For those uninterested in Video Games, you may want to just head over to Library of the Damned and hang out there today. Very video game intensive post ahead!

Recently (within the last 3 months) I pulled out an oldish PS2 game that TacoMa’am had picked up for me: Tales of Legendia. She’d snagged it for $4.95 from a video rental store that was clearing out all their PS2 inventory. I’ve long been a fan of the Tales series, so it was a lucky find for $5.

It turned out to be $5 extremely well spent, too. In the play-through of the game (and it was much longer than anticipated) I found that it stacked up pretty well with the other entries into the series. The gameplay was solid, the plot and characters were very well done, and the voice acting was spot on (drawing heavily upon the established troupe of voice talent that does dubbing for 90% of the Japanese imported Anime and video games).

Yarr, thar be spoilers ahead!

The game also had an interesting feature where it was really broken into two games. There was the first ‘half’ of the game which followed a very complete plot and has an ending and credits. After the ending and credits you’re thrown right back into the game. As it turns out, you’re only about 1/3 of the way through the game. The second half of the game exists almost as its own entity, with a unifying plot separate from the first half that explores all the characters more completely. The director of the game called this an optional portion of the game, though nobody is sure why. In order to get a “game complete” credit on your game-save and open up New Game+ you HAVE to finish this second part. Further, a lot of the neater aspects of the game (such as the arena, synth-items, side-quests, ultimate-weapons, etc) aren’t available until this second half. And the second ‘half’ is nearly twice a long as the first half and is much deeper and fleshed out whereas the first half feels almost rushed at times (due to the fast pacing). People who have played the game through almost unanimously facepalm at the director’s assertion that the second part of the game is optional; since it clearly isn’t. In fact, if you don’t play the second half, you miss out on at least 3/4 of the game content since there is so much that isn’t unlocked until the second half.

This leads to one of the two tragedies of the game: The voice acting is only in the first half of the game and the second half is just “text bubbles.” It’s a real shame too, because the second half would have come alive if the voice acting had been extended to include it. I’m going to give the makers of the game the benefit of the doubt and assume that they ran out of space on the game disk and just couldn’t fit all the sound files that would be necessary for the second half. It could also have been budget concerns as there would have been several dozen hours of extra recording necessary to add voice to the second half.

The other tragedy of the game was the music. By and large I found myself unimpressed with the music from the game; there were a few very good tracks I liked as I played through, but mostly it didn’t seem well done. However, one of the tracks I really liked so I took the opportunity to get the soundtrack for the game and listen to it, and that’s when I discovered the real tragedy of the music: The music for the game was very well composed, and completely orchestrated (almost unheard of for a PS2 game, and even modern games are rarely fully orchestrated). What went wrong then? The recording studio they hired to record the music did a HORRIBLE job.

If you listen to an orchestral recording that has been done well you’ll notice that it sounds very clean. Individual instruments or instrumental sections have clear definitions, and the different levels of sound are distinct and balanced. This is achieved in a few ways. One way is to record all the instruments separately and then mix them; this used to be very popular, but with better sound systems and recording studios, is not as popular as it once was because such a recording style often sounds less dynamic. Instruments tend not to harmonize as well since they’re either playing alone, or while listening to a recording of other’s playing. In a setting where the instruments are actually playing together, the performers will (often without thinking) adapt to one-another and produce something that sounds more “whole” than when recorded separately and then mixed together.

Thus, productions that can afford to do so will opt for the second method: whole orchestra recording. Disney (and indeed all the big movie producers) have been doing this for decades. It’s technically a harder thing to do, but results in a much better, harmonic product. Often you have to put microphones in individual instruments (key instruments like soloists and first/second chairs), as well as setting up recording for individual sections and further record the orchestra as a whole. Sound directors (those clear plastic sheets you often see at concerts that are being recorded) are used to help isolate sections while still allowing for collaboration of the players. Unfortunately, this kind of recording is much more expensive, requires more equipment, and a larger more carefully designed recording room. Once you have all your recorded material, all the different tracks taken from a single piece of music are overlaid, and mixed back together aiming at producing a balanced and clean sounding recording of the orchestra. If the studio did their job correctly, the result will sound like you’ve got the best seat in the house when listening to the playback. This is why soundtracks of Disney movies sound so direct: they have one of the best recording studios in the business for doing whole orchestra recording.

And then there’s the way the music was recorded for Tales of Legendia. It sounds like they plopped the orchestra in an empty auditorium somewhere and put a single microphone out where the audience would be sitting. They put microphones in a few key instruments, but other than that just one recording of the orchestra from a distance. The sound is horrible. Lots of echo, the instruments blend together and are indistinct, the low (bass) end overpowers the high end in many places, and solos and voice work is far too overpowering because they are recorded directly. It’s like listening to musical chaos most of the time. And it’s worse because the music is actually very good if you listen past the horrible recording/mixing job. Such a tragedy that the game developers could not afford (or chose not to hire) a professional sound stage to do the recording. The whole thing sounds like some of the high school recordings we made of the orchestra I was in: very amateur. Even individual recording/remixing would have produced a far superior product to what was actually produced.

Had the game voiced the second half, and hired a good recording studio to do the music, Tales of Legendia would have easily been a contender for my PS2 top 10, and potentially joined the list of my “Essential Plays.” As it stands though, the poor musical presentation combined with the lack of complete voice acting, plus a few smaller flaws, knocks the game out of the runnings. Top 25 perhaps, but even on the low-end of that.

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?

NOTE: I’ve mentioned my “Essential Plays” a few times on my blog. Starting soon™ I’ll be using my Monday’s Game spotlights to cover my “Essential Plays” lists.