Tales of Symphonia is set in a world known as Sylvarant. Sylvarant is a planet in decline because mana – which brings life to the world – is drying up. This is a known phenomenon that happens every few years, and the only way to bring mana back to the world is for the ‘Chosen One' to go on a journey to regenerate the planet. The ‘Chosen One' is a quiet girl named Colette, and you begin the game with control of Colette, and her two friends Lloyd and Genis, who want to help her through her journey.
While the plot itself isn't groundbreaking, it does set the stage for a grand adventure, something the ‘Tales' series thrives on. It's also not quite as frivolous as it sounds, and as the bright visuals would lead you to believe, eventually tackling topics such as discrimination and racism.
Whether you try to avoid unnecessary fights, or rush headlong into battle at every opportunity, you're going to spend a lot of time on the battle screen in both Symphonia games. Once you run into an enemy on the field or area map, you're transported to the battle screen. Here your party faces off against a group of monsters in a wide open area. Unlike later games in the series (including the sequel), Tales of Symphonia doesn't let you run around the area in three dimensions. Instead you are restricted to moving in straight lines towards, or away from a monster. Surprisingly this doesn't compromise your enjoyment as much as you might think, and you'll get used to it in no time.
In battle you can string multiple normal attacks together with the ‘x' button, block by holding square, or launch special attacks, known as Techniques, with the circle button. Techniques require technique points (TP) to use, so you can't spam them relentlessly. It's also possible to launch monsters into the air and juggle them with standard attacks and Techniques, which is entertaining.
In Tales of Symphonia there are a wide range of strategies to choose from, so, for example, you should have no trouble getting your spell-casters to hang back out of harm's way, or getting your melee fighters to rush into the front line. Unfortunately there are far fewer strategies at your disposal in Dawn of the New World, and the game suffers for it.
As you damage monsters in battle the ‘Unison Gauge' fills up. When it is full you can launch, you guessed it, a Unison Attack on a specific monster. Unison Attacks let every one of your party members unleash one of their Techniques, at no TP cost, to deal major damage to an enemy. Certain combinations of attacks will also trigger a bonus attack that deals even more damage, so it's worth experimenting with different party members, and different Techniques.
Characters can also equip Ex-Gems, special gems that provide innate stat bonuses once they've been equipped. When you equip an Ex-Gem you get to choose one of four skills to keep. The skills you select will also have an effect on the Techniques each character learns, so you can use Ex-Gems to specialize your party however you like.
Most of the above information applies to both games in the Chronicles, but Dawn of the New World does have some gameplay mechanics unique to it, that are discussed here. Perhaps the most significant change is that there is no world map. Instead you select a location on the map, and you're almost instantly teleported there. In battle you can move around in three dimensions by holding down the square button, but any damage you take while doing this will result in a critical hit.
Another big change is the ability to make pacts with some of the monsters you defeat, the end result being that they join your party. These monsters level up just like your human characters, but they can also evolve into higher beings once they hit a certain level.
Ex-Gems are gone too. Instead you earn equip-able skills (that provide stat bonuses) as you level up. Each skill requires a certain number of skill points to equip, so sometimes you won't be able to equip all the skills you have due to a skill point shortage. There are some other changes too, but these are the most significant.
The beginning of Dawn of the New World has a cracking opening (we won't go into details here) where you can't wait to get into the storyline to see exactly what's going on, but it is filled with some of the worst characters I've ever listened to in an RPG. The first forty minutes of story involves your character, Emil, apologising, someone yelling at him for apologizing, then Emil apologizing again. Ugh! Your sidekick Marta is love-obsessed and cringe-worthy, and the awkward relationship between Emil and Marta is a tough slog. The game itself is ok, but the characters nearly kill it.
Another issue is that bosses can be huge difficulty spikes. Combat against normal enemies is a breeze, and you do so many of them that you go onto auto-pilot. Then you come up against a boss that can wipe your party out with a single hit if you're not paying attention. This is especially true in Dawn of the New World, where it's harder to get your party to act intelligently. The net result of this is you have to go back out and grind the hapless (and hopeless) monsters you've been crushing all game, to gain a few levels before coming back for another crack at the boss. The lack of a fast-travel system in Tales of Symphonia also hurts.
The sound is a mixed bag. In Tales of Symphonia the voice-acting is generally solid, but the music gets annoying quickly. The opposite is true in Dawn of the New World, which features much-improved music, but much less appealing voice-acting. That might be because the characters are so unlikeable though, rather than the acting itself. I'm no music connoisseur, but the fact I played much of the game muted suggests the sound isn't from the top-shelf.
Those last few paragraphs may make it sound like the Tales of Symphonia Chronicles are terrible, but that's not the case at all. Both games have an interesting story and enjoyable combat, as well as plenty of collectibles, and systems worth exploring (e.g. Unison Attacks, monster pacts and Ex-Gem combinations ). If you have the time to invest (it will take around 45 hours to complete), Tales of Symphonia is a thoughtful and enjoyable game. Dawn of the New World is fun to play, but you'll need cast-iron constitution to put up with the lead characters. Tales of Symphonia Chronicles won't win new fans to the RPG genre, but it still contains two good games at a cheap price, making it an easy sell to fans of the series and the younger RPG crowd.
Review By: Dave Warner