(Originally written in May of 2014.)
[Spoiler warning for Tales of Symphonia and Dawn of the New World]
As a fan of Tales of Symphonia several years past its release, I was surprised to hear that it was getting a sequel, and dismayed to hear it was subpar. After the friend who had introduced me to Symphonia had played it, he had generally positive feelings about it, though not to the extent he did the original. In the HD rerelease 6 years later, I finally got a chance to try it myself, and it left me as conflicted as I’d feared.
Writing a sequel to a game presumed to have reached an adequate narrative conclusion by the general player is a tricky feat, to be sure, if any measure of quality is meant to be achieved. Dawn of the New World (from here on referred to as KoR (for Knight of Ratatosk, its JP name)) fails to meet that measure with aplomb, especially compared to the original; my revisit to the original Symphonia immediately preceded my first taste of KoR, and the strength of the original narrative and party were in mind when I stepped into the new world.
Plot Summary [Feel free to skip if you’re familiar]
Symphonia left off on the tipping point of two worlds being rejoined into their true forms, and thus KoR had a way to create a new story. Mana is in chaos, as Ratatosk, the Summon Spirit governing the previous World Tree, and his Centurions are asleep, letting monsters and their mana run wild. Two military forces, representing the two component worlds of the previous games, vie for global control, while various smaller factions seek the Centurions’ cores.
Among those factions are Lloyd Irving, hero of Symphonia, a small group within the Vanguard, a man named Richter, and the player’s party. Emil, the protagonist, forms a pact with Ratatosk (via the Centurion of Darkness, Tenebrae) to protect Marta, a girl with a huge crush on him and the core of Ratatosk on her forehead, who is seeking out the cores to hatch them and restore balance to mana. Her life is being threatened by Richter, a traveler who spurred Emil to make his own choices instead of being deferential; he is joined by the Centurion of Water, Aqua, in their pursuit of the cores under the Vanguard’s orders. Lloyd seeks to prevent Richter’s success, and spends the game swiping cores out from under the party’s nose when he can.
In the end, it’s revealed that Emil is Ratatosk, wearing the face of Richter’s friend Aster, who was killed by Ratatosk in a fit of rage upon awakening two years prior; he remembers more during his hyper-aggressive personality changes throughout the game, and recalls being killed by Richter. Richter’s plan, originally thought to be sacrificing the hell-gatekeeper Ratatosk, and thus the whole world, to the demons for Aster’s revival, turns out to be deeper than that. He planned to turn himself into an eternal sacrifice to keep the gates of hell closed, all so Aster could be revived and enjoy his life. Emil, now aware of his duties and existence as Ratatosk, attempts to force his party members to defeat him and turn him into a core to seal the gate, but he finally gives up, reconciles with the Ratatosk personality he had sealed away, and plot dumps for a while before making the party leave. Richter will bear the burden of the gate while Ratatosk alters the world to not need mana, they decide, and the Centurions urge Ratatosk to live his life as Emil in the meantime.
A Rushed and Shallow Job
During this brief plot, Emil and Marta are joined by the entire party of the original Symphonia in some capacity, and while the writers likely aimed to use them as catalysts for plot movement and character development, the plot rushes on ahead, while the characters get yanked along behind it when they take too long to catch up.
Emil starts the game as a timid, deferential boy, and grows to realize he is the Summon Spirit Ratatosk, a being that instinctively hated humans for killing the Giant Kharlan Tree of legend, which was under his protection. Prompted by Richter quoting Aster’s mantra, “Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality” (this phrase gets co-opted by Emil and used to the point where a drinking game based on it would probably keep you fairly buzzed the entire game), Emil sets out to protect Marta and seek out Lloyd for revenge in memory of his parents, who he thought Lloyd killed in the Blood Purge. It’s a bit weak, but a functional start.
As they encounter the party members of the previous game, the interactions slowly make less and less sense in terms of how relationships are formed and written. Colette, the first person they meet, is a bubbly and outgoing girl who makes friends everywhere she goes; she acts in line with that before flying off to look for Lloyd. Zelos, whose entire development arc and survival in the first game depended on mutual trust with Lloyd, does trust him, and gives the cold shoulder to Emil and Marta when he finds out they’re looking to get revenge on him.
Raine, the last semi-credible character to join and interact with the party, starts off not trusting the duo, but having a vested interest in finding out the truth about Lloyd’s actions. Marta decries her as a cold person for not trusting Lloyd thoroughly, even as Raine states that she believes in Lloyd. She even asks them why they assume she should trust them, having just met them. Of course, this goes out the window as soon as the writers decide to mistakenly conflate the desire to figure out Lloyd’s deal with the willingness to be Emil’s friend.
They meet Genis, who immediately acts friendly despite finding out about the desire for revenge on his lifelong best friend, and then meet Regal, who acts personable, yet again, this time presumably under orders from Raine to keep an eye on Emil and figure out what the deal is with his Ratatosk Mode. Through all of this, Emil is still timid, but occasionally entering hyper-aggro states outside of battle. Emil snaps at Marta for idealizing him into someone he’s not, but they make up and Marta starts fawning over him in a different manner.
Sheena, too, joins the party, and her usual confidence is tempered by curiosity in seeing what Lloyd’s intent is as she joins Regal in purportedly supervising Emil. While visiting Meltokio, Tenebrae gets incapacitated, and Emil turns into Aggro-Emil for a prolonged stretch of time while they retrieve Tenebrae’s core. Upon returning to Meltokio, they find out that Seles has Glacies’ core, and then Decus-Lloyd kidnaps her. Upon pursuing him, it is revealed that Decus was responsible for the atrocities in Lloyd’s name, but Lloyd still refuses to side with Emil/Marta. He demands the Centurion cores they possess, and other party members prevent fighting, but Lloyd vanishes again.
The conflict between Emil and Ratatosk grows after Emil finds Regal, Sheena, and Marta discussing his history (Aster/Richter’s past). Shrinking from a threat, Emil defers to Ratatosk Mode in the Temple of Lightning, where Aggro-Emil disregards a researcher’s life, and Marta rejects him as Emil. Yet again, she rants at (Aggro-)Emil for not being who she wants him to be, prompting the alter ego to be annoyed with her. They make up after about 20 minutes of game time.
When Richter’s plan is revealed to the party, Lloyd’s actions, meant to prevent Richter from succeeding, are given context. Lloyd was working with Yuan, the non-spirit guardian of the new World Tree, and his refusal to explain himself was part of a precaution to safeguard the World Tree against Ratatosk, its previous incarnation’s Summon Spirit.
Emil decides that he will visit Verius, the Summon Spirit of Heart, and ask for his help in unifying his heart for the purpose of saving the world. By this point, Lloyd joins the party, and a party it is! Everyone is happy to be on the same side again, and there are skits, both among the original group themselves, and with Emil/Marta included, acting as if they have spent a great deal of time together, when the player has spent, in all likelihood, something like 25 hours playing. That 25-hour count is assuming you were playing like I was, and ignoring the fact that you rarely have more than one or two guest characters until the end, where the writers falsely assume characters had to grow close. Every Symphonia cast member ends up arbitrarily trusting Emil and acting like they’ve been friends for a long time, despite the game hardly giving them time to talk to one another before some other plot contrivance whisks the group away. Even Zelos, the first returning character to not put up with Emil and Marta’s attitude, basically pulls a heel-turn on that response when the game feels he ought to.
When Richter and Ratatosk enact their plan to seal the Ginnungagap, most of the party has some personal encouragement to offer, and none of them act as though they might not be close enough for it to mean something, which would be true of most of them! Zelos and Lloyd, especially, have spent so little time with the party that their comfort with Emil is a little offputting. Whiplash is an apt term for the character development in this short escapade, and definitely when comparing it to Symphonia, where friendships were forged through common goals and later found to be strong bonds. Despite the story’s breakneck pace, nothing in KoR feels urgent, aside from a development where Regal is taken hostage and you have to rescue him and seize a Centurion’s core from the Vanguard’s leader.
Richter is the focal point of a series of sidequests you can pursue throughout the game, where Emil joins Richter on a string of odd jobs to acquire holy relics of Spiritua, a legendary Chosen. This ongoing series of encounters in search for extremely plot-relevant items mirrors Kratos’ search for Aionis, sacred wood, and other components necessary to make the Eternal Ring for Lloyd in the original Tales of Symphonia. The most glaring difference is that encountering Kratos was a plot necessity, while encountering Richter is so optional I’m only getting the honor of figuring all of this with a guide on NG+. However, that’s enough of a gap that I’m rather displeased with it. Kratos’ appearances hinted toward his work behind the scenes; Richter’s appearances serve to remind the player he exists, which amounts to Emil going a bit starry-eyed for a few lines, and maybe Richter saving him from a tight spot, before threatening to kill Marta and wandering off.
Marta, unfortunately, is the most static character in the game. She starts out in love with Emil, gets scolded by Emil for idealizing him, loves him again, scolds Aggro-Emil for being inhumane, then forgives him. She is a one-note character, and that’s simply… unfortunate.
The Monsters and Their King
Now, in terms of mechanical discussion, there are two points I’d like to raise; the experience curve, and the monster system.
The experience curve is far too deep for Emil and Marta, but laughably shallow for the monsters you can have in your party. I spent two hours grinding by the second chapter in order to clear a story boss, then, in the final battle with Alice and Decus, I got wiped so hard that I had to spend another ten hours grinding to clear the fight. This grinding spree is important to note because not only is it a frightening number to hear on its own, but to put it in context, the entirety of the game prior to this 10-hour grind had totaled up to 30 hours. This grinding, necessary to make any progress, singlehandedly comprised 25% of the eventual 40-hour clear time. That is bonkers.
Meanwhile, my monster buddies almost all hit level 90 or higher during that time that I was struggling to reach level 55. If you’re sticking with a few solid monster friends, they will level up so much faster than you, it’s almost unfair, but hey, they’re on your side and you get to utilize them in combat. With the caveat that they don’t count as human allies and they can’t use items! The former means that if they are the only ones left standing on the field, you lose, and the latter means they can’t be useful by tossing Life Bottles at Emil and Marta.
All the non-boss monsters you encounter can be recruited through one means or another, and they are all interesting and cool to utilize! I recruited a Dullahan named Ed, and evolved him into the Sword Dancer! Now he kicks ass. The system is quite barebones, but it’s still rather enjoyable as a mechanic. I’d really like a game where the monster-taming was a larger part of the game balance instead of what seems like an afterthought.
Another minor annoyance is the fact that the most powerful weapons are locked behind sidequests, which I was never be appropriately leveled for on standard EXP rates, and Richter sidequests, which normal players would never encounter without a guide. Even putting that aside, the most useful dungeon in the game, Gladsheim, doesn’t even appear until a NG+. That’s where all of the monsters with important drops for endgame crafting lie, and that means you’re just out of luck if you’re trying to do that on your first run, which means you get to find out some other way to evolve your monsters into their final form.
The combat, in general, feels nicer than Symphonia’s did, but across the development aisle, Tales of Vesperia was being worked on, and did wonders to have an enjoyable and potent combat system. Emil can string together stuttery combos, but he’s floaty, and flings himself across the battlefield with a lot of his moves. Fortunately, his movement speed in battle (especially in Free Run) is incredible, and I found myself a lot more prone to running around the battlefield because of the shift in controls; holding the guard button and moving lets you free run, and it’s a more natural addition to the movement scheme than a trigger for me.
This game has issues. A lot of issues, all packed into an obscenely-short game, and all in stark contrast to the quality lineage it bears. But there’s still a decent game here, under all the mismanaged time and poorly-written development. It’s just a shame that it bears those weights, because Symphonia deserved a better sequel. Perhaps Emil and Marta could have been heralds of a more competently-written game, but they weren’t. They came with this narrative mess of an escort title, and that’s a damn shame.