Statto alert: Vesperia is actually the tenth 'flagship' title (there are even more spin-offs) in the Tales series, a role-playing monster that curries almost as much favour in the Land of Levelling Up as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Arguably the most 'Japanese' of all JPRGs, this latest entry has finally found its way over here after nearly a year on shelves in the States. Seeing as 360 seems to be a fly-tipping sanc-tuary for mediocre role-players, should Namco really have bothered?
After a moment's pause, we'd have to say a firm (and camp) 'absolutely!' - especially since it's evident Vesperia has benefitted from some uncommonly good localisation. Granted, the dialogue is a touch twee, while lots of the jokes tend to inspire snorts of derision (though any Carry On fans will doubtlessly appreciate the reams of unintentionally hilarious innuendo), but it's not wholly without wit - especially from the cynical maw of genuinely likeable, can't-be-arsed hero Yuri. The slow-burning narrative is also a cut above the usual moralising, quasi-philosophical pap, resounding with a million times more subtlety and intelligence than peers like Star Ocean: The Last Hope.
Even the voice acting is universally decent, making the reams of dialogue far less painful than they traditionally have any right to be. The cutesy, Eternal Sonata school of visual design also inspires the occasional 'ooh' of appreciation, even if this sort-of-cel-shaded eye candy isn't quite as heart-achingly gorgeous as its phenomenally intricate rival. Needless to say, the characters are all a little Anime-androgynous for our likings, but then it works within the context of the series.
Plot and presentation aren't Vesperia's only selling points, of course; get into a scrape and the Tales series' individuality in the combat stakes becomes apparent. Battles take place in real-time rather than being turn-based, and you're granted certain amounts of freedom within the confines of the pre-designated arena. Special 'arte' attacks - many of which are learned in the midst of combat as you gain in proficiency - are integrated into the usual 'open this item menu and select that recovery elixir' structure. In the main though, the system proves durable - especially when you've a party of four going at it against swarms of venomous fungi, devil dogs and massive mantises. Vesperia also likes its combat gauges, so learning when to hoard and when to unleash your devastating 'Burst Artes' (sounds painful) while in 'Over Limit' mode is a must. As you level up, it becomes possible to chain Artes, and even perform satisfying one-hit fatality moves.
The option to turn on semi-automatic and even fully-auto combat saves having to do the legwork against lesser foes, but we'd recommend switching to manual for some of the difficulty-spiked boss encounters, where HP gauges suddenly, infuriatingly rocket up from the hundreds into the tens of thousands. Learn to alter party strategies with the D-pad too. Pretty soon you'll have swordsmith extraordinaire Yuri leading the charge, dog-with-a-pipe Repede biting some arse, bowman Raven letting loose his arrow from afar with sexy princess-turned-healer Estelle shoring up the troupe from the rear. Take that, pesky Eggbear! There's also a pleasing amount of depth to be found should you delve into the equipment screens; you can even collect recipes and ingredients to cook your own power-up snacks.
Aside from that, Vesperia is pretty much as you'd expect: roaming ugly world maps; dodging irksome spawned baddies who always seem to be able to move faster than you; helping out innocent unfortunates and defeating oddball, cross-dressing antagonists (who never seem to hold a candle to FFVI's flagship JRPG psycho Kefka). It's all very by-the-numbers, yet executed almost flawlessly - the mark of a game with a very firm grasp of its audience, and absolutely no inclination to pursue or pleasure anyone who might not be a Tales acolyte.