Developed by Namco Tales Studio in its long-running Tales series, Tales of Vesperia takes place in Terca Lumireis, a world full of differing lands and cities which is dominated by monsters. The people of the world utilise (and indeed come to rely on) blastia - items created by the Krityan race - which can offer various benefits to people, such as increasing combat abilities, providing and regulating water, and providing barriers which prevent monsters from entering cities and other locations. These blastia are powered by aer, a substance of the world produced by springs called Aer Krene, which allow humans to utilise magic and blastia to function and perform the particular tasks they are created for. But in high densities aer can be dangerous to humans, and as the demand for more barriers and other types of blastia increases, so does the amount of aer (and thus aer krene) needed to power them which begins to strain Terca Lumireis and its environments. This fight for a balance between the world's need for new technologies and the damage that this demand creates is what the story of Tales of Vesperia is about.
Vesperia utilises a battle-system which would be described as real-time only that every battle goes through an initiation sequence and then you're given a certain enclosed area in which you can fight enemies, but once inside that everything is real-time. Combat consists of main physical attacks and the use of Artes which are in essence special moves but which differ from character to character. These artes can be learned from weapons and equipment and can then be assigned to specific inputs in order for easy usage during battle. Artes can range from defensive magic to physical combo attacks.
You can of course only control one character during battle, but each character offers players of all different types a different option. The protagonist, Yuri, specialises in strong physical attacks and little more, while other characters focus on different abilities such as attack magic, defensive magic, ranged physical attacks and mixing of physical attacks and magic. It's a pretty fun combat system which keeps you on your toes compared to the more simplified turn-based system still used in some modern JRPGs, and because of the variety of characters it never really gets old as you can keep switching to keep things fresh, and this makes grinding less of a tedious task and more an opportunity of a fun way of experimenting while still levelling up at the same time. There's also a pretty neat feature in that no matter who is or isn't in your active party, everyone receives XP for each completed battle which makes leaving out characters here and there an easier decision (and which itself encourages the player to try different characters and strategies). The only possible complaint that I might harbour over the combat system and levelling that goes along with it is that some boss battles can early on be a little tough, while later on as you begin to level up some become a little too easy (mind you some of the boss battles towards the end do change the pattern, and there's a good chance that I found some battles a little easy as I spent a lot of time exploring and therefore levelling up in-between missions). The general pacing of enemy levels and your own party's levels is very good, but just perhaps a little too good that unless you want to be overpowered for boss battles, you might not want to spend too long doing side-quests and exploring between main missions. Mind you most of the regular enemies you face are always a decent challenge especially as you head towards the end of the game, so perhaps I'm just over-thinking things.
One of the things that really surprised me about the game is the characters and character progression. Literally when I started the game and listened to the first lines in the initial scene, I said to myself "great, another typical JRPG with generic, bland voice-acting and annoying characters", but perhaps I was just being my usual cynical self because I was way off. Early on some of the voice-acting did irk me, but I'm not quite sure why because the majority of it is very impressive, and for almost all of the main characters of the game the voice-actors chosen did splendid jobs. All of the characters develop in their own way throughout the story (arguably one of the advantages of a more linear and story-based game in this genre) and have their own particular significance in the game, but they are all very different people and watching them interact with each other in their unique ways is one of the most engrossing things about Vesperia, as well as one of the more amusing things.
Not only this, but there's a certain mature theme about much of the story and the dialogue. There are tons of sexual innuendos used throughout the game (although most of these are more subtle than you'd expect) and interactions between the main characters of the game have a certain light-heartedness and are often genuinely humorous. Most of the interactions mentioned take the form of skits which show characters conversing about different things between travels and events, and it's a really nice way of revealing some of the back-story of the characters and extra bits of info about the world, as well as keeping the game's sprightly spirit and feeling alive even during those more serious moments. You get an extra insight into the minds of the cast away from much of the seriousness of the events tackling the world. It's extra little touches like this which continue to engage the player even more in the world of Terca Lumireis even when not in active missions, and which make the characters such a likeable bunch.
But wait, there's more! Tales of Vesperia is one of those games that manages to tell a lot of its story through small, short scenes and provides some of its most touching and inviting moments through scenes like these. More so, the world of the game portrayed through the eyes of the main bunch of characters adds to one of more interesting and intriguing features of Vesperia which is its social commentary. Right from the get-go you're thrown into a city which has some rather extreme differences within. There's the Lower Quarter in which much of the poorer community live, the Citizens Quarter which is where the centre of the city's activity is, and then there's the Royal Quarter for members of the upper class. Yuri, the protagonist, lives in the Lower Quarter and when he heads to the Royal Quarter in search of something all he comes across are haughty nobles who barely even wish to raise their eyes to a 'commoner' from such a 'dirty' place. That something which Yuri happens to be looking for is a blastia for the Lower Quarter's water fountain which has begun to overflow after someone stole the mentioned blastia when the people of the Lower Quarter raised money between them to make necessary repairs. Upon entering the Royal Quarter he can see that someone has taken some blastia from there too, but they've got so many there that they don't even notice it while the whole community of the other end of the city have to work together just to stop all of their houses from flooding. It's a very small example, especially when compared the vast amount of things the game alludes to in our world, but it's things like this that just add so much more to the story and to what Namco Tales Studio try to convey to the player throughout the game, and it was things like this that made me feel sucked into the world of Tales of Vesperia in just the first 2 hours I played of the game - and when have I ever been so immersed in a game and so invested in characters I have met so early on? Probably never.
Without attempting (or needing) to give much away, the story and general storytelling in Vesperia is very impressive and entertaining. As I was sceptical upon hearing the first few lines of dialogue in the game, I was also sceptical before I even put the game in of it being just another JRPG, one with the usual tropes and motifs which are found in the majority of games in this genre - a group of youngsters that are tied together and set out on a journey to save the world resulting in unbreakable bonds of friendship; black and white morality and in a fight between good (this means you) and evil; a maniacal madman that wishes to take control of the world that needs to be brought down, and so on. While Tales of Vesperia does use some of the conventional motifs found in JRPGs, it doesn't by any mean overuse them, nor does it rely on them in order to tell its story. At least from the JRPGs I have played up until this point, plot has rarely been of a particularly strong significance - it keeps the game moving of course, but the world, characters, battles and exploration are what keeps the player interested and what keeps them having fun. However this is where I was pleasantly surprised by Vesperia because it really has a fantastic, detailed and more importantly an engaging plot, and you can be sure that this is a title which received full attention on all points, rather than one which just pastes in something in order to keep the thread pulling along. The story continues to expand and change its focus throughout. and since Vesperia is actually a relatively linear title for an RPG you rarely feel like the story is stagnating. Yet even though its main story and your progression through the world can be a linear one, you're always given plenty of space and time to do your own thing in-between, and without feeling like it really intrudes upon the story (which I find is an important factor, I like to feel like what I'm doing within the bounds of the story has a natural flow to it).
As you progress through the game more locations and optional tasks become available to you and this is one of the things that gives the game its extra fun and openness. They're not all given to you at once so you end up with a massive backlog of things to complete together, but as you go through the main story and begin to complete optional quests, you'll begin to find more things opening themselves up to you. You can take on side-missions such as transporting items and solving mysteries of sorts (they're less derivative than they sound), there are various puzzles you can try to wrap your head around, you can participate in tournaments, there are secret monsters to find, you can play dice games... heck there's even a hidden city on its own full of games! Vesperia's world itself is pretty big and diverse and there are lots of places that you might pass by without noticing in your playthrough, but NPCs dotted around Terca Lumireis in various villages and towns can give you hints as to the whereabouts of some of these hidden-away places. There are deserts, forests, towns, cities, seas, dungeons, ports, towers, ruins - pretty much any sort of detailed location to explore that you can think of.
Vesperia has a pretty nice soundtrack too. It's not as impressive as that of say Lost Odyssey (mind you Lost Odyssey had an incredible soundtrack that any game would struggle to compete with) but its a solid soundtrack nonetheless. Vesperia uses multiple battle themes which change at different stages of the game so you don't get that typical feeling of "man I'm sick of hearing this crap" by the time you reach the end of the game, or when you've been grinding a lot. The more impressive tracks though are the more mellow and serene ones which tend to accompany some of the most charming scenes of the game, such as those of characters chatting to each other under nightfall as they take a rest before commencing travelling the next day. As opposed to what you may find in most games - characters constantly rushing from here to there to get everything done in limited time (even though you can actually take as much time between locations as you like) - Vesperia story paces itself well and doesn't use scenes solely to focus on big events and moments of the game. Many a time you'll get to a new town and some of your party will break away to do some shopping, others will head to an inn in order to take a rest until the next day, while you can do your own exploring and then reunite with everyone later on. It just gives the player an added opportunity to see what the characters are thinking away from all the hubbub of the world.
All in all Tales of Vesperia is a fantastic game and easily one of my most enjoyable experiences of this whole generation of gaming. Never in the game (as I tend to do at some point in JRPGs) did I become bored, or irritated with needing to grind, or did I feel that the game was just dragging on. Heck, this is perhaps the only JRPG I have ever played that, after putting so many hours into it, I wanted to do it all again. And I have already started to do so too - literally straight after finishing the game I jumped at the chance to start a new save, because I just did not want this game to ever end. Plus there's another cool feature where after you've finished the game and choose to begin a new save on Ex New Game, all of your battle grades from your first completion are tallied up, and you get that number of points and can choose from a variety of cheats for your new save to use (is there anything that Namco Tales actually forgot to put in this game?). It's probably been made clear from everything previous to and included in this section that I am in love with this game, and with good reasoning I believe (then again if I'm the one in love I would say that!). All jokes aside, Vesperia has such a diverse yet absorbing cast, the members of which play such a huge part in the fascinating story of the game. Many aspects of life (be them contradictions, or even just features of day to day living) are tackled and portrayed in such a refreshing way which fits well into Terca Lumireis and all of the events and lives of the people within its own world. I have rarely had such fun with a game almost every time I picked it up, and I'll hope to do it again.
The Tales games may be less recognizable than the Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games, but that doesn't mean that they aren't worth playing!