Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World (DotNW) is a rarity among RPGs in that it is a true follow-up to a previous title, in this case the GameCube’s best-selling Tales of Symphonia (ToS). Like Square-Enix’s better-known Final Fantasy series, Namco-Bandai’s Tales series is usually comprised of stand-alone games that share several features, themes and maybe even the same world, but are otherwise unrelated to each other and can be enjoyed on their own merits. DotNW does not feature that luxury; your enjoyment of this new Wii offering will largely depend on whether or not you played, finished, and enjoyed its GameCube predecessor.
DotNW picks up roughly two years after the conclusion of ToS. After a thousand years of separation, the two worlds of Sylvarant and Tethe’alla have been reunited and a new World Tree has sprouted to keep things under control. While that might have sounded good on paper, in reality that sort of massive ecological shift is going to have both environmental and political ramifications, which is basically where DotNW picks up. Following a horrific event referred to as “the Blood Purge”, timid and apologetic Emil Castagnier is raised by his aunt and uncle in the rebuilt city of Luin. Thanks to several factors that are frankly out of his control, Emil is the source of much scorn in the town, having no friends; even his family doesn’t want much to do with him. One day he encounters a mysterious man known as Richter who gives him some gruff advise and the mantra “Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality,” inspiring Emil to investigate a strange howling in the dried-up lake bed. It is there that he runs into a young woman named Marta Lualdi (DotNW’s other main character; very much the Colette to Emil’s Lloyd) along with Tenebrae, a Centurian of a mysterious force known as Ratatosk.
A lot of DotNW plays similary to ToS; for instance, most locations (and their BGMs) are seemingly taken directly from the original title, with only a few changes here and there, mostly cutting off once-accessible areas. Many of the dungeons — and a few of their puzzles — are also lifted straight from the previous chapter. This is somewhat excusable given the shared world and storyline, but at times it can feel lazy. Combat is also largely identical, although DotNW has added the ability for free-roaming movement where previous iterations restricted you to mostly two dimensions; the drawback here is that any hit you receive while doing to is registered as a critical, so mind your environment. You can also assign up to eight shortcuts for Artes using the D-Pad and some light waggle, which is an impressive gain over ToS’s mere two; what is lost in exchange is the ability to pre-set multiple tactical AI strategies and swap them on the fly, although I found that it was rarely productive to take any character off “Attack Freely” in DotNW.
DotNW’s most distinguishing feature is the ability to form pacts with the monsters you defeat, almost Pokémon-style. You accomplish this by using elemental Artes to manipulate the Field Gauge, although that’s easier said than done in most cases. You can have up to four monsters in your active party, with the rest kept in reserve via the Katz Guild. Monsters can be great aids in combat, as they gain levels quickly and can have their stats powered up by feeding and evolving them along the way, but they are a double-edged sword. Unless you’re actually expected to lose a combat for storyline purposes, you get the Game Over screen when all of your non-monster characters are KO’d or turned to stone; the more monsters you have in your party, the easier it is for you to lose this way — especially at those times when you only have Emil in your party.
Everything else is standard Tales-issue. Synthesizing new items, earning Grade for any New Game+ you might attempt, the eight elements of mana, borrowing elements of Norse mythology (you have probably never heard so many grown adults use the word “Ginnungagap” in serious conversation as you will in the later stages of DotNW), prejudice against half-elves (although this takes something of a back seat to bigger problems this time around), the Sorcerer’s Ring (now with Wii Remote pointing capabilities for easier aiming), cooking (this time to raise your befriended monsters rather than for healing purposes), character-developing “skits”… you name it, it’s probably here.
For good or ill, DotNW is simply another Tales game. As one of the briefest RPGs around — mostly due to the elimination of tedious overworld travel — it will only ask about 30 to 40 hours of your time to finish, with the usual RPG array of optional side-quests, hidden goodies, and other completionist fodder; ToS, by comparison, took upwards of 60 over its two discs. As If you enjoyed Tales of Symphonia and want a follow-up adventure in the same world with the same characters plus a couple of new ones, then Dawn of the New World should provide you with a much-needed dose of solid RPG action on the Wii. If you didn’t enjoy ToS or the Tales series in general, then steer clear of this one, too.
ESRB: T for Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, and Suggestive Themes; despite both protagonists being only 16, a lot of complex issues are dealt with throughout the game. It stops just short of any sort of graphic, M-rated content, but this is definitely high school territory at the very least.
Pros: A successful, if streamlined, follow-up to an established storyline; solid writing and acting, with the unique combat interface of the Tales series
Cons: As a sequel, a lot of recycled content; forming monster pacts is fidgety at best due to the limited influence you have over what your AI-controlled partners do during combat
Plays like: Other Namco Bandai “Tales” games