Tales of Zestiria - Review  

Cleaning Up the Kingdom
by Adriaan den Ouden

Click here for game information
40-60 Hours
+ Best combat in the series.
+ Vast areas that reward exploration.
+ Great music.
- Poor story pacing towards the end of the game.
- Equipment system is tedious to use effectively.
- Unimpressive visuals.
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   As JRPG franchises go, the Tales series has always been a fairly safe bet. Bandai Namco tends to play it relatively safe when it comes to each new iteration, making a few changes here and there, but typically keeping the formula fairly similar. Every now and then, however, they throw tradition out the window and try something weird. The last time they did this was 2005's Tales of Legendia, a divisive entry that had a number of major issues hampering its otherwise terrific concept. Tales of Zestiria, the first Tales game to be released for the new console generation, also takes a number of risks that the series normally abstains from, and like Tales of Legendia, the result is a fascinating game that unfortunately doesn't always come together just right.

   Loosely steeped in British folklore, Tales of Zestiria follows the travels of Sorey, a young human who was raised isolated in a village of seraphs — mysterious people who normally can't be seen by ordinary humans. Along with his childhood seraph friend Mikleo, the two archaeology-obsessed teenagers chance to encounter the princess of a nearby human kingdom while exploring the ruins outside their home. This encounter leads the two to the city of Ladylake, where Sorey meets another seraph, Lailah, and becomes the Shepherd, a fabled hero with the power to quell a mysterious, evil force known as malevolence.

   While the characters all have quirky personalities typical for the Tales series, the story is unfortunately a low-point for Tales of Zestiria, though its weakness really only becomes apparent as the game starts to wrap up. The opening hours are a bit rocky, largely due to some shaky early voice acting, but this improves steadily over the course of the game. Despite this, the story picks up speed pretty quickly, and there are some incredibly amazing moments throughout. But as more and more villains and concepts are introduced, these moments become fewer and further in between, replaced instead with rapid and anticlimactic encounters and reveals that fail to properly build off the mystery and menace they created. By the thirty-hour mark, the sheer number of unresolved plot points had me convinced the game wasn't even at the halfway point, but fifteen hours later, it was over. Even as the game concludes, there are a number of mysteries that remain unsolved and unexplored, and the ambiguous ending doesn't help matters any.

   Zestiria does shine in a few areas, the most notable of which is its combat system, an evolution of the traditional Tales linear motion battle system that mixes things up in a number of unique and interesting ways. In fact, it's the best version of Tales combat in the history of the series. Players take control of one of the four active party members, and can move around the battlefield to attack and dodge enemies. Each character has a health gauge and an "SP" gauge; the former should be self-explanatory, while the latter is used to perform attacks and artes. Unlike other Tales games, Zestiria's SP is a flat one hundred for every character, and the core of combat revolves around using SP to attack, and then restoring it by performing defensive actions like dodging or simply remaining idle for a short period of time. Practically speaking, it's a lovely compromise between the more traditional TP system seen in older Tales games and the CP system seen in Graces.

The usual group of weirdoes. The usual group of weirdoes.

   While SP management helps to set the flow of battle, other aspects of combat determine the tactics. There are three types of attacks in the game: artes, hidden artes, and seraphic artes, and depending on the character, they will have access to two of these. Artes are similar to the regular attacks seen in pervious Tales games. They are preset and uncustomizable for each character, and can be chained together by combining the attack button with the directional stick. Hidden artes, meanwhile, are similar to the classic artes from older games. They are a bit slower to initiate than regular artes, but also more powerful. Finally, seraphic artes are spells that require a cast time. Human characters — Sorey, Alisha, and Rose — are able to use artes and hidden artes, while seraph characters — Mikleo, Lailah, Edna, Dezel, and Zaveid — can use artes and seraphic artes. Finally, when characters armatize, they can only use hidden artes and seraphic artes.

   Armatization is another fascinating system introduced in Tales of Zestiria that allows for a human character and a seraph character to combine into one, increasing their power and altering their attacks. Armatization has a number of other benefits, and is one of the most important strategic elements in the game. Unlike most Tales games, Zestiria takes a weird new approach to healing, and armatization is at its core. While traditional healing spells like Healing Circle do still exist, they aren't terribly powerful. Instead, armatization allows the player to heal in a number of ways. For one thing, special skills that activate during battle will allow characters to store recovery potential, which is displayed as a blue bar overlaying the orange health bar. Once two characters armatize, this recovery potential becomes actual recovery, and those health points are fully restored. While armatized, characters can also use a unique healing skill that's much more powerful than any artes characters can use on their own. Armatization can even revive a human character from KO.

   Of course, armatizing isn't free. It requires BG points, a gauge that increases when specific actions are taken in battle. BG can be used to perform a number of different actions, including powerful mystic artes, and the number of BG points each character can store at a time starts at three and can be increased in a variety of ways. Managing and making good use of BG is just as important as managing SP.

   While there are a number of other aspects to combat, much of it is superfluous and unimportant, at least on the normal difficulty level. The only piece that remains worth mentioning is combat's reliance on elemental resistances and weaknesses, which is absolutely vital to success. The vast majority of enemies in the game have a weakness or resistance to one or more of five elements. Attacking an enemy's resistance will greatly reduce the amount of damage dealt, so avoiding these is important, but striking at weaknesses is even more important. Once a weakness has been successfully exploited, the combo becomes a power hit. Every subsequent attack in the combo, regardless of element, will benefit from the damage bonus of the power hit, thus increasing the party's overall damage output. Base damage throughout the game is painfully low, so exploiting this system frequently and consistently is key to success.

From the right angles, some of the vistas can be really neat, but for the most part its pretty boring to look at. From the right angles, some of the vistas can be really neat, but for the most part its pretty boring to look at.

   While it all seems complicated, in practice it actually flows extremely well, and quickly becomes second nature. Abusing weaknesses is easy, as all the human characters are capable of using attacks of every element. At any given time the party will include four seraphs, one for each element, who can be swapped out of battle on the fly depending on circumstances. This also means that, despite only having four active at any given time, there are really six members to work with. The whole system is unlike any other Tales combat system, and requires far more engagement on the part of the player. The only major issue to speak of is the battle camera, which is awful. While players can normally move the camera with the right stick, during battle the right stick is bound to AI commands, and the camera often gets stuck on walls and obstacles, especially when fighting in cramped quarters. Battles don't take place in a separate screen but on the actual, explorable map, which would be a change for the better were it not for this unfortunate camera issue.

   Level design is another area that Tales of Zestiria breaks from tradition. The world is extremely open compared to other Tales games. It wouldn't be accurate to call it an open world game, but the field areas are quite vast, and exploration is rewarded in a number of ways, including discovering additional skits, treasures, and valuable herbs that can permanently increase a character's stats. There are also a number of optional dungeons to find and explore, all of which are filled with treasures and typically an optional boss. Unfortunately, aside from the open field areas, the level design throughout Tales of Zestiria is extremely poor, relying far too often on a bland, corridor/room pattern that gets old fast.

   The game's equipment system is also interesting, but unlike the combat system, it doesn't come together quite as well. Like all RPGs, Tales of Zestiria features a wide array of useful equipment to collect and equip, but what sets Zestiria's apart is the fusion system, which allows players to combine two pieces of equipment with the same name in order to make them stronger. Equipment can be found frequently in chests, dropped by enemies, or purchased in shops, and fusing can make them useful for far longer than normal. All pieces of equipment can also possess up to four of a total of fifty skills which offer up various bonus effects in battle. Skills can be transferred from one piece of equipment to another via fusion, and by equipping the right combinations, powerful bonus skills can be activated as well. This allows for a lot of potential character customization, but properly abusing it requires a great deal of dedication. Further, unlike most RPGs, the stats boosts offered by equipment vary wildly even among the same type of item. One weapon might offer a boost to attack and defense, while another will offer a boost to arte attack and focus instead. This makes finding equipment upgrades far less of a straight-forward ordeal than it would normally be. If a new weapon offers bonuses to different stats, switching them out will benefit one stat greatly but at a large cost to others, an issue that only gets worse as the game progresses. Determining the best balance of stat points is a significant ordeal, one that would have been greatly improved with a bit more consistency in gear.

   Visually, Tales of Zestiria is also a bit of a mess. While the character and enemy designs are all solid, the overall graphic quality is subpar for a new-generation title. The environments may be large and open, but they're also rather bland, with very few details and a lot of repeated textures. There are a few exceptions, but the overall visual appeal is fairly minimal. The audio is thankfully much better. Although the voice work is pretty weak in the early hours of the game, it improves greatly as it progresses. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is the best the series has had since Tales of Legendia, largely thanks to the fact that Legendia's composer Go Shiina has finally returned to help score it. The battle and dungeon themes are especially fantastic.

   It's a shame that Tales of Zestiria didn't come together better, because the core of the game is easily the best the series has ever produced. Players looking for great combat won't be disappointed, but the disappointing story, tedious equipment system, and a number of other minor irritations all conspire to bring the whole experience down. That isn't to say that it's a bad game; far from it. But with a few tweaks, it could have been so much better.

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