Though it featured a somewhat formulaic story that bowed to genre tropes (even going so far as to include a mostly amnesiac lead protagonist), Tales of the Abyss wowed consumers and critics alike with interesting characters, detailed and beautiful environments, an efficient combat system and an epic adventure. The game's greatest strength was its ability to take so many familiar genre elements and tie them together to create an experience that almost felt too big for the PlayStation 2 hardware. More than five years later, that experience has returned in handheld form with all of the magic still in place.
What's new this time around? Tales of the Abyss plays almost exactly the same on the 3DS hardware as it did on the PlayStation 2. As the game starts, it's difficult not to feel like someone just shrunk your television and dropped it into your hands. Blaring music and a cutscene still greet you before the title menu, and the load screens have the same white orbs in the lower right corner (though delays seem slightly briefer now).
Once you start playing, you'll find that the characters say all of the same things, except in cases where system hardware is referenced (such as when Van instructs Luke on combat before the adventure properly begins; spoken references to particular buttons that are exclusive to the PlayStation 2 controller have been excised). There's a nice amount of voice acting throughout the game, and nothing seems to have been re-recorded or supplemented. Conversation sounds a bit tinny now thanks to the 3DS speakers, but otherwise it hasn't changed from what you may remember if you played the previous version of the game.
The biggest changes relate to the controls and the three-dimensional effects. The general layout is the same, but special attack shortcuts (known in the game as "Artes") can now be assigned to four positions on the 3DS touch screen rather than to the four primary directions in which you might move the PlayStation 2 controller's right analog stick. That's a helpful improvement, since it's easier to tell at a glance what move you're about to input, with less likelihood of an error. The three-dimensional effect is less useful from a utility standpoint, and it doesn't affect pre-rendered cutscenes. However, the world feels more alive (particularly in towns and in dungeons) and the discussions that characters have around tables and the like feel more personal thanks to the added visual depth. The only negative change in that regard is that some edges do seem to appear rougher, though it's not enough to detract from a scene's impact.
How's it hold up? As a long-time fan, I enjoyed Tales of the Abyss a great deal when it was originally released. I was surprised to find that it's no less effective now than it was in 2006, despite appearing on a much smaller screen. Current generation hardware has obviously improved and now it's not uncommon to see environments rendered with more polygons and textures, but the art style in Tales of the Abyss has aged gracefully and looks especially nice on the 3DS hardware. Environments feel crowded with life and mystery, like storybook pages brought to life.
The lack of new content would often hurt a port, but this game is a significant undertaking with a lot of secrets to uncover. The active combat system, which in some ways feels more like a fighting game than a turn-based exchange of stats, also keeps the pace quick enough that exploring the world and story is a blast. That was always true of Tales of the Abyss and others in the series, but the number of similar efforts that are produced and translated into English these days has dropped noticeably. As a result, Tales of the Abyss feels even more special now than it did when it was serving as the end of an era on the PlayStation 2.
This new release represents the chance to experience a truly great RPG once again or, if you're really fortunate, for the very first time.
This Deja Review is based on a retail copy of Tales of the Abyss for the 3DS, provided by Namco Bandai.
Jason Venter is a freelance game critic and the founder of the community reviews site, HonestGamers. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonventer.