Tales of Zestiria came out last Friday and I’ve been chugging my way through ever since Saturday when my copy arrived. As a fan of the series, I highly anticipate these games because, since the “Fall of Final Fantasy” as I like to call it, the Tales Of franchise has carried the torch for a well done JRPG with a good-to-great story and deep character exposition every time.

If you didn’t know, Tales Of games are disconnected – in the same vein as Final Fantasy – so unless it holds the same name (i.e. Tales of Xillia, Tales of Xillia 2), they only ever share the basic lore. That aside, it’s an entirely different tale every time. Part of its draw is its anime-inspired, cel-shaded graphical style that could easily transfer to a fantastic anime if it wanted to. It greatly appeals to a hardcore market in several ways and I believe that’s key to its success, even if it’s not entirely mainstream.

After Tales of Vesperia on the Xbox 360, the Tales Of games decided to take themselves in a different direction, ditching the World Map in favour of dungeon-like areas with fast travel systems, and this rubbed me the wrong way, but they still maintained the charm they’d always had and the fantastic combat, even if they ditched some of my favourite systems like Final Strike too.

This time around, however, Tales of Zestiria takes more steps back than it does forward in my opinion, and the game suffers because of it. Granted, I’m not finished with the campaign, but I’m a good 30 hours in and I’m having trouble recommending it outside of the dedicated fan-base that are most likely already throwing Artes around and cleaving their way through the malevolence.

So far it’s a good game that should have been great, and here’s a few of my reasons in greater detail than you’ll find in the video. Still, you should give the video a watch and see what you think, because it’s a lot of fun, and if you’ve never played a Tales game, you’ll have no frame of reference to relate to the issues I had for the most part, and maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I have.

As I’ll be reviewing this soon, I’ll keep this relatively brief:

  • Graphics: everything’s very pretty until you get close, then it becomes clear how dated this game is. In its defense, the areas are much larger, but they also feel big for the sake of being big. They may appear to be beautiful vistas, but there’s not a lot to do in these open areas that seems to benefit you other than a perceived “grander scale”.
  • Narrative: The story is interesting, but it’s not captivating. Everything in this world is going terribly and the characters are either being depressingly upset by it (though they’ve made little effort to get the audience as emotionally invested as the characters seem to be) or overtly positive i.e. “Oh no, the malevolence is everywhere…. but look! Butterflies!”. It just swings too much from side to side rather than progressing in a believable manner.
  • Characters: These are also the most generic characters the Tales games have had to date. Almost as if they’re going more down the route of fan service over the deep, engaging plots they’re known for. They still shine in their Skits – optional animated scenes to give character and world exposition – and that’s key to Tales’ charming nature which is really what’s keeping me going. Also, as if I’m being followed by the Uncharted curse, the villains just haven’t been interesting so far. I feel no real threat at all, no relation to them and there’s really only one as far as I can tell. Perhaps this will change towards the end, Tales games have a tendency to keep a trump card or two to change your perspective, but it certainly hasn’t had the connections between the characters in the way that Vesperia, Graces or Xillia have done to speak of the most recent console games. On the positive side, the voice-acting is done very well as per usual. I always play with the English Dub first, and I know a lot of people complain, but I think they did a great job and always tend to do so (barring Milla Maxwell’s Xillia 1 audio recording, no excuse for that on a main character – they rectified it in 2 though).

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  • Combat: the classic Tales Action-RPG combat system returns, but it’s improved in certain ways and held back by others. The best part about it is the transition in and out of battle is done on the same map you’re exploring, cutting loading times tremendously and thus, the game flows better than any previous entry. My gripe is the Seraphim system. I want to choose my characters, but the Seraphim spirits must be tied to a human, and whilst they can be switched out on the D-Pad, it’s not exactly responsive and forces me to always use Sorey and Rose no matter what.
  • Level System: the last few games have done a great, individual job of varying quality with the learning process of skills and stat building. This time, it’s not entirely clear on how Artes are learned, they just kind of happen, but they’re also tied to your equipped Title? Honestly, it still confuses me this far in, and though some of you may have grasped it quickly, I don’t think any of you could tell me it’s more intuitive than the sphere-grid of Xillia or the equipment-based Blastia absorption of Vesperia. It lacks clarity, and that’s not good for the player.
  • Quests: The Quest Markers are infuriating. I’m all for a game letting go of your hand, but don’t drop me in the middle of the desert and not tell me where some water is (that doesn’t actually happen, it’s just an analogy). You have to talk to your on-screen companion to find out a vague description of what you might have to do, but this itself isn’t clear, and you’ll find yourself wondering where the hell you need to go on occasion. It’s not clever, it’s frustrating, and the previous Tales games never did that, they at least put the “star” icon at the end of the region so you had a general overview. The rest of the game is also pretty similar, seemingly lacking a focus and trying to blame you for it. As if it’s screaming “EXPLORE!” but forgetting that it’s not Fallout, and large areas with nothing in them aren’t fun to roam around.
  • Support Talents: the support abilities are quite useful, from treasure detection to enemy luring, but one talent in particular is both the most useful and the most broken – Windstepping. This allows you a monumental boost to your walking speed after winning a battle or overhearing conversations in towns. It makes the long journeys so much more enjoyable because you feel like you’re progressing at your own pace, and it encourages the exploration they so-desperately want you to take. But then, sometimes, it just doesn’t work. It says it’s applied. It should be active, but you’re moving at your usual speed, and it’s noticeable.
  • Cooking: the biggest thing that’s been ruined since Vesperia keeps getting worse. Cooking at the end of battle for future bonuses was genius, then it got relegated to an item system but it still worked, now it’s an even more condensed item system with much less effective bonuses. It may not sound like a big deal to series newcomers, but veterans should understand why Cooking was so important, and the whole idea of camping as you traveled helped to unify the group you were with, giving them some extra depth. Now, it’s just Inns with skits attached.
  • Upgrading Items: the Fusion system is an awesome idea in theory. Enhance your equipment by combining anything of the same name in to it, increasing the stats and absorbing the skills. The problem is that the skill system is based on which of the four slots the skill is in, and you can’t pick which to carry over. Instead, the skill slot forces itself in to the same slot on your new weapon, but if there’s already a skill there, it demands to fuse with it, becoming a new, sealed skill. This would be great if the sealed skills were better, but they’re not, they’re just one of the many you can get otherwise. You aren’t allowed to choose any of these options, wherein I’d like to say “No, don’t fuse. Replace that skill instead”, the game forces its lazy mechanic on me which could have easily been rectified. A system that could have been greater suffers at the hands of the “random” option, in a sense.

Well, that wasn’t quite as brief as I wanted to be. Honestly, I wrote this to get the frustrations off of me so that I can regain my clarity, because the game is fun. It’s still Tales, and it expands upon its recent iterations in some ways with the larger areas and item fusion system, but all the good ideas fall prey to some bad design choices thus far, and I hope that changes but I think we’re too deep for things to turn out differently.

Nevertheless, the worst Tales is better than the best Final Fantasy these days. Perhaps XV will save us, or maybe the Tales team’s true, next-gen entry will show us all what made it great in the first place, but more than anything, the narrative and characters need to return to form in the future, because this rag tag group simply isn’t cutting it outside of their charming Skit scenes.

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