The Tales series of JRPGs consists of 16 main-line entries at the time of this review, reaching from ‘Tales of Phantasia’ on the SNES all of the way to ‘Tales of Berseira’ on the PlayStation 4. Tales of Link is the series first serious foray into mobile gaming, and in the spirit of the ‘Tales of the World’ series it’s bringing the full heritage of its line to bear on this initial world-wide outing.
This is a series accustomed to spin offs and crossovers, with games such as ‘Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World’ giving us sequels to main-line titles and even a 14 game run covering various genres termed ‘Tales of Mobile’ that provided early cellphones in Japan with a small slice of the series’ particular brand of storytelling. Tales of Link draws heavily on the themes of the ‘Tales of the World’ series, which has always served as an excuse to bring as many of their characters into one setting as possible and is best remembered in the west for ‘Radiant Mythology’ on the PSP.
Graphically the title looks beautiful, with every character from the series and new characters specifically for this game all redrawn into the same anime style used by animation studio Production I.G. which has a long running relationship with the Tales series and provides an opening cinematic to this game as well. Using a single art style helps to focus the game dramatically, giving it a significant leg-up on other titles of the same kind seeking to to bring long-running series into a crossover game, which normally recycle art assets and mish-mash them together accordingly. Menus are clean and easy to use, with every character also given a fully animated chibi style sprite that appears in combat. The whole game does have a very distinct and loud panning background for its home screen that is a little too J-Pop to be taken seriously and does appear jarring in conjunction with the otherwise lovely character art and sense of world they are building, and breaks immersion over longer sessions.
Musically, Tales of Link manages to be beautifully arranged and makes full use of an original score and remixed elements of previous games. Sadly many of these are short and loop quickly, but the title screen alone manages to give the player an immediately intimate and yet grand feel. Sound effects are pulled directly from later entries into the Tales series on the Playstation 3 (‘Tales of Xillia’ I believe, but cannot confirm) and are of a very high quality that matches the series recurring tone. Vocal performances for cutscenes, battle attacks and other occasions such as levelling up come in an additional, optional download and are well performed in Japanese, though I’d recommend only those fluent in the language or planning to invest fully in the game bother with this for storage reasons.
Unlike many titles of this nature, Tales of Link ties everything that’s happening together with a narrative that focuses on two new characters, an original antagonist and yourself as the player, who takes on the role of a summoned hero who will command the army of character’s you’ll amass and is directly spoken to through the screen. At the games outset you’ll be introduced to Sara, a young girl seeking a way to free her brother from the mind control of the ‘Seeds of Ruin’ and her pet animal Lippy, who is a sprite sent from heaven to help guide her to you and accompany the pair of you on your quest. Caeser, her brother, serves as the games initial antagonist and the human face of the cataclysmic event that seeks to destroy this world. You also have the power of ‘Stonecantation’, which allows you to recruit legendary heroes from special items found scattered through this land, introducing pre-existing characters to the setting. As a narrative drive it serves its purpose, but through continued sequences between the characters on a regular basis the game both forwards the plot and begins to give background on the people you travel with in a manner that works well. The Tales series has always had an excellent reputation for its skits, which build likable casts and this current entry appears to be no exception.
Gameplay is where the title stumbles a little, essentially taking you through a Quest mode that features a world map made up of multiple screens containing sites that each have multiple missions to clear before progressing to the next in linear fashion. These missions take the form of a string of encounters with monsters, capped with a boss that’s usually a pre-existing monster with greatly buffed stats. Combat itself works as a match-3 style game that takes place on a 3×3 grid with your 9 party members being represented on it. Attack strength of each piece is linked directly to their levels and gear, with the characters standing on a seemingly randomly assigned shape that you’ll need to match. You can tap between 1 and 9 characters, removing the minimum link of 3 as traditionally seen in this kind of game, but the small grid is the weakness here, making for some scenarios where you’ll be unable to perform decent links when you need them. The party shares a health bar and special meter that when filled allows you to call upon the special attacks of the first 3 members of your party (assigned in order) and a guest friend’s character (playing up the social elements of the game). These special attacks can be annoyingly weak at times, but do level up slowly through repeated character use in combat. You can also bring up to 3 guardian deities into battle to provide static bonuses, and characters learn passive abilities given time and experience to further help. Outside of the battle you make use of 3 currencies, Hero Stones to summon new randomly pulled heroes to your cause and expand your initially weak item and hero inventory spaces, Hero Points to level up heroes to a maximum based on their rarity (4 star characters reach level 50 for example whilst 5 stars can get to 60) and base currency used to buy items and gear. Of course you can use real-world money to bulk-buy any of these but at the games outset there’s a wealth available to the player and amassing Hero Points to use in one go raises the chance of drawing higher level characters significantly. That Hero Points are earned and pooled allows you to focus levelling on new characters rather than having to initially use weak ones and is useful, and level caps can be broken by fusing multiples of the same character together if you draw them. Items and gear can be equipped into character’s two empty slots for them and provide passive boosts to stats, but not every character can equip every item and this appears to be based on their classes from the games these characters first appeared in. Sadly characters below 3 stars are useful only for resale value, meaning that you’ll junk the bulk of the original designs drawn up for this game in favour of 4-5 star returning heroes. The game does allow for special events which each have their own story and are considered side-content to the main game. Some of these provide excellent diversions from the plot and others as excuses to show off characters in different outfits for limited periods (sadly also a Tales series theme). The pay-wall appears to be soft at this point and easy to break, but as new content is updated regularly time will tell how tough later chapters and missions will become.
Overall, Tales of Link is an interesting game that does a lot of original things with the concept of a match-3 but isn’t quite good enough to pull it off as a compelling battle system. It falls into many of the same traps as a standard Social RPG as well, focusing on multiple currencies and building up a friends list of players who need to have high level characters too in order to not hamper your own game, making low level friends tricky. There’s also an energy system to limit play in place and a large file size to think about on your device. There is however a good story here, brilliant design work and some intriguing ideas. As a freemium title I’d advise players to download it and play through the main campaign then decide for themselves if they want to keep it around for bonus content and missions.