Tales of Zestiria
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Bandai Namco
Release Date: 10/16/2015
I am a big fan of the Tales series. In fact, a good friend and I run a Tales-themed Tumblr that preys upon people’s feelings about characters and their tragic backgrounds or fates within the games. I jumped on the chance to review Tales of Zestiria after my excitement over the announcement of a worldwide release. I wanted to meet Sorey and Alisha and Mikleo, learn about the Shepherds, and save the world (again). Tales of Zestiria is set in the content of Glenwood, divided into the Hyland Kingdom and Rolance Empire. Over the past few years, a dark force known as malevolence has covered the world. Malevolence is made up of negative energy, coming particularly from the negative emotions of humans, and it takes control of people, seraphim, animals, and even inanimate objects once enough of it builds up, turning them into demonic creatures known as Hellions.
Seraphim are an angelic race that can only be seen by people who have enough resonance. Shepherds like Sorey have incredibly strong resonance and are both feared and revered for their power to do so. Seraphim can form a contract with a Shepherd and become his or her Prime Lord or Sub Lord. In Tales of Zestiria, Sorey runs across an unconscious Alisha and takes her back to his hometown, in which he is the only human, so she cannot see the Seraphim he is interacting with. Suspecting that he is special, she invites him to come visit her hometown of Ladylake, which he does eventually visit… after a Hellion named Lunarre, who seems to be after Alisha.
Aesthetically, the game looks great. I love the visuals, though they are clearly made for the PS3, and the animated scenes are especially lovely. The soundtrack and sound effects are also on par with previous games. The only complaint I have is that there is a voiced track that comes into play later in the game, “Rising Up,” that I’m not a huge fan of. You don’t really spend a lot of time in that area, so it’s not a huge deal, but it just sounds kind of cheesy and I think the vocals – while fine – detract from the epic feel of the rest of the OST.
The gameplay is more complicated than in prior games, and one way this is reflected is in the fact that the battle arena selected when you get into fights with monsters is reflective of the topography of the actual place where the fight was initiated. In other words, if you were standing by a wall or near a cliff when you were attacked by a monster or you attacked a monster, that wall or cliff doesn’t just go away because you got in a fight. This is actually pretty cool, other than the fact that this can make the battle camera go wonky if you’re near a wall or a tree or something.
Additionally, there are different types of attacks, and artes (a special kind of attack) are broken down into martial artes, hidden artes, and mystic artes. Further, attacks are broken into wind, fire, earth, water, and non-elemental attacks. You also have a Blast Gauge (BG) and Spirit Chain (SC) gauge which affect battle as well; your BG helps you do special attacks and your SC gives you various kinds of aids in battle. You’ve also got battle acts, which you enable outside of battle, that allow you to do things like automatically sidestep or use less BG to do certain attacks. You can also armatize, which is where your human character merges with a Seraphim, which grants its own new artes. Different creatures are resistant and weak to different types of artes and different elements. If that sounds like a lot to you, that’s because it is.
This setup is good for those who are used to Tales games and maybe want something more complicated, but I can definitely see how the system they’ve set up in Zestiria would be really unwelcoming to people new to the series. There are monoliths scattered across the countryside which provide tips, but honestly, I don’t think they actually helped, and in the end it really didn’t feel like any of the intricacies really mattered on normal difficulty. I generally focused on elemental weaknesses, and that worked out fine. On harder difficulties, I imagine it matters a lot more.
To make matters more complicated, there’s also a weapon upgrade system which would also not be friendly to new players, and I personally wasn’t a fan of how they implemented this. Each weapon allows you to gain proficiency in it, but it also upgrades certain skills, and these upgrades stack across all your weapons. Basically, you’re given this 5×10 grid, and each weapon/piece of armor you obtain has innate skills that match up to different slots on this grid. If you line up a row or a column, you get an added bonus. You can also stack certain skills by equipping items with the same skills. This is a really simplified way of explaining it, but there are other things to consider as well, like if you stack a skill in the middle of a row of, say, three skills, you can disrupt the bonuses you get. You can also collect these creatures called Normin who will let you attach their skill to an item once (which seems kind of silly considering you’ll be switching out equipment pretty often until you get to the endgame). It feels needlessly complicated, and I mostly just ignored it and went with whatever boosted my stats the most.
Tales of Zestiria has more of an open world setup that I think works pretty well. There’s not as much as I was expecting to do outside of the storyline, but that may be because when I hear open world I think games like Skyrim that have literally hundreds of sidequests. Still, Zestiria definitely has replay value, especially for achievement hunters, though some of those achievements force you to either play the game all the way through multiple times or play on harder difficulties, which is not ideal. The dungeons are fairly sparse looking but still have some surprises in store. The only dungeons I was not a huge fan of was the water temple (of course) and the very last dungeon, where I just opened the map and said, “Are you kidding me? I just want to beat the game at this point!” All in all, the game is definitely more open world than other Tales games I’ve played, at least in terms of the layout of the land. The plot is still pretty linear.
The plot is pretty interesting but features a lot of the typical Tales tropes that people will either love or hate. You’ve got important characters betraying the party, towns being destroyed in the backstory, pacts with spirits, inner turmoil about what’s right and wrong, war, questions about destiny, nature vs. nurture, and a Sorcerer’s Ring-type ability that the main character can use. It’s a little disappointing that the plot isn’t more open since the design of the world is more open. That being said, a lot of my favorite features of Tales games exist. We still get a lot of the same humor that’s in the other games, and while the characters very similar to characters in other games, it’s clear the characters and their interactions are the driving force of the game. Really, Tales game plots make very little sense if you try to explain them to people outside of the fanbase, but show them a few of the skits and they will likely see the appeal. Speaking of the story: if Tales endings tend to destroy your soul, this one will definitely get the job done. There’s a good ending and a bad ending. The bad ending happens about halfway through the game if you defeat someone before you’re supposed to. The good ending is worse for your heart than the Tales of Abyss ending. So… have fun with that.
One thing that I think is worth mentioning and shouldn’t be a spoiler at this point is that Alisha leaves only a small way through the game. While characters come and go a lot–that’s a staple of Tales games–it was kind of weird that everyone (including myself) was under the impression she’d be around for most if not all of the same, given DLC costumes and everything, and then is kind of relegated to not being all that important in terms of your own story. I wasn’t really all that upset about it because the person who replaces her is great, but I am a little peeved that it feels like they used her not being in the party to get DLC out of it.
Tales of Zestiria feels like a game made for Tales fans. It might not be entirely friendly to newcomers, especially with the more complicated battle and equipment upgrade systems, but will definitely appeal to people who have been with the series for a long time. I know that I got a little frustrated with some of the longer cutscenes and dungeons, especially near the end, but I think a lot of that was also me trying to get through the game so that I could review it to the best of my ability. The game isn’t perfect, and I don’t think I would consider it my favorite Tales game, but I do feel it is a solid entry to the series and shows that Bandai Namco are slowly trying to modernize the series without alienating a good portion of its fanbase.
Short Attention Span Summary
Tales of Zestiria is definitely a game made for Tales fans, who I think will largely enjoy the game. It has all of the major staples in terms of plot, characters, character development, and humor, but some of the more complicated gameplay aspects will be unfriendly to those new to the series and those who simply aren’t interested in spending a lot of time figuring out the best equipment configuration for all six characters. Still, I found the game to be a mostly positive experience, and definitely look forward to playing through it again, enjoying the more open world experience and trying to find as many skits as possible, when I’m not rushing through the game to try to get a review in.