Well, I don’t mean to answer for Dave, but I’ve played through Tales of Symphonia when it released over here. What is it you don’t like about JRPGs and didn’t like about Skies of Arcadia? Arcadia’s flaws, to me, were that its battle system was pretty basic and moved too slowly, so that it got annoying quite a few times without actually adding to development of the characters or having fun with the game and that incredibly irritating area where you have to travel to Ixa’taka. Also, the beginning few hours of the game were really slow for a lot of people, before the games picked up and offered you things like actual challenge, discoveries and ship battles, not to mention the characters.
I seem to remember you saying Skies was ludricrous though. So if it has something to do with the peppy, cherry attitude that was permeating the game, or the illustration of the characters and their animation, or the Saturday-morning-cartoon villain scenes, or the complete artistic license they took in the word “fantasy” then Tales of Symphonia is probably not much better. Tales, however, does focus less on the main plot and far, far more on the characters. This is good, because ever since Tales of Destiny (the second game in the series) the developers realized they couldn’t pen a good plot without dipping heavily in the ink of cliches, so they started evolving more and more gameplay elements into character interaction. While its arguable that they could tried harder to challenge themselves in this game’s plot, I do think they succeeded in creating marvelous character interaction. Especially since most of it is optional. You can start character skits in certain places, or on the world map, or all side-quest-like, and your answers, similar to Planescape: Torment have an affect on character development and a smaller affect on battle synchronicity (which helps them combo better together). Still, the characters, as charming as they can be, do come from every fantasy and anime cliche you can think of. (I know a lot of people think anime permeates JRPGs, but its really only a small subset of games. I definitely wouldn’t define Skies as anime-inspired for instance.) And I’m not sure how the voice acting turned out. There are a lot of Japanese RPGs that whose identity and construction have precious little to do with anime, but Tales is not one of them. Just a warning, though, you really don’t play a game like this if you’re expecting excellence on every front, a kind of tie between good (for a game, at least) story and good gameplay. For instance, I think the vast majority of Japanese players were attracted to it for the characters, its more orthodox values and the battle system.
If it was the random battles, Tales doesn’t have random battles. If it was the battle system, Tales’ battle system is superlative and appreciably deep–its also very, very fast. Think of Baldur’s Gate meets Street Fighter and you’ll have a good idea. Also if you have any friends who like this type of game, its multiplayer in battles as well (up to four players). If it was the linearity, Tales is just as linear, and both games have around the same amount of diversions, sidequests and optional content. If it was the abstraction, I’m afraid Tales isn’t even as concrete in its portrayal of the world as Skies and prefers a more symbolic/cartoonish portrayal of the world.
I must add that I find Tales’ cooking system absolutely hysterical, but maybe that’s just me.
Last year in Japan, Tales of Symphonia won many awards (even some GOTY) and was ranked one of the most satisfying sequels of the year. It was a great success for Namco on all fronts. There hasn’t been much debate that it was a good RPG, its just a question of what you’re looking for in an RPG, I suppose. On the other hand, Skies has its fans (including me) and among genre aficionados is generally considered the first classic next-gen RPG, but a lot of people didn’t like it, and the critical reception was mixed.
Hope that helps.