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In The Beginning…
The origin of the Tales franchise is a sad tale to be told. At first it was just a tale of one man’s creative vision for a franchise like any other. He had his friends and co-workers all backing him up and helping to create his masterpiece. But reality is a fickle beast and one that sometimes lashes out against ourselves and Yoshiharu Gotanda bore the brunt of that attack. His creation, ripped apart from the inside out by a company he had come to trust. His vision, twisted and contorted to fit other’s needs. His team, torn asunder by a company just hoping to turn a profit. Tales may have never been meant to become a franchise at first but Namco had different plans from the outset. A “normal” franchise that played it safe with a few quirks but an overall design that exuded conformity and unoriginality. A tale that drew too many inspirations from its peers, Tales of Phantasia was not the breakout hit that they had hoped for. In fact, it was all but a failure in their eyes when looking at their own success stories. Seeing as the franchise was theirs’s forever more, handing the reins over to the remnants of their iron fisted rule was just a whim on their part. These misfits could never pull anything spectacular together… right?
A New Destiny, A New Outlook
After Tales of Phantasia’s lukewarm reception, it seemed all hope was lost for the series as a franchise. However, the remnants of Wolf Team saw this as a chance for them to reinvent the wheel as it were and start fresh with nothing from the past hindering them in any way shape or form. Gotanda’s vision had been one thing, there’s would be entirely unique. But who would help move the series onward? Most of the members that made-up Wolf Team had already hightailed it to tri-Ace leaving a gaping hole within the developer but a few talented individuals were still around. Eiji Kikuchi continued his work as director, guiding the team through the development process. Motoi Sakuraba, while now being a freelancer, still persisted with his role as series composer, trying to bring even more iconic score to the table that could rival his previous work. Most interestingly enough, Kosuke Fujishima stepped down from his role as character designer to go work on Sega’s budding new franchise, Sakura Wars. To replace him they brought in Mutsumi Inomata, who would bring her own style and flair to the anime like designs that Fujishima had made popular. Without the series creator and visionary there was much work to be had but where to start? They could go the route that many of their contemporaries followed and make a sequel, continuing from where they left off. On the other hand, they could go the way that their biggest competitor, Final Fantasy, had taken; have each entry be their own unique experience unfettered by any overarching narrative between successive entries. This would allow an unbridled sense of creativity for the series, allowing them to envision worlds with new rules, characters, and monsters to fight. However, they weren’t ones to just copy what was popular at the time. No, they wanted to define their stories beyond the usual genre tropes and create complex and thought provoking narratives that challenged people at the core.
This creative bid of theirs would be called a characteristic genre, a unifying motif that would bind each and every one of their projects by a strict set of rules and serve as a running theme. A genre within a genre if you will. The characters that they would write into these stories were also bound by these innate characteristics, helping to depict what the writers are trying to say. To further flesh out their worlds every single story from then on would have a hidden narrative that would tell its own tale, coexistence. Basing this narrative on our own world, their worlds, would struggle with coexisting between different races, whether they be human or in-human. This underlying narrative would make the Tales franchise distinct among its many of its RPG brethren, one that could tell poignant stories that resonated with our own world. For their first project involving this genre dynamic it would have to be fitting for the position they were in, as it felt as if destiny had put them there. Given the characteristic genre that translates to Fateful RPG or, in other words, Destiny, it was up in the air as to what their true destiny was, whether it be success or failure.
Tales of Destiny
Working for two long years their efforts culminated in Tales of Destiny. Releasing in 1997 for the Sony PlayStation, Tales of Destiny bore a resemblance to Phantasia before it but in all other aspects it was its own beasts. Taking the idea of Fateful RPG to heart, Tales of Destiny tells the tale of country boy turned adventurer Stahn Aileron. Seeking fame and fortune he stows away on the flying ship Draconis only to be found out and forced to work as a deckhand. But when a hostile force attacks the ship, he’s freed and eventually stumbles into a storeroom where he finds a junk sword that turns out to be Dymlos, a sentient Swordian. Armed with Dymlos the two escape the ship hoping to find great riches and only end up stumbling into more Swordians and a battle for a relic of the Aeth’er Wars; the Eye of Atamoni. Wolf Team’s idea of a Fateful RPG worked well with their new story, defining the adventure and giving the series its own original voice. The preordained meetings between the characters and their Swordians were crucial to this as they pursued their own titular destines. And all the while the series running theme of discord between races was alive and well, grounding the tale to reality.
However, Tales of Destiny didn’t only have new challenges with the story but the gameplay as well. You were still forced to control the main protagonist, Stahn, all the time though because of the PlayStation you could now bring along your friends for four-player cooperative multiplayer, one of the first RPG’s to do so. For this feature and more the Linear Motion Battle System returned as the new and improved Enhanced Linear Motion Battle System. While the basics of linear movement remain the same, the arte range limitations are discarded, and an arte chaining system is put in place for all playable characters, allowing you to create combos akin to most fighting games. Spell casting was also updated, as magic requires a delay that increases with the complexity and potency of the spell being cast with the most basic ones having no delay at all. A streamlined system for sure, the Enhanced Linear Motion Battle System certainly took advantage of the power that the PlayStation contained with the rest of the game going the same way, alleviating some of the troubles that Tales of Phantasia once had. Exploration now took place on two types of maps, towns and dungeons, and the World Map. All towns and dungeons are represented by classic two-dimensional settings and sprites while the world map is rendered in the third dimension with unwalkable terrain such as mountains, pits, and oceans. When exploring the world map you might see a window in the bottom left corner of the screen. This is the Active Party Window. It serves as a way for characters to chat to each other and provide interactions between characters who would otherwise have no reason to speech with each other. The aforementioned short conversations would eventually lead to a feature that would become essential to the Tales of formula. As the cherry on top of all of this, Tales of Destiny was actually the first game in the series to receive an opening in classic anime fashion, done by the ever-famous Production I.G. of all people.
With its new story, characters, features, and improved gameplay, there was no doubting that Tales of Destiny could succeed where Tales of Phantasia did not. Doubling its sales numbers to an absolutely massive 830,000 copies, Tales of Destiny was the knockout that Tales of Phantasia was supposed to be. Lauded by the public and critics alike as a refined and well-crafted experience with even more impactful story to tell, it was undeniable that Tales was set to be one of the great franchises in the annals of gaming history. Success such as this had to be shared throughout the world and Namco sought to do just that. Not a year later in 1998, Tales of Destiny had been released globally in America and Europe alike to a very different reaction from the nations involved. It wasn’t beloved by all. To hardcore RPG fanatics it was a perfect balance of story and gameplay. To the general public, the audience that was sorely needed for the game to have any hope of succeeding, it was an oddity. While other franchises that came from Japan felt like they could fit in with almost any culture, Tales was distinctly Japanese in its own upbringing with Japanese style humor, anime designed characters, and a plethora of other things that just didn’t fit in with the norm. Anime had yet to make a significant impact abroad and the effects of this were showing. While the multiple localization teams tried their best to translate between the languages their efforts were in vain. Selling 200,000 copies, Tales of Destiny was a failure internationally and a victor at home. It seemed the world just wasn’t ready for Tales just yet. Unfortunately for them, however, they would miss out on the tale that started it all that was making its own comeback in a big way.
Tales of Phantasia, Reborn
Tales of Phantasia, the story that started it all, was filled to the brim with problems. An ok story with decent characters and some moral ambiguity thrown in, it was sort of a forgetful experience, a result of its own troubled development cycle. Those times were behind Wolf Team, however, and it seemed like the perfect time to correct their past mistakes. With the franchise’s new home being the PlayStation, the many improvements that had been made in the preceding years were implemented. Given the characteristic “Legendary RPG” genre, all of these enhancements would help to unearth the true version of Tales of Phantasia. An enhanced battle system courtesy of Tales of Destiny that allowed you to finally play as any character you wanted to. Remastered audio whose range far exceeded that of the Super Famicom. Player-friendly encounter rates that encouraged you to explore the vast world. The ability to cook meals using recipes found throughout the world. Titles that acted as in-game achievements of a sort. Graphical renovations and a wider color palette. A fully animated opening created by Production I.G. New content surrounding a tiny yet deadly ninja by the name of Suzu Fujibayashi, and more. This was just the tip of the iceberg however. The most important feature to the Tales series was finally introduced, skits. Popping up as you naturally continued the adventure, took on side quests, or fulfilled some requirement, skits are short little vignettes involving each of the main cast of characters. Ranging from insightful to downright hilarious these scenes give further insight into our heroes then anything the story could muster. You could learn some hidden secret about one of the characters or have a good laugh as they pick on each other. It made them feel like real people who had their own lives and personalities, like they weren’t just video game characters. Skits played an important role in humanizing the characters that you interact with over your journey, injecting them with a level of charisma rarely seen in games without it at the time. A remake that surpassed the original in every single facet, the definitive version of Tales of Phantasia was here, finally helping it to stand toe to toe with its successor. Boosting the entry’s complete sales to nearly 1 million, there was no doubt that this was a success.
An Iconic Franchise Solidified
But who would have thought that this was even a possibility years ago? The team had nearly collapsed due to a battle of wills between a company and a singular man with only a few of its star talents being left behind to pick up the pieces. But pick up those pieces they did, and what they would with them would be extraordinary. Turning failure into success, Wolf Team had codified the Tales of formula down to the letter. A tale of coexistence. A tale of destiny. A tale of the two intermingling with one another. And a battle system that would help to emphasize that point even further. It was certainly interesting to say the least. No one had expected this unprecedented victory from them and neither had they. However, here they stood a potential mega franchise in their hands and the rest of Japan looking toward them for the future of it all. Was an eternal and everlasting franchise awaiting them at the end of the rabbit hole or something much more sinister?