I finally have a chance to talk about a game entry in one of my favorite JRPG series, the Tales series. As far as popularity in the RPG communities go I would say it is like the “NJPW” to Final Fantasy’s “WWE”. I picked an interesting entry to review as it got a mixed reaction from the fanbase. Question is where do I stand? Let us find out as we take a look at Tales of Zestiria.
- Note: Since I briefly covered the Tales of Zestiria anime I will briefly compare (non-spoiler of course) plot elements when discussing the story.
- Note 2: I played the PS4 version.
- Note 3: I played on single player. For another review of the Steam version on multiplayer check out Marina’s from AnimeBnB HERE.
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios, tri-Crescendo
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Genres: Action, Adventure, JRPG, Fantasy.
Length: 40-50+ hours
Plot Summary: In a world torn by war between two powerful nations fighting for rule and supremacy, accept the burden of the Shepherd and fight human darkness to protect your world from Malevolence and reunite humans and Seraphim.
Together with Lailah, the Lady of the Lake who guards the Sacred Blade, and his best friend Mikleo, the cast will discover soon enough a powerful force is rising in the shadow.
As mentioned in the Yuri Quickie of the Zestiria anime‘s main plot is the basic fantasy JRPG fare of “chosen one gathers a team to go on a huge quest to save the world from a great evil” but what makes it special, besides the token Tales charm we will discuss in a bit, is the cast of characters (mainly the heroes) and the themes throughout. Some include:
- The shattered relationship between humans and seraphim these being human like entities who have a spiritual connection with the world.
- The not-so simple context of those corrupted by the malevolence and turned into hellions, be it the wildlife, humans or even seraphim. None are safe no matter how innocent or noble they may be. Any living creature can become a hellion. Some are clearly corrupted due to being overcome by their negative emotions while others…not as much corrupting is involved.
- The ever growing responsibilities Sorey is tasked with being the new Shepherd.
- The usual heroes/heroines’ personal struggles.
It is not Earth shattering storytelling but it does not need to be to get its points across. What is cool about the setting is that unlike some games where players are told of the negative effects the darkness has over the world it is consuming. In Tales of Zestiria the damage caused the malevolence is clearly shown not only through the landscape and the wildlife but also towns and its denizens. This is something that was done better in the game than the anime. Having said that both start off slowly. I would say it really gets going when our heroes go to the war zone. Before that it takes its time setting things up so be aware of this.
Now on to the characters. In most Tales games I find most of the heroes and heroines likable with a few exceptions that take some time before I warm up to them. Zestiria’s group is one of my top two in the franchise where every single playable character I found likable from the start, even Zaveid and Dezel. We have the main hero Sorey, a classic noble hero who wants to do the right thing but contrary to detractors who label him as “dull” he is far from it. When I see Sorey I think of Superman. Both are heroes with great power and want to do good for the world to the best of their abilities and while they mainly see good in people they are not naive or easily duped. They could easily take over the planet by themselves but choose the path of righteousness and will do whatever they possibly can to avoid shedding their enemies’ blood. Also like Superman Sorey has allies/friends who help him on his very arduous task as the new Sheperd, lifting some of the incredibly heavy burden of “world saving” from his shoulders. His seraphim friends, while each having a character defining trait such as Lailah telling silly jokes or changing the subject to avoid “giving away spoilers” for the sake of “Sorey learning to become a great Shepherd on his own”, also go through interesting character developing arcs themselves. If I had a favorite Seraphim it would be Edna who is part sassy girl who enjoys teasing her friends, part tsundere and part “OG questioning himself as he finds her attractive in her swimsuit DLC costume.” Two characters in particular I will talk about later in the review for an important reason.
As far as the villains go I have to give the nudge to the game over the anime because they were fleshed out more instead of given explanation for their actions at the last minute so to speak. The big bad, “The Lord of Calamity” is also my favorite villain in the franchise. It is not because he has the most complex backstory (Most of the Tales antagonists have a “What you’re doing is very, very wrong but darn it I get where you’re coming from and what drove you to these extremes” vibe going for them) but because of all the Tales antagonists he is the most intimidating and has the coolest final battle of all. Every time he showed up players knew something big was about to go down. He had a commanding presence pumping yours truly up each time we went face to face. As for his top servants, personally his right hand was the only I found remotely interesting. The other top servants either came out of nowhere/made little sense why they joined his cause or felt in the case of one baddie felt like a walking punching bag whose only threatening attack was his super move.
This brings me to my overall thoughts on Zestiria’s story. While it is overall a pretty good one that maintained the Tales tradition of having mostly likable characters on both sides (mainly the good side in the case of this entry) I personally feel the anime did a better job with it despite it missing some elements that were done better in the game. Let me put it this way, the anime had less “Why is this fight happening?” or “This came out of nowhere” or “Hey, this character’s development was done better in the other version” moments than the game. This gets a big “DUH!” because the anime came after the game. More on that later. Even so I ultimately think it is a good idea to both play the game and watch the anime to get the full Zestiria story experience as both have pros the other does not.
Besides the main plot characters also get to shine during skits throughout the game. Most of these are humorous in nature revealing more about the characters’ personalities or taking advantage of their defining characteristics for fun jokes or moments. They even found a way to make explaining how stat bonuses or other information about the gameplay mechanics amusing in some skits. These can be found after a cutscene, finding a discovery, sleeping at an inn or fulfilling certain conditions. There are many and they are worth checking out. There are even free DLC skits though these contain spoilers so best to watch them before the final battle.
Next up is the presentation. The graphics are good for the PS3 and solid for the PS4. The characters are detailed while the towns, some dungeons and the overworld are nice to look at though not all dungeons are memorable. The soundtrack is a solid one with some stand outstanding tunes like “Rising Up”, “Alisha’s Theme”, “Zaveid’s Theme” and the Shrines’ to name a few. The same can be said for most Tales soundtracks, solid with some memorable tunes. One more thing worth noting is that on the PS4 the game runs at 30 FPS (Frames per second). Whether this is an issue depends on personal taste.
Moving on to the gameplay. Long story short it is hit and miss. Some aspects are enjoyable while others could have been done better. First of all the overworld is the largest of all Tales games. However, to some it will feel barren for the most part. Aside from a speed boost ability Sorey acquires there is no vehicular mode of transportation. To make up for it there is the fast travel menu where players pay a sum to automatically go to available destinations though at certain points in the story this feature gets locked. Besides towns, enemies, items, “normin”, side-bosses and dungeons (some hidden) players can also find discoveries and battle arenas. It sounds like there is enough to search for but again the overworld is pretty big so expect to run around a lot. On the bright side, alongside there being a decent amount of stuff to find and dungeons to explore the world is atmospheric and it feels nice running around the luscious landscapes. A similar feeling of sorrow comes from landscapes plagued with malevolence so it does make up for the long running with neat scenery. Continuing with the world map, in most Tales games after Symphonia I believe (Not sure if this was the case in pre-Symphonia entries) players could freely choose which of the playable characters they could run around the world with. This may not sound like much but personally it added to the enjoyment ofan RPG getting to play as more than one character outside of battles. In Zestiria however, apart from the DLC campaign which we will get to later, from start to finish Sorey is the only one players get to go around the world as. I suppose it makes sense with the story since he’s the Shepherd and all. What I mean is besides the aforementioned speed boost ability Sorey gets others to help traverse through areas or solve puzzles, hence why it makes sense he’s the only one to walk around as. This one is definitely a nitpick.
Next up are quests. These are divided in three types:
- Plot advancing quests
- Iris Gem Episodes
The first ones are self-explanatory. The second are a combination of the first and third. What I mean is these quests are optional in which players are free to choose which Iris Gems to go after when the quests become available but near the end of the game it becomes mandatory to finish all of them. The reason being what players collect in these quests are essentially crystal balls containing small fragments of very important flashbacks that shed light on the world and the main story. So they are optional for a while but become mandatory near the end. These quests range from finding the crystal balls by traversing hidden dungeons or taking on challenging side-bosses, at least if the player takes most of them on before reaching the point they become mandatory. Personally had more fun finding these “side quests” on my own and taking down the usually tough big hellions.
The side quests are also self explanatory. They are completely optional with some of them being timed. At certain points in the game if the player did not complete certain side quests they are lost forever in that playthrough. Like the Iris Gem Episodes the quests range from “going to this area” or “beating these enemies/bosses” and reveal more about our heroes/heroines or side-characters. So despite being optional they are worth checking out.
Now on to the combat. Zestiria has one of the most unique combat systems in the Tales franchise, which depending on who one asks is hit and miss. Here is how it works. The main combat remains largely unchanged from other Tales games. It is in real-time (not turn based) and initiated after coming into contact with an enemy. Usually when a battle initiates the combatants are transported to a small arena themed after the area they are in. In Zestiria’s case the battle takes place exactly where Sorey came in contact with the enemy(ies). Let us take the example of a dungeon. Suppose Sorey encounters an enemy in a small corridor. Usually JRPG battles take place in those themed arenas I mentioned. Here they take a page from WRPGs and the battle takes place in that small corridor. What does that mean? Expect there to be occasional camera issues during combat, especially in small spaces like the aforementioned corridor or in areas with nearby objects like boxes or stones where it gets stuck and cannot keep up with the action. Thankfully this does not happen often, mainly depends on where battles take place.
Back to the combat. The simplest way to describe Tales battles are real-time combat where players are wailing away at enemies while, in Zestiria’s case, keeping an eye on the Spirit Gauge (SG), aka the stamina meter. There are two things that make the combat unique in Zestiria compared to other Tales games, party management and Armatization. First the party management. Playable characters consist of three humans and five seraphim. For storyline reasons seraphim can only participate in battle per human in the party. For example. Say there is a party of two humans and three seraphim. The max number of characters who can go into battle is four. The player wants to go with one human and three seraphim. Unfortunately this cannot happen because “one human per seraph”, meaning there can only be two seraphim max on screen, one if there is only one human in the group. To make up for this reserve seraphim can still enter the fray as long as the human character’s Blast Gauge (BG) is up by 1 by switching with a seraph on the field who can still go or is KO’ed. The KO’ed seraph will then recover and be ready to go again so long as the human is still active.
Next up is Armatization where during battle a human and seraph fuse together to become more powerful. Each armatized form is based on the four elements (Earth, wind, fire and water). The pros are that while the armatized forms are slow they hit hard and can take a beating. The cons are that they the armatized fighter takes up two character slots in battle, meaning players expecting a reserve seraph to automatically take the spot of the one who armatized with the human are out of luck. Also if the armatized character gets KO’ed with a strong enough attack both characters go down.
Before getting to the main event let us briefly over three menu features that have some effect in battles. First up is the…let us call it “color coding”. The intention being that certain equipment have color elements added to them and these can be chained with others who share the same colors for stat boosts. There are even skits at inns dedicated to explaining how these work. However…I did not notice any particular changes throughout my playthrough. Maybe if I put more time studying them or looking up an FAQ on this system I could have better used it but otherwise understanding this system was not really necessary to beating the game.
Next up are Battle Actions. These contain features that help make battles easier depending on the addition such as “Automatic Super Moves” or “Auto dodging” or “Extra Gald”. A personal recommendation is activating “Free & Free” as soon as it becomes available. This removes having to hold the “block” button to move around the battle arena, enabling players to do so freely.
Lastly is the Strategy menu where players can set commands for CPU controlled characters. Zestiria is one of the more challenging entries in the Tales franchise and changing some of my party members’ tactics helped make some battles less strenuous, meaning not having to waste as many “Life Bottles”.
There are other features but these are the ones worth mentioning. When it comes to combat it sounds interesting with plenty of strategy involved but again enjoyment depends on the personal tastes…and knowledge of some JRPG battle tropes, specifically palette and color swapped enemies and bosses where stronger enemies/bosses are based on their color and a few new moves.
Now for the main event and the elephant in the room. First up the “elephant”. That being Alisha’s role in the game. For many diehard Tales fans, especially in Japan, their hype character was Alisha…Unfortunately to the dismay of many her role was severely downplayed. What I mean is that at some point in the first quarter of the game Alisha leaves the party and does not return until near the end of the third quarter. to say super fans were upset is an understatement. The one who took a heavy blow for this was Rose who took the blunt of the backlash as she was considered an unworthy replacement by the enraged…which is a shame because she too is a great character in her own right. Personally she is my favorite character not only among the cast but to play as. As soon as she became playable I stuck with her for the rest of the playthrough only switching when she was not in the party. While it was unfair for Rose to get bashed by diehards the injustice of Alisha getting shafted is very understandable. From her introduction to her absence and short lived return it was clear that she had the potential to be one of the greatest Tales leading ladies.
The only way to get more Alisha goodness was with the “Alisha’s Story” DLC. It is a short story set sometime after the events of the final battle and players got to travel around the overworld, or the available areas, as Alisha. This is also where the Yuri came in (The main story had one, maybe two, VERY brief hints). All I can say without spoiling about Alisha’s Story is be patient and it will pay off. I say patient not just because of the development between Alisha and Rose but because this DLC is very challenging. Had to drop the difficulty the first time I played through it. In any case. While I did describe the anime as an apology letter to fans primarily because it greatly expanded Alisha’s role and her relationship with Rose, Alisha’s Story gave us something to work with before the show aired.
Overall, contrary to diehard fans’ dismay Tales of Zestiria is not one of the worst entries in the franchise. Not even close. It is at the very least and enjoyable and interesting title. The story starts off slowly but give it time and it will pay off big time. The presentation is solid with some pretty cool highlights, the heroes and heroines are some of the best in the franchise and the gameplay, while noticeably flawed, features enough uniqueness and challenge to keep the curious going. While Alisha getting shafted is a big crime the title should not be ignored because of it. Casual JRPG fans may want to check some demos or a bit of the Let’s Play to get an idea. As for Tales fans it all depends on what they look for in a Tales game. From what I have gathered there is not a single definitive answer on what makes a Tales game good. Personally, as long as the story is solid, the cast is for the most part great and the gameplay is solid then I am good.