Tales of Abyss
Tales of Abyss is an excellent RPG that tells an engaging story, develops complex characters and presents mature discussions about identity and free will. Its combat system may be too simple for its own good, but the quality of the narrative makes up for any shortcomings in the gameplay department.
The protagonist of the game is a young man named Luke, the nephew of a king, who had to grow up locked away in a mansion after he was rescued from a kidnapping seven years before the events of the game, when he was just a child – a traumatic event that erased all his memories of his earlier years. With no contact with the outside world, living a good, but boring life, Luke eventually becomes a spoiled, entitled boy. His only friends are his young servant Guy, and his master of swordplay, Van. One day, however, when he’s training with them, a woman manages to sneak into the mansion and make an attempt on Van’s life. Luke tries to defend his master from the woman, but ends up triggering a magical effect that sends both of them to another land. Lost and with no clue of how the world works, he sees himself having to work with the same woman who tried to murder his master if he wants to have any chance get back home.
Luke is a very complex protagonist, serving a lot of narrative purposes and undergoing a good amount of character growth. He initially acts like a spoiled brat, who wants everyone to serve him, and who spills toxic masculinity whenever he has the chance. Therefore, his journey with that strange woman, named Tear, will eventually mold him into a better person. But that is just scratching the surface of his narrative arc.
Let’s start with the easy part. His lack of knowledge of the world, for example, serves three main purposes. It primarily works as an easy way of contextualizing exposition: since Luke doesn’t know stuff, people have to explain the lore of the universe to him – and thus to the player – all the time (“Lorelei? Isofons? Fonon Frequencies? What the heck are you talking about?”). This sometimes can seem a bit forced, though: it is one thing to lack specific knowledge, another entirely to not know anything about his own world – after all, did he not get a proper education in the mansion? But it can also lead to funny and revealing moments, as when he clearly demonstrates he doesn’t have any social skills, showing his entitled side by telling a random villager, for example, “You’re dismissed” after just asking a question. And finally, it serves to picture him as a bit naïve, which helps mitigate any antipathy the player may harbor against him: he is unbearable, there is no doubt, but is that his fault? Did Luke have a chance to become someone else with the secluded life that their parents made him have?
His naivety has another good consequence. It’s easy to dismiss Luke as a complete douchebag at the beginning of the game, since he’s bossy and full of male pride, but he can also show more empathy than his friends precisely due to being naïve: Tear may be the kindest person in Luke’s group – she not only puts up with him, but also cares for him even by having nothing to gain from it –, but she still kills her enemies without thinking twice. She is sad that she has to do it, but sees their death as “how the world works.” Luke doesn’t know that world and, therefore, refuses to accept that as the truth: for him, human life is invaluable and should be protected at all costs – even the lives of his opponents.
Luke’s main personality problems can be easily spotted. He’s entitled due to his social status and to having most things delivered to him when he wanted them – besides freedom, of course. But combining entitlement to being a man is a dangerous mixture. It’s no surprise, then, that Luke constantly shows signs of toxic masculinity: he has a problem with the voice of his bunny-like friend named Mew precisely because it’s feminine, calling it annoying all the time, and diminishing Mew in the process; he has competitive issues with other men, with the need to be ever stronger and the dominant one; and he also feels he has to suppress all his feelings, lest he be deemed weak – especially if he’s near a woman, like Tear. For Luke, men don’t cry, men endure and fight.
His journey doesn’t seem to change him at first, though. He finds many friends, besides Tear and Guy, like the aforementioned Mew, princess Natalia, the Colonel Jade Curtiss, and the girl Elise. However, just living with people better than him doesn’t automatically make him better person. On the contrary, being constantly contrasted to them appears to bring out what there is of worst in Luke, who gradually becomes more and more insufferable. Tales of Abyss shows that to break entitlement you have to also break the sense of self of a person: for change to happen there must be destruction first. In the story, after a strong plot twist, Luke has to face the fact that he has been lied to his whole life. What he knows about his identity is put into question, and that is what allows him a chance to become someone different.
As his appreciation for human life showed, Luke wasn’t a bad person altogether. But it was needed a moment of rapture to wake him up. In Tales of Abyss’ narrative, logic is depicted as insufficient to change a person – shock is also needed. Something must be shattered. Otherwise, the person will continue to dive into their own misery, masked as self-righteousness. Luke’s narrative arc, then, becomes even more complex when he has to face the problem of becoming a better person: he wants to, has the chance to, but how does one do it? He suddenly finds himself lost.
It’s at this point that the story becomes so moving, because his friends, especially Tear, are the fundamental piece to guide him amidst the dark. Without them, all would be for nothing. But because they are there for him, to help him no matter what, to give him a second chance, without ever simply forgiving him for what he was, Luke is able to become a true heroic and tragic figure. He goes from “I’m the best” to “I’m the worst” to finally reach the ideal “I’m flawed, but as long as I try to be better, that’s okay.” If he is incapable of self-sacrifice at the beginning, and craves it as a form of redemption at the middle point, by the end he starts to realize what the act actually means for him and for those who love him.
But there is more to his narrative arc. Besides all that, Luke is also heavily dependent on Van. Everything he does is because of his so-called master – seeking constant approval –, and he doesn’t know what to do without him. When you have limited access to information, as he had, you become dependent on your few sources, incapable of thinking without their aid. As Tear says to him: “You base all your actions on what others say and never tries to understand things for yourself.” Van is Luke’s master in every sense of the word, teaching him, but also owning him. However, it’s not just “think for yourself” the lesson that Tear is trying to teach her friend, because he also lacks the ability to understand and accept other points of view. Luke gets punished precisely because he doesn’t listen to others. But also because he doesn’t think for himself. The key is to develop critical thinking and that is what he starts to understand: he needs to listen to everyone, question everything, and expand his way of seeing the world.
And that’s the development of only the game’s protagonist. His friends may not be as complex, but are not less tragic in their own ways. They appear as a box of mysteries at the beginning, and so specific points will not be discussed to not spoil twists. But, there is always the notion that there is more to them that meets the eye: Tear is kind to Luke, but tried to kill Van in cold blood. Guy appears to know too much about the world for a simpleton. Jade may act as a friend and want peace above everything else, but has the incredibly ominous title of “Necromancer”. Even Elise, who appears to act in only two modes at the beginning – Luke’s fangirl or psychopath –, is holding some surprises in her sleeve.
The bad guys, the Oracle Knights, are also a mystery at first. Luke knows they want to start a war between his kingdom, Kimlasca, and the neighbor one, Malkuth, but doesn’t understand why. Their direct commandant is Van, who denies any involvement with their actions, but they also responds to Mohs, Tear’s boss, who she assures only wants peace. Tales of Abyss’ plot doesn’t take long to get a lot complex, getting bigger and bigger in scope. It takes some ideas from Judaism, mainly the Kabbalah, such as names like Sephiroth, Daath and Malkuth, tying them with the concept of spiritual trees that hold life together, but expands the lore to other areas, although it’s certainly guilty of getting carried away with its own terminology.
The world in the game, for example, is bound by what they call the Score – a sort of written prophecy. There is a whole religion formed around it, which tries to enforce it in any way possible. The Score deals with big subjects, like prosperity and war, but also with the mundane, looking like astrology gone wrong: “According to the Score, drinking golden tea will help my luck with money,” a villager claims. Crimes can be justified based on the Score. Destruction and death can be excused because it was predicted.
Since there is a prophecy, the question of free will is also naturally raised and it gradually becomes one of the main points of contention between the main characters and the antagonists. Both sides agree that the Score represents a philosophical problem: if what is written is going to always happen, individuality is irrelevant and free will is a lie. But they disagree in how to change that. Luke’s group claims that humanity can break free from the Score by themselves – using Luke’s growth as an example –, while the antagonists defend that a major rapture is necessary – and Luke’s change also proves their point. Their differences are of method, of disagreeing on what is necessary to improve their world. It’s no wonder that they never cease to try to convince the other of who is right and who is wrong. Until the end, both sides keep trying to get the other on their side. Since their problem is a logical one, they believe words and not violence is the solution. However, conflict eventually becomes inevitable because the antagonists beliefs eventually grow into a cult. They become their religion. Talking and logic fails, because one of the sides is tainted by faith. Then, tragedy follows.
Tales of Abyss has a great narrative, but unfortunately it doesn’t have a great combat system to accompany it. The combat is too by the numbers and quickly becomes repetitive. There is an attack button and a special button and that is basically it. Every battle, you keep pressing “attack” until the monster dies. If the monster is strong, you still keep attacking them, but also use some specials – here, called arts – that stagger them for a while. The characters gain more skills when they level up, but the only thing that changes is the animation and the damage. It’s a very simple Action-RPG that works, but only that. You can change the character you’re playing with to make the battles somewhat different, but even that soon becomes old during the 50 hours that the game takes to be completed. There is some additional elements to the combat that are nothing but irrelevant: there are Core Crystal that change how your character level up and orbs that can increase the damage of the arts, decrease their MP cost or increase Stagger, but their effect is so minimum that players can safely ignore them. The only useful mechanic is what is called Overlimit: when activating it, the character cannot be staggered by enemy arts and can use flashy specials. It’s a must against bosses, but its usefulness is limited to that.
Nonetheless, Tales of Abyss is a great game. It may tell a story of epic proportions, with the whole world at stake and all that, but its strength lies in its little moments of character development and growth. Its combat system may be lacking and its graphics may be dated, but that doesn’t matter, for today, almost fifteen years after its first release, Tales of Abyss remains as moving as ever.
April 01, 2019.
Namco Tales Studio
Motoi Sakuraba, Shinji Tamura and Motoo Fujiwara