Nintendo’s GameCube has put out some great games this generation, satisfying fans of just about every genre. For action/adventure boys, they gave us Wind Waker. A strategy man? Look no further than the delightful Pikmin series. Fighting buffs can enjoy Link as their exclusive character in Soul Calibur 2. But, where’s the game for role-playing gamers? With the exception of the fantastic Skies of Arcadia Legends, the Cube hasn’t been given a true RPG to call its own. Well, that would have been the case, were it not for Namco’s exemplary summer hit: Tales of Symphonia.

Tales puts you in the role of Lloyd Irving, a young swordsman living in the troubled land of Sylvarant. Due to the depleting of mana, the entire world is in danger of being controlled by the evil Desian Empire. In the hopes of rejuvenating the world with new mana, the Church of Martel plans to send out a special member of the clergy. Known as Colette Brunnel, this “Chosen of Mana” will need to travel the world and release the Summon Spirits from their slumber so that they may let loose the flow of life, returning Sylvarant to its former glory. Lloyd happens to be a friend of hers, and when a surprise attack by the Desians triggers an early enactment of Colette’s journey, the young Irving will be right at her side, ready to take on any dangers that might arise in the hopes of protecting his lady-love.

Along for the ride as well will be a host of lively characters, each with their own reasons for accompanying the Chosen. Genis and Raine Sage, two elven siblings swear by their magical staffs to assure Colette’s safety. Kratos, a mysterious mercenary, has been hired by the Church as a guardian due to his unparalleled strength. Later in the game you’ll meet Sheena, a beautiful assassin that’ll spell trouble many-a-time. Zelos, a true ladies’ man, will constantly supply comic relief through even the most serious of times. And this is only on Disc 1 of this epic 2-Disc game! I loved the plot in this game, even if the concept felt a little over-used.

The true hook of Tales of Symphonia, and the entire Tales franchise for that matter, has always been the stellar combat system. Using a mechanic called Linear Motion Battle, four characters will engage in real-time battles, targeting an enemy and then moving back and forth on a 2-D plane. It’s staggering the amount of control you have over your fighter (you can swap from Lloyd to any other character on-screen during battles) in that this element of the title is reminiscent of Namco’s fighting series, Soul Calibur. Dozens of combos can be unlocked, with even more spells being available.

Since you’ll be fighting in real-time, the other three characters in your party will be controlled by AI. At first I wasn’t sure if they’d be useful, considering other games that use this mechanic don’t exactly display a lot of intelligence. However, I was pleasantly surprised with Tales, as each character shifted right into the role I needed them to play, and working as a team became a second nature. If any of them were acting out of character, though, a slight tweak to their AI Profile would fix any problems. Of course, AI isn’t the only combat option.

Steering away from the trend of making RPGs 1-Player, Tales of Symphonia can be played by up to four people during battles, assuring for some quality multiplayer. The only flaw in the execution, though, is that the camera will always stay focused on Player 1, and your friends may find themselves off-screen. That said, this occurrence is pretty rare, and you’ll be sure to have a heck of a time.

It’s not all about fighting, though. You’ll also be traversing through over a dozen dungeons, solving puzzles along the way using a special item you’ll find on your first mission: The Sorcerer’s Ring. This tool basically transforms every time you’re in a new environment, giving you a new power. You’ll start out with just being able to make small fireballs, but soon you’ll find areas where you can create anything from bombs to orbs of electricity. This integrates wonderfully into puzzles, where you’ll often need to use your powers to manipulate your surrounding.

Getting the hang of the controls is pretty simple. Each button corresponds to a different action during fights. A is used for physical attacks, B for special attacks, X for defend, and Y to bring up the menu. Reactions are spot-on, and everything is easy to manage after about a half hour of practice. Menus are perfectly accessible when you need your AI-controlled party members to perform certain spells or attacks. All in all, this title offers up a great gameplay package.

Sure, beauty may be skin-deep, but ugly is to the bone and a game with poor visuals just detracts from the experience, no matter how rich the gameplay is. Luckily, Tales of Symphonia is drop-dead gorgeous. Utilizing the ever-popular cel-shading technique, the world of Sylvarant takes on a look that can best be described as “straight out of anime.” This shouldn’t be a surprise, though, considering the Art Director is Kosuke Fujishima, the acclaimed anime artist who’s responsible for some of the best character models in the business. It definitely shows, as each character is fantastically detailed, no two characters looking alike. Even NPCs (characters who are often given less treatment than main characters) look great.

Environments are lush and alive with color, showing you one of the most diverse worlds I’ve ever seen. You’ll go anywhere from the steamy deserts to the frozen arctic regions, all within a relatively short period of time, each looking better and more impressive than the last. There’s been some criticism of the overworld, which displays a lot less detail than other areas in the game, but I still found it to have its own kind of simple beauty to enjoy.

My only complaint in this facet is the physics of contact, which just look pathetic. Hugs, handshakes, and really all forms of contact just don’t look right and just suck you right out of the experience. That said, it’s the only problem I can find with the visuals, which are otherwise fantastic. The opening and closing cutscenes are particularly gorgeous (they’re both displayed in high-quality anime sequences).

Music-wise, Tales delivers in spades, with a very diverse and enjoyable soundtrack. Battle themes take on a rock/speed-metal tone to get your blood pumping, while more drama-oriented segments take on a more orchestra-esque, epic attitude. Voice acting is great and really fits each character. Effects are also excellent in their execution. The audio portion was really taken care of here.

In the end, Tales of Symphonia was the RPG we’ve all been waiting for and I couldn’t be more thankful to Namco and the entire Tales studio. With unique and engaging gameplay, fantastic visuals, spot-on controls and an enjoyable soundtrack, we’ve got a stand-out title that demands your time. Get out and play it, already!