Last summer, after much research and poking around, I bought Tales of Vesperia, an action-RPG from publisher Namco Bandai. My reasoning behind the purchase was simple: I hadn’t played a traditional, non-Pokémon JRPG since I started Lunar 2: Eternal Blue two autumns ago, and wanted desperately to see if the current generation of consoles could hack a new, quality take on the genre. After six months of play, I’m still only eleven hours in, but the time I’ve spent so far has satisfied my craving for J-gaming experiences, and helps me remember why I love the genre in the first place.
My love for JRPGs began when I was much younger, after hearing one of my friends raving about Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Being a lover of all things Mario, I went out of my way to go to Hastings and rent the game, only to be incredibly perplexed by it when I got home. “Where’s the action?” I cried, confused at the isometric perspective used by the game. “Where are the Goombas? Why can’t I jump on anything? This is boring!”
After learning about the game’s mechanics and taking my time to look around, though, I found myself intrigued by this new way to play. The emphasis on talking and learning about the game’s story fascinated me, and I grew to appreciate roaming around the environments and exploring, chatting with townsfolk and discovering hidden treasures. If there’s one thing I love about JRPGs, it’s getting caught up in the game’s universe and imagining the world, places, and characters outside of the main storyline.
From what I’ve played so far, Tales of Vesperia does a good job of world-building, and, after a convoluted start, establishes itself as well as any other JRPG in my “favorites” pile. Vesperia follows Yuri, a cocky ex-soldier from the kingdom of Zaphias’ lower quarter. A magical object used to purify the quarter’s water is stolen, and Yuri must track down the thief before his home becomes unlivable. Along the way, he is joined by almost every hoary JRPG character cliché, including the Princess In Disguise, Mysterious Loaner, and Plucky Kid, though expressive voice-acting and pleasant, conversational writing help keep the eye-rolling to a minimum. While the story is somewhat familiar, at least in the early goings, Tales of Vesperia‘s world has an established and involved backstory, though the game never insists on too much lore. I’m enjoying discovering new towns, as well as each place’s role in the world—always a good sign when I’m playing a JRPG.
Probably my favorite aspect of the story, compared to other, more modern takes on the genre is how simple it is. Tales of Vesperia has a light, pleasant tone to it, and avoids feeling as laborious as seemingly every JRPG released after Final Fantasy VII, with main characters constantly plagued by self-doubt and dark secrets and blah blah blah. Vesperia realizes there will be plenty of time to fill in character details of Yuri and crew over the course of the game, and wisely avoids front-loading its cast with any heavy baggage at the outset. That’s not to say that that everyone is devoid of personality—they’re simply not over-encumbered by so-called “characterization.”
Another aspect of classic JRPGs I love is the combat. True, at its worst, JRPG combat boils down to staid menu selection screens, standing idly by and watching characters take turns hitting each other. Personally, though, I like the pacing change-up in JRPGs, and how different turn-based or active-time systems feel from other game mechanics. Plus, there’s something inherently satisfying about beating a monster about the face and watching the damage numbers pile up.
The Tales series has always eschewed turn-based battles in favor of real-time ones, and Vesperia is no different. Like past games, players control the party on a 2D plane, running back and forth whacking the crap out of enemies with weapons and casting spells called Artes. Vesperia follows the precedent set by the GameCube’s Tales of Symphonia and adds the option to run into and out of the background, changing the angle of the fight while still keeping it 2D. It’s faster than other JRPGs, and gets a bit button-mashy, but Vesperia‘s combat is still more leisurely than other action games, and feels like a welcome change of pace from so much shooting and frantic quick-time events.
In fact, this is my favorite aspect of JRPGs: they feel like a break from most other games. Sure, JPRGs have frustration points that other genres don’t (random battles, experience grinding, etc.), but the moment-to-moment gameplay often feels relaxing for me, like I’m playing the game to unwind, rather than to further tense up. My favorite JRPGs heavily focus on story, with a de-emphasis on gameplay, and I find the differences liberating.
Though it’s more action-packed than the likes of Final Fantasy VI, Tales of Vesperia hangs onto this leisurely feeling, with its tonally-light story and slower-paced gameplay. Indeed, when I first bought it back in July, I played it exclusively on weekend mornings to wake up, getting me acclimated and adjusted to the real world while I met new characters and learned new spells. Sure, that kind of pacing is a terrible way to expediently finish a game, but it’s my preferred method of play by a stretch.
So far, I’ve had a great time with Tales of Vesperia, which hangs on to my favorite JRPG tropes while still creating its own identity. Surely, my affection for the genre comes from a nostalgic place, but Vesperia manages to tap what I love about the genre so much, and for that I’m grateful. They say you can’t go home again, but with Tales of Vesperia, I always feel like I have a room at the inn.