The series has been around for a long time, and has evolved about as much as any other long standing series. As such, there have been different eras of Tales:
The Classic Era
Games: Phantasia, Destiny, Eternia
The three that started it all. These games were a bit more vanilla than their successors, and the series' trademark skits hadn't really bloomed into anything substantial yet. Phantasia, in particular, feels quite different from any Tales game to come after it - while others are known for being relatively lighthearted or very "anime," Phantasia is much more grounded in its RPGness, more similar to Dragon Quest or the earlier Final Fantasies. Part of this has to do with the fact that Wolf Team hadn't split yet, and many members who would later go on to work on the Star Ocean series at Enix also worked on Phantasia.
The Golden Era
Games: Destiny 2, Symphonia, Rebirth, Legendia, Abyss, Innocence, Vesperia, Destiny Remake
This is usually the era people think of when they say they once loved the series. This is when Tales found its identity, I think. All of these games have a colorful and distinctive cast of characters and rely heavily on series mechanics such as stories with multiple acts, villains that fit neatly into a villainous organization, similar music, cooking, skits, and unique variations on the series' trademark action-based battle system. Unfortunately, Destiny 2, Rebirth, and Destiny's remake were never released in the west. There are translated playthroughs on Youtube and translation guides available, but we're still waiting on patches for them.
A unique aspect of this era is the split between Team Destiny and Team Symphonia. Team Destiny would make the 2D games, while Team Symphonia would make the 3D games. Each team's games had a distinct feel to them, with Symphonia's games going for a stronger main plot and more freedom of movement on the battlefield, and Destiny's going for gorgeous spritework and a more character-focused approach. Team Destiny's games were quarantined in the east, and a nasty rumor says that it's because Sony didn't want 2D games in this era... it's really too bad, although, if I'm going to be honest, Team Symphonia's games had better stories by a long shot anyway.
Vesperia is still the best looking game, and I think it's partially because it was the last game made for a powerful console to still use fixed camera angles.
The Modern Era
Games: Graces/F, Hearts, Xillia, Xillia 2, Zestiria, Berseria
Team Destiny would pump out one last game for the Wii (which was later ported to PS3), and would then merge with Team Symphonia to make Xillia. This era is generally considered to be an era of decline for the series, although I think the only game that's outright disliked by the majority of players is Zestiria. It's not that these games are bad, but there's several reasons they don't feel as compelling as the golden era of Tales - the franchise was beginning to feel stale after running on the same formula for so long, and the shift to HD development definitely harmed the games from Xillia and onward, with barren, open fields and a relatively lifeless world plaguing each game until Berseria. The battle systems became increasingly complex and convoluted, as well. Graces is hailed for having amazing gameplay, but its story was derided for delving too far into anime tropes. Needless to say, this set of games is divisive at best, although Berseria is considered a return to form for many.
My personal favorites are divided into gameplay and story. For gameplay, it's Destiny's remake, hands down. I made a RttP thread a while ago, but I'll copy paste it for the purpose of this thread.
For story, it's Abyss. I loved the theme of the story - the meaning of birth - and I feel as if it had the strongest main plot in the series. I LOVED the twist of the world being kept up on pillars from a poisonous mist. I loved how you don't play as the "real" Luke. I loved how Luke didn't start out as your typical gung-ho hero with a heart of gold. Abyss has its issues, but overall, I really enjoyed its story.
After FFVII introduced me to the wonderful world of JRPGs, this was probably one of the first I picked up afterward. It was back when I would still rent games at the local rental place based on the box art/back of the box alone... a practice from another era. This must be what old people feel like when they look back at their time and see how different it was.
I'm playing the PS2 remake, the Director's Cut.
I played the PS2 remake back in 2006, but back then there was A) No translation for the game and B) I could speak literally no Japanese. Now that I've returned to it eleven years later, I can speak decent Japanese and there's a translation guide to help me along. I'm even learning some kanji along the way! So that's cool.
The story is exactly as I remember it, both from the 90's and from a decade ago. It's nothing extraordinary, but it's a charming and enjoyable story nonetheless. The basic gist of it is that you play as a team of warriors that can use talking swords with the souls of ancient warriors embedded in them. Each "Swordian" has an element assigned to them, making your team feel sort of like a bunch of sword-wielding Power Rangers. You've got the fire guy, the ice girl, the wind guy, the earth guy... you know, the works. I've always been a sucker for this kind of fast food style of entertainment, so I'm enjoying it as much my third time through as I did before.
The PS2 remake got rid of my major complaint from the PSX release. In the original game, you could equip other weapons along with the Swordians, but there was a catch. The weapons often had higher stats, but you needed the Swordian to use spells. This resulted in situations where you'd end up sacrificing higher attack for the ability to cast a fire ball - the Swordian was almost always the better choice, making alternate weapons sort of worthless. The remake has a "Rerise" system for the Swordians in place of a standard weapon slot, where you can allocate points to different stats. No more secondary weapons - there's customizable Swordians instead. This is a huge quality of life improvement. Characters like Leon and Garr (Woodrow in Japanese) have been reworked to use new fighting styles that are vastly superior to their original incarnations, so that's another plus. Of course, it also looks much nicer than the original PSX release.
This game is still the pinnacle of the franchise's battle system. While the PSX version had now-dated and clunky battles, complete with screen-stopping spells, the remake is fast and responsive. It uses the CC system that most western fans would recognize from Graces, and focuses heavily on air combat. Every character is fun to use, and I find myself having a lot of fun trying to get combos in this game, which is something I never found myself caring for or trying to do in any other Tales game. The spell effects, battle music, and character sprites are all beautiful, as well.
It looks like they added a "Lion Side" where you play through the story from Lion/Leon's point of view, so I'm playing that. I love, no, I love when games have multiple PoVs, so this is a really exciting addition for me. Seeing Leon's added scenes and inner thoughts makes him a much more human character than the standoff-ish, coldhearted guy he was for most of the original game.
So, third time through, and I can still say this is one of my favorite RPGs, and definitely my favorite Tales game. It's simple, fun, charming, and has a great cast of characters. I hope the fan translation comes along sooner rather than later so that more people can experience the remake in all its glory.
I like most of the games in the series, and even enjoy the more cliche plotlines. Tales is the perfect fast food JRPG fix. But I think some games go above and beyond that fast food feel, and Destiny and Abyss are two of them. Phantasia, too, feels a lot more "respectable" than its successors - if that makes any sense - and is right up there as one of my favorites.
What's your favorite?