Welcome back and happy new year to all of ya! Here's hoping 2019 is a great one! At the very least, let's hope it doesn't trip at the finish line with a ridiculous shit-show of AAA and indie developers alike trying to fuck over their customers every conceivable way they can think of, like 2018.
No game company can make good decisions all the time. Not even respectable developers like Nintendo, CD Projekt Red, and Supergiant Games, developers who are paragons of consistent quality and artistic integrity in the RPG business, are without the capability of missteps. Nintendo’s had its share of flub-ups, CD Projekt Red (from what I am told) significantly misrepresented Yennefer in The Witcher 3, and Supergiant Games...um...well, I’m sure they’ll do something wrong at some point. I’ve played Bastion and Transistor, but haven’t played Pyre yet--maybe they get something wrong there?
Look, my point is, even the most respectable game creators in the business aren’t above making some errors here and there. And Namco’s certainly no different with its Tales of series. Of the 7 Tales of titles I’ve played,* the slight majority were boring and/or outright bad, and even the 1 that I personally like best (Tales of Legendia) only really turns into a good RPG during its second plot. Beyond the overall problems with most of the titles in the series, it’s also plagued at times by absurd over-abundances of gameplay features and mechanics, there’s only a single well-crafted protagonist in the whole series (Luke from Tales of the Abyss), the villains of the series are by and large just terrible, and so on and so forth.
But these are the regular mistakes made by a developer simply not having the talent to properly execute its vision, or not putting in the effort to make its story/characters work better. Or, in the case of the idiotic level of gameplay features by the time of Tales of Zestiria, putting in way, way too much effort on stuff that doesn’t matter. Namco’s mistakes with the Tales of series, many though they are, are just normal ones, errors which annoy me, but take a huge number for me to truly resent the company for them. They are not mistakes that are outright stupid, that are ignorant decisions made by low-quality human beings that are just outright the clearly wrong idea and direction to take--that kind of poor choice is more Bioware’s and SquareEnix’s department, or whatever depraved lunatics are to blame for Lunar: Dragon Song and Xenosaga 3’s Kevin Winnicot. No, this latter kind of mistake, the bad decision that even a moron should know better than to make, is something I hadn’t seen from Namco in the Tales of series.
That is, until recently, when I finally got around to playing Tales of Eternia, for the Playstation 1 (incorrectly named Tales of Destiny 2 in the USA).
Although Tales of Eternia was recommended to me highly by an old friend some time ago, I’ve found the game extremely middle of the road. Not as boring as Phantasia or Destiny 1, and thankfully not as annoying and dumb as Symphonia, but slightly less interesting than Zestiria, and nowhere near Legendia or the Abyss. The plot overall is okay but unremarkable, and the pacing of the game seems lazy and meandering--which is especially odd since I’m fairly sure, looking at it altogether, that this game is technically much faster and more direct in taking the party through the plot’s necessary steps than most of its peers. But it still somehow feels just as slow and frequently aimless as many RPGs that actually DO take you through pointless padding quests instead of getting to the point. Worst of all, the cast of Tales of Eternia is just nothing to write home about--even the likable characters are appealing solely for their surface personality; there’s no real profoundness to anyone in the game save Farah, and what little depth other characters attempt to capitalize on is handicapped by voice acting that was subpar even by Playstation 1 era standards.
But what’s truly vexing is that this didn’t have to be the case!
See, you know those little character skits that are a beloved staple to the Tales of series? The ones about which I’ve made a rant extolling my appreciation? Tales of Eternia had dozens of them. Just scattered all over the game, voice acted and everything, skits with all the major cast members interacting over a range of subjects, from the main quest on down to food preferences. Tons of little party interaction vignettes that cemented characters’ personalities and quirks, increased the scope of their individual development, and established, explored, and enhanced the party’s interpersonal relationships. A solid quantity of the skits that the series so skillfully uses to gently and enjoyably improve its overall narrative.
And Namco fucking cut them.
Choosing not to give Dhaos any proper motivation or personality until a 2-minute post-mortem conversation during the game’s ending? Someone on the Tales of Phantasia staff clearly didn’t know where else to shove in his villainous history. Tales of Legendia’s Shirley being totally forgiven by everyone even though she’s actually a horrible person? The ToL writers clearly just were paying more attention to what they wanted from Shirley as a character than what they’d actually made of her. Tales of Zestiria’s choice to use Sorey as the protagonist, instead of Alisha or better yet Rose? Someone at Namco didn’t want to disrupt the Tales of tradition of giving the starring role to the least worthwhile, most tedious character in the cast. These are basic mistakes, perhaps even dumb mistakes. But cutting Tales of Eternia’s skits? That’s flat-out, unequivocal head-up-your-ass stupidity.
Let’s start with the most basic reason this was a terrible decision: it’s denying the players more story content, more scenes using characters that the player (hopefully) likes. Cutting the skits from the game means cutting a substantial portion of the entire point of playing an RPG. Story and dialogue are what make an RPG’s hundreds of repetitive, meaningless random encounters bearable. No damn wonder Tales of Eternia frequently felt like such a damn slog to me even when it’s comparatively straightforward as typical RPG plots go: I wasn’t able to access a lot of the content that could have kept me more engaged in it!
Which brings us to the next reason why this was such a boneheaded move: Tales of Eternia isn’t just a lesser game for the skits that are missing. Their absence also is actively harmful to the content that’s left! As I said, the cast for this game is 1 of its sorest disappointments--it is, at best, functional. The party never really feels like a cohesive group of people who have grown into their relationships, most of the characters don’t get enough time to develop, few of them even seem to have any real depth to explore anyway...and honestly, there are times when it almost feels like they just take certain events in stride and move onto the next plot point without giving enough reaction to what has just happened. Playing through the game, I chalked this up to less-than-competent writing, but apparently, the true cause is far less forgivable. Of course the cast is going to come off this way--the audience’s perception is based on only 60% of what was intended to be seen! Skits may be optional as a rule in the Tales of series, but Namco clearly writes with the assumption that you’re watching at least some of them, and thus concentrates less on flavor interactions than plot-moving ones during the dialogue of the game proper. But without the skits, everything else suffers, because you’re less invested in the characters as they deal with the main plot since you’ve never seen their party dynamic crystallize over a few dozen small conversations, never seen Keele behave in any way other than as a sour drip, never seen Meredy endear herself to them all individually, and so on.
And lastly, this was a really stupid move because the removal of Tales of Eternia’s skits basically outright deprives you of several characters in the game. See, the party acquires Greater Craymels, which is what Tales of Eternia stupidly calls its elemental summoned monsters, early in the game, and these master elementals will, on rare plot occasions, appear and/or speak, usually when the party is meeting and attempting to recruit other elementals. Scenes with them are brief and generally focused on the process of acquiring the new Greater Craymels, so by and large, you can really only count these beings as story-progressing entities, just plot points that happen to occasionally talk.
But apparently, a slew of the skits that were removed involve conversations with all the Greater Craymels, either between themselves or with party members. They’re given personalities and quirks of interaction, essentially adding about half a dozen separate characters to the major cast of the game and allowing for much more human nature exploration in the game. Undine even has this whole series of skits in which she reads a bunch of letters posted from several years in the past. So taking out the skits not only harms the characters you know are supposed to be important, but it even more or less removes an entire portion of the cast who had their own personalities and effect on the rest of the cast.
I don’t know why Namco took the skits out of Tales of Eternia. A few people online have said that it was simply because they were too cheap to keep the voice actors on the payroll for long enough to record these extra lines, which seems plausible (and incredibly stupid; no one would’ve complained if they just hadn’t had the skits voice acted at all), but none of those were authoritative sources on the matter. Maybe the reason was something else--some misguided thought that western audiences wouldn’t care for the skits, perhaps, or maybe some of them had content that didn’t line up with how the localization team wanted to portray certain characters (Max, for example, actually seems to say and do things in the skits at times, which sure as hell doesn’t line up with the guy as portrayed in the rest of the translated game, who’s such a lazily-written entity that 1 of his exactly 2 personality traits is saying the word “Yeah”). I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that no matter the reason, be it based on budget, localization, or something else, it was a pure, 100%, no-holds-barred stupid call on Namco’s part. It wasn’t just a poorly reasoned or poorly executed decision, a mistake that led to a momentary negative impact on the product. Whoever chose to have the skits removed from Tales of Eternia when porting it overseas was a moron who substantially lowered the quality of the entire game, irreparably damaging what it was and what it could be to all who played it.
If you’re a Tales of Eternia fan of old, and you’re interested in seeing what you missed out on, there’s a Youtube channel that’s been decent enough to translate the skits and put them up online to enjoy. You can find the playlist here.
* Phantasia, Destiny 1, Eternia, Symphonia, Legendia, the Abyss, and Zestiria.
** Although I will admit, even with the skits, Reid is still a wooden, humdrum meathead. Tales of skits can do a lot, but they can’t fix what’s fundamentally broken and boring.