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September 22, 2012

Tales of the Abyss: The Rundown (Part 2)

--Ion confirmed for dumbass-tier!

--Villains?  More like awesome-ains, am I right?

--Princesses and bros and trolls, oh my!


And there was much talk about characters and ideas being good on paper, but suffering in practice -- along with a rational defense of angst in JRPGs.  But that was right around the time when the rocket-powered dinosaurs launched their attack, so I had to grab my Thunder Halberd and fend them off.

But they’re all extinct now, so here’s Part 2 of the rundown.

(Spoilers to follow, as always.  If you haven’t played the game yet but intend to, why not eat some delicious sauerkraut instead of reading this post?  It’ll be good for your medulla oblongata.)

The Order of Lorelei’s structure makes no sense.
In the Abyss universe, thousands of years ago Yulia (some manner of priestess and sage), in conjunction with Lorelei (a big honkin’ mass of energy that gained sentience and embodies the planet’s memory), read the Score (a sort of cheat sheet that would offer a hundred-percent accurate forecast of the future) for mankind.  With claims to prosperity inlaid in the forecast, humanity came to rely on the Score for day-to-day advice as well as a means to justify global politics.  In addition, a church was formed around it, teaching the world about how awesome Yulia was and how to live by the Score; it came to be known as the Order of Lorelei.

It’s headed by Ion.  You know what that means, right?

First question: why are children and teenagers being put in seats of such immense power?  Ignoring the fact that Ion -- a fourteen-year-old -- is the quasi-ruler of an independent country and figurehead of the church, there’s also Anise -- a twelve-year-old -- who’s apparently a soldier for the organization, bodyguard of “Fon Master” Ion, and holds enough sway to be given an official rank.  And then there are the God-Generals, half of which are seventeen and below.  Why?  Even if these children are the baddest motherfuckers on the planet, I sincerely doubt any one of them has the emotional stability needed to hold such a position.  Scratch that; I KNOW they don’t have the emotional stability needed.  Arietta (12) was raised by animals after losing her home in a war, and has an obsession with Ion.  Sync (14) is a bitter REPLICAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA of Ion whose mask alone should be a hint that he’s up to no good…and come to think of it, does the rest of the Order know who Sync really is?  Are Ion-replacements just old hat around those parts?  Anyway, Asch (17) is similarly bitter, doesn’t work well with others, and travels the world whilst abdicating his duties for a good 95% of the game.  Are any of them getting work done?  And what do they even do all day?

Second question: why are there two popes?  Fon Master Ion -- the girly-pope -- is supposed to be the one in control, but there’s also Grand Maestro Mohs -- the fat pope -- holds roughly as much sway as Ion.  Why?  Why can Mohs move around without an entourage, yet the party has to escort Ion from one end of the world to another?  Why isn’t there a council keeping either of these two under control?  Our government has checks and balances -- multiple branches that have specified powers and dominions, while allowing one branch to limit the powers of another as needed.  Is Mohs supposed to be the one limiting Ion’s movement and actions?  If so, why doesn’t Ion -- as the Fon Master -- limit his movements?  If he knows Mohs is up to no good (which becomes abundantly clear when he tries to start a war, TWICE), why doesn’t he have his fat ass thrown in the slammer?  Why -- oh, right, because Ion’s a wallflower and an idiot.  Winning combination, that.  But on a related note…      

Why is anybody listening to Mohs?
There’s a scene fairly early in the game where Luke -- after finding out a hint of Mohs’ machinations -- tells him to piss off in front of the king and his uncle, the duke; Mohs has been trying to feed the heads of state lies, but thanks to the party’s timely interruption, they force the fat pope to fall back.

That should have been the end of Mohs (at least in any sort of authoritative sense).  And yet later on, he ends up effectively starting the war he so desired.  In one instance, he even manages to put together a unit disguised as one of the countries’ soldiers to start an incident.  Who is allowing him to do this?  He gets broken out of jail at one point by one of the God-Generals, but besides that it’s not like he’s acting rogue, and he’s not being subtle about his actions.  The only reason anyone might listen to him is because the war he wants will bring prosperity to one country -- but is that really worth it?  Would you rather trust a fat evil pope who’s trying to con you into a global conflict over your daughter and nephew who’ve seen evidence that contradicts said fat evil pope?  Why isn’t the other country out to arrest Mohs and put him in a trial?  Come to think of it, how did Mohs even make it out of the king’s castle after he tried to con him?  Didn’t any of the guards think of arresting him, or at least detaining him until they could figure out what was going on?  Didn’t Ion -- oh, wait, I forgot.  Idiot wallflower.  Silly me.

The world feels appropriately massive.
All right, enough nitpicking for now.  I have to say, I enjoyed romping through Abyss’ world of Auldrant.  It has a very “filled-in” feeling to it, in a number of ways.  From a story perspective, splitting the world into two mega-countries (and some independent nations) adds a bit of global scale, and there are lots of different towns to explore.  I have to give some major praise to the town of Sheridan, which may be my favorite town ever to appear in a JRPG -- lots of machines and tech worked into the environment, with an extreme focus on said tech by the townsfolk.  But even beyond that, the variations between areas are highly notable.  There’s a town that relies on farming, and as such has plenty of fields consigned to it, along with a rustic, welcoming feeling.  The snowy town is much ritzier, with a high-class hotel and casino, and a slew of mansions.  Even Luke’s home town (once you explore it from the outside) is a sprawling vertical expanse, navigable only by elevators and rail cars.

But even if you look past the towns, the world map itself feels pretty extensive.  You end up hoofin it for a large expanse of the game (as is the standard), and your journey from one location to the next takes quite a bit of time.  But even after you get your airship -- and before that, a giant amphibious battleship -- there’s still a unique incentive to exploring each area.  You can find search points that are full of goodies you can have turned into items and weapons, and is the only way to get some of the best equipment in the entire game.  Granted it’s best done if you’ve got a walkthrough in your lap (because as mentioned, sidequests in this game are a test of patience and willpower, and requires an ass with an absurdly high threshold to pain), but it’s certainly an appreciable incentive.  All in all, it’s a pretty big world.

If the airship worked like it was supposed to, it wouldn’t piss me off as much.
Tales of Symphonia was the first Tales game I ever played, and it’s likely one of my favorites.  There are a lot of notable things about the game (like the infamous coffee scene), but one JRPG constant is that you get access to an airship…or in Symphonia’s case, a slew of jet bikes powered by a living embodiment of lightning.  You can’t use them immediately thanks to some story limitations, but you do get full access to them before you’re even off the first disk.

Abyss has…a slightly different approach.  You get your airship, but it’s effectively crippled not long after your inaugural flight.  Essentially, it’s not much better than the battleship you had earlier; it can hover a few feet off the ground, and you can only land in certain spots on the map.  (At one point in the story it gets completely taken out of commission.)  You do eventually get to fly, but all the flips and rolls you see in the opening?  Yeah, not happening.  You move at a surprisingly slow pace, which isn’t bad in its own right -- but unlike Symphonia where you could go pretty much anywhere with your jet bikes, your airship is severely crippled unless you do some sidequests.  

Even if you have no interest in getting all the extra goodies, be prepared to be cruising across the world when suddenly you run across a thunderstorm or blizzard or sandstorm or whirlpool and have to watch an animation forcing you to head backward.  And you have to alter your course by a very wide margin to pass, or you’ll just plow right into it again, get told to back off, and be forced backward several dozen feet.  Thankfully, you can upgrade the ship to barrel through the storms, but in order to do so, you have to baaaaaaaaaaaaaack waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup and build up enough power/momentum to generate a force field.  What’s that?  Only managed to get to 90% power?  “It’s too dangerous, let’s go back for now.”  The airship adds layers of complication that don’t have to be there.

The world feels interactive, and there’s a sense of time passing.
Back to positive mode.  Another Tales mainstay is the importance of cooking -- it gives bonus healing after (and sometimes during) battles, and can lead into a number of skits if you do your best impression of a MasterChef contestant.  But in order to cook, you’ll have to find the recipe first.  Symphonia and Legendia had standout items that, once examined, turned into the Wonder Chef (or Wonder Baker) and offered you the recipe.  While the presence of either character is sorely missed in Abyss, you still have to do a bit of legwork to find the recipes…but doing so gives you a reward beyond a new dish to cook.

Once again, there’s an incentive to explore the world.  You’re invited to look through every room, and every nook and cranny to find something that’ll go whizz-boom-bang the moment you press the X button.  Getting recipes depends on you finding books lying around, talking to certain NPCs, or visiting areas on the way to your next destination.  Unlike the cumbersome sidequests, these are much easier to manage; I found a fair number of them just by having a look around, and I had a cookbook hearty enough to make useful dishes even without spending an hour searching for the Super-Ultimate Hot Dog Platter.  Even beyond that, the game still creates the illusion of a “world in motion”; pressing buttons all willy-nilly will make machines spin around and around, or launch treasure off of see-saws.  You can smash and burn your way through areas in search of treasure.  NPCs will change their tune as time passes -- to say nothing of the emergence of more REPLICAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAS.

There’s also a better sense of time’s passage in Abyss than in, say, Symphonia.  There’s no dedicated day/night cycle, but certain events add night-time sequences, like an ill-advised journey across a battlefield.  It emphasizes the size and scope of their adventure, knowing that the journey is so long they have to take rests at night…again, in the middle of a battlefield.  Likewise, it’s explained that even though players only spend minutes flying from one place to another, days are passing by in game-time.  And of course, the fact that there’s a time skip between the second and third acts hammers home that time waits for no man, no matter how whiny or midriff-bearing he may be.

Unfortunately, the time passage creates plot holes.
Right after Luke and company take down Van (remember, you can’t spell “villain” without “Van”!), Luke rushes over to the planet-regulating doohickey to ensure that all the continents are lowered safely simultaneously.  In the midst of it, Luke gets a message from Lorelei that explains that someone’s trying to capture him.  Does Luke tell anyone about it?  Nope.  He just explains that “there’s no time” and the group has to get going to their next destination.  Bear in mind that the area they’re in was reached by an airship, and even if they absolutely had to get to the next area ASAP, they not only have a plane ride to discuss what happens, but also an entire dungeon to exit.  What’s this shit about you not having time to explain hearing a voice from the planet, Luke?

Here, watch this.

Remember this scene for later, because I’m going to come back to it.  Right now, I want to ask what was going through the party’s heads when they thought it was a good idea to go globetrotting instead of reporting back to their native territories…and because they didn’t, they indirectly started a war.  They run around under the pretense that “there’s no time”, even though I could have just turned around right after that cutscene and headed to the throne room.  And if days are passing by with the world assuming that princesses, soldiers, and nobles are dead, don’t you think it’d be better to reveal that you’re still alive before somebody gets the wrong idea?  Don’t you think it’d be better to fill in everyone else in the world before some fat evil pope gets it into everyone’s heads that the princess’ death was caused by an enemy nation, and becoming the impetus for the war you were trying to prevent in the first place?  So many problems could have been solved if the group took time out to GO HOME.

There’s plenty of socio-political interaction between the characters and the world at large.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  So a princess, two noblemen, and three soldiers walk into a throne room, and the princess says, “Father!  Don’t start a war!  We know who the true culprits are, but we need your help if we’re going to succeed!”  And the king goes, “That sounds like an excellent idea.  What do you suggest?”  And then one of the nobles (who seems to have forgotten how to cover his tummy-tum) says, “We need to organize a summit between the heads of state, and come together to face the biggest crisis the world’s ever faced.”  And the king goes, “Yes, that sounds like a good plan.  Let’s begin organizing it immediately.”  And the punch line is diplomacy. 

I touched on this last time, but I want to reiterate that, in Natalia’s case and the game’s case overall, being a princess actually means something.  The party does its globetrotting and enemy-bashing as usual, but their actions aren’t the sole determinant of victory in the game’s narrative.  It takes the support of two rival nations to handle the unique problems (the world sinking hundreds of miles into the hellish, poisonous underworld abandoned centuries ago), and even if Luke and the gang beat Van, it wouldn’t be enough to create the societal revolutions necessary to survive.  It helps emphasize the world’s depth and importance.  Whereas a game like Final Fantasy 13 made the world nothing more than over-embellished stage props and wanted you to THINK that the world was weighty, Abyss lets the world naturally flow, and become an integral part of the story by actually having a hand in what happens.  Because of that, the world and all the characters in it matter.  And on that note…

Everyone (even Ion, so to speak) has their moments of intelligence.
At one point in Act 2, Luke brings up a very important point -- the party should go explain what they’ve been doing (i.e. massive world-altering tasks) to the heads of state and seek advice/aid.  Even if this doesn’t have the pleasant effect of, say, stopping a war that was more or less their fault, it’s a far cry from the ignorant Luke of Act 1.  He’s not just thinking about others now; he’s actually using his head.

And there’s nothing I love more than a character that uses his or her head.  I’m of the opinion that a character (and by extension, a writer) should be able to stay one step ahead of the audience -- presenting answers to questions long before the audience even thinks of them…and beyond that, a writer should think of the questions well before the audience.  If I’m playing a game and I can think of a better answer to a problem than what’s given to me before a better answer is given (as is the case with a number of these nitpicks), there’s been a technical error.  But in Abyss -- and the Tales series in general -- characters are more or less able to handle themselves and their situation competently.  It’s a much-appreciated element, and the gang’s ability to apply both reason and foresight to most problems is refreshing.

That said, a lot of stuff related to Yulia and the Score are pretty dumb.
So essentially, it turns out that the Score prophesizes the coming end of the planet, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it; even beyond that, there are still forecasts of disaster and such that would really mess up your day.  The explicit details of Auldrant’s doomsday are kept under wraps (as the full, perfect Score is kept in a certain location and only readable by a Fon Master), which I can understand…to an extent. 

See, somewhere around the second act the party decides to say nuts to the future provided by the Score and live their own lives; they argue that the future inscribed is just one of many possible futures, and that it can be changed with a little elbow grease.  Fair enough.  But if that’s the case -- if that bad future really is preventable -- then why didn’t Yulia tell anyone about it?  It just smacks of an utter lack of foresight; rather than create a situation where people end up living solely by the Score (i.e. what happens in the game), wouldn’t she be better off teaching that the negative forecast and all the negative events in the world could be prevented?    How did Auldrant end up in a situation where fat evil popes thought the only way to live was to start a war that only benefitted one country?  By extension, why would the losing country ever decide to listen to the Score if it suggested they would lose and fall apart, and they had hundreds of years of advance notice?

Next question.  How does the Score work?  Apparently any old Joe can go to the local church and get a Score reading that’ll give them info on what’s bound to happen; by extension, a king can get some tactical advice on how to run his country and obtain prosperity (that is, to allow a war).  Okay, how?  The Score, as explained in-game, is supposed to run off memory particles left by Lorelei, an embodiment of a special type of energy.  But that’s really not much of an answer.  How are people getting such precise information?  Is it like a horoscope?  Do people have to put in a little mental energy to get something out of the Score?  Why would the Score even offer details about what to name your baby, or that you should walk east to find money?  Why are they called “memory particles” if they’re a forecast of events that haven’t happened yet?  Are they the planet’s memory?  Have these events already happened at one point?  If so, when?  If not, then what are they?  I would ask for an answer, but one of Abyss’ biggest flaws is that…

The technobabble in this game is out of control.
There is a lot to explain in this game -- too much for me to even begin talking about because I’m not (that) crazy and I would like to play some more World of Goo.  But over the course of the game, you WILL have every concept and structure and world-building element explained to you in extreme -- i.e. mind-numbingly boring -- detail.  Part of this is a consequence of Luke not knowing anything, and as our viewpoint character it’s a necessary evil.  But even if he did know everything, there’s just so damn much to explain, and it’s all so cumbersome, and…look, you saw what I asked about the Score, right?  It only raises more questions.

Fonons.  Seventh Fonons.  The Sephiroth.  The Qliphoth.  Hyperresonance.  Fomicry.  Fonon frequencies.  The miasma.  The Dividing Line.  Daath.  Hod.  The Order of Lorelei.  The Oracle Knights.  Ancient Ispanian.  Cheagles.  REPLICAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAS.  The Planet Storm.  The Radiation Gate.  The Absorption Gate.  Planetary fonic artes.  Blood fonons.  Seriously, blood fonons?  You couldn’t just say blood and leave it at that?  You couldn’t just say “magic” and leave it at that?  Explaining each of these concepts and more takes ten times longer than it needs to, ends up repeated in some fashion at least three times, refuses to let the player rely on context clues, and can sometimes be more confusing or question-begging than they need to be.  Explaining one of these concepts shouldn’t be that hard.  Here, I’ll show you.

Fomicry: cloning.  There.  Done.  Fonon frequencies: magic DNA.  Over in a flash.   This shouldn’t be that hard, but Abyss makes it that way.  But the biggest consequence is that so much has to be explained, the characters tend to suffer.  Jade’s the smart guy of the group, so inevitably most of his dialogue is explaining to the kiddies what all this WONDERFUL SCIENCE means.  No wonder he’s always trolling them.  Tear doesn’t fare nearly as well, though; explaining things is arguably her defining character trait.

The long and short of it is, there’s a difference between world-building and world-showboating -- and looking back, I’m starting to think Abyss leans more toward the latter than the former.

Lorelei is the stupidest damn character in the game.
The entire third act of the game could have been avoided.

Remember that YouTube clip from earlier?  At about 2:23, there’s a voice that says, “Asch, Luke…I will send you the key.  Use it to set me free.  One who would seize glory is trying to capture me.”  That’s Lorelei talking.  That’s the sentient spirit responsible for the Score.  And who is “one who would seize glory”?  It’s Van.  The villain you just killed -- or thought you killed -- is still alive, and trying to absorb Lorelei.  Luke and the gang are in position to go and stop Van and end the fight once and for all…except they can’t.  Because thanks to Lorelei’s dumb ass, Luke has no idea what’s going on.  And because of that, THE ENTIRE WORLD IS PUT IN DANGER.  AGAIN.

I’ve heard the argument that Lorelei uses “one who would seize glory” instead of “Van” because Van’s real name is Vandesdelca in the game’s Ancient Ispanian language -- the language Lorelei is most familiar with.  Okay…so why would Lorelei speak every other line in the normal language BUT Van’s name?  Why would he say “one who would seize glory” to someone we players have been explicitly told has no understanding of Ancient Ispanian, AND someone Lorelei has spoken to in the normal language before?  Lorelei, you should not be putting the fate of the world in jeopardy because you think your savior needs to solve a riddle. 

But that’s not all.  “Send you the key”?  What’s that supposed to mean?  Why doesn’t Lorelei just explain what he’s doing?  “Asch, I’m sending you a sword, and I’m sending a jewel to Luke.  Combine them.”  There.  That sentence took me about ten seconds to come up with, and even if Lorelei was in a sorry state, he could have said that in the same amount of time and saved the party MONTHS of blind stumbling across the planet.  Does Lorelei have any idea how much time everyone wastes looking for the components of his “key”?  Does he know how many lives could have been saved, or how many disasters could have been averted?  Does he know how much time the player ends up wasting just because he can’t speak clearly?  Man, what an asshole.  

But to his credit…

A lot of problems in this game could have been solved if people just talked to one another.
This is a problem that (to my despair) appeared in Birth By Sleep as well.  If the characters in either game took five minutes to sit down and discuss things with each other, a lot of the problems they face would not exist.

Okay, it’s not as bad in Abyss as it is in BBS, but it’s still pretty noticeable.  So many problems are the result of characters not explaining everything they can/should, without any good reason (or a poor reason).  What do I mean?   Let us count the many ways…with the proper music, of course.

--If Jade, as the creator of fomicry, knows pretty much everything there is about REPLIAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAS and science in general, why do so many of his dialogues end with him saying “No, it’s nothing” and it ends up becoming incredibly relevant a short time later?  Why doesn’t he just tell people?  He may not be able to change it directly, but what’s the harm in them knowing something that can only benefit them?

--Guy fights Sync one-on-one and knocks off his mask, revealing that he’s a REPLICAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA of Ion.  Why doesn’t he tell anyone about this, ever?  Guy is a smart, reasonable character.  Did he forget?  Did he get brainwashed by Sync?

--Anise is a spy for Mohs.  Why doesn’t she tell anyone?  She’s travelling with a damn colonel in the military who himself is a close friend of the emperor.  If her parents’ safety is on the line, couldn’t they pull some strings to bail them out before Mohs gets to them (albeit stealthily)?  Couldn’t Anise have found time to explain herself in an isolated area…like when the party is using one of the only two airships in the world?

--Why doesn’t Luke reveal his plan to get rid of the miasma from a mining town?  If he was really trying to do good (though he wasn’t, since it was a part of Van’s plan), why would he keep that a secret?  Why would any of the party members think that ending a verifiable plague was something he shouldn’t do?

--Why does it take like eight dungeons for Asch to stop being surly and tell the party what the hell he’s trying to do?  Why doesn’t he explain how he got the sword from Lorelei?  Why does he refuse to sit and compare notes?  There have to be three hundred cutscenes in the game at least, and he can only spare ONE to reveal his plan?

--Why does Ion -- oh, right, I forgot.  Idiot wallflower.

I’m pretty sure there are more examples, but those are the only ones I can discuss without bursting into tears.  I mean really -- if these people (Asch aside) are supposed to be a cohesive unit, why are they keeping secrets and vital information from one another?  I can understand Guy’s case where he doesn’t want to reveal the gritty details of his past, or Tear’s case where she’s dying and revealing such would make the party stop trying to save the world, but come the hell on.  Stop creating conflict and hindrances for stupid reasons.  Van should be the enemy.  Go after him.  Do everything you can to go after him.  Don’t screw yourselves over because you can’t be arsed to have a staff meeting.

Urrrrrgh.  This post was a lot more negative than I would have liked, so I’ll cut off here for now.  See you all next time.  What’s on the agenda?  More positivity, I hope.  All these bad emotions can’t be good for my heart…and I’m kinda sure heart disease runs in my family.

…Because I’m black.  And because fried chicken exists.


  1. Yes, that song goes perfectly with any case of people being idiots. Well done.

    I think I want to try Tales of Symphonia out sometime, I keep hearing good things about it. My views on Abyss.... are now very mixed thanks to these two articles you've put together. I don't know a lot about them outside of what I've read on this blog, so I really don't know if I should even spend time and money getting into it.

  2. I'm baffled you managed to write a review of Tales of Abyss without mentioning Fonic resonance. It was basically a drinking game. (one you'd be smashed very quickly if you took a drink when they said it.) But I think the point about techno-babble in this game is so true.

    Well that and the romance is downright creepy when you take in consideration about Luke...

    Cougar Tear! /go

  3. Crap, you're right. How could I let that one pass me by? Well, there's a bit about resonance that I'll address in the next part, but...man, what an oversight.

    As for the Luke/Tear romance, there are multiple possibilities. One: it's more motherly than anything; Tear has to watch over Luke like a child at the game's outset (because he's a whiny baby) and second act (because he wants her to see him change), and as such has her heart opened to new possibilities -- that she CAN be caring and nurturing and such. Two: both Luke AND Tear are mentally/emotionally stunted, and their bond is because they're mutually struggling with thoughts they can only understand by being in contact with one another. Three: Tear would rather forget that Luke's only seven, because she's so entranced by his abs. You've seen how they dress in Yulia City; I bet she was surprised the first time she saw forearms.

  4. Yes, you should definitely get Symphonia. It's been out for years now, so it's probably dirt-cheap -- and while it may be a bit archaic in terms of gameplay (in the sense that multiple Tales games have come out since, and improved vastly on its battle system), it's still very much worth a look. If nothing else, watch a YouTube playthrough.

    As for Abyss...yeah, you should probably grab that too, if my comments don't scare you off. I'll mention it in a later post for this rundown, but even with all my nitpicks and issues, I still consider Abyss to be a good game. It's just not for everybody, and there ARE faults that I can't ignore.

    Generally speaking, you can't go wrong with Tales. The only title I have difficulty recommending is the sequel to Symphonia, Dawn of the New World. It's the weakest of the games I've played -- not awful, but not up the the series' consistent quality. In fact, here's how I rank the Tales games (though this ranking is subject to change, because I plan to replay Legendia)

    6) Dawn of the New World
    5) Abyss
    4) Legendia
    3) Vesperia
    2) Graces
    1) Symphonia

    Like I said, that's subject to change, especially with Xillia on the way. And even if I put Vesperia in 3rd place, that doesn't mean it's necessarily weaker than the others. It just shows how good the competition is, and how there's a slight margin and difference in opinion separating the games. Soooo...yeah, you should probably grab Symphonia.