Namco's "Tales of" series has suffered quite a rocky existence in the U.S. For more than a decade, half the games didn't even make their way into English, and the ones that did were often handled carelessly.
But even as more and more Japanese games have failed to reach our shores since the American portable market imploded a few years back, Namco has begun taking the localization of the Tales games far more seriously. They almost seem to be making up for lost time, in fact, announcing not just one but two Tales releases for 2014: Tales of Symphonia Chronicles and Tales of Xillia 2.
The first one makes plenty of sense, as Symphonia Chronicles converts two previously localized Tales games to PlayStation. The original Tales of Symphonia, in fact, remains the best-selling Tales to date in the West, in large part due to reaching a hungry audience of Nintendo fans starving for quality RPG content on GameCube. Its sequel, Dawn of the New World, wasn't nearly as well-received, but it's here as well.
Chronicles looks to be more or less a straight conversion of the two games to HD. Texture quality has a decidedly previous-generation look to it, with lots of blurriness and low contrast, and 3D models seem decent but not amazing. Namco hasn't made any effort to reconcile the super-deformed models of the first game with the (slightly) more realistically proportioned characters of its sequel, so there's a definite gap in visual quality between the two. (Yes, occasionally Wii games actually did look better than their GameCube predecessors -- most developers just didn't make the effort.)
Interestingly, you can see that same trend of visual evolution at work in the other 2014 Tales title, Tales of Xillia 2. Character designer Kouichi Kimura showed off the fundamental tinkering his team has undertaken with Xillia 2's graphics. For one, character models have been reworked to look slightly more adult (with somewhat smaller heads and longer bodies). More significantly, though, the harsh toon-shaded style introduced to the franchise with Tales of Vesperia has been supplanted by a much softer look that better resembles the franchise's trademark artwork. The pastel, painterly appearance of Tales' promotion illustrations has finally made its way into the games proper. As someone with a scholarly background in art, I'm always keen to see game graphics better reflect the hand-crafted images that inspire them, so this transformation makes for a welcome sight. Now if only we can get a Final Fantasy game whose characters look like Yoshitaka Amano's illustrations....
Fundamentally, of course, you shouldn't expect major surprises from any of these titles. Symphonia Chronicles is a known quantity, and Xillia 2 seems guaranteed to build on the franchise's foundation of active combat and all those genki anime tropes that Pete dug so much in the first Xillia.
For me, though, the most interesting part of Namco's Tales announcements wasn't the new games but rather some of the development artwork that Kimura showed off. In order to convince the Tales studio that his new direction for the character art was a winner, he modeled several classic characters from the older Tales titles (including Tales of Destiny's Stahn and Rutee) in the new style. This in turn made me come away from the demo wondering when Namco's going to bother reissuing Destiny on PlayStation Network. But until then, I suppose these upcoming titles will suffice.