Tales of Zestiria

The Tales series of Japanese role-playing games perfectly embodies that old, reliable friend I can’t wait to visit every few years. Despite every new game entailing a new setting and cast of characters, it’s predictable ritual of stereotypical ‘chosen one’ storyline backed by an anime aesthetic draws me back time and time again.

Zestiria is the first entry on the current generation of consoles, and for the most part it’s good familiar comfort gaming. While not as huge in the West as Final Fantasy, the Tales series has built a loyal fanbase. But while I love each entry for a different reason, repeated cheesy narratives and bug-eyed heroes aren’t for everyone, and not all of the latest games from the last few years have admittedly surpassed the heights of the franchise’s pinnacle title, 2003’s Tales of Symphonia.

We’re in a new world where open-world environments are preferred over linear areas, and where add-on DLC purchases replace hard-earned in-game unlocks and progression. Tales of Zestiria suffers from both of these problems in different ways, and the overall package, while solid, isn’t anywhere near the best game in the long-running series.

Tales of Zestiria’s main narrative is a straightforward, somewhat cheesy but epic fantasy tale of young hero Sorey, a doe-eyed, well-meaning young man held back by a lack of knowledge of how the world works and his own inherent naivety. Sorey embarks on a global journey around Glenwood to save it from destruction as the Shepherd, a legendary figure who rises in times of great crisis.

The usual politics of humans, monsters, and warring nations are all present here, not too different from past Tales entries. The medieval angle of Hyland Kingdom, not unlike Vesperia’s Imperial Knights, is familiar, but Zestiria’s unique take on the primary enemy are Hellions, ghastly creatures resembling anthropomorphic vampires who thrive upon evil emotions and violence to take over other beings and wreak havoc.

The story and main cast of characters are predictable anime-fare, and that’s fine if you like the straight-forward and light-hearted tone of Tales or JRPGs in general. There are still elements of mature themes embedded in the interactions of characters about the dark state of the world, which is always subtly there in Tales and always welcome. The English voice cast is and localization is good but perhaps not the best performers of the series; you can always change back to Japanese audio should you desire.

For the most part, major plot points and developments occur suddenly, often with overly convoluted terminology, superfluous lectures on legends or unexplained phenomena to accompany it – all oddly entertaining intriguing, despite how I describe it. Characters constantly speak of stopping the ‘malevolence’ ruining Glenwood’s inhabitants, which turns them into hellions, who in turn eat and kill others, and the seraphim, angel-like beings who are our only chance to stop hellions but only a few select humans can see. Sorey being the almighty Shephard, is the only one who can purify the land, typically.

I can recognise newer players won’t take too or bother to wade through the fluff or take to the often lame way they speak about the evil versus light angle, however, and I do think that Zestiria could have hooked and explained the early-game key plot points a lot better and with less cheese. The background exposition received during side-quests, NPC dialogue (chatter which also appears on-screen as overheard conversation when in towns), and skits (a series staple) is excellent, however, and like the main cutscenes, can be skipped unlike past titles (yay!) if you so desire.

I’m not sure where I stand with our new protagonist Sorey, who is not quite as charismatic as Lloyd Irving from Symphonia or cucumber cool as Yuri Lowell from Vesperia. His naivety, attributed to his isolation as a human growing up with seraphim (Zestiria’s version of god-like beings visible only to select humans) is grating, as his overly-trusting and optimistic personality. But his resolve gives him a likeable edge, and he develops over time into a hero you can get behind.

The rest of the cast aren’t as memorable in my opinion, which is disappointing considering how story-heavy all Tales games are. Mikleo is a decent enough best friend archetype to Sorey but his VA is often flat on delivery and Lailah is the grating angelic god-type. The cheerful Rose with her twin daggers and the jovial Zaveid were my favourites, and playing each party member in battle was fun given their vastly different abilities and weapon types – made better by the fact that the staple local four-player multiplayer option is still available in Zestiria.

Zestiria handles exploration and side-quests a lot better than Xillia, which recycled a ton of assets and environments and didn’t have as many interesting activities. Here, major towns have a unique medieval flavour to them and the fields in-between settlements are all semi-open areas with plenty of ground to traverse and things to find, such as hidden treasure chests, enemies, monolith stones (which act as tutorials but grant additional AP), Normin (cute creatures which grant special abilities for characters) and discovery points – landmarks or points of interest that define the local area like a scenic outlook and grant additional dialogue or background exposition. Dungeons, however, aren’t as clever or attractive, often being lazy in design with minimal challenging puzzles.

Along with fully-voiced skits, there’s heaps of interesting party interaction while exploring, and that’s always a bonus. Every party member also comes in handy while exploring in the field due to contextual obstacles, which require certain abilities to get past, like Dezel’s teleportation or Edna’s smashing prowess, giving you more motivation to go off the beaten path.

Still, part of me does miss the old World Map system of past Tales games. The scale of Zestiria is breathtaking, but there can be a bit too much open-space with nothing occupying it and a ton of backtracking for my liking. It’s a weird design decision to disable fast-travel to force you to hoof it back to areas you’ve already been, and then make it expensive when it is usable. Otherwise, exploring is much more refined than before.

Zestiria’s action-based, real-time combat mechanics is where fans will be divided on whether it and the customisation systems for weapons and artes are overly complex. There’s no denying, however, that’s it’s a major advancement of the franchise’s Linear Motion Battle System, with a faster pace and emphasis on mana or SC (Spirit Chain) energy to string together your combos and allows you to link characters and their movesets for special attacks. SC governs the strength of your hits, with the drawback being you’re left vulnerable if you spend too much energy, which you can restore by guarding or evading.

The artes system also returns and is divided into Martial Artes (melee) and Seraph (magical/ranged), limited to the type of party member (human or seraph). There’s a ton of variety in abilities and you’re not limited to just Sorey’s standard one-handed Tiger Blades – you can freely swap and experiment with other party members. A rock-paper-scissors mechanic governs everything to keep the balance. Throw in the classic Mystic Artes (special high-damage attacks) and improved, cooler attack animations and you’re in familiar territory so far.

The combat zone is the biggest change. When fighting an enemy, you don’t transition to another screen – the battle occurs right where you encountered them in a circular zone. While the seamlessness is cool, the surrounding topography often makes for some highly frustrating camera angles obscuring your view if you happened to encounter an enemy near sets of walls or trees.

The newest combat feature in Zestiria is Armatisation, a complex temporary fusion of a human character like Sorey with a Seraphim party member like Mikleo that combines states and results in combining the two characters’ stats for a time and unique attacks and abilities like letting Mikleo harness aqua elements to shoot water arrows. Armitisation was a bit tricky to understand, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a very welcome (and flashy) tactical option in harder boss fights.

Onto the graphics department: Zestiria’s jump to the PlayStation 4 in the West has given its performance a distinct advantage over the PlayStation 3 version released in Japan last year (and also available in the West as well). In 1080p resolution and with a rock solid frame-rate, exploring and fighting is buttery smooth and the extremely colourful anime art-style really shines and the medieval/seraphim character designs stand out. Draw distance has been improved and many character and environment models look cleaner, but it’s still an upscaled port from the PS3, so some technical limitations remain and I can’t help but wonder how our first current-generation Tales built from the ground up will look like.

So, what about the bad stuff?

An extremely baffling design decision that may or may not influence your purchase is the inability to take screenshots or record gameplay footage: Namco Bandai blocked this feature on all copies of Tales of Zestiria on PlayStation 4 due to “licensing issues”. It’s a massive bummer I wasn’t able to take shots of my favourite cutscenes or battle moments.

Another major fumble is the DLC for the game. While Western copies get the Alisha’s Story DLC and free skits and Mystic Artes packs upon launch, a ton of content such as costume and attachments for character appearance customisation is once again not obtainable in-game and instead being released as paid add-ons. This wouldn’t be bad if the content that is still there to unlock wasn’t as small in number as past games prior to the DLC era.

This trend began with Tales of Xillia and it’s as unwelcome now as it was then. Factor in paid DLC to upgrade your abilities, level, weapons and gald and it’s essentially as bad as any other microtransaction-filled title on the market. It’s an insult to long-time Tales fans who want to unlock more content out of finishing the game with multiple playthroughs.

The Final Verdict

Tales of Zestiria is not my favourite Tales game and far from the best, but it’s still a fun world-spanning adventure typical of the series that adds in some cool combat mechanics, semi-open environments full of secrets to discover and a decent, if always predictable storyline. The DLC situation and the lack of screenshot or recording capabilities are massive downers as is the awkward camera angles and some empty spaces, but if you’re a big fan of the franchise and you were burned out by Xillia 2 or Hearts R, it’s a recommended return-to-form.