Tales of Symphonia (the animation) is, first and foremost, derived from the 2003/2004 Gamecube exclusive (and later, multi-platform) JRPG of the same title. I say that because it’s important to keep in mind that this eleven-episode series is a video game adaptation first, and an original story second. Yet I found that those aren’t mutually exclusive during my viewing of Tales of Symphonia, which is finally available legally for the first time on Crunchryoll.
The show, much like its source material, is divided up into arcs: the Sylvarant Arc, the Tethe’alla Arc, and the United World Arc. These arcs get spread out across eleven episodes, telling a compressed version of the 80+ hour JRPG’s plot with some pacing adjustments and original elements blended in. Our story first begins in Sylvarant with protagonist Lloyd Irving, who, at first glance, appears to be your typical hot-headed sword-wielding character. A lot of his personality is “slash first, ask questions second,” though this is toned down from the game where he can come across as downright cocky. In the anime, Lloyd initially feels like a bold and brash teenage boy whose ideas of justice begin and end with using your power in the right ways, but he quickly has to confront how his actions often have serious ramifications, which allows him to develop into a more full-bodied character. This is but one of the various clever character-building tricks up Tales of Symphonia‘s proverbial sleeve as Lloyd and his companions’ seemingly template characterizations at the start are quickly deconstructed and allowed to develop in interesting ways, right until the very end when the story wraps up.
And that’s what a lot of Tales of Symphonia is: it’s cleverly subverting expectations even when it operates within well-worn tropes and settings of the genre. This is most apparent with Colette and Zelos, who are the series two literal Chosen: humans born with special crystals that imbue them with the inherent right to save the world. While that might seem like typical JRPG tropes at play, Tales of Symphonia is quick to show the cruelty and brutality that such a role entails, as well as the intense loneliness of being set apart from humanity as part of a bigger plan.
That’s all elevated by the gorgeous animation, which at times is breathtakingly fluid and beautiful. Highlights include the fight scenes, of which there are plenty, as well as moments where Colette’s angelic changes are depicted. Even general table setting scenes between characters tend to look good, which is no small feat given that Tales of Symphonia started in 2007 and ended in 2012, nearly a decade ago. Then again, it’s an ufotable title; I’m not surprised that it still holds up in 2021, looking just as crisp as many notable late 2010s series.
The score for this series also deserves mention: it’s gorgeous, and perfectly suits the fantasy story of Symphonia. While not as memorable as the in-game OST, the music of this series feels right at home with the worlds of Sylvarant and Tethe’alla. It’s wondrously atmospheric, and at times, adds excellent emphasis to certain scenes to maximize their effectiveness and impact. ZIZZ Studio really created a banger of a soundtrack; I’d love to have this in my collection for sure. The music is also complemented by the sound design; directed by Jin Aketagawa, the distinct instrumentation and sound effects instantly transports viewers into the fantastical worlds of Sylvarant and Tethe’alla. All in all, the visual and aural elements of Symphonia blend together to create a magnificent high fantasy story that has definitely stood the test of time—for the most part.
There are definitely some foibles in Tales of Symphonia, the most prominent of which is how the plot kind of hiccups around at times. I chalk that up to, once again, compressing an 80+ hour game into 11 twenty-four minute chunks: five-ish hours is simply not enough for a story of this size, and at times, it may confuse viewers who don’t have the advantage of nostalgia—or general knowledge of the series—on their side. I’m also not a fan of Genis’ sub-plot around his crush on Presea; it pops up a lot in the first few episodes of the second arc, and feels shoehorned in considering the otherwise strong romance between the series leads.
Another major oversight is the subtitles, which are presented in a yellow so fierce—and font so small—that it’s hard to recommend this for viewers who use subtitles as part of their viewer experience, especially since this is a series with a lot of in-world jargon. I hope this will be rectified should Tales of Symphonia get a physical release outside Japan. For now, this series remains hard to watch on a laptop or tablet screen. If you can stream it on a larger television, it’s better, but this definitely feels like an avoidable hindrance in an era where we can, and should, strive to ensure the best quality for viewers who use subtitles.
In many ways, it feels like a miracle that this series got a release at all outside of Japan, not to mention in Winter 2021. Tales of Symphonia‘s time in the spotlight has come and gone, but in the wake of Tales of Arise‘s 2021 late Summer release, it feels like a good time to revisit one of the most beloved titles in the larger Tales franchise. Admittedly, viewers coming from more modern Tales series games will probably find Tales of Symphonia a bit too heavy-handed in its message about discrimination; in that regard, it’s a product of the mid-00s through and through. However, I think that once you immerse yourself in the series, you’ll realize how thoughtful it still is, and how resonant this story can still be. It’s definitely a product of its time, but as blunt as the plot can be, there’s still value to what it’s trying to say.
Ultimately, Tales of Symphonia is a rarity: a solid video game adaptation anime that feels satisfying. It’s the kind of adaptation that both newcomers and existing fans of the series can get something out of. If you’ve played the video games at least once, you’ll get enjoyment out of seeing how everything gets compressed into eleven episodes, for better or worse. If you’re an anime-only viewer, you still get a satisfying story with enough meat to it that you very rarely feel lost. In fact, it might even encourage you to pick the game up on Steam, or if you want to go real retro, on the Gamecube or Wii. In my opinion, it’s good enough to be considered as one of the best video game adaptations to date. To be honest, the only other adaptation that I personally feel comes close to this is Spring 2021’s The World Ends with You the Animation, which, rocky start aside, ends up building to a satisfying conclusion.
At eleven episodes, Tales of Symphonia is a perfectly bingeable series that will introduce you to a fascinating world, loveable characters, and a story that exemplifies the Tales series origins, and hopefully, inspire you to (re)discover Tales of Symphonia as a game.