If you can do a good baby voice, you’ll get invited to the voice acting orgy

tales of symphonia

Tales of Symphonia (2004)

I’m sure that this is one of those nostalgic things that everyone can legitimately try to claim for themselves, but I reckon I could easily be justified in saying that the 90s was the Golden Age for cartoons – even ahead of the mighty 80s and whenever it was that Catch the Pigeon first aired. Then, at any given time, you could find the best voice artists in ‘the business’ strutting their vocal stuff for the kids too “sick” to go to school and for the unemployed kids-at-heart to enjoy.

You take one of my favourite cartoons, the vastly underrated Weekenders – far better than the constant cavalcade of that Recess pap. Front and centre you’ve got four heavyweights in Jason Marsden, Grey DeLisle, Phil LaMarr and Kath Soucie. Quite apart from the two guys, those two women there must have had to work 25 hour days to build up the portfolio of voices they’ve done. You’d watch Rugrats, and then Fairly Odd Parents, then Danny Phantom, and you’re guaranteed to hear one of them. And if it’s not them, then it’s invariably Tara Strong.

It must be wonderful fun to be in voice-acting as well. It seems like a bit of a closed shop in terms of the best talent, so automatically I have to assume that it’s pretty much a travelling orgy of sex, with heavy emphasis on pornographic baby voices, and maybe a few Hey Arnold fetishes thrown in.

Also, if you’re a female VA, then it’s a cast-iron certainty that you’re going to be unbelievably attractive. If you’re male, you could be a hunk, or you could be downright weird looking. Or, if you can pull off Johnny Bravo’s voice, the girls might perceive you as both.

Deep down I suspect the reality is that the top, most in-demand voice-actors may command a high wage but that’s because their time is limited, hugely limited in fact, and no sooner have they burst through the East Coast studio door, sweating and ready to voice this week’s nondescript cartoon sidekick, than they’re jetting off to another recording studio on the West Coast and providing the voice of the villain.

And it’s tough luck if the first take wasn’t so good or if the animators can’t make the mouth movements fit the voice – the VA has left the building. You’ll end up having Final Fantasy X-esque lip movements, and perhaps a situation like theirs where only Yuna’s VA tried to match the words to the lips – and her work ended up copping the most flak as a result.

To get an idea of Tales of Symphonia’s voice acting range, take a dash of Metal Gear Solid 1, add a sprinkle of Fairly Odd Parents, take a couple of fin de siècle animes that I honestly know nowt about, and finish off with a teaspoon of a few Final Fantasys and you’re still only halfway to VA paradise. To build this game up and get hyped over the voices in a game is a bit desperate and sad, I know, but voice acting was still a novelty for me and here were voices I’d recognise anywhere.

Tales of Symphonia is a game about… Christ, how long do you have? To give you the initial goal, the world of Sylvarant is running out of that terribly precious stuff, mana. And just what is this notorious mana? Or should I ask, what is the secret of this mana? But the game curiously doesn’t really tell you this – mana just makes everything work, and not having it anymore will turn all of us Sylvarantians into dirt-harvesting povvers.

You are Lloyd Irving, one of the most wonderfully thick-headed JRPG leading men I’ve ever had the pleasure of having as my representative throughout any doomed-RPG-world-of-the-month. His annoyingly saccharine childhood friend, Colette, is designated as the Chosen of Mana, who must undergo the ritual of restoring mana by visiting Seals around the world.

What follows is a boatload of crazy plot twists and wonderful clichés, each more trite than the last, all spread out over two GameCube discs. And that really isn’t sarcasm back there; I love that the game’s got the testicular fortitude to keep pushing the cliches further and further – way beyond the limits that even the stupidest, most off the wall RPG would set. When the biggest character reveal happens with Lloyd, you’ll simply be left admiring the game’s sheer audacity.

In any case, enough crypticness – we ought to talk about the gameplay. The battling system is standard Tales fare, which if you all didn’t know, works wonderfully. It takes the right RPG elements and mixes them in the perfect way: first of all, unlike previous Tales games, you can see enemy groups on the overworld before getting yourself flung into a sword-drawn straightener with them, in sharp contrast to all that random encounter rubbish that the series featured before.

Once entrenched in the throes of battle, you’ll find that it’s none of your turn-based menu-driven guff neither; this is like a mix of action RPGs, which are my favourite type, and 2D tournament fighters of all things. Use tech moves, spells, aerial moves or items as you battle a bestiary of hundreds of monsters, all in real time. Gain experience points and gold (that is to say, Gald), level up, learn stronger techs with more flips and throaty yells and energy beams, buy better equipment with the proceeds from beating up overlarge bees and racist concentration camp workers… you know, the usual effort.

What sets ToS apart is its premier voice acting, its undulating story. And don’t forget its characters, anime as anything but interesting nonetheless – unlike other RPG games I could mention, other playable characters don’t just fulfil some tutorial purpose early on only to be left forgotten about and ultimately undeveloped. Everyone’s got a purpose, and more and more details about the main characters become known through tons of optional dialogue in the hundreds of funny text skits and the hordes of sidequests that the game boasts.

So many sidegames and distractions is there that you’ll have to run through the game at least twice to get everything. And repeated runs through the game are heavily encouraged thanks to the game’s phenomenal New Game Plus system, where you can use GRADE points acquired in battle to purchase multiple benefits and carry stats and unlockables over to subsequent playthroughs, where you may finally begin to gain a modicum of understanding of the game’s insane story (it’s something about a Final Solution for the hated species of Half Elves, I think, based on my own forty-seven completions of the game).

To tell you the truth, I’m sometimes afraid to check, but Symphonia probably hasn’t aged as well as I would have hoped. But that’s OK, because the game is almost like a time capsule of 90s and early 00s animation, a way to cap off some of the best vocal work the previous decade had seen.

Where do the Nicktoons roost now? Is the Disney House of Mouse abandoned for good? What about those one-note animes that would come and go on Cartoon Network? For aficionados of that era, Symphonia was their last stand.

And if the voice-acting doesn’t excite you, and it probably won’t if you’re a normal person, then the cel-shaded graphics, the fun battling and exploration, the madcap story and the nifty soundtrack will give your vocal cords plenty to shout about.

4 January 2019

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