The Japanese Role-Playing Game genre seems to be on the upswing in recent years and so I was looking forward to playing this game and bringing you our Tales of Zestiria Review
Whilst some have swayed from the traditional model in ways unwelcome (I’m looking at you, first Final Fantasy XIII), Tales has always been its own entity in that field, and I vastly prefer their action combat over turn-based systems. The tactical depth at higher difficulties is often understated. Above all else, though, I look to Tales for its strong narrative and characters in particular, something that certainly couldn’t be hampered by technical limitations of the previous generation… or could it?
So you can imagine, as I’m also a Tales fan, that this game had me both excited and nervous. It turns out that both feelings were justified, so let’s talk about why that is. Firstly, a brief introduction to what Tales games are.
The “Tales” series, Zestiria being the one under review this time around and the latest of the bunch, are JRPGs with Action-RPG combat mechanics. They have a distinct anime style and tend to involve over-arching plots of saving the world with your travelling companions. Though they rarely push the boundaries of the hardware, they make up for it in the dedication to their narrative and the artistic style they choose, and more-often than not they release with a stellar localisation that doesn’t ignore its Japanese roots.
All that being said, Tales of Zestiria is different in a few ways, and though I’m not averse to change, different isn’t always good.
Look and Feel
I’ve admired Tales’ art style for a long time. Taking the cel-shaded, anime approach appeals to me greatly, and they do that expertly even now. The cut-scenes are beautiful works of anime, and though they’re few and far between this time around, they’re fluid when they turn up, so you have “ufotable” to thank for those excellent parts.
Having said that, the in-game is just about good enough, finally showing its age. To be honest, this began last year with Xillia 2, but it’s accentuated even more-so in Zestiria given the year of next-generation releases we’ve experienced since, and with next-generation cel-shading in the likes of Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, we’re starting to see how far behind Tales is getting even within its own artistic preference. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they should leave cel-shading behind – it’s a major asset and a large percentage of its appeal and charm – but that I hope they’re making significant advances with the facial animations and general movement so that character interactions don’t seem as stiff. Seeing Mikleo and Sorey play-fight now and again was awkward because they acted as if they were being manipulated by a puppeteer, and what would have otherwise been emotional interactions seemed dull in comparison to the skits themselves.
It’s very much the “looks nice from far away” of video games at the moment. In the grand scheme, on a large scale, the game looks great, but get up close and you’ll soon see how rough those textures are. How “Thunderbirds” the faces can be. It’s not a huge issue, but it should be noted that this isn’t the pinnacle of visual prowess by any means. Nevertheless, it’s colourful and vibrant, not to mention still unique within its medium, and there is a genuine reason why the visuals haven’t advanced much beyond the recent games, as they’ve clearly tried to go for scale over fidelity.
Yes, the sense of scale is much larger than that of any prior Tales game, but that also introduces a new problem. Whilst it can indeed be jaw-dropping as a fan of the series to head out in to a large field instead of the more narrow, piece-to-piece structure of Graces and Xillia, they didn’t exactly fill those areas with things to do. The same applies to the cities and towns in the game. They tend to be larger than before, but with actually less to do than I recall in most of the other games. It leaves these large areas with a particular absence of “soul”. A disappointing oversight for a series that’s renowned for its detail.
In fact, it can be said a lack of soul is this game’s core issue. It lacks any defining characteristics in its design that I distinctly recall in its predecessors. The eternal night of Fennmont in Xillia. The sakura blossoms of Halure in Vesperia. Whilst the names may escape me from time to time, the image in my mind is clear because of the way they made those places matter in the previous games, but now these cities and towns seem like convenient backdrops on your adventure, with little-to-no reason to truly care about them, and whilst they may be well designed and have the occasional meaning (Lastonbell being the most prominent in my opinion), they’re mostly fodder for your journey, and that shows in how they’re built. Grander they may be, but meaningful they rarely are.
It cannot be denied, however, that the fields, sand dunes and swamps are all huge. Were it not for the “Windstepping” technique, allowing you to move more swiftly after a battle or eavesdropping on a conversation, I might have said they were too big. Thanfully, the aforementioned makes it a breeze to traverse and, as stated before, at a distance, it looks remarkable. Like a painted vista.
Overall, the game looks nice enough. You won’t be astounded, but you won’t be as down on it as I seem to be, and to be honest, it never truly bothered me, but it was noticeable in comparison to all that’s come before. It leads me to wonder if the team worked better with less power, or perhaps they just need time to adapt to better technology so that they can match their new-found scale with their traditional soul.
Story and Characters
Warning: there will be spoilers in this section for character development and plot. I STRONGLY advise you go in to the game fresh and decide for yourself, but after careful deliberation, I decided that I’d need to support my opinion with examples that may ruin the game for you. Skip ahead to GAMEPLAY if you don’t want to know more.
Unfortunately, this is where the game lost me. Not in a major way, but this narrative and these characters (bar a couple of them) are not of the standard I’ve become accustomed to. A brief overview, to familiarise yourself with what I’m talking about:
Sorey and Mikleo were raised as orphans in Elysia; a seraphim village, isolated from the outside world. Seraphim are spirit-like entities and live amongst humans, with mostly-human form, but humans cannot see them without having “resonance”. As Sorey was raised by Seraphim, his human self is attuned to the seraphim and allows him to see the spirits such as Mikleo, his childhood friend. Whilst exploring the nearby ruins, they come across an unconscious human knight, Alisha, but when the Elder states that she must leave the seraphim village due to her lack of resonance, she returns to Ladylake and invites Sorey to partake in the festival to crown a new Shepherd in this Age of Chaos, in the hopes that he might be the one to put an end to the Lord of Calamity. Events transpire, leading Sorey to seek out this Shepherd’s power, and thus, we have an adventure.
So as you can see, there’s a lot going on. That’s barely scratching the surface, honestly. A seemingly epic tale, fitting, for this new, epic scale, but it simply doesn’t take hold. In the past, Tales has balanced the light and dark very well. It had its serious situations with believable levity to ease the tension or keep you slightly off-balance before it hits you right in the “feels”. This time, however, I never found that feeling. Only slightly, near the end, did I see a proper glimpse of what I know that team is capable of, but for the most part, they shift from tragedy to comedy like it was zero to one-hundred. It doesn’t feel like there’s an in-between.
The Skits – optional, animated cut-scenes you can play mid-journey that offer great deals of character development – make a welcome return, because without them, the main plot would have been that much more bland. I say bland, but that’s not entirely fair, it’s just without any real tension. You see, because Sorey was raised outside of the world he’s trying to save, we rarely get the chance to connect with anything. Your goal is to stop the Lord of Calamity from spreading his malevolence, but you have no context as to who this lord is to you, and even when you find out, it’s practically nothing to do with you. It’s good versus evil, then attempts to trick you that it’s more complicated, then it’s actually good versus evil again, and it’s never convincing. Only in the last hour or so did I truly feel for what Sorey and Mikleo had undergone, and by then, it was too late. In a plot heavy game, ranging from 40 to 60 hours, you can’t have your last few hours be the only meaningful pieces to your main character.
It doesn’t help that Sorey just isn’t compelling. His “dream” is to explore ruins across the world, and admittedly he and Mikelo have many enjoyable, believable skits whilst the cast do so, but Sorey’s personality is to help as many people as he can, get angsty when he’s told the Shepherd can’t do that, and then be ok 2 minutes later. He lacks depth, and it’s a shame, because his design is great. The Shepherd’s cloak is really quite cool. He had potential. He’s essentially likeable. So why is it that I feel this disdian for him? It’s quite simple: he’s boring. Using previous games as examples, in Vesperia, watching Yuri Lowell finally give in to his “dark justice” side, in juxtaposition with his childhood friend Flynn, who took the noble route to change the system from the inside, really hit home, and the supporting cast was great, each with their own unique goals. More recently, Xillia showed two sides to a story, with Jude Mathis being a medical student, falling in love with Milla over time but initially falls in to the unfortunate events that lead him to going on his adventure. These main characters had arcs. Real, believable arcs that allowed us to relate to them, but Sorey’s hampered by the idea of being the Shepherd. Any interesting action Sorey could have ever taken is questioned by his seraphim friends like “You’re not supposed to interfere with human affairs”. Granted, they make a fair point of it, and it makes sense, but in keeping Sorey “pure”, they rob him of his individuality. I understand that’s the purpose, but it reaches the point of frustration, and rarely does he break free of this. He does redeem himself as a character towards the end, but again, it’s too late to invest at that point, and it’s a shame that such potential was lost.
I’ll momentarily express my disappointment at this being the gathering of the least-impressive character designs too. Not that they aren’t impressive, but rather they’re all very similar. Young, beautiful people. That’s fine and all, but where’s our dog-wolf, Repede? Where’s our Teepo? Our elder-sage style guide like Rowen? Instead we’re met with several anime tropes that perfectly embody the shallow nature of this game’s narrative all-round. It wants to seem deep, but it just isn’t. I don’t mind tropes. I understand it’s a thing, and for the most part, I can look past it, but this really is Team “Appeal-to-younger-audiences” right here, and if it weren’t for how well they were voice-acted and, naturally, how great their dialogue is in the skits, I don’t know how I would have felt.
To speak positively about the narrative, and there are some positive, it’s just that the negatives are prevalent, Rose is a fantastic character. In fact, if you swapped Rose for Sorey, the game might have been better, but then you’d steal Rose from the very reason she’s interesting, so essentially the “Shepherd” role is destructive no matter what. Rose’s plot-line from how she appears in the game to what she does for the party, all the way through to then end, pays off. Not in a huge way, and the whole Dezel thing just didn’t work for me either, but just who she is makes her more grounded even in this fantastical world.
The rest of the cast, whilst well-acted, could have literally been anybody, including Sorey’s buddy Mikleo. Edna has a great deal of sass and it’s fun to watch her break characters down (Sorry Thickleo), but none of them truly matter in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps that’s the whole “Humans can’t see seraphim because they don’t believe in them any-more” issue. Their inability to interact with most of the world makes them Sorey’s background, but with Sorey being uninteresting himself, they’re left to pick up his slack, and that’s a demotion from the main character roster if there ever was one. Lailah disappointed me the most, as the game built her up to have some huge, world-altering secrets, and it just ends up being an excuse not to tell us anything. She’s a fine character otherwise, but I thought she’d eventually pay off, and she didn’t.
The war between Rolance and Hyland never really reaches a believable point either. You never get to know either side particularly well, and the people you do meet feel like they don’t have much power on their end. We never really come face to face with any of Rolance’s leadership, and we only ever encounter the Hyland council once properly. It just needed more attention. How is it that we can have the Empire against the Guilds in Vesperia feel epic on an Xbox 360 but we can’t have something of equal or even greater scale now? This, again, is a failure of the Shepherd decision. It doesn’t allow Sorey the flexibility to be connected to either side at all. Even Alisha’s allegiance doesn’t make you feel any investment in Hyland itself. It’s sad, but this game is a series of setups that never pay off.
The antagonists? What antagonists? Oh, you mean the Lord of Calamity and his random cronies that feel as if they came out of nowhere because “plot-line”? Yeah. They were thoroughly, and I mean THOROUGHLY underwhelming. The Lord of Calamity itself ends up having its own interesting origin point, but again, it relates little to the main characters and doesn’t feel like a believable conflict between he and the Shepherd that is supposed to quell him. His three underlings, again, attempt depth and DO have a relation to the main characters, except that not a single of their relationships are really explored at all, and so when the time comes to throw down, it’s empty. Maybe you’ll find joy in this narrative, but it just didn’t live up to the Tales I know, and it’s not a terrible story, but it’s also not a terribly good one either. In truth, I found myself playing to get to the next area for stronger enemies to fight rather than plot advancement, and that’s where the greater parts of the game come in.
Tales maintains its overall great gameplay here. The combat system is as fluid as ever, and even more-so now with the way battles transition on the same field as the exploration takes place in, cutting down significantly on loading times to the point where there’s barely any waiting at all. In comparison to Xillia 2, wherein there was a great deal of lading to be done, we are treated to the speed equal to that of its action-rpg battle system, and I really like that I’m not interrupted too often when doing whatever I want to do.
The combo system for artes works really well, with a single button hold for arte-linking, but it is also somewhat more limiting than previous games due to the nature of the system allowing for limited attacks in one run unless you sacrifice your BG points to link in more. It’s a decidedly more tactical experience than it ever has been, but it also introduces a host of problems that cause it to suffer slightly, though it’s still a vastly enjoyable grind.
So this time you’re set up with HP (Health / Hit Points), SC (Technique Points in the old games) and BG (Akin to your overlimit / chromatus meter – basically limit break ability stuff). Each character has their own, separate pool of these points, but with the Shepherd’s Armatization ability (a variation of the Chromatus system from Xillia 2) a human can link with a seraphim and become a fused entity, gaining increased abilities, significantly more powerful skills and elemental damage with each attack, not to mention a cool new costume and weapon style.
The good side to this ability is it can be launched from the moment your human has 1 BG point – fairly easy to get – but is more beneficial when both characters have built their gauges up to launch in to Armatization with the ability to hit them with your ultimate attack straight away. Another point is that you can stay in Armatization for as long as you like. There’s no countdown. No limit. Of course, this comes with drawbacks. On the one hand, you are more powerful, but you’re also reducing your numbers, perhaps leaving other party members vulnerable on occasion. Knowing WHEN to Armatize is just as important as being able to. Sometimes, it’s best to have a four-person team on the field.
Another drawback is that of its unlimited nature. In previous games, because your ultimate form was limited, such as in the most recent prior release – “Xillia 2”, the ability was particularly impressive. It felt a great deal more like wielding a tremendous power. This time, however, Armatization feels like just another tactic. There’s no “Ultimate Arma” that combines all of the spirits in to one, nor is there an alternative to that idea. It just doesn’t feel like I’m wielding this legendary power as much as it has done so in previous games, and yet, this character is arguably the most powerful in regards to the standards set by the plot. I feel there were many missed opportunities with this system that I’ve had fun with, but felt no overwhelming joy about.
My final criticism of the combat is linked to the plot-based restriction. A seraphim can only be on the field when linked to a human. You only have two humans at any one time, and sometimes, you only have one. Why is it that I can’t have a team of seraphim alongside Sorey? Well the story tells you why that shouldn’t be a thing, but it unfortunately limits you to HAVING to use Sorey and, for example, Rose. Yes, you can switch in the seraphim linked to the humans at will, but what if you wanted a full on magic-arte fest? You just can’t do that, and it’s restrictive. It’s explained, but that’s no excuse. I don’t like my character use being limited by a technicality.
The game’s systems also get a bit complex when it comes to weapon upgrades. You now have a skill sheet that tracks the skills your weapons and armour have. If you can match 5 down or 10 across (or both), you get special abilities from this. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to manipulate that outcome, as weapons and armour have designated slot skills, and those skills demand to be fused in to the same slot when fusing items to upgrade them. You can also only fuse items of the same name with each other. It’s a limiting system for an otherwise interesting device. I’d like to see Skill Union (the skill sheet bonus system) return in a more flexible format. Perhaps allow us to pick one skill to carry over in fusion and to be able to pick which slot it goes in to.
The major issue this game has, however, is indicating what it is you have to do. With an emphasis on exploration, I’m sure the team thought it’d be great not to put map markers on things too often, but it back-fires when your plot fails to point you in the right direction. The amount of times I’d literally look at my screen and think “where the hell am I supposed to go then!?” was ridiculous. The Tales team have never been so careless with this sort of thing before, but this time, they dropped the ball, and I honestly think some people will give up if they haven’t got a guide to hand. There’s a fine line between meaningful exploration and abandoning your players in nonsense, and nonsense is often where I seemed to reside.
There are a great many things to do in the game aside from leveling up, grinding for gear, gald and learning new artes. The sub-missions for the Iris Gems help flesh out the back-story somewhat, and there are crucibles to take on arena combat with single / double-characters, though it’s missing a central arena to enjoy the fighting in. A personal favourite inclusion of mine, but I understand its absence in this world’s story.
Restoring the “Lord of the Land” to areas that have lost their guardian Seraphim is also a worthwhile task, as when you fight and acquire grade, these Lords level up, granted new special abilities for your time in their domain. From increased drop rates, to doubled Normin effects, you can’t go wrong with performing well in battle. Speaking of Normins, they’re tiny seraphim that you can find all over the world and apply to Lords of the Land to buff up the enemy levels and make them more rewarding.
There’s also New Game + mode, as usual, taking in to account the Blessing Level at the end of your play-through, you can purchase certain advantages for your second run through. Perfect for trophy hunters or the avid Tales fan. Despite my criticisms, I’ll no doubt be going back with the Triple Exp buff from the Grade Shop. Though, in a game that already offers a 40 hour campaign, I don’t know when I’ll find the time to do so. It’s more than worth the purchase for content alone if you find yourself enjoying the game.
I did enjoy the support abilities a great deal, however. Each character has four slots for skills that enhance your experience. Skills such as Normin For The Win, wherein Edna can mark Normin on the mini-map for you just in-case you miss them, as they’re often well-hidden. The most useful skill, however, is Windstepping. This skill increases your speed after a battle or hearing a conversation as you pass people in town, and it builds to the point where you may as well be the wind itself. It’s very useful, although the one draw-back is that ordinary walking feels like a chore after you experience it. Fortunately, the combat is fun, so you won’t mind smashing open a living tree trunk to get another boost.
I could go on forever about the pros and cons of Tales of Zestiria. I practically have. This review is too long, but it’s nowhere near detailed enough to tell you all you need to know at the same time. Here’s where I narrow it down for you: I recommend Tales of Zestiria. In fact, I recommend it a great deal. My criticisms are mostly only relevant as a fan of the series.
It’s a good game, but it’s a definitive low point for the series’ narrative and character development, not to mention some incredibly frustrating lack-of-direction moments. Nevertheless, the combat is fantastic, the scale is epic (but void of heart) and thus, there’s a great deal to do, even if it is the same thing over and over again for the most part. The Skits are just as charming as ever, and if they ever stop doing those, that’d be a sad day. If you want a huge time sink and love a bit of anime, this game is for you, and for the first Playstation 4 campaign, I respect what it does.
Game: Tales of Zestiria
Review Format: Playstation 4