In The Beginning…
The Tales series had a rough first outing to say the least. What started off as a single creator’s unbridled vision of a new and exciting fantasy tale turned into something less so. His decision-making was stripped away slowly with calculated precision, his story changed to fit with the times, the art discarded and replaced with something more attuned to the popular culture of the time, and finally the creator himself leaving because he couldn’t bear to deal with it all. Such drastic changes would spell doom for any budding franchise but Tales was unique in that regard. Against it all Tales of Phantasia exploded onto the gaming scene as a breath of fresh for a genre whose conventions had become all but commonplace. Somehow the collective efforts of Wolf Team had shown through, proving that there was something interesting about their fledgling tale. Through their many successive entries in Tales of Destiny and Eternia their style and voice became more profound and refined to a tee. But how long could they keep this up for? If they stuck close to their roots would they ever exceed what they had already accomplished? What tales would they explore next?
Tales of Phantasia: Nakiri Dungeon
With Tales of Eternia’s very many successes and failures some things had made clear. While their storytelling and gameplay mechanics had only become more polished overtime the overall look and appeal of the series in terms of the entire video gaming industry was outdated. Popular franchises such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were just some of the few who were just taking their strides into the realm of 3D gaming. Everyone wanted to be part of gaming’s latest fad, both developers and players alike, and those who wouldn’t join in were bound to be left in the dust. Another problem they were facing was the series unmistakable anime influences. Whereas that style of art was eminently familiar to Tale’s original audiences, if it ever hoped to become one of the greats it would have to let go of the genre’s trappings. Anime hadn’t truly latched on to the popular mindset in the west so something that looked so foreign just wasn’t an enticing notion for anyone at the time. A great many changes were in order.
A good year was needed for Namco and Wolf Team to iron out the kinks in their plan. In the meantime, they needed a good side project to keep themselves at ease. And so, the first spin off the Tales series was born and unlike other major franchises it would crafted by Wolf Team themselves. Tales of Phantasia: Nakiri Dungeon, releasing on November 10th, 2000 for the Gameboy Color, was their opening foray into the handheld market. An unlikely sequel to Tales of Phantasia, Nakiri Dungeon follows two children, Mel and Dio, hundreds of years after the events of the original. In a generally nonsensical plot the two meet a winged woman who leads them to a mystical tower home to a now 223-year-old Arche who then engineers a test that has them traveling through all of time, meeting past Tales characters, and messing around with time a bit. But in its own ways it had an interesting plot as well with the moral ambiguity that had defined the series being ever present. However, fitting such a massive experience into a handheld console had to come with some limitations, right?
The series iconic realtime battle system was something that couldn’t be fit onto a handheld console so some sacrifices had to be made. The Petit LMBS was the result of this deviance from the norm, a standard turn based variation of past systems. Players still only controlled a single character, casting spells and attacking foes, while the rest of your party moved on their own. While many of the classic Tales of Phantasia characters were integral to story your only party, members were Mel, Dio, and a creature named Kruelle. You see Kruelle was what made the gameplay… unique. Based on its mood or power level, Kruelle would change its appearance morphing into various monsters as the story went on. From a cuddled critter to a ferocious beast, it would continue to grow as our heroes did the same. What could have just been another rushed out mess of a side project like so many others actually turned out to be something more, something worthy of the Tales Of name and as a continuation of Tales of Phantasia. In the grand scheme of things though, it was a stop gap, a time-waster that let Namco bide their time until they figured out what they truly wanted to do with the franchise.
Team Destiny and Team Symphonia
And that decision wasn’t easy or, perhaps, it had been in the eyes of the executives at Namco. To keep old fans happy while expanding the series horizons the development staff would be split in two, Team Destiny and Team Symphonia. Team Destiny would continue to provide the series classic 2D offerings while Team Symphonia would blaze new trails into the 3D realm of gaming that so many studios had already switched to. As for the staff that would run this pair of teams the majority of the franchise’s veterans would make up the formation of Team Destiny while many newcomers were brought in to helm Team Symphonia, as people who were familiar with 3D design were needed. Both would have several key figures such as Motoi Sakuraba, Eiji Kikuchi, and producer Makoto Yoshizumi to guide projects with their various levels of experience but, for the most part, each was left to their own devices; separated from one another. Whether this would bode well for the series was anyone’s guess.
A Guided Destiny
Still, someone had to take the first step and Team Destiny were more than happy enough to oblige. At the time, they were already in the preplanning stages of a new project titled Tales of X (Cross) but they had yet to determine what it would end up being about. Should they continue in the same direction they’ve been going in for the past five years, creating new stories that are unconnected between each other? Or was it a safer, and possibly more interesting, bet to continue one of their stories from where they had left off? In the end, they decided to go for the later not for business related reasons but artistic ones. Out of all the worlds they had created the world of Tales of Destiny intrigued them the most. Vast amounts of in-game lore were written in preparation for that titles creation and the story possibilities, to them, were endless. Marked as the first direct sequel in the Tales series and a departure from much of what the JRPG genre was known for, Tales of Destiny 2 was going to be something much different from what fans expected of a sequel. Its plot, written by Japanese scenario company Gekko, would follow a new generation of heroes, lead by the child of the original protagonist Stahn Aileron, giving old fans a continuation to the original story while letting newcomers enjoy it as a standalone title. Given the moniker of “Liberating Fate RPG”, Tales of Destiny’s core theme of fate was still at the forefront albeit instead of being pulled together by fate the heroes would fight against it, all to prove that one’s life isn’t so predetermined. This is what drove the story forward to new and exciting places but what kept it grounded were its inspirations. A balance of reality and fantasy with some time traveling thrown in for good measure, the writers at Gekko drew in many elements from a variety of sources such as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises to craft their own experience. The idea of the hero’s journey and, more specifically, a master and apprentice were just some of their thematic choices.
The concepts behind Tales of Destiny 2 were slowly, but surely, beginning to take shape but how was the game itself faring? For its design, Team Destiny’s Mutsumi Inomata was still up to the task. As many of the characters came from different time period, each was given a unique look with that in mind. Translating Inomata’s art style had always been a long and arduous process. The creative team had always painstakingly recreated her designs with classic 16-bit graphics which, in turn, caused development time to lengthen considerably. To make the character sprites as close as possible to the original artwork as possible, the team took Inomata’s artwork and turned them into 2D “dot-by-dot” sprite pictures. This gave the sprites roughly four times the resolution of most environments, making their overworld and battle animations more fluid and detailed. This detail extended into the world itself as Team Destiny built the setting from the ground up with these designs, crafting a world that seemingly leaped from the pages of Inomata’s concept art. But what’s a game without its music? Of course, the dynamic duo of Motoi Sakuraba and Shinji Tamura would reprise their roles continuing to create more iconic music for the series. Sakuraba primarily worked on the battle themes and arrangements of previous themes, while Tamura handled selected boss battle tracks and created one of the main character’s themes. With the advent of the PlayStation 2, Tales of Destiny 2’s console of choice, the two could add more tracks than they’ve ever created before with enhanced depth in the musical score to match. Team Destiny’s first project was shaping up to be something new yet classic in its own right. While the vast majority of franchises of the day were fully switching over to 3D graphics, Tales of Destiny 2 was bucking this new trend all because of the development teams goal, to create the ultimate 2D RPG. They weren’t looking to be one with the times, they sought pure perfection, and Tales of Destiny 2 was the right tool for the job.
Tales of Destiny 2
Releasing on November 28th, 2002, Tales of Destiny 2 took the setting and story established in its predecessor towards new and exciting directions. The plot all rests on the shoulders of Kyle Dunamis, Stahn and Rutee’s son. Living at the Dunamis orphanage, Kyle is always one to seek out adventure, wishing to be the hero that Stahn became so many years ago. When the orphanage is just on the verge of bankruptcy, Kyle and his best friend Loni head out in search of funds only to happen upon a mysterious and giant lens, one of the main power sources of this world. From this lens emerges a peculiar girl named Reala who claims that she’s in need of a hero, one who can save humanity from its own darkness and bring about eternal happiness for all. Believing that he’s destined to be the very hero she seeks, Kyle heads with Reala on a journey to save the world. At the same time Elrane, the leader of the religious Order of Atamoni, is trying to find a different way to achieve humanity’s eternal happiness through more magical means. Their two conflicting ideologies are what drive the story forward, resulting in battle after battle and a trip through the past of the world itself. Throughout it all Kyle’s heroes journey is what grounds Tales of Destiny 2, and under the tutelage of the mysterious swordsman Judas, he finds out what it truly means to be hero. With a cast of characters as if not more memorable then the original Tales of Destiny, and a message that anyone can relate to, this sequel was truly a worthy successor to its predecessor in nearly every way conceivable. This truly shows in the utterly masterful battle system Team Destiny had crafted.
Waste-free and strategic, these were the design philosophies that defined Tales of Destiny 2’s iteration of the series classic gameplay, the Trust and Tactical Linear Motion Battle System. Removing any excess gameplay elements that either water downed the experience or overcomplicated things were crucial improvements that had to be made. Small touches such as zooming in during close combat or out depending on how far a character is from an opponent added a cinematic edge to the gameplay, incorporating some intensity into the battle system that it just didn’t have before. Alongside this, the player’s tactical options were given an extensive upgrade. Meant to encourage coordination and tactical thinking with your party members, this new version of the Linear Motion Battle System was very distinct from the rest. With the introduction of the spirits system this changed things. Doing anything from swinging a sword to performing an arte decreases the amount of spirit energy a character has. Use it enough and you can’t even fight back, forcing you to either stand still or guard to recharge the gauge. On top of all that there’s even a penalty if you move too far into the enemy’s side of the field, making charging in all guns a blazing not the most viable of options. Thankfully enough every character gets to use some form of magic or another. While the males are primarily the fighters of the group and the females make up the mages each can change their roles on the fly for any given occasion, supporting multiple playstyles. Enchantments were also a first for Tales of Destiny 2. Abilities that could further enhance a character’s normal artes, enchants were rather unique. Presented as either passive or action based ones, their benefits could be as simple as reducing the cost of TP, lengthening a certain arte, or letting the player cancel into a new one at the cost of some SP. This added a further layer of customization to the battle system, inviting players to create insane combo strings and find inventive uses for the various artes and spells. As a reward for how well you used the tools of the trade, a small amount of Grade is given at the end of each battle. If your party was on the brink of death for the majority of the fight you could even get negative Grade hurting your chances of getting some cool bonuses. These bonuses came in the form of New Game Plus where you can use Grade to purchase cheat codes essentially. Retaining your enchantments, artes, titles, and even increasing the amount of experience you gain to ludicrous levels were all attainable to make the next playthrough all the more easier and reach the most sought after level 200. Many of these new features could be seen as hindrances to the Tales of formula, turning an otherwise beat em’ up style RPG into something else entirely. Battles had been simple, easy affairs that required some forethought but lacked true depth, Tales of Destiny 2 had set out to fix that dilemma. With a vast array of options and the ability to truly play however you wanted to, the Trust and Tactical Linear Motion Battle System was truly the pinnacle of the system that had come to define the series from the beginning. Time and time again, the developers at Wolf Team somehow cranked out an even better version of their battle system and Tales of Destiny 2 was no different.
The same goes for the rest of the gameplay. Using the same sprite based graphics from Tales of Eternia and 3D models for its overworld, the game’s design was a mix of both the new and the old. As you traversed the 3D landscape and the immaculately crafted towns and dungeons you of course come across the Tales series second essential feature, skits. Instead of the portraits that had defined the delightful and hilarious conversations for years each character is presented with their full frame art and a range of expressions that just weren’t possible before then. What had once been short interludes in between the main story were slowly turning into extensive tales in their own right, delving deeper into the character’s mindsets and bring the comedy to a fever pitch.
The Ultimate 2D RPG
But how did this supposed “ultimate 2D RPG” shape up in the end? Quite well actually. Selling over 700,000 units across its lifespan and nearly eclipsing Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire during its launch window, Tales of Destiny 2 was yet another success story for Namco and Wolf Team, and it was a sequel no less. A critical darling and a chart topper in the making, Tales was still on its winning streak and there were no signs of stopping. No signs in Japan that is. Outside of the country, and a few select Asian markets, the title was nowhere to be seen. An innumerable number of factors. The Tales series was a lackluster seller outside of its home country. Panned by critics around the globe, deemed unworthy due to its anime trappings, and with little to no marketing from Namco itself, in hindsight Tales was doomed from the start. 2D RPG’s were also on the decline outside of Japan with players demanding extravagant 3D graphics and highly detailed worlds that pushed their consoles to the limit. On top of this Tales of Destiny 2 already existed… as Tales of Eternia and with that titles poor sales the confusion that would inevitably occur was unnecessary in their eyes. So, it stayed a Japanese only title, the first in years, and the sign of a trend to come. Even if the rest of the world could never experience it Japan knew what they had on their hands. A masterfully crafted experience that draws the player in with a story that is original yet very much inspired from popular works of the time, memorable characters which drive the plot forward in interesting and sometimes hilarious ways, and a battle system that drew the line between simplicity and complexity with layers upon layers of customizability, made Tales of Destiny 2 what it is, a classic and a worthy successor to the mantle that the original had maintained. Still, it felt that Wolf Team hadn’t fully reached their true potential. For years, they had been trying to reach the peak of perfection and they were oh so close to obtaining it. They just needed one last push to make it there.