It might not be the cream of the JRPG crop, but the Tales series has generally provided an entertaining enough spectacle to recruit a strong following. The latest iteration, Tales of Zestiria, attempts to take the series to a new level but occasionally trips up over its own innovations, and ultimately doesn’t do enough to counter its weaknesses. That said, it also includes all the elements that have made the series successful and will keep all the usual suspects happy. It’s a pretty good game and there are plenty of reasons to recommend it, but it just doesn’t do enough to become the game it really needs to be.
Tales of Zestiria tells the story of Sorey, a prototypically optimistic-ish, dumb-ish JRPG hero who discovers that he is the Shepherd, someone who can purge evil creatures known as Hellions. In a world where humans live side by side with seraphim – beings they can neither see nor hear – Sorey must try to heal the rift between races, stop a war between two great nations, and defeat the dark malevolence that turns people into Hellions. Ultimately, he finds himself plunged into a personal battle with the Lord of Calamity as he tries to save the world – because, after all, it’s traditional for the powers of light and darkness to want slightly different things.
It isn’t the most original of storylines and it’s further hampered by a fairly forgettable villain, thus leaving it to the gameplay to light up Zestiria. Fortunately, it does so with some aplomb. It’s the traditional Tales formula: you’ll explore various environments and cities, and real-time battles begin when you touch an enemy on the field. You control one of a party of up to four characters, with a variety of attacks, artes, and spells available, and each of the three trumps one of the others so you can interrupt your enemies’ actions – or be interrupted yourself. It will be familiar to fans of the series, but the changes made to the combat add a whole new layer of strategy to it.
Each of the seraphim characters has to be linked to a human to be used, meaning you can only have two – at most – on the field at once, and each of them Is aligned with a different element. You can switch them in and out at will according to your foes’ weaknesses, making every battle a dynamic affair. Furthermore, each human character can “armatize” with the seraph they are linked with, combining them into a single, super-powerful entity with new skills and attacks. Armatizing, apart from being immensely good fun, also resurrects a human character, making it an essential component of any successful battle plan.
However, despite all of these new elements, there is one change that detracts from the combat: namely, the decision to have battles in the same space you encountered the enemy rather than a separate area. This sounds like it should be another improvement, but the actual result is that Zestiria is the first Tales game we can remember to have camera issues. This is particularly the case in dungeons where the camera gets caught on every wall and corner, thereby giving you an interesting but unhelpful view of the floor. This can also happen with trees, rocks, and most other things you might encounter in the world.
Outside of battle, there’s been further attempt to innovate by adopting a more open world approach. Some parts of the game will see you scrambling all over the map, which is dotted with various ruins you can explore in search of extra loot and goodies. Unfortunately, this innovation – despite itself being a positive – is the one which most hamstrings the game, mainly by slowing down the story. The game opens in a sprightly manner, but the second half lags badly as you are sent back and forth in search of various thingamabobs and whatchamacallits, sometimes with poor instruction and dodgy quest markers. The previous game in the series, Tales of Xillia 2, might not have been the strongest instalment, but it accelerated towards its finale – something that Zestiria fails to do.
It doesn’t help either that no matter how open the world is, it isn’t all that interesting to look at. Recent RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition have provided a lush world to explore, and even Final Fantasy XIII – released six years ago now! – outstrips Zestiria for looks by a long, long way. The character models are much improved, but the environments are boring and lacking in detail. Bandai Namco seem to have taken the approach that bigger is better; they’ve made the areas on a grander scale than ever before, but they haven’t bothered to make them pretty. This isn’t to say that they’re grey or lifeless – they just aren’t that interesting.
There are at least plenty of things to do in Zestiria. Sorey’s hobby is exploring ruins, and you can do plenty of that even if the ruins don’t seem interesting enough to bear out his fascination with them. Defeating the powerful Hellions you’ll find within earns orbs which enhance your characters HP, and there are various other quests to take care of and mysteries to be unravelled. There’s a good chance you’ll spend several hours just tinkering with your equipment too; the abilities that items bestow can be stacked in various ways to achieve different effects, and there’s an awful lot of scope for experimentation.
Even if you don’t take on any of the extras and just plough through the story, the game will still take a good 30-35 hours to complete, and you’re going to enjoy most of those hours. Zestiria’s biggest problem is that although it builds on the strengths of the series – in short, the combat and gameplay – it doesn’t improve on its weaknesses, and we’re not just talking about the environments. The story doesn’t do enough to stand on its own, and though the voice actors battle on bravely, the dialogue is often stupendously stupid, riddled with bad clichés and non-sequiturs. Since most RPGs thrive on their plot, to have one which is sometimes excruciating to listen to – and with the standard of storytelling in games rising rapidly – is a heinous crime.
There are a lot of good reasons to give Tales of Zestiria a try, but it hasn’t taken a big enough step forwards to be the game it wants to be. It innovates and improves on many longstanding aspects of the series, only to badly lag behind other games in several vital aspects. It’s extremely enjoyable, stuffed full of content, and balances action and strategy beautifully – but the uneven pacing, cheesy dialogue, and subpar presentation let it down. If you’re a longstanding fan of JRPGs and the Tales series, then it’s definitely worth picking up a copy; if you have only a passing interest in the genre, you might be better off looking elsewhere.