“If there is evil in the world, it lurks in the hearts of man.”
From action to turn-based, JRPGs to WPRGs, the Super Nintendo was the definitive home for Role Playing Games in the 16-bit era. Although the console didn’t launch with any RPGs in Japan, it only took a month for Quintet’s action RPG Actraiser to follow, and the Super Famicom never lacked in the genre from then on. Nintendo’s last first-party title for the console in 1999, Fire Emblem: Thracia 776, was even a strategy RPG. Role-Playing Games are an intimate part of the Super Nintendo’s DNA, and the SNES naturally became a playing ground for the genre to evolve, experiment, & expand. Across various Final Fantasy, Japan’s exclusive Dragon Quest titles, and the painfully underrated Lufia duology, one can comfortably follow a large stretch of the genre’s evolution, jumping from quality RPG to quality RPG, without missing a major beat. Until around the mid-90s.
The Super Famicom may have persisted into the 21st century in Japan, but the west saw fit to discontinue the Super Nintendo not long after the Nintendo 64’s international launch. Where Nintendo of Japan allowed the Super Famicom & N64 to coexist, the latter dominated Nintendo’s international presence. As a result, something needs to be said for the Super Famicom’s late gen RPGs, those games released so late in the console’s lifespan that they’re not a part of the SNES’ standard discourse. Between a natural focus on the Nintendo 64 and several region-locked titles, the west missed out.
Which is a true shame, as some of the most cutting edge & impressive titles in the system’s library were only released well into the Nintendo 64’s life cycle. While neither the most technologically impressive RPG on the system, or even the best in terms of overall quality, one title sticks out as particularly notable. With the benefit of releasing on the cusp of the Nintendo 64’s launch, Tales of Phantasia pushed the Super Famicom to limits no other entry in the genre had. And the end result is an RPG epic unlike any other.
Tales of Phantasia’s December 1995 release was just shy of the Nintendo 64’s domestic launch by six months, and it shows. Longer than the average RPG, denser than the average RPG, and much better looking than the average RPG, Tales of Phantasia pushed the genre’s scope– narratively and gameplay-wise. But what sticks out most immediately about Phantasia is its off-the-charts presentation. Voicework in 16-bit gaming was hardly new ground in 95, especially on the cusp of the N64’s launch, but opening with spoken dialogue before transitioning into a fully voiced opening song is quite a technological flex.
What’s more stunning is that Tales of Phantasia keeps this audio fidelity up for the whole game by using a high-capacity 48-megabit game cartridge. Far from every line is voiced, but the important ones are and party members speak rather frequently in battle– from announcing their attacks, to exclaiming victory. It’s a video game staple that’s commonplace by this point, but in 1995, Tales of Phantasia was a leap in presentation for the Super Famicom.
While it can be argued voice work leads to deeper immersion, Phantasia’s spoken-word audio is more flavor than anything else. Certainly monumental and a marvel to behold, but not exactly what elevates the RPG’s presentation above its contemporaries. Rather, that praise belongs to the art direction. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tales of Phantasia is one of the best looking games on the SNES, RPG or otherwise. Beyond incredibly detailed sprite work, environments are filled to the brim with visual & audio nuance. The game’s first major set-piece, The Forest of Spirits, is just one of many areas that helps convey how actually alive Aselia is in comparison to other JRPG worlds of the era.
At first glance, the Forest of Spirits seems like the standard JRPG starting area– and in many respects it is. A lush forest full of greenery, enemies are basic animals and the path forward is more or less linear. It’s a familiar setting, one the genre loves– Protagonist Cress & his best friend Chester even leave home at just the right time to do some basic hunting– but Tales of Phantasia fleshes out the area beyond its surface level. This was all old hat by 1995, but Phantasia uses simplicity to showcase its commitment to detail. Cress and Chester aren’t alone in the Forest of Spirits.
The boar they’re hunting having an overworld model is to be expected, but this is a courtesy given to every animal in-game. While the boar only has butterflies to keep him company in the forest, cats & dogs populate towns, harmless lizards run amok in caves, and birds fly overhead most outdoors areas. Fish can even be seen swimming in most bodies of water. Players are rarely alone on their adventure.
With a populated overworld naturally comes a need for sound. The Forest of Spirits makes great use of ambient noise, indicating that other animals are also present in the forest even if they go unseen. Just being able to hear diegetic sound alongside the score does wonders for immersion. It doesn’t take long for Cress to walk by water either, revealing that reflective surfaces react to character models accordingly. With dynamic lighting piercing through the treetops, Cress & Chester weave through some of the nicest looking shadows on the Super Nintendo as they head deeper into the woods. Short and to the point, the Forest of Spirits is but a taste of what audiences can expect from the entirety of Tales of Phantasia.
Returning home, Cress & Chester even find themselves caught in a downpour, showing off the title’s penchant for weather effects. Lightning can be seen flashing through windows, thunder rumbles over a somber track, and the rain ripples where it falls. Weather effects only ever appear in key areas, but they always leave a lasting impression. Freezekill and Ary, Aselia’s two winter towns, are covered in some of the nicest snow this side of the SNES. Freezekill, a city where it snows for over half the year, is filled with NPCs going about their lives. You’ll notice that everyone leaves their footprints in the snow, not just Cress– a novelty that wouldn’t be popularized until Metal Gear Solid’s 1998 release. Ary, a town trapped in perpetual darkness, has lampposts littered across the streets. Walking by them triggers dynamic lighting with shadows that correctly respond to how Cress is angled. It’s an unnecessary visual detail that’s only noticeable in Ary, but it’s the little things that flesh out a world. Especially in a game.
Strong art direction can lead to an audience forming a deeper connection with what they’re playing, but Tales of Phantasia similarly recognizes the role presentation can play in puzzle solving and level design. Dhaos’ Castle in particular uses reflective surfaces as a dungeon mechanic. While traversing through the first half of the castle, Cress will walk by mirrors that reflect a reaper’s image instead of his own. It’s on the onus of the player to remember where these mirrors were as the second half requires fighting the reapers to progress. Better puzzle-solving leads to even greater immersion, which is more meaningful when the puzzles logically flow with an area’s geography or architecture.
More than anything, Tales of Phantasia shows a distinct level of maturity with its presentation. A considerable amount of respect is given to ensuring Aselia’s minutia has context that leads to a better playing experience. On a surface level, ToP is as cliched as RPG stories come– complete with Cress’ hometown burning town, his love interest Mint being a demure cleric, and time travel playing a key role in stopping antagonist Dhaos– but mature presentation that takes itself seriously prevents the game from coming off generic, or bog standard. Rather, Tales of Phantasia feels classic. Simple as Phantasia’s tale may be, pacing that takes its time, allows itself to breathe, and lives in the moment results in one of the most charming RPGs on the Super Famicom.
A Deeper World For a Deeper RPG
More involved storytelling allows for Tales of Phantasia to not only obscure its simplicity to an extent but weaponize it. While its key beats were familiar for the time, rarely were they ever as expanded upon as in Phantasia. Notably, it’s through the cast where the storytelling overcomes its generic roots. Cress & company are more talkative than the average RPG party from the era. They react frequently to events around them, actively making useful observations. The party converse, plan out their next steps in detail, and make an attempt to engage with recurring NPCs as a means to keep up with what’s happening in Aselia. While overworld sprites are fairly standard looking, characters emote through emoticons– expressing embarrassment, frustration, & joy through thought bubbles. It makes for nice emotional shorthand that helps flesh out an already colorful-in-dialogue main cast.
There’s an in-text commitment to party bonding sessions, where cutscenes don’t exist for the sole purpose of moving the story along. Cress’ party banter among themselves, tell each other jokes and get to know one other. The party’s nautical voyage is one of the most memorable parts of the story, and for good reason. Klarth gets himself and a swordsman drunk enough to get information out of the latter; Arche drinks way too much for her own good, and Cress is left the only playable character when the party gets ambushed because everyone else is either too sick or hungover.
There’s no real tension here and the narrative only needed Klarth to coax info out of his drinking buddy, but letting the main cast just be, gives them and their journey realer depth. Why wouldn’t a group of four traveling together stop to enjoy themselves when they can? Even when danger is around the corner, they realistically let their guard down when regular people would do so. It’s not that this style of storytelling is novel to Tales of Phantasia that makes it notable– it isn’t and wasn’t in 95– it’s how committed the game is to fill in the smaller details most RPGs ignore. And while maintaining a brisk pace, at that.
Phantasia’s script may be wordier than the average Super Famicom JRPG, but excellent plot & scene pacing keep the story from dragging. The game’s overall structure is fairly formulaic (go to a new town, talk to locals, visit a dungeon, rinse, repeat,) but memorable set pieces and distinct NPCs keep Aselia from coming off static in the context of Cress’ journey. What seems to be just any other town is suddenly burned to the ground while Cress is away; the party keeps running into descendants of the Morrison family while traveling through time, and an early game side-quest features Cress & Mint becoming spectators to a star-crossed romance they keep trying to game.
Defeating Dhaos is the narrative’s focus, but it’s important to not only pen downtime but pace it accordingly. Characters develop rather naturalistically as a result, as well. When party members are interacting frequently, it’s easier to spot changes in chemistry or candor (best conveyed through Klarth’s arc, and Chester & Arche’s blossoming relationship.) They’re hardly the most developed cast in the genre, but everyone in Cress’s party does grow & mature.
Tales of Phantasia deserves particular praise for how it approaches themes of class and race with a considerable amount of poignancy. Making a point to speak to NPCs reveals the economic inequalities festering in the background of Aselia. Castle towns like Alvanista and Venezzia feature happy NPCs more than content to go about their business, while the citizens of Midgard lament their failing economy and the fact they’re being directly targeted by Dhaos. Unlike race, though, class isn’t an explicit plot point. Race is a staple of the Tales of franchise’s storytelling, and it naturally got its start with Phantasia. The treatment of half-elves in-game speaks to institutional racism while serving as a strong commentary on how racism can persist & linger.
Elves hate half-elves for misusing magic, blaming their human mindset & upbringings, while failing to recognize that half-elves won’t have an elf’s respect for magic if they’re not allowed to be a part of the culture. Humans, in turn, see half-elves as elitist due to their ability to use magic while instilling the very human belief that mankind is entitled to the planet’s resources to the point of complete consumption. This racism is even invoked through gameplay, with Arche forcibly removed from the party whenever Cress needs to enter the Forest of Ymir– a land where half-elves are persona non grata.
There’s also something to be said for how analogous this is towards mixed race racism– expecting one to adhere to a culture they weren’t raised in, while explicitly rejecting their cultural identity in the process. Cress’ party don’t just take racism at face value, though. They question the need for such segregation, always considering Arche’s feelings. Klarth even recognizes the mistreatment of half-elves head-on by the end of the game, delivering a rather scathing breakdown of this mindset. As many fantasy stories go out of their way to “justify” their historical racism, Tales of Phantasia’s self awareness is refreshing, and exemplary of nuanced, mature storytelling– a necessity considering the game’s full scope.
The Art of Gameplay
Failing to prevent Dhaos’ resurrection in the opening hours, Cress & Mint are sent back in time while Chester is left in the present. Cress’ goal becomes not only to return home, but to stop Dhaos in the past. Of course, things don’t play out so simply, but the core conceit is to see Aselia through three distinct time periods– past, present, and future– all framed through Cress’ perspective. While time travel is used as a framing device and not a gameplay mechanic, seeing one world across three different times helps with worldbuilding. Cress’ hometown is burned down in the present, prosperous in the past, and rebuilt in his father’s name in the future. Some towns disappear in-between time periods while others are expanded. Dungeons accessible in the future can only be seen from afar while in the past, building anticipation for what’s to come.
Its anticipation well built as Tales of Phantasia excels when it comes to dungeon design. As early as Sylph’s Mountain, dungeons establish themselves as complex, long, with plenty of puzzle-solving & exploration to go around. Cress needs to use ropes to descend pits, and a pickaxe to break down walls. They’re not items players need to use too often for puzzle solving, but they add a layer of puzzle variety. The Molten Cavern introduces the Sorcerer’s ring, a puzzle-solving tool which can hit buttons from afar, light candles with its flame, and melt frozen switches. Unlike the rope and pickaxe, the Sorcerer’s ring sees frequent play and requires players to keep an eye out for any visual oddities (an easy task thanks to well-defined art direction.)
Moria Gallery is arguably the defining dungeon of the first act. A 10 story dungeon crawl into the gallery’s depths, the Gallery features block-pushing puzzles (that predate Ocarina of Time & outdo A Link to the Past,) hidden rooms, trick warp panels, multiple unlockable shortcuts, and exploration that requires active use of the Sorcerer’s ring & a pickaxe. Getting through Moria’s Gallery in one piece will likely require the party to exit at least once, but its length is part of what makes it such a compelling dungeon. At the same time, the dungeon shines a light on Tales of Phantasia’s high encounter rate.
While walking normally, Phantasia’s encounter rate is fairly manageable. When running with the Jet Boots equipped, however, get ready to fight every few seconds. Even then, some dungeons are long enough where battles will naturally become exhausting for players who have been playing for quite a while. Since it’s never a good idea to leave a dungeon unfinished, this can potentially sour ToP’s otherwise great level design. It’s no fun running into battle after battle while trying to solve a puzzle (some of which actually involve running.) At least Tales of Phantasia has one of the most eclectic & engaging combat systems on the Super Famicom.
Through the Linear Motion Battle System, battles take place on a 2D field akin to a stage in a fighting game. Battles take place entirely in real-time, with players exclusively controlling protagonist Cress. Cress can be accompanied by three party members at any given time, with their formation togglable in the menu. By default, however, all party members will stand in a line behind Cress. Party members will not move on their own, but will react to enemies around them. Whenever Cress manually moves, the party will follow, keeping their approximate formation as accurately as possible. Likewise, each party member’s tactics can be edited in the menu, allowing for mages to cast spells on their own. Otherwise, battles can be briefly paused so Cress can give commands to his party members, use an item, or change the party’s tactics & formation on the fly.
Despite being an action RPG, Tales of Phantasia can’t be played as a button masher. In that respect, it very much does embody the fighting game genre. Cress has a set position in battle at all times that changes if: Cress manually moves forward, he’s damaged mid-attack, or players physically stop Cress in his tracks. Whenever Cress attacks, he’ll run from his set position to wherever his targeted opponent is. After attacking, Cress will automatically run back to his set position with no need for manual movement. If Cress is running left, pressing right will reset him. Positioning ends up playing a critical role in combat, especially in relation to Cress’ abilities. At close range, Cress can continually combo enemies with a slash attack, or stab enemies by pressing Up + A. At long range, double-tapping A will launch Cress into a running leap that deals extra damage. Cress has a few variations of his attacks, all based on both positioning & button presses, which keeps combat from falling into a routine and experimentation worthwhile.
Cress might be the quintessential JRPG swordsman in many respects, but he has access to axes and lances which get just as much playtime as his assorted blades. While the weapons don’t change how Cress attacks, they have a noticeable effect on his range & speed. Swords are all around Cress’s best weapon, but there are a few stretches where his sword options will be very limited. Axes require closer range combat than swords, but they tend to hit much harder & have a higher chance of slashing airborne enemies. Conversely, lances tend to be a bit on the weaker side but allow for Cress to stab enemies from afar– perfect against foes that cast status effects. Cress’ weapons don’t shake up combat too much, but they do add welcome variety.
More important than Cress’ weapons are his Techniques. Cress can learn sword skills both by leveling up and purchasing them from NPCs throughout Aselia. Like his regular attacks, Cress’ Techs are split into short-range and long-range. Although Cress can have 4 skills equipped at any given time, he can only use two at once based on his positioning. Neutral B will trigger Cress’ regular skills, while Up + B triggers his alternate skill. Cress’ short-range tech typically allows him to get into enemy’s faces, doing back to back damage while creating a bit of distance after.
Tiger Teeth is one of Cress’s most reliable close range techs, slashing his sword upwards and then down into his enemies. Fury Slash takes some wind-up, which makes it risky to pull off in combat, but it’s essentially a wide-arc critical hit. When using Soul Edge, a long-range Tech, Cress will rush his enemy and then jump into a strike that can hit upwards of three times. Almost all of Cress’ Techniques are useful by design, but they’re all worth using if only to master. Tales of Phantasia features a skill mastery system for Cress where by using a tech 100 times, Cress will master the ability.
By mastering Tech, Cress can unlock Combos which combines two Techniques together. Master Psion Bolt & Tiger Teeth, and Cress will be able to use Mecha Blade– a skill which sends out electrical damage followed by two back-to-back aerial Tiger Strikes. Master Teleport & Soul Wave, Cress will unlock Soul Strike, one of his most sophisticated Combos in the game. Teleporting directly to his enemies, Cress enters a heavy-hitting combo before teleporting back. Using a Combo is as simple as pressing B or Up + B, but mastering Tech and pulling them off in battle remains simple but engaging throughout.
Even though the LMBS is designed around Cress to the point of featuring him as the sole melee character for the majority of the game, party members do pull their weight. With the right tactics, Mint becomes one of the best healers of the 16-bit era, always on the ball. Exercising common sense to turn on & off spells based on elemental dungeons shows just how overwhelmingly useful Arche can be. Chester is gone for over half the game, but he levels up fast and he’ll keep up with Cress in terms of damage value so long as he’s properly equipped. Since a bit of TP (ToP’s magic/skill value) is restored at the end of every battle, there’s no real downside to Cress’ party using their skills in random battles. Unlike other RPGs, constant use of magic, mana, and tech is encouraged, which in turn keeps gameplay more engaging.
As gripping as combat is on a mechanical level, it’s the presentation that sells it. Tales of Phantasia already looks great outside of the action, but battles look downright incredible. In-battle character models are home to some of the best sprite work on the Super Famicom. Character sprites are expressive, vibrant, and alive (unless they’re killed in which case they become ghosts.) Party members and enemies have big reactions to damage, wide-eyed, and mouth agape when stunned. Mages close their eyes while spellcasting, only opening them when they’re ready to strike. Chester shoots his arrows with a coolness that almost makes up for his lack of presence. Cress’ Techs are always well-choreographed, make great use of his sprite, and are just downright mesmerizing to see in action. Complete with stunning battle backdrops, and combat never loses its luster even at its worst.
The fights against Dhaos hands down feature the best enemy sprite work in the game. Dhaos has an imposing gaunt and towers over the rest of the cast. A rare humanoid enemy, his face has as much detail as Cress and the gang, if not more so. It lends the impression that Dhaos is above the main cast in every respect. His techniques are as well-choreographed as Cress’, and Dhaos’ reactions to damage are noticeably subdued when compared to other character models– showing just the smallest hints of personality through combat. Boss fights can be a slow affair as spellcasting pauses combat, but random battles go by quick enough where the lengthier battles do feel earned. As story-driven as Tales of Phantasia ultimately is, it’s crucial that important boss fights are contextualized appropriately.
A Battle for the Ages
Between time traveling to intercept Dhaos right after the party initially time travels, to exploring an arctic cave in the depths of an ancient chapel, Tales of Phantasia is never lacking in memorability. But what’s arguably more notable is how often Tales of Phantasia opts for non-linear progression. There are multiple points in the game where the party is left to their own devices, albeit always with objectives to choose from. Ifrit, Undine, & Gnome can be contracted in any order, and the entire last act is almost purely player-driven. Along with skills to purchase for Cress, spells to learn for Arche, and optional Spirits to contract for Klarth, there’s a lot of optional content to uncover.
Tales of Phantasia is a dense RPG with a fair share of highs, but one scenario does stick out: the Valhalla Conflict. Taking place at a narrative turning point, Edward, the Conflict’s hero, has been paradoxically killed due to the party’s presence. Cress and company have to fight the Valhalla Conflict themselves in a means to stop Dhaos, and keep history intact. The war consists of a five-day march across the Valhalla Plains, a snow-white field that leads into Dhaos’ keep. Not only do enemies actually move on the overworld for a change, the passage of time is conveyed via sunset and sunrise. As Cress moves, time passes, and the sky reacts accordingly. As the Valhalla Plains are maze-like by design, this makes getting through the conflict a proper expedition.
With plenty of battles and enemies who give great EXP, exploring the Plains is satisfying even when lost. Branching paths add to the tension, but the time limit is so generous that even the most directionless players will likely reach Dhaos’ bridge before the night of the 4th day. There’s no treasure to find and enemies are actually removed from the Plains on all subsequent visits, but that’s what makes this event so memorable. There are no random encounters and there’s no secret to find. This is the moment Tales of Phantasia has been building up to the bloodiest war in recorded history. Referencing a map reveals that reaching Dhaos in less than a day is incredibly easy, but it’s worth getting through the Conflict blind if only to fully embrace the chaotic stress of coming so close to clashing with Dhaos.
It’s a genuine relief when Cress & party make their way through the plains and manage to intercept Dhaos’ forces, but days of hard work only reveal that Dhaos was planning to attack by sky all along. The longer you spend in the Plains, the more chilling the sudden twist becomes. The Valhalla Conflict can realistically end up being an hour of straight action. To turn relief into one of the game’s better twists is a stroke of genius on Phantasia’s part, but it’s used to transition into an even more memorable set-piece. With Dhaos’ forces on the cusp of wiping out Midgard, Cress vows to trade the mythical spear Gungnir to a Valkyrie for the privilege of riding her pegasus. Wielding Odin’s legendary weapon, Cress flies into the sky alongside Arche as the two fight off Dhaos’ forces themselves.
Without access to his Techs, Cress’ flight has an inherent tension to it. Players are reliant entirely on Arche’s spells and Cress’ lanceplay. The battles progressively get more difficult as Cress and Arche fly higher into the sky. All of this builds up to the fakeout finale of a lifetime, complete with a fairly long faux final dungeon and two boss fights against Dhaos. In any other RPG, the Valhalla Conflict really would mark the end for Tales of Phantasia. It’s the historical event the plot has been building up to while in the past, and directly clashing with Dhaos’ army is as good a precursor as any for a final battle. Text even starts auto-scrolling once Dhaos is defeated, a staple of SNES JRPGs nearing their credits.
In truth, this is really just the end of the second act. Cress’s party defeats Dhaos only for a messenger from the future to inform them that Dhaos is at large. Traveling into the future serves as a point of no return for Aselia’s past, finally granting the player access to the entire overworld and air travel in exchange. The actual story portion in the last act is fairly short, but there’s so much optional content that the Future could realistically end up the era players spend the most time in. Klarth’s optional Spirits are all stationed in the future, and it’s worth rechecking every area (dungeons included) to find new items or abilities.
The future even features a non-telegraphed endgame dungeon. Cress’s party can now descend even deeper into Moria’s Gallery. The dungeon is home to some of the toughest enemies, and the absolute best weapons in the game. Going through it before Dhaos’ Castle will result in an over-leveled party for the final battle, but the amount of content present in Moria’s Gallery is staggering. The same can be said for Euclid Colosseum, an arena where Cress competes against eight opponents in succession before squaring off against a supercharged foe for tiered prizes. After throwing set piece after set piece at the player, Tales of Phantasia is content to let you feel the last act out yourself– a design philosophy that only makes the grand finale all the more compelling.
An RPG Epic in 16-Bit
At the core of Tales of Phantasia’s narrative is a personal revenge story. Later entries in the franchise would feature multiple playable characters, which can be off-putting to lose when heading back to play Tales of Phantasia, but it’s important that Cress is the game’s sole playable character. The entire story is framed through his loss. His mother & father are murdered by Dhaos while he is away, and he vows revenge on the man who took everything away from him. By leveling up, mastering abilities, and simply unlocking new skills for Cress, the player’s improvement is analogous to Cress’ own journey of growth. He’s becoming stronger both through gameplay, and in his convictions.
While he’s primarily driven by revenge against Dhaos, the closer the party gets to the end of the game, the more empathetic Cress becomes. The party actually question Dhaos’ motivations on more than one occasion. Dhaos can’t simply want to destroy the world, no one is that one-dimensional. It’s a hard question no one in the game feels comfortable answering, if only because the idea that defeating Dhaos will resolve everyone’s problems is more comforting– even if it isn’t realistic. That said, Cress’ thirst for revenge prevents him from trying to understand Dhaos’ motives until he’s already left the man for dead. While Dhaos is clearly driven and an intimidating presence larger than life, it’s important that the text takes the time to remind the audience that Dhaos’ motivations are unclear.
Well-intentioned villains are hardly new territory by this point, but Dhaos has a simple elegance that’s easy to appreciate. He has his bad moments and is far from a kind man, but Dhaos never goes out of his way to make others suffer– at least not too maliciously. Dhaos’ antagonism is very controlled, and hindsight makes it hard to tell just how much conflict was actually instigated by Dhaos. All Dhaos wants is to form a Mana Seed to bring back to his home planet. Although an alien, Dhaos does not come to Earth with the intent of hurting anyone. Initially, all he wants is the seed, but upon noticing humanity’s mistreatment of Mana, Dhaos feels the need to intervene– killing thousands to save his home’s presumable millions.
It’s a fate Dhaos outright laments, telling the party he didn’t want things to play out this way. Dhaos actually was the hero of his own story, and in defeating him, the party serve as villains condemning an entire planet’s population to death. At the same time, Cress and Dhaos’ characters are intertwined. Dhaos didn’t want to kill, but he did, and systematically. Cress’ arc is not a condemnation of the cycle of revenge like most revenge arcs are. Rather, it’s an affirmation that conflict, war, & violence can’t breed clean endings. Cress reminds the audience on a visceral & personal level that even the most benevolent violence is still violence. What Dhaos did, he did for his home, but Cress’ mother and father were still murdered in cold blood.
Dhaos notably isn’t portrayed as in the right for what he’s done. The party, and by extension the player, are forced to acknowledge that Dhaos had noble intentions, but never without recognizing what he has taken away. From the multiple towns Dhaos destroyed in Aselia to the thousands he’s killed, it’s no coincidence the party’s farewell in Cress’ hometown at the end of the game features two graves in sight. Dhaos is ultimately sympathetic, but in a way that doesn’t undercut his atrocities. Cress and his party are remorseful over potentially condemning millions to death, but not by overshadowing their heroics. Tales of Phantasia recognizes that sympathizing with a villain is very different from validating their actions. Dhaos’ actions may be justified, but so is Cress’s retaliation. There’s no straightforward solution to Cress & Dhaos’ conflict, but the story never pretends there is.
More than just being gripping, Cress and Dhaos’ intersecting arcs are realistic. Of course, the young man who lost his mother & father isn’t going to let the man who killed them live. And of course the man fighting for the literal survival of his home is going to do anything to save his people. Tales of Phantasia posits a mature, well & carefully told narrative. Themes of class and race make up the story’s DNA, all while showcasing the uncomfortable realities of war. Characters are fundamentally changed by the end of their journey, gradually growing over the course of the game. The attention to visual & audio detail on the overworld is only rivaled by an incredibly expressive combat system that combines fighting game design philosophies with jaw-dropping sprite work.
Pushing well over 30 hours to do everything, Tales of Phantasia rolls credits as one of the most classically epic games on the Super Famicom. It was beyond impressive for 1995, and it’s still a marvel today. How Tales of Phantasia not only pushes the SNES but does so with elegance, is awe-inspiring. More than a technological achievement, Phantasia is a great RPG– one that speaks to the strength of well-used cliches, respecting minutiae, & refusing to rush. Excitement for the combat can wear thin during longer play sessions and some dungeons can be downright punishing, but gameplay is never boring, never shallow. Tales of Phantasia will never have the notoriety or legacy of its SNES sister RPGs, but it might just be something better: a genuine epic in 16-bit.