What was once an obscure Japanese RPG is becoming the busiest series in the genre. After Tales of Symphonia on GameCube, we were recently treated to Tales of Legendia on the PS2. Digging back into the archives, Phantasia originally released on both the SNES and PS on that crazy little island where panties come in vending machines and Itagaki reigns supreme. In porting it to the GBA, however, Namco forgot that RPG fans have come to expect a little more from their games — especially on a hit-packed platform like the Game Boy.
Tales of Phantasia‘s story immediately draws sympathy for the main character, Cress — and not just because his name sounds like a brand of toothpaste. Within the first thirty minutes or so of gameplay, your parents have been slaughtered, your town decimated, and your only living kin has sold you down the river. Making things worse, the mysterious pennant you’ve worn as long as you can remember is actually containing a great evil, and it’s been stolen by the bad guys.
You really feel for the poor guy, and his co-stars are equally downtrodden. The plot is easily the best thing about Phantasia, and it may keep you interested when other elements of the game have failed you. However, even it isn’t infallible. For example, it advances at a pretty slow pace, and figuring out where to go next isn’t exactly easy to do. Wandering around aimlessly while being mercilessly attacked by random-encounter beasts isn’t my idea of a good time.
Speaking of attacks, Phantasia‘s combat stays true to the Tales legacy. By that I mean you engage in side-scrolling battles where you’re given a good amount of control. You’re in Cress’ shoes, but it’s also possible to command your allies for things like skill and item usage. It’s probably due to the older nature of this game, but fighting isn’t as fun as it’s been in the more current entries in the series. There aren’t too many combos, enemies cause a disproportionate amount of damage, and if your party gets surrounded, you might as well kiss your pixelated butt good-bye.
Things like cooking and character titles attempt to bring some life to the game, but I was unenthused by them. With the high difficulty and rarity or high cost of useful items, Phantasia becomes a level-up grind, plain and simple. That may have flown on the Super Famicom back in the day, but — wait a minute! That didn’t even fly back then, so there’s no excuse. I want clever dialogue, but instead get ill-timed and ill-advised comic relief. I want compelling side quests or mini-games, but am treated to a blind stumble for the next plot device.
Both the graphics and sound in Tales of Phantasia have their moments. The intro alone exhibits a high degree of both digitized voice and mode 7 scaling — that lovely 16-bit eye candy that still endears me to this day. Extended play tells a different story, however. It’s like trying to watch a movie on a worn-out, bootleg VHS tape. The colors are faded and the sound is grainy. Usually, you expect GBA ports to look and sound better than their old-school originals; but that’s not the case here.
I don’t blame Namco for porting this title over to GBA. After all, most any 16-bit RPG is welcome. What I have issue with is the lack of updating that’s been done. Just because Tales is all the rage at the moment doesn’t mean you can ignore key elements in this conversion. Look at FF IV Advance: it was a much better game to begin with and received a lot more adaptation in its new portable life. Tales of Phantasia ends up looking like a fossil — and not one of the cool ones with spikes and sharp teeth. More like a fern or insect, existing mostly to study the past and gauge evolution. RPGs have evolved far beyond this port.