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Tales of Graces F review: Comfort food

Nathan Grayson

When I was but a wee nerdling, I had an unhealthy obsession with Brian Jacques' Redwall book series. While other children frolicked in parks or used superior numbers to overwhelm prey or whatever normal children do, I dreamed of talking mouse-people and magic swords the size of thumbtacks. Over time, however, even Child-Me realized that I was basically being asked to pony up for slightly different spins on the same swords 'n' sorcery 'n' rodents-for-some-reason story. Same journey progression, same character archetypes, same pervasive message that badgers are the Best Animal, etc. But I read, like, 14 of the things, because they were comfortable -- the literary equivalent of a hug or that Snuggie no one knows you own.

Namco Bandai's Tales series hedges its bets on a taking up a similar role in the lives of its fans. Tales of Graces F doesn't reinvent any wheels or cure Japanese RPG characters of their tragic case of radioactive bedhead, but it's an especially strong showing from a series that knows how to make you instantly feel right at home.

Gallery: Tales of Graces F (3/15/12) | 69 Photos

So then, first things first: Yes, Graces features brash, headstrong youths who could probably write PHD-level dissertations on the power of friendship and protecting loved ones. And yes, there is a character with not one, but two cases of plot-friendly amnesia. And yet, Graces manages to spin a shockingly compelling yarn despite the rote beats it nearly dives out of its way to touch upon. The main characters, especially, charmed the ice off my cold, jaded heart with surprising sincerity and optional "skits" that actually had me laughing out loud on a few occasions.

Time, meanwhile, is Graces' greatest ally, with a plot that spans nearly a decade via an opening full of child characters -- who somehow manage to not be high-pitched engines of pure annoyance -- and an impressively beefy epilogue. Without venturing into spoiler territory, main character Asbel Lhant's trials and tribulations are surprisingly dark in many places, resulting in a believable character arc from reckless brat to determined adult who dresses like the lovechild of Elton John and a space pimp. Other characters, like Asbel's brother Hubert, have similarly winding progressions that manage to avoid being entirely predictable. There's also a late-game twist that's pretty heavily foreshadowed, but no less interesting for it.

That said, you might not want to play Graces' opening five or so hours near any pillows. I did, and – no joke – the game actually put me to sleep. Twice. It's not as egregiously slow to pick up steam as, say, Final Fantasy XIII, but very little actually happens during Asbel's largely idyllic childhood. Mostly, the segment serves as a vehicle for a tutorial that's basically the opposite of Yoda: it never shuts up, yet rarely manages to impart worthwhile knowledge. For example, I didn't even know that holding down the L1 button would shine a focused, go-here-to-advance-the-plot beam through the haze of disappointingly unclear objectives until roughly four aimless hours had passed.

It's a shame, because there's a surprising amount of nuance to be found in Graces' combat and character progression if you're willing to endure the opening slog. Battles operate on the Tales series' usual beat-'em-up-esque combo system, but with the nice, variety-packed twist of A and B Artes. See, A Artes are your basic hack 'n' slash melee pows, thwacks and kabiffs, while B Artes allow you to choose between character-specific special attacks – Asbel's high-damage, low-survivability sword or Hubert's dual pistols, for instance. Switching between characters mid-battle is a snap, too, meaning that fairly complex battle strategies are doable, though not always needed unless you're playing on higher difficulties. Even so, party member AI is fairly competent, so if you just want to hit the bad things until they go away, that's also an option.

Progression, meanwhile, might seem mind-bogglingly multifaceted on paper, but there's actually an elegant simplicity to it in practice. Characters mainly pick up new skills and stat buffs through Titles, which can be earned via pivotal story events or specific accomplishments in battle. Each one has five levels that slowly open up as you slice colorful, cel-shaded enemies into disturbingly festive ribbons -- with skills permanently upping your arsenal while stat boosts only take effect when a specific Title is equipped. The end result? A system that manages to both tie your party's insatiable stab lust to the plot and engage that delightfully maniacal form of gotta-collect-'em-all OCD that's characterized JRPGs since the dawn of time.

Beyond that, the new "Dualize" system bakes crafting and weapon/armor upgrades into a single item-combining interface managed by "Turtlez," who speak with an accent somewhere between Brooklyn and a Ubisoft Petz game. Unfortunately, it quickly gets unwieldy thanks to the sheer number of craftable collectibles strewn across the world. And then there's the Eleth Mixer, which replaces Tales' trademark cooking system and produces items and stat buffs both in and out of battle. The bottom line? Graces will not leave you with a lack of things to do, but you might come away nursing an interface-borne headache or two.

It will, however, leave you with pain-inducing pangs for a bit of eye candy. I wouldn't exactly describe the game as hideous, but it is an HD port of a 2009 Wii release, so environments look washed out and characters animate like herky jerky Terminators are waiting to burst out of their skin at any moment. That said, who plays Tales games for their good looks? It's the series' tried-and-true mix of campy charm, fast action, and a borderline-artistic knack for wringing entertainment from time-worn cliches that keeps fans coming back for more. In those areas, Tales of Graces F truly excels. It's far from a bastion of genre progressiveness, but as far as achingly traditional JRPGs go, you could do a whole, whole lot worse.

This review is based on a retail copy of Tales of Graces F for the PS3, provided by Namco Bandai.

Nathan Grayson is a Dallas-born, San Francisco-based freelancer whose work has been featured on VG247, PC Gamer, GameSpy, and IGN, among others. His dream, however, is to join the esteemed staff of Cat Fancy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Vahn16.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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