A fun and charming JRPG from the long-running Tales series, Graces was originally released exclusively in Japan on the Wii in 2009. Graces f updates the visuals and adds a significant amount of content.
I have practically no experience with Tales games, despite well over a dozen releases on numerous consoles in the past fifteen-plus years. Additionally, I still consider myself very new to the massive JRPG genre, so if you're looking for an in-depth review filled with detailed comparisons and anecdotes from previous Tales experiences... well, this ain't it.
What I am able to offer is my takeaway from playing around twenty hours of Graces f. What I have played thus far in the lengthy adventure has been largely positive. Players take the role of young Asbel Lhant, son of Ashton, the Lord of Lhant, a small but prosperous town on the world of Efinea. Asbel wants to become a knight rather than follow in the footsteps of his father. His younger brother Huebert is a timid but very intelligent fellow who seeks Asbel's respect and often gets tied up in Asbel's adventures, including going up to the forbidden Lhant Hill in the opening moments of the game.
Expect plenty of battles in Tales of Graces f
The short trip up to the top of the hill, where flowers are said to bloom year-round, introduces the players to some of the basic gameplay elements they will partake in and refine over the course of a few dozen hours. These include simple exploration and battles, which is the primary means of gameplay when you are not involved in a cutscene or exploring. Exploration is about what you would expect: players can go to ever corner of the map to look for hidden treasures, or more obvious ones like treasure chests, and also identify Discoveries, which are unique landmarks for each area in the game. You can think of the Discoveries as a collectible, and you can view your Discoveries from the Pause Menu.
Items that you find, purchase, or pick up from fallen enemies are stored for later use, either directly for things like healing or in alchemy. The alchemy element of Graces f is known as Dualizing. The idea is that you take two items and simply combine them to great a better item. You might find some rice and an egg, as a simple example, and make fried rice which gives you a little bit of HP. A variety of items ranging from the edible to the poisonous are yours to discover and use to improve weapons, sell to vendors, or dualize into other useful consumables. You can only Dualize in certain locations, usually shops, where you might also spend and earn some Gald, the currency in Graces f. Gald can be found by exploration and in defeating enemies.
The battle system in Graces f is perhaps the most detailed and important gameplay element of them all. Put simply, when you aren't running to your next objective, you are probably watching or tapping X through a cutscene. When you aren't doing either of those, there is a very a good chance you are in battle. The game wastes no time in beginning to introduce you to some of the mechanics of the battle system from the first few seconds of play. As you may already know, the battle system is based off of points instead of turns. Unlike single-use turn based games or other battle systems with firm "action point" limits, Graces f uses CC (Chain Combo). CC is a simple number that gives you an approximate idea of how many attacks you can perform. The relationship between number of attacks and the value of CC is not one to one, but it's fairly close. In other words, some attacks may take up more than one CC, so you will want to keep working to get CC back as you fight.
CC can be gotten from dealing damage, guarding, and evading enemy attacks. A quick step system, in which you hold Square and then move the left stick (took me a while to get comfortable with this) allows you to circle your targeted (use R1 and LS to switch) opponent in ninety degree motions. You can also zip straight in to close the gap, or, especially when being attacked with horizontal strikes, you can backstep to avoid taking a hit while simultaneously leaving your foe open to counterattack. Simply guarding by holding Square builds up CC as well. After the first five or six hours, when you reach "chapter two," the CC gauge becomes more important because you learn a new set of special moves known as Burst Artes. The default A-
Artes, or Assault Artes, are available from the start, but the Burst style is for more powerful and sweeping attacks. The addition of these not only adds a lot of enjoyment and strategy to the combat, but it does so at just the right time.
He makes a fine point.
Combat strategy is something players can really tinker with if they so choose. From within the Pause menu you can adjust how the CPU controlled characters behave in battle. Do they play it safe? Do they attack multiple foes or the one you are targeting? Do they heal others first, and battle second? You have the ability to adjust these settings on the fly, although for the first ten-plus hours you probably won't need to touch them. Additionally, while I only briefly tested this, up to three other local players can drop in/out to partake in battles. It's not a particularly engaging way to play, at least for your idle co-op friends who have to watch you get to the next battle, but this convenient "mode" makes more sense in tougher dungeons.
I've avoided saying much about the story thus far, and that's largely on purpose. While sporting some familiar themes in its tale, Graces f has done a solid job with its characters and story-telling. The idea of friendship is paramount to the storyline, as Asbel, Huebert, Sophie, Cheria, Richard, and others become involved in a powerful experience at a young age that shapes not only the characters themselves, but their relationships as they grow older. It's been very interesting to see the development and changes to these key characters from the first five or six hours of play, when they are all pre-teen, on into the young adult age. The changes are more than just cosmetic in terms of the voice-acting and appearance, they are in personality. I thought the Tales team did a very good job of making the opening act just the right length: not too short where players miss being invested with the characters, but not too long to where it becomes a chore to keep playing.
Graces f is in fact a lot of fun to play overall, but with some reservations. First, there are a lot of random battles, and these are always a nuisance to me no matter the game. You can do a lot to avoid these random battles by trying not to bump into the randomly spawned characters patrolling around in the game, but, if you don't fight them you can't get XP. At least these battles are made interesting by an engaging battle system, which at first just seems like a button-mashing mess, and also by the tech challenges that pop up as the battle begins. The challenges are simple in nature, but not always easy to execute. These include defeating all of the enemies in ten or twenty seconds, not sustaining any damage in the battle, killing two foes at once, those type of things. Successive battles will ratchet up the challenge even more, by saying reducing the kill-all timer from fifteen to twelve, then ten seconds. Each time you are successful, you net yourself and extra bonus in earned XP (known as SP) or some other welcomed gift.
Another gripe with the game is just its linear flow. You get this almost false sense of freedom in that much of the game-world seems accessible but it's not. When you are trying to take a path that does not relate to the current objective, Asbel is quick to tell you that you don't need to go this way, or you don't have time to do so. So, to really boil it down, short of spending time adjusting options and character sheets, you pretty much go from cutscene to traveling to battle in a circle. It can get repetitive, especially when you sometimes run and battle to a location only to engage in a brief cutscene and then have to back track all over again.
There is more to the battle system than I have made mention of thus far, including the meters for critical attacks and the Title system that Graces f features. The Titles system is kind of confusing at first, or at least it was for this JRPG-noob. Thankfully, a Library can be pulled up in the Pause Menu at any time to reference any of the tutorial messages or gameplay mechanics you might have a question about. In short, Titles are like templates that contain Artes, or skills, within them. These also take the place of attribute points, in that players do level up, but do not spend points on things like HP and skills when they do. Instead, you assign characters various Titles from the Pause Menu and use the skills that these provide. The more you use them the better they become, but these skills can be confining, so the game suggests that you simply get as many Titles as possible. I have some reservations, or perhaps anxiety, with that type of unguided freedom, not knowing if what I am spending my time on is going to bite me down the road, but thus far it hasn't caused any trouble.
The PS3 includes additional content not seen on the Japanese Wii release. I don't have a complete list, but additional costumes and Artes are apparently included, as well as the Lineage & Legacies epilogue which opens up at the end of the game (which I have yet to reach). The epilogue is supposed to add around ten hours of additional tough dungeon battles and new attacks. There is also a Trials of Graces mode that is available almost immediately from the main screen. Here, players can unlock and compete in twenty-seven battle trials. These trials are unlocked as you reach new character levels. In addition to supporting Leaderboards on the PSN, the Trials grant you certain inventory items, which you can see before partaking in the trial. The Trials are short and challenging, but will give skilled players even more to play.
Having been originally on the Wii, anyone used to high resolution, advanced graphics is likely to have some concerns over the presentation quality of Graces f. Fortunately, the Tales team did a very good job of bolstering the graphics with cell shading and great color usage. To be honest, I didn't even know this was a Wii port until hours after playing. I thought it was just a good looking PS3 game, with more to write home about in terms of the animation and artwork than of the technical features. Suffice it to say that the game is easy on the eyes and well animated. Voice-acting and effects are also very good; I was a bit surprised that no Japanese voice track was included, but that didn't takeaway much from the experience.