There's an increasingly forboding sense that Tales of Symphonia is going to crash at retail. PALGN hopes it's wrong, but with the game relegated to a single television screen in an obscure corner of Nintendo's Game Stars Live display, it would have been too easy for less attentive showgoers to miss Namco's Gamecube-exclusive gem. A brief session (OK, about forty minutes - almost depressingly, noone else showed any interest in interrupting PALGN) reveals something that more clued-up gamers will already know: that this is a game that deserves to shift considerably more units than many of the titles that sit in the best-seller charts.
The game's visuals alone make an immediate impression. If The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker took cel-shading to a new level on this generation of consoles, Tales pushes it all the way for top spot, with it's lush, primary colours recalling the likes of Skies of Arcadia. And whereas cel-shading in other games can feel like an ill-advised design choice, the cel-shading here works beautifully, imbuing the game with a style that's absolutely fitting. The cut-scenes are similarly well-handled, though the manga style excerpts - and let it be said that PALGN has nothing against manga - feel a little misjudged amongst the splendid cel-shaded seqeunces.
As is traditional in the Tales series, battles are active, realtime affairs, meaning the player can take control of a specific character in their party, whilst the rest of your colleagues fight their own way through each encounter. The game can actually accomodate four human players, though the booth at the show regrettably only allowed for a maximum of two, a missed opportunity if you ask PALGN. Leaving the rest of your party in the hands of the game hardly detracts from the experience though, with battles a thrilling and visually arresting sight as your allies stab, leap and block attacks in realtime. It's not as though they're entirely beyond your control either - it appears the solo player is given command over battle tactics, with unison attacks, elemental resistance and power-up attacks to consider. If you've played the excellent Grandia II, you'll know what to expect.
Like that title, there's no random battles in Tales, with monsters freely roaming about on the brightly coloured maps, giving the player the option to either avoid or initiate encounters. It's a vast relief after the stop-start nature of the Gamecube's only other great RPG, the aforementioned Skies of Arcadia. There's some highly original touches as well that successfully link combat to puzzles facing the player in the game - one early encounter in the opening dungeon saw PALGN tackling a swarm of rock monsters that turn into stone blocks when defeated. In turn, these rocks can then be pushed into place to make walkways, giving access to new areas of the game world.
All of which sounds hugely promising, and whilst the characters appear to be rather lazily drawn from stock RPG clichÃ©s (not to mention the 'quest-in-peril' storyline), when the final product feels as downright polished and as streamlined as Tales of Symphonia, complaining feels rather capricious. Naturally, what's written here are merely the first impressions garnered from a brief spurt of play, and such a short-lived session could never be used to fairly judge the merits of any game. It means that PALGN will just have to wait to see whether or not the story, dialogue, character development and English translation can match up to the high standards witnessed so far from the title. And for that purpose, you can expect a review in the coming month.