Put a little J in that 3DS.
Starving for some classic JRPG? It’s hard to do better on the 3DS at the moment than with Tales of the Abyss, Namco Bandai’s 6-years-ago blockbuster that, while perceptibly aged, still manages to captivate through a gradually-improving (often unpredictable) story and a fast-paced opening.
It tells the story of Luke fon Fabre, son of the duke and a genuine spoiled brat. Things are boring and predictable for our young “hero” until a strange girl named Tear arrives and ends up accidentally whooshing him away from home to decidedly less-mundane environments.
You act like you poop diamonds.
Luke is positively repulsive near the start of the adventure, blaming everyone for everything, yearning to return home, and flaunting a selfish attitude that makes him seriously unlikable. His interaction with the other early characters produces a sort of whiny Japanese anime that’s difficult to appreciate in any form.
But stick with it—it gets better. Luke’s forced departure from his element challenges him to explore the realities of the less-privileged world and sets in motion his evolution from sanctimonious jerk to relatable protagonist. It isn’t the most graceful of character evolutions, but quite frankly, it’s more interesting than much of what’s come from the minds of the Japanese RPG writers over the course of the past decade or so.
Supporting the story is an extensive cache of competent English voice acting—not a single line had to be cut from the PS2 version to fit it on a 3DS cart. Cut scenes are hand-animated and well done, but equally infrequent and unobtrusive. Additional story elements are available via optional conversational interludes between party members (familiar to series veterans), with particular emphasis on the optional part—if you don’t want to hear them, simply ignore the on-screen indicator. The story itself starts off pretty clichéd, but it improves over the course of the first quarter or so of the game.
Some of the environments and premises are pretty cool...
Provided you don’t unfairly expect all of the amenities of the modern (or western) RPG, you might be pleased with the relatively progressive approach to the formula taken by the original game. For starters, random battles aren’t a problem, as enemies are clearly visible and can often be avoided before they engage you. Even when you do take part in a battle, you can wrap it up pretty quickly if you so choose, and even zoom through the victory sequence that so often drags in many older JRPGs.
The battles are action-oriented real-time affairs (as is par for the course in the Tales series). But while the style is familiar, the implementation is superior. Through the use of various button combinations and dozens upon dozens of unlockable artes and powers, you’ll find that the battles don’t wear on you like they do in other games of this type.
In fact, the battle system in Abyss just might be the best of the entire Tales series (or, at least, of the ones I’ve personally experienced). It starts off interesting, but gradually swells into an increasingly complex, multifaceted, free-flowing art governed by a slew of—well—artes, and augmented by Capacity Cores (which can be equipped to increase selected stats at a faster rate) and Fonslot Chambers (which improve the powers of your artes in various ways). Targeting is also well done, as you can zero in/switch between targets by pressing the “R” button, or even choose to “free run” by holding down the L button.
...but ultimately, it's the battles that hold the player's interest.
Abyss’ greatest vice is perhaps its inability to cover its wrinkles. While it’s rarely ugly, the game can’t stand up visually to the standard set by native 3DS titles. Environments are jagged and textures are often blurry, and the 3D effect isn’t very well implemented. At times it’s great (such as in some of the more complex environments, including towns and forests), but in other instances it was clearly an afterthought of the porting process (many areas appear flat, and the effect disengages in random places, such as during the battle transition animation screen).
Some people also might not appreciate the thick slathering of unfamiliar terminology, such as the “seventh fonon” of this and that, the “order of Lorelei” (you’re thinking “what the heck?” while reading these lines early on), and so forth. But once you get over that (and the goofy characterizations and dialogue that goes along with the arguably rocky opening), things move much more smoothly. It isn’t long before you actually find yourself invested in the story you previously thought to be ridiculous, and you actually start to like the characters (in spite of their black-and-white Japanese template derivations). And while the story overall is pretty decent, the most important thing is that it’s at least good enough not to get in the way of the great battle gameplay.
It may come as no surprise that the game’s also overlong. It feels like it probably could have been around 30% shorter and been all the better for it, but again, this isn’t anything new for the Tales franchise (Tales of Symphonia had me fooled into thinking it was over twice, with some pretty mediocre content following it up). Fortunately, not much about Abyss is mediocre; thanks to its solid gameplay, it remains fun even through the slogs of its occasional moments of storytelling doldrums. It’s always said that good defense wins championships; well, likewise, good gameplay rescues inconsistent pacing.