Tales of Graces F is the latest Tales game to grace western shores (you see what I did there?). Tales of Graces, sans F, was originally a Wii game released only in Japan, while Tales of Graces F (henceforth, just Graces) is the extended, enhanced version for the PS3. The “F” stands for “Future,” as it adds a whole 10-hour additional epilogue to the game.
If you’re familiar with other Tales games, the co-op format of Graces is much the same as the other titles. One player controls the movement around the map and interacting with people/things in the story portion of the game while up to four players can participate in the real-time combat. Whenever players go into “the field” in between important story areas (such as towns) there are monsters running around which trigger the combat encounters. Players can easily drop in and out for the combat with the non-player-controlled characters being controlled by the AI. We’ll do a run-down of the combat in a little bit. First, let’s hit the story.
Graces follows Asbel Lhant, the heir to a small township. The first few hours of the game feature him and his friends as children on the cusp of adolescence. I’ll be honest here, the childhood part of the game will probably be boring to many players. My co-op partner left the room multiple times to let me slog through this part of the story on my own. While there are some combat opportunities during this phase, the primary focus is the story, and it’s slow going. It provides important backstory for the rest of the game, and again, it only lasts a few hours, but it can still be painful to get through.
After the childhood era is completed, the story picks up seven years later, which is the era of the rest of the game. We encounter an 18-year-old Asbel, now a sword-wielding knight full of doubt and conflict (yup, this is a Tales game!). Throughout the story, Asbel struggles with his identity and attempts to fulfill his utmost desire to protect his friends. In classic JRPG fashion, however, he won’t be doing this alone.
The full cast. From left to right: Asbel, Sophie, Hubert, Cheria, Richard, Malik, Pascal
Asbel is joined by several other characters who each bring to the table their own worries and challenges for poor Asbel. There’s Sophie (the amnesiac girl who seems to be more than she appears), Hubert (Asbel’s also identity-conflicted brother), Cheria (Asbel’s childhood friend who has abandonment issues), Richard (crown prince to the kingdom who is randomly sadistic), Malik (Asbel’s Captain from the Knight Academy), and Pascal (happy-go-lucky ruins spelunker). Graces seems to revolve around the relationships between characters a lot more than some of the other Tales games. This could be a good or a bad thing. If you like the characters, you’ll probably enjoy the interactions between them and Asbel. If you dislike them, you might find yourself rolling your eyes in the cutscenes. On the bright side, I personally found most of the Graces characters to be likeable, or at least inoffensive (excepting their hideous clothing choices).
The combat is both familiar and radically different from other Tales games. If one is watching the combat, there’s still a party running around smacking people/monsters and casting spells. On the technical side, though, there’s a whole lot different about Graces, which I believe is the game’s strongest point. Like all Tales games, however, the battle system is (or at least can be) pretty complex. Let me try to explain it.
Now hold on, this is going to get a little intense. Graces does away with the normal TP system (TP was like mana in other RPGs). Instead, characters get CC (Chain Capacity), which acts kind of like an energy system from other RPGs. CC is used for two different kinds of Artes: Attack Artes (A-artes) and Burst Artes (B-artes). B-artes are the classic spells that we’re used to in a Tales game (e.g. Demon Fang, First Aid, etc.). These are triggered by first hitting the circle button to put you in B-artes stance, then using your personally mapped B-artes buttons to trigger your desired spell (e.g. L-stick down Circle). A-artes are attack chain artes which are triggered through normal auto-attacking with the X button. Each character can get up to a 4-combo chain with each step in the combo costing more CC (1st step costs 1CC, 2nd step costs 2CC, etc.). You can get different A-artes at different steps in the combo by using the X button in conjunction with different directions on the left analog stick. So, for example, down X may yield a different attack than up X if you’re at the 2nd step of your combo. You can also weave A-artes and B-artes together to get effect. The further along you are in your A-artes chain, you get faster cast time on your B-artes. You can interpose B-artes in between your A-artes without interrupting your A-artes combo. Again, though, you will need to have enough CC to execute any of your artes. You can get CC back by doing things like dodging, flanking, or just waiting for it to come back (it regenerates pretty fast).
You know you did something fancy when you get hand-drawn art in the middle of combat
And that’s just the basic combat. There’s also an Eleth gauge which controls Eleth Burst/Break and gives you access to things such as Mystic Artes. There’s a resistance/vulnerability system for the enemies you encounter. There’s a ton of stuff that I honestly just ignored for my own sanity’s sake. The depth of combat in Graces is there for players who want to master it. It can also be as simple as spamming X to attack and using O to cast spells if your friend wants to hop into the game when you’re playing it. The flexibility for varied skill and knowledge between different players is a great asset to the Tales series, and Graces does a great job of preserving that. Graces has also made it easy to swap between combatants during a fight. Players can use the D-pad to swap to any other character that is not currently being controlled by another player.
There’s also an extensive Titles system introduced in Graces. This system helps players focus on the artes they like the most, and acts as a secondary leveling system. Also new is the Eleth Mixer, which allows players do things such as auto-cook during or after combat or generate gels by chance when simply exploring. There’s also Dualizing, which allows you to combine items, enchant gear, and create accessories. Due to space restrictions, I can’t go much into these features, but trust me, they’re pretty awesome.
After a few hours into the game (I believe after the completion of the Childhood era), players unlock the Trials of Graces mode. This mode acts as a complement to the story mode. At certain parts of the story, you’ll unlock different scenarios for Trials of Graces. These scenarios are simply battle encounters where, upon completion, you’ll get items (such as armor or weapons) as rewards. These items will automatically be applied to your latest saved game in the story mode. They’re not only a nice way to get free gear upgrades for your characters, but if you really just want to wail on some enemies in co-op, this is a great way to do it.
Graces is a solid installment in the Tales series. Though I’m still unsure whether I like the story more than some of the other Tales games, I certainly enjoy the combat system the most. Additions such as the Eleth Mixer, Titles system, and Dualizing system make the JRPG-geek in me chortle with glee, and give players a lot of ways to customize their playing experience. There are pros and cons to the co-op of the game. As usual, the co-op is confined to the combat (and thus is local only, as only makes sense), but it’s also easy to swap players in and out on the fly. While Graces does a good job at supporting two players in combat almost all of the time (unlike some previous titles), it wasn’t until about seven hours in that I had a party which could support four players at the same time. The Trials of Graces system makes it easy to find encounters if you just want to fight in co-op, but to unlock more encounters you will have to progress the main story, so it can’t really act as a substitution to the story mode. As such, the co-op in Graces is probably not for everyone, but it is certainly not any more restricting than any of the other Tales games (it’s actually better than most). If you’re a Tales (or general JRPG) fan and are looking for a solid title with local co-op and are willing to accept both the strengths and weaknesses of the co-op, then Tales of Graces F is a great game to pick up.