Tales of Symphonia is one of the Gamecube’s greatest RPGs. I only got around to finishing it a couple of months ago at the urging of several friends. I was further encouraged to play through it by the impending release of its sequel, Dawn of the New World. Unfortunately, DotNW does not live up to its predecessor’s legacy and instead spends much of the time in its shadow.
Some of this is inevitable. Tales of Symphonia ends with the merger of two worlds, and much of the sequel deals with what happens afterward. The two lands of Sylvarant and Tethe’alla do not really get along, and bizarre weather events trouble the entire world. A lot of blame is naturally cast at the heroes of the first game. Lloyd, in particular, seems to have gone off the deep end as he instigates a massacre of a town during the game’s beginning.
Much of DotNW is spent traveling the world, usually with one or two of the original ToS heroes. Very few of the dungeons are entirely new, and many of them are the old summon-spirit dungeons from ToS1 with an additional gimmicky puzzle. In a bizarre streak of insanity, one of the more painful dungeons from the first game is rehashed almost exactly in this one.
If the rehashes weren’t enough to convince you that this is a game made exclusively for fans of the first game, you naturally meet every single character from ToS1. In fact, if you bother to try counting… there are only two fewer recurring Tales of Symphonia characters that join your party at some point in DotNW than there are new characters in all of DotNW.
That includes the villains, a subset with three throwaway characters that have about 5 lines of dialogue each. Granted, ToS1 had a really colorful cast that I enjoyed a lot. But DotNW just doesn’t stand on its own very well.
The new characters are done well enough. The hero, Emil, is an absolute pansy for the first hour or so of the game. He gradually makes his way from pacifist to hero and, although in the early game he is painful to watch, he becomes a pretty likable character. Marta, the spunky young girl he is tasked to guard, tends to protect him more often than not.
Neither character feels particularly original, but neither is unbearable. The new villains are somewhat more enjoyable. Even if a couple are borderline insane, they’re pretty fun to see throughout the game and break up the somewhat monotonous feel.
Some parts of DotNW feel poorly written or translated. The first hour contains no fewer than four flashbacks to one of the first scenes in the game, and an especially atrocious line (“Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality”) is repeated throughout the game. Although DotNW repeats cheesy lines less than say, Wild Arms V, I couldn’t avoid cringing a bit each time I heard it. Once you reach the later chapters, the narrative picks up a bit and you finally solve the mysteries posed in the early game (as usual).
There is one significant improvement over Dawn of the New World’s predecessor. The “skits” in the first game – special conversations between characters you could trigger throughout the game – were bland and moved slowly. In DotNW, they are not only much faster paced, but they are voiced. The acting is actually much better than any of the normal in-game acting, and there are more varied and better-drawn character expressions. Interaction between party members are enjoyable and occasionally touching, and many of the recurring characters are better fleshed out via the skits as well.
The recipe for a Dawn of the New World chapter is: One new town, one previously-unseen Tales of Symphonia character, one cup of unavoidable enemy encounters, and one new elemental core. Stir, then add a dash of mysterious backstory for Emil and Marta. Bake at 250 degrees for roughly 12 months then throw onto store shelves hoping RPG starved Wii owners will bite.
Not all chapters are exactly like that, but several are, and it makes the game pretty bland. Although ToS1 also did the whole find-the-elemental-spirits thing, at least it broke things up better with events at the various Human Ranches and other odd things the party would dig into for no good reason. Another notch in ToS1’s favor is that battles were really fun, so I was fine with things being a bit repetitive.
Unfortunately, DotNW kills the fun from the combat system of ToS1. Although the basic system is the same – using an enemy as a 2-dimensional field of reference in a 3-d battle – many small changes were made that make combat downright annoying.
Range for attacks is much shorter, to the point where despite being right next to the enemy you can still miss. Most of Emil’s special moves either do less damage than normal attacks or miss monsters half the time. Many monsters simply “resist” half of attacks, so although they take full damage they do not “wince.” This means that monsters can often run around or attack while you’re actively hitting them. Your character, of course, cannot do the same (unless you find the materials to craft some really hefty late-game armor), so if you’re under attack by two enemies at once you might as well just block and hope for rescue from an ally.
Even more painful, ally AI is worse than in ToS1. You generally have four AI options which differ for each character, and none are useful at all. Even the options that tell characters to save their TP exclude healing specifically. In one particularly nasty loophole, a character would endlessly spam an expensive move because it healed the entire party for a very small amount.
The one redeeming factor of ToS2’s combat is the monster raising system. Early in the game, you can start recruiting monsters. Although poorly explained, with random luck (or by figuring out how to fill the elemental field) you can recruit monsters without too much trouble. Once you have them, you cook food for them to increase their stats.
By about 10 hours into the game, your monsters will have much better stats than your normal party, and will pretty much carry you through the tougher fights. There’s not really enough depth in the monster system to merit too much tinkering with it, but it is a little more interesting than the static regular characters.
It looks like I’m left still waiting for a great Wii RPG. I can’t really recommend Dawn of the New World to anyone but the most hardcore fans of ToS1 at full price. It’s not like it’s an especially bad game, or anything… it’s not great, but it suffers from being an inferior sequel, and I can’t help but compare it unfavorably to the first game. Once I reached the halfway point, enough of the plot had hooks in me to get me to finish it, but up until that point I could’ve stopped without many regrets.