A sequel, it seems, is probably the riskiest endeavor a creative individual can undertake. On the one hand, it continues a story that many people found to be very enjoyable, and it can usually mean there’s going to be a pretty sizeable number of sales to be had from just those people alone. The problem is, though, it means that you have to top your previous work, without cheapening it. Creating a new bad guy behind the original one, having some other threat come along that was just waiting for the time to strike, or introducing new characters that far overpower (or at the very least put to shame) the original cast– all those are guaranteed ways to alienate fans of the original.
Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World does every single one of those. And the kicker is, somehow, it all comes together nicely.
Rather than taking the approach that Final Fantasy IV: The After Years did, by continuing the story with more or less the same engine as the original, Dawn of the New World adds a slightly different spin on the current Tales combat engine. Battles are still in the free-running Linear Motion Battle System that Symphonia used, but on occasion after putting down a monster, it will hang around after the battle to see if you want it to join you. It works like a randomized, Tales-ified version of Pokemon. Unfortunately, it suffers from the fact that there hasn’t really been any game that properly copies Pokemon’s catch-em-all mechanic. Worse, as the game went on, fewer and fewer monsters made such an offer after battle. And possibly even more damning, because monsters grew in levels much faster than the humans, they don’t offer a whole lot of incentive to evolve them (returning them to Level 1, a la Disgaea’s reincarnation mechanic) or, for that matter, to catch other monsters once you have a group you feel comfortable with. In point of fact, after about the sixth or eighth hour of gameplay, you’re almost always accompanied by enough humans that you don’t need to have a monster in your active party. Great concept, crappy execution.
It could easily be argued, though, that nobody plays JRPGs for their battle systems. At least that’s not the case with me, anyway, as I’m usually more attracted to stories than stick-waggling. (Oh, on a related note: there’s no waggle controls here. The Sorcerer’s Ring is aimed with the IR pointer… more on that later.) Dawn manages to be a very well-thought-out extension to the seemingly-concluded story set forth in Symphonia. After the completion of the previous quest, the worlds of Sylvarant and Tethe’alla were merged back into the one they were before. To put it succinctly, this did not go well; the political systems of the two worlds were totally incompatible, and all hell broke loose (almost literally). This culminated in an attack on (Dawn’s protagonist) Emil’s hometown of Luin, seemingly led by Lloyd Irving (Symphonia’s protagonist). Things happen, and Emil links up with a seemingly-repentant member of a militant group, Marta, who bears with her a mysterious stone.
In true Tales fashion, though, the story starts off cliche and quickly spirals out of the realm of mediocrity. That’s not to say it doesn’t stick with certain cliches, but, well– you know how spies are told that if they’re in danger of blowing their cover, to play it harder? Dawn manages the same thing. It takes cliches, spins them a little, and pushes them to their breaking point and beyond. It’s not a profound story, it’s not in-your-face, and it’s not anything that’s unique or overly spectacular. It’s strictly formula, it knows it, and it plays it to the hilt. Suffice to say, if you like the Tales formula, you’re going to love Dawn.
The Tales formula, it should be noted, is composed of two things. The first, and the one major problem I have with the formula, is that its dungeons are laid out in the most frustrating fashion possible with the Wii’s hardware. Graphical details obscure paths, and I’m sure that if Namco could have dragged more polygons out of the processor they’d be hidden further. What compounds this is that the dungeons, especially later in the game, contain unhealthy amounts of backtracking thanks to the Sorcerer’s Ring. One dungeon, the Temple of Lightning, is a monstrous pain in the ass due to the fact that it requires you to go back to the main room no less than ten times in order to proceed, its only saving grace being that there is also a full-heal save point in that room. It took me three hours to get through that dungeon, not least of which because the encounter rate was jacked up to “obnoxious” as well. I wouldn’t mind either shorter dungeons, or longer dungeons that are split up more so that it feels like you’re making some kind of progress.
On the other hand, the Tales formula also relies on extremely strong characterization, and Dawn manages to crank this up pretty far, too. The game is punctuated with optional skits, which are simple talking-head conversations between characters. While some of these are the usual dramatic “what are they thinking?” kinds of things that you’d expect from a serious story, the vast majority of these are flat-out hilarious. Since they’re fully voiced in this game (something the original Symphonia lacked), they just become even more funny. From complaining about each other’s cooking, to playing with stereotypes of the characters and their “expected” behavior in situations, they wind up being one of the better parts of the game. After each main-line story bit, I found myself hesitating as I approached the exits, finger readied on the C button to start the skit whenever I saw the prompt. The skits easily are one of the biggest selling points for the game… or rather, the series as a whole.
Overall, it’s not really fair to say that Dawn of the New World is an “average Tales game”. Granted, it’s not better or worse than any other installment of the series, but you have to consider the series for a second. The Tales games are among the best that the JRPG genre have to offer, ranking in my estimation right up there with Final Fantasy and Wild ARMs. Calling Dawn an “average Tales game” is kind of like saying it’s an “average hundred-dollar bill”. Or an “average Lamborghini”. I’m probably going on to Tales of the Abyss for my next big RPG project, but that’s a little ways off, I think.