She’s got a personality, mixing royal haughtiness with childish naiveté (and/or amusing stupidity), but sandwiching that between her self-ordained duties as a member of the monarchy.  Her concern for the people, from start to finish, never wavers, and sets her apart from the rest of the cast…or even JRPG characters in general.  

Being a princess in any video game condemns you to a life of kidnapping and macguffin duty; here, the title of princess actually means something.  Natalia’s in a position of power, and she uses it regularly for the betterment of her people -- and even the enemy nation.  She’s proactive, positive, and lives based on her own noble principles.  Even if the game tries to kick her soul in, she keeps the angst and self-doubt to a minimum…for the most part at least.  Mostly because…

Natalia’s character arc gets dragged down by Asch.
This being a JRPG, the developers will be damned if a female character isn’t consigned to the background, hands clasped and eyes misty, as she calls out her love’s name.  Natalia and Asch were childhood friends (much more than that; being nobles they very nearly married each other), but extenuating circumstances split them apart.  They’re reunited, of course, but on opposite sides.  And whereas Natalia spends most of her time trying to do good for the world, Asch goes globetrotting and acting as surly as possible.  Inexplicably, this makes him irresistible to Natalia, because she can’t go three cutscenes without wondering where Asch is, or what Asch is doing.  That guy is like a red-headed ball and chain.  And while we’re on the subject…

Asch is one of the worst characters in the game.
I don’t…I don’t understand this character.  He only has three modes: aloof, surly, and furious.  He spends so much time offscreen, yet he always swoops in juuuuuuuuust when the characters need some exposition or need the plot advanced.  Actually, I should say sometimes, because he’ll sometimes show up, ramble about something that nobody knows about, and leave.  (How is he able to get around so quickly and regularly appear on the scene before/when we do?  He only gets an airship late in the game.)  Why is he angry for no reason?  Why does he refuse to work with anyone but a small party of thieves and foot soldiers, if that?  Why doesn’t he discuss anything with anyone else?  Why doesn’t he go back home and take his rightful place in the fon Fabre family immediately after he’s given free reign before the clone (I mean REPLICAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!) steals his identity and worms his way into their hearts?  Why does nobody bat an eyelash over the fact that there’s a high-ranking official who looks exactly like the duke’s son?  Why does Asch go from yelling at Luke for calling himself inferior to yelling at Luke when he decides that he’s not that bad a guy?  Natalia even calls him out on this -- she literally says “You’re not making any sense!”   Asch’s response?  “Shut up!”  And then he runs off.  God, I hate this character -- and why does he stand with his legs spread so far apart?

Guy and Jade are great characters.
JRPGs get a lot of flak for being overwrought angstapaloozas, but I’d argue that there’s a side that detractors tend to ignore.  For the most part, they have an endearing, charming side to them -- they’re games that can make you laugh as well as think.  Guy and Jade are prime examples of the “light side of the JRPG” -- not only do they NOT revel in angst, but they’re consistently entertaining to watch and offer a more reasonable perspective to the young’uns. 

Guy is essentially Luke’s foil throughout the entire game, no matter what form the lord of midriffs may take.  If Luke is brash, immature and selfish, Guy is level-headed, wise, and caring.  If Luke is uncertain of where he wants to be, Guy -- in spite of having a significantly-worse life -- knows what he wants and how to get there.  If Luke is willing to accept his death or wants to die, Guy will not only call him out but outright respond with anger -- and rare flashes of it, at that.  Guy endears himself by willingly playing the role of second banana; he’s content with being a servant for a large part of the game in spite of being a (lost) nobleman, and he has no aspirations of glory besides being Luke’s best friend.  Also, Guy seems to hate Asch, so that earns him fifteen million bonus points. 

Jade is…interesting, to say the least.  He has two primary functions for the party: be the smart guy who makes their victory possible (a thankless job, admittedly), and be a troll.  And that’s about it, really.  There’s still the matter of his grim past and the repercussions therein, but Jade is a consistent character with a consistent role.  On the one hand, he’s more or less the same character at the start of the game as he is at the end (albeit with some notable differences), meaning that in some respects he’s kind of boring.  On the other hand, he does everything so well that you can’t help but be entertained by his antics.    He continues the proud tradition of being the old man -- old in this case being a hoary thirty-five -- of the party with all the perks therein.  He acts like he can’t do any box puzzles.  He claims to be a sickly man with a bad back.  He proclaims that the bad weather affects him more than anyone else, in spite of it being the complete opposite.  So few things faze him in the game, you’d think he has nerves of titanium…and then he’ll ride you until you cry to your mama.  In more ways than one.

Anise and Tear are a lot more boring than I remember.
All right, I know I’ve been throwing the word “angst” around a lot for this post, but I want to make a(nother) distinction.  Angst has a lot of negative connotations, but it doesn’t have to be all bad.  It’s dangerous in excess; move below that line with proper examination ability, and you can have your characters explore themes and ideas more naturally and without dragging the plot to a halt.  Angst is little more than inner conflict gone out of control -- and conflict is central to stories and characters.

With that in mind, Anise and Tear are dull because they don’t have as marked a conflict as the others.  I feel like Anise is the most underutilized character in the whole game; she’s got her quirks, but…well, that’s all there is to her.  She has a rival in enemy loli Arietta, but…well, everyone else has a rival, too, and better ones at that.  She has a problem in that she’s a spy, and her betrayal of the group indirectly causes her sort-of-boyfriend’s death, but…well, it’s so late in the game and leaves such little impact that it’s not really worth getting worked up about.  She’s not a bad character; it’s just that there’s not as much to her as the rest.

Tear is even more baffling.  At least with Anise, you can make the argument that you’re at least being entertained; outside of Tear’s “But it’s so cute” gag, there’s not much to speak of.  She’s the stoic soldier that learns to open her heart, and that’s generally her arc (if that).  A huge amount of her dialogue comes down to exposition, explaining world mechanics, telling the group what they need to do, chastising/supporting Luke, and getting embarrassed for showing emotion.  The crux of her conflict is deciding whether or not she can kill her brother (and current villain) Van, but given that she was ready to kill Van in the first hour of the game, and spends more than a third of the game mistrusting him, it’s an insincere effort.  She’s a mature and level-headed character like Guy, but without any of the charm.  And while she gets put through her paces (for a while, saving the world means poisoning her), she handles 90% of the game with determined stoicism.  It makes for a “strong female character” in theory, but overall, she’s inoffensive, yet unremarkable.

Luke is a good character on paper.
This is the big one.

In my experience, the main character can make or break a story.  They’re the focal point of the story’s themes and ideas, and the struggles will (or should) inevitably have some focus on them. The hero versus a villain, or an average Joe forced to face the odds and the elements; the happy ending is (or should be) a result of the main character getting put to work.  Luke should be no exception -- and I’d wager that it’s because of Luke that this game is so divisive.  Perhaps he’s a testament to the stereotype of what JRPGs are, rather than what they really are, or can be, or should be. 

Speculation aside, I can’t help but like Luke, and what the developers did with him.  He is THE main character.  He is THE lynchpin to all the game’s ideas.  He is THE deciding factor of the happy ending.  Nobody gets more character development than him, and nobody gets a more thorough and overt character arc but him.  Does he start out as a whiny, immature, annoying, self-centered, spoiled rich kid?  Yes, of course.  Does he grow out of it?  Of course.  Does he become a much better person before the game’s even done?  Yep.  Stick with him, and your patience is rewarded. 

I know I gave Luke trouble for his third-act characterization, and I still stand by that.  But I can see why he’d act like that.  Auldrant is a no-REPLICAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA zone.  It’s only natural that in the face of human oppression -- even if it’s justified and ill-informed -- Luke starts to doubt himself, even after all the work he’s done.  But even before then, he shows some genuine intelligence and foresight, identifying the party’s next action before even the smart members of the group.  For a seven-year-old, Luke does pretty well for himself.  It would certainly explain why, even if he’s got the body of a teenager, he still can’t quite dress properly.

Luke is an annoying character in practice.
There’s still a lingering question on my mind.  Luke starts out annoying, gets better, and then gets annoying again, and then gets better.  Quite the rollercoaster of an arc, but here’s a question: why does Luke have to be annoying in the first place?  Why do we have to start with a midriff-bearing pissant when we can instead start with a much better character?

Tales of Vesperia didn’t have that problem.  Yuri started off as a confident and interesting character and only grew from there.  The same applies to Lloyd from Tales of Symphonia -- he was a well-meaning idealistic idiot and stayed that way throughout the game, but improved, and his ideals only made him endearing rather than annoying.  Asbel from Graces f starts out in much the same way; you see him as a spirited but still-admirable kid, and come time-skip you see him evolve into a different but similarly likable-from-the-get-go lead.  This is not a hard concept, and certainly not a hard one to execute well.

And really, why does Luke go through periods of both evolution and regression?  What does it add to his character besides showing how much he waffles?  The third act tramples over the confidence and credibility Luke -- and the player -- gained in the second act.  It’s a slap in the face for all the work and all the hours put into saving Auldrant.  Why?  Why did it have to be this way?  Why couldn’t we take Act 2 Luke and go even higher from there?  Why do so many cutscenes have to tackle Luke’s growing inferiority complex?  This is a problem with making one character the focal point of the game: if your lead sucks, your game sucks.  End of story.

Who the hell thought Mieu was a good idea?
As I understand it, the Sorcerer’s Ring is a staple of the franchise -- a magical item that the player uses to solve puzzles, explore new areas, and loot ancient dungeons.  In Symphonia, the power of the Ring changed depending on what area you were in.  In Legendia, it was a fixture of outer-dimensional areas called Puzzle Booths.  In Abyss, it’s fused to one of the most irritating creatures ever to appear in a video game.

I know mascot characters are kind of a big thing in Japanese games, but did they have to make one like Mieu?  Did they have to make Mieu have such an irritatingly high-pitched voice?  Did they have to make it so that every time you use the Sorcerer’s Ring, you have to listen to Mieu should “MIEUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!” or “FIRRRRRRRRRRE!” or “WIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINGS!” every damn time?  And did they have to design a game where it’s aggravatingly easy to miss a shot and have to adjust yourself by a few degrees, only to miss again and be greeted by yet another “MIEUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!”  I gotta say, Luke had the right idea when he started calling Mieu “Thing.”  Why did he ever stop?

Van is a much better villain than I remember.
Apparently, I’m one of those sick and twisted monsters that like the English dubs of anime and video games.  They’re not always stellar, I know, but they’re regularly competent, and lend the product a character that can stand on its own, rather than act as a pale comparison to the Japanese version.  And one of my favorite voice actors is Michael McConnohie.  Observe:

Assuming you could look past that pert blue ass of Seth’s, allow me to continue, and suggest that McConnohie brings a lot of power and prestige in his role as Van.  But even beyond that, I find Van to be much more intriguing than I did before.  He’s a foil to Luke, but on a different axis than Guy; whereas Luke is (or starts out) selfish and refuses to understand people, Van makes the opposite qualities the crux of his character.  He’s dedicated to saving the world, albeit in his own twisted way…but more importantly, he understands people.  He knows exactly what to say to them to win them over to his cause; in a sense, he’s a corrupter.  Over seven years he turns Luke from an unmolded ball of putty into his loyal student, and likewise (presumably) convinces Asch to abandon his life and serve as one of the God-Generals under his command.  He takes advantage of one’s weakness, tells them what they want to hear, and earns their unflinching loyalty because of it.  Even if he wasn’t a skilled swordsman (which he is) or an evil mastermind (which he is), his power of corruption is the most dangerous ability he has.

I should also note a nice little bit of foreshadowing on the developers’ part.  Early on in the story (before he’s revealed to be the villain), the party decides to work alongside Van and his group, because apparently the God-Generals aren’t acting on his orders.  He leaves first to lead the charge against him, and the party follows behind.  But the party makes it to the enemy stronghold first, and Van only shows up right after the situation is taken care of.  That’s a little too convenient, isn’t it, Seth?  Or should I say, Number Fifteen?  Or should I say, REPLICAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA?! 

The God-Generals (Asch excluded) are about the same, though…but I still like them.
The chief victims of Van’s corruption.  Each of them went through some rough patches in their life, making them hate the world/their lot in some capacity, and as such don’t mind when they’re given a chance to destroy and remake the world.  Fair enough…but in the case of Abyss, I get the sense that the God-Generals’ troubled pasts don’t inspire sympathy as much as they do offer an excuse.  They’ve been through rough times, yes, but so has Guy.  So has Jade.  The God-Generals have reasons to be angry, but rather than use their skills for good they all become sycophantic assholes.  Admittedly, it’s likely that any normal person might get corrupted and make excuses just as quickly, but, well, I just thought I’d bring it up.

Anyway, what can I say (briefly) about the God-Generals?   Well, Largo’s my favorite.  I know that his title is “Largo the Black Lion”, but I prefer to imagine that whenever he goes somewhere, he announces himself as “Largo, the Best One of the Six”.  Dist is pretty high up there as well, in the sense that he’s the only one smart enough to use a mech instead of flinging himself at opponents…though seeing as how he’s Jade’s rival, this only ensures that he’s as threatening as an incensed gerbil.  I also have to give honorable mention to Legretta, who in spite of having access to guns, resorts to throwing knives and trying to roundhouse-kick opponents (long after she’s spotted them), misses, and then calls her target slow.

Ion is the second stupidest damn character in the game.
God, I hate this freakin’ character.  Not just because of the way he looks, mind you (and I assure you, that is a boy); he’s more or less just a talking key in a muumuu and tights.

I wish I could say something more substantive about Ion, but I can’t.  There’s nothing to him besides his high-class politeness and being a doe-eyed daffodil.  He’s the figurehead of the world’s only religion, yet he uses his authority only three times, if that.  He’s got access to some of the most powerful magic in the world, but -- of course -- he gets weary and faints every time he uses it.  He gets kidnapped, but for some inexplicable reason he wants to follow the party into a slew of dangerous areas; in his eyes, the alternative is to be kidnapped, but he seems to have forgotten the whole figurehead of the world’s only religion deal -- SOMEBODY would try to protect him.  He walks offscreen silently without as much as a cheer of support when a monster attacks the party.  He withholds vital information from the party.  Oh, and there’s also the fact that if not for Ion, the bad guys would have no leverage.  Zero.  None.  The near-end of the world -- or at the very least, the destruction of a mining town -- is his fault.

Remember how I said Ion is just a talking key?  Well he is -- and he’s a key that unlocks the door that’s vital to the villains’ plans…because the villain asks him to.  Ion had every reason to resist.  He knows Van.  He suspected something was wrong, and even if he didn’t he should KNOW that unlocking the door to the planet’s maintenance room for ANY REASON is a bad idea, especially if no one gives him a good reason to open the door.  And nobody gives him shit over this…why?  The party outright abandons Luke, but Ion, who’s even more worthy of blame, doesn’t even have his hand in the matter referenced?

Even Ion’s death somehow manages to piss me off.  He gets kidnapped (of course he would) by the evil pope Mohs and forced to read the Score, which will supposedly predict the future.  The party doesn’t make it in time to save him, and only hears the last few paragraphs of relevant information.  With his “dying breath”, Ion reads the Score and tells the party to head to the city of machines in the hopes of finding a way to save the planet from poisonous gas.  Um…so…why are you telling me something that should have been the next obvious step if not for us having to come and save your ass?  Why is the game pretending that you’re doing us a great service?  Why are you reading a transcript of the future to an evil pope?  Why don’t you lie to him?  Tell him the future is that he’s going to die, and have him focus on saving himself.  Or send him on a wild goose chase so he’ll finally get out of the heroes’ hair.  This is not a hard concept, Ion!  You’re a good guy!  They’re the bad guys!  STOP HELPING THE BAD GUYS!

Congratulations.  I’m giving you the award you so rightly deserve.  You’ve been inducted into…

All right, that’ll do for now.  Rest assured, I’ve still got quite a bit to say about this game, and I will in due time.  But for now, I think that’s enough emotional whiplash for one day.  Next time, I’ll dive into nonsensical organizations, political intrigue, aggregate energy beings (that are also idiots), and quite possibly a reference to a song that has “communication” in its title.

See you guys around.

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