Future parents, when thinking of a name for your freshly born baby boy, please oh PLEASE don't call him Luke. It happened in Star Wars and it happens in Tales of the Abyss (~TotA). Luke (a.k.a. the main character in both stories) only comes across as the whiniest little bag of patheticness in existence, and both get the massive boot up their behind that they need to change at very different costs. In Tales of the Abyss, Luke fon Fabre, whose initial back story is basically along the lines of "was born, got kidnapped at 7 years old, was returned home and never allowed to leave" is our protagonist, 100% fulfilling the "Luke" stereotype that dearest Mr Lucas gave us in 1977. In the TotA world, The Score is the history of the future, and what is written there is believed to come to pass at some point. Faced with their fates supposedly set in stone, some of the population are content to let things happen the way they are written. Others, however, are not. And so an engaging and entertaining story enfolds.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the Tales Of games are stand-alone RPG action games, each with an individual and complex storyline linking and explaining the reasons behind the characters' journey from one city, town, village or dungeon to another. In Tales of the Abyss, the player mainly plays as the irritating Luke, although there are times when the party splits and another character must be controlled instead. The controls are as straightforward as one has come to expect of the Tales Of games. A is a standard attack and B is a special attack, both can be combined with a direction on the slide pad to execute a different attack. Y is used to guard, down and Y being a magic-specific guard. When held, the R shoulder button and the slide pad are used to select the currently targeted enemy. Independently, when held the L button enables "free run" mode so that the player can traverse the entire battlefield rather than being limited to just the linear 2 dimensional motion of the battle targeting. Free run can be very useful to dodge enemy attacks when they are highly directional in nature. There are four buttons on the 3DS touch screen which can also be configured to call forth a move from any of the party characters currently battling. This does not negate the amount of time it takes to chant a spell-based attack or support move, still leaving the character vulnerable.
There is the Auto-battle option if the player is content to just watch as their minions duke it out with whatever enemies they are engaging. Much better than dozing off while playing! The AI used for the characters is actually quite intelligent, using whatever moves it thinks are best, using healing items at the right time and generally behaving like a seasoned player would. The player is quite safe to leave it to deal with most enemies, including some of the tougher ones. It would, however, be advised to take over control when faced with a big boss-type character in battle. The Bosses are tough but beatable, with the player the one who needs to decide how much they need to level their characters up in an area before proceeding any further. The choice of which four of the six playable characters has a huge effect on the success/failure of a battle.
Dungeon design is more than adequate - though a challenge of patience at times for sure. Backtracking is not a necessity, but there are many confusing areas where the wrong route is the easiest to take; enough to tax, but not enough to frustrate. The scenery is a pretty backdrop to what takes place, ranging from lush, green forests to dusty desert sand dunes. The 3D effects for these areas are the best use of the technology in the game. Luke and his companions are quite well detailed, despite the jagged edges due to the combination of the limitations of the 3DSs screen and the 3D effect. Their motion in and out of battle is smooth and natural, with the Japanese voices actors doing their usual stand up job of portraying their respective characters (no comment on the English language version at the time of writing). Mid-game cutscenes are all fully animated and look like the were lifted straight from the 2008 anime series.
How accessible is the Japanese version to non-Japanese speakers? This is a bit of a moot point with the English version released on November 25th 2011 in Europe and scheduled for February 14th 2012 in North America. However, for those who still prefer to import, it'll be unlikely that they will follow much of the story without having a better than decent grasp of Japanese, previously playing the PS2 version, having watched a translation of the anime series, or playing and reading a story guide at the same time. The "talking heads" chat scenes that pop up every town/village or event (press Start when some text appears at the bottom of the main screen) take up a fair portion of the non-battling playtime, and the conversations may prove difficult to follow to many. The menu systems, equipment screens, etc. are easy enough to navigate, and with a little trial and error should prove no hassle in no time at all.
Overall, Tales of the Abyss is simple enough to play, has plenty of save points, and is great to play in either quick bursts or in long sessions, 3DS battery life notwithstanding. If the literal rough edges can be ignored there is more than enough content to keep the player occupied for well over 40 hours, which at no point comes across as a chore.
The verdict: 7/10
+ Fun and challenging battles and puzzles.
+ Excellent scripting and voice acting.
+ Decent AI.
- 3D jaggie heaven.
- Battles can be a little repetitive.
JPN version reviewed.