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Tales of the Abyss is why JRPG localization needs to change

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Something about the subtitles in this sketch from Tales of the Abyss seems off:

Japanese role-playing games adopted a very disjointed and often grating storytelling method early in the PlayStation 2's lifecycle that did not localize in a comprehensible way. These story skits cause otherwise sincere or serious characters to interact in ways unrelated to the plot and their personalities.

Tales of the Abyss, which originally came out in the U.S. in 2006, is highly regarded by fans of the series for its complex and interwoven story. Unfortunately, it's marred by the very worst examples of nonsensical skit conversations that make the recent 3DS re-release difficult to play.

 

I feel Persona 3 changed the RPG formula. It embraced all the character interaction laid down by Final Fantasy X and the skits in the Tales series without descending into unintelligible madness. Characters often interact in side stories that actually complement their personalities rather than making them seem superficial and comical. You learn a great deal about NPCs and party members in a way that is not only interesting, but actually impacts how successful you are during dungeon segments.

I very much want to enjoy Tales of the Abyss, and now 20 hours in I'm finally starting to, but it does absolutely everything I hate about 2000s RPGs before Persona 3. Beyond the skits, Abyss is front loaded with a great deal of exposition that goes absolutely nowhere. The story is indeed complex, but the first five hours are nothing but characters alluding to their histories and your past and promptly following it with "it's classified" or "you don't need to know."

Abyss meanders and tries to play up political intrigue but undoes all of this every time your party starts making fun of each other. I do believe humor can exist alongside serious drama, but the "funny" moments in Abyss often revolve around the main character abusing the good-natured magical animal he's been saddled with for no reason other than that it's annoying, and making fun of the man who is almost offensively afraid of women.

I fear localization has warped what these scenes were originally trying to convey. It is difficult to translate both meaning and significance at once, and that's understandable. Some cultural elements cannot be conveyed succinctly between languages. English expressions, philosophical concepts, and emphasis does not easily shift, say, into Japanese or even other European languages. And the reverse is true for bringing foreign concepts into the English vernacular.

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It isn't impossible to convey both intent and significance in a translation, but it cannot be done with a literal interpretation. I am very fond of Atlus games because their localization teams go the extra mile when attempting to present complex and often strange cultural concepts to new audiences. While this dedication is integral to many of the games they release (certainly the Shin Megami Tensei series) it should become a standard for all publishers and developers.

Again I say that I am enjoying Tales of the Abyss, but it was very difficult to overcome how antiquated it already feels. It is a glaring example as to why companies trying to sell JRPGs outside of Japan need to re-evaluate how they present them. If I could, I would love to play this in Japanese and verify the suspicions I've had since the PS2 release.

But, alas, my Japanese is only good enough to get me to a train station and/or ask for someone's phone number.


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