Based on the very first game in Namco Bandai's Tales series, Tales of Phantasia attempts to give fans of the game a treat with this four episode OVA. What we ended up with is an average fantasy story that is structured in such a way that you'll end up looking down at your hands wondering if you should have a controller in your hand.
What They Say:
In the land of Midgard a bloodthirsty conqueror breaks the seal holding Dhaos, the Demon King whose goal is to eradicate all mankind. A few survivors of this destructive event have banded together in an effort to fight against the impending darkness and chaos. A warrior, cleric, witch, summoner, archer, and ninja make up the Heroes of Space and Time as they relentlessly pursue Dhaos in order to end his conquest of death.
There are two audio tracks for this release. A Japanese 2.0 stereo track and comes in at 192 kbps and an English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound track coming in at 448 kbps. Neither track is particularly impressive, but both get the job done decently. I'm surprised that on both tracks, there is very little directionality to be heard. I would have thought that in a show filled with bright spells and summons, there would be a good amount of movement throughout the channels, but everything seems to stay right in front of you. The 5.1 track does provide a more robust sound, but again, there's little movement to the sound. The dialogue and background music are both clear and easy to hear with the opening theme easily being the best sounding piece in the show on either track.
Presented with a 1:78:1 aspect ratio and in amamorphic widescreen, Phantasia is a vivid, colorful show with beautiful character designs that pop off the screen. For the most part, the video quality holds up pretty well with two minor problems. First, I noticed a fair bit of shimmering during some of the more awkward camera pans in the show where it seemed like the pans were completely CG at times and didn't mesh with the hand drawn look of the OVAs. Second, there seems to be some weird sort of filter in place in the show that makes everything appears softer and not quite as sharp as it should be. I honestly can't tell if this was done on purpose within the show itself (my hunch) or it's something that popped up in the transfer. Either way, it ends up hampering the overall look of the show a bit. It's not enough to ruin the look of the show for me, but it's definitely something I notice from time to time.
The packaging for Tales is really nice. The front cover is eye-catching with a montage of four of the main characters with the series logo at the bottom, framed in an off-white border. On the back, a line illustration accompanies the plot summary along with some screen shots and a listing of the disc's features. When you open the case, you'll notice the back of the front cover is a very cool montage of the six main characters. Sadly, it isn't really set up right to be an alternate cover for the title. The three page booklet included with the disc has more pictures, including individual poses for the characters, another group picture with the cast looking off into the distance and an image of two members beside of each other. Overall, it's a really pleasant looking package.
The menu is simple and pleasing to the eyes as you're presented with a lush, green tree taking up the majority of the space. There are animated clips from the show on the lower right hand side featuring the characters as well as the main theme on loop. The logo and the options are presented over the clips in a stylized, easy to read font. Setup and extras are presented in the same menu here and you can pick an individual episode right from the main menu. When selecting an option, there is a very brief transition between screens, but nothing too distracting. It's a good, quick stylized menu that fits the program nicely. My only real qualm is that the menu doesn't allow you to choose, say, English language and English subtitles or Japanese language and no subtitles. The subtitle option is paired up with the Japanese language option only, forcing you to select it with your remote during play.
The extras here are pretty standard fare. There are non-credit opening and endings, 106 small sized pictures in the image gallery, a selection of previews from Geneon (Disgaea, Viewtiful Joe, and Dragon Hunter) and credits for the DVD production. I'm a bit bummed that the image gallery pictures are so small with no way to zoom in on them or fill the screen. Overall, it's a fairly average package of extras.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
With two new Tales games released in the U.S. at the time of this writing (Tales of Vesperia and Tales of Symphonia 2) and more on the way, I can't really blame Geneon for re-releasing Tales of Phantasia to maybe take advantage of the timing. Phantasia is the one that started it all on the Super Nintendo but it's only release on these shores was an under the radar Game Boy Advance release (the game was remade a total of three times, PS1, GBA and PSP). So, I've got to think that for the majority of people out there this show is probably their first real look at the world of Phantasia. That's kind of a shame because the show assumes you know many of the plot points from the game and does nothing to flesh out it's world or it's characters.
From the word go, the show tosses you into the story at what seems like the very middle of the plot. Two of our heroes, Cress (the swordsmen) and Mint (the cleric) are captured and taunted by a man clad all in black named Mars. Along with them happens to be an old mage named Morrison, who is laid out battered and bruised. Mars boasts about the return of the Demon King Dhaos and after capturing our heroes, he now has the magical pendants required to unto the seal that keeps Dhaos from entering our world again. Mars gleefully awakens Dhaos just as another character enters the fray; Cress' best friend Chester (the archer). Dhaos awakes up, is none too pleased about seeing filthy humans again, promptly obliterates Mars and is then confronted by Chester. Morrison, explaining that they lack the power to defeat Dhaos in this time, sends Cress and Mint back in time one hundred years to seek out companions powerful enough to defeat Dhaos. Way to leave Chester out to dry guys.
So, we go back one hundred years into the past and find our heroes in the middle of a giant war between humanity and Dhaos. Getting involved with the country of Midgard and the War of Valhalla, Cress and Mint make two new friends; the theatrical Claus F. Lester (the summoner) and free-spirited Arche Klein (the half-elf magic). As the battle wages on, the forces of Midgard randomly unleash a terrible weapon called the MagiTech Cannon, which uses the world's Mana (the force which sustains all life...keep up with me here, the anime expects you to do the same) as it's power source. While it succeeds in driving back Dhaos' forces, it devastates the kingdom as well. It's just about here that the show begins to feel like a poorly paced series of scenes from the role playing game.
From here on out, the party completes "quests" in order to advance to the next part of the story and confrontation with Dhaos. After the MagiTech incident, the party must heal the world tree Yggdrasil in order to power the machine that can send them back to the future so they may confront Dhaos and save their friend Chester. After confronting Dhaos, he escapes into thin air but then our party is approached by another time traveller who asks for their assistance in the future as Dhaos is up to no good in that time period too. Of course, the group still isn't strong enough to fight Dhaos straight up, so they have to make special items, and you can probably figure out the rest from here. All that's missing is a level up jingle. The problem here is that everything the show does with this approach is painfully average.
The characters are all specific RPG types, but there's nothing that stands out. Cress is the brash, young sword fighter who remains just that throughout the entire thing. Cress' love interest, Mint, is about as sterile as you can get as a nurturing pacifist. She is supposedly the cleric, but you wouldn't know it since the only thing she heals is an old tree. In one instance, poor Chester is roughed up by Dhaos in their fight and the best she can do is throw some bandages on the guy. I kept wishing this was the game so I could at least make her heal the dude. Speaking of Chester, he's a dour, strange guy as he goes from being generally cool to an insecure weenie then back to being an alright guy. His change in attitude just never made sense but then again, I wasn't the one left behind by my best friend to face an all powerful Demon King so what do I know? Only Claus F. Lester and Arche Klein provide any sort of personality to the cast. The two have a playful rapport with each other and individually, they brighten up most any scene they are a part of. It also helps that they have all of the flashy spells that are used in most of the action scenes. Finally, there's Dhaos who isn't such a bad guy in the end. He just sees no other option except to destroy humanity to accomplish his goal.
As I hinted at before, the show has an annoying habit of jumping from moment to moment with no transition or explanation in between. What makes this worse is that the show has the characters jumping about through time which kind of compounds the problem. It starts out in the middle of the story, jumps to the past, with random flashbacks of events that happened before the show started, and so on and so forth with very little set up in between. The OVA never really seem to gather much of a flow until the final episode which is a straight forward "final dungeon." It doesn't surprise me that the problem exists as the OVAs are just a collection of major events put together from the game, but there are other shows in the same vein that pace things out better. Plot threads are just left dangling in many places as well. Just why does Cress feel responsible for the burning of his village? How did those two pendents end up sealing away Dhaos? Why is Yggdrasil broken in the present when Mint healed it in the past? And if it's broken in the present, how can Claus and Arche muster up enough power to fight Dhaos in the "present" time to begin with? Why does the series like to pluck names from Norse mythology only to name one of your characters "Mint"?
While I may not care for the problems that exist with the characters and the pacing, the OVA's technical merits are something I definitely enjoyed in the show. There is a great use of color and scenic backgrounds that give the show a pleasing visual design. The main characters are all beautifully designed by Noriyuki Matsutake based off of Kosuke Fujishima's (You're Under Arrest) original designs and just pop off the screen looking really, really good. When the action kicks up, the animation is suitably flashy to match and is almost always consistent. My only complaint, like I mentioned in the video section of the review, is that there seems to be some sort of haze-like filter placed over everything that tones everything down a notch. If that was a design choice, it was a bad one. Aurally, the show is filled with background music that sounds as if it could be from the game itself. Each track seems to fit the scenes well and compliments the action on screen well. The opening theme, Yume no Hate, is a very pretty song and may be worth the price of the OST all by itself.
Tales of Phantasia is a good companion piece for fans of the original game. For those who haven't played the game however, it's a highly polished, very average fantasy romp in dire need of a few more episodes to flesh things out a little bit more. Ironic since a common compliant with role playing games is that they can become too long with too much filler. The majority of my problems with the OVA are issues that could be solved with just two more episodes added to it. Alas, it was not to be. I do wonder though, with the myrad of Tales games continually being made year after year, if some U.S. studio won't take a chance on the OVA series based on the one Tales game that truly does have a good sized following; Tales of Symphonia. Something to look into perhaps.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Image Gallery
Samsung PN50A400 50" Plasma HDTV, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver, Yamaha 5.1 Surround Sound Speakers, PlayStation 3.