Diamond in the Rough
After its humble beginnings back in 1995, the Tales series has since evolved into one of the most beloved JRPG franchises in gaming. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tales series comes the fifteenth main title, Tales of Zestiria.
Tales of Zestiria is set in a medieval high-fantasy world on the continent of Glenwood, populated by two main races, humans and Seraphim. Seraphim are spiritual beings that can only be seen or heard by “Shepards”, humans that have enough resonance with them. In Glenwood, an aura known as “malevolence” is generated through negative emotions and has the ability to transform someone into a monster known as a Hellion. The on-going war between the two human kingdoms of Hyland and Rolance is the main source of malevolence. The story revolves around a young Shepherd called Sorey and a group of Seraphim, on a quest to quell the malevolence and create a world where humanity and Seraphim can coexist.
At first the story seemed very generic and slow paced. Main character and his best friend leave home on an adventure to save a damsel in distress – nothing that we haven’t seen a million times before. I’ve never been happier that I was wrong. After you progress into the first major city, the cast of characters begin to grow and the story quick develops alongside it. Tales of Zestiria takes a step away from the typical good versus evil trope and instead looks at how the two are often two sides of the same coin.
Rather than serving as buffer content, the side quests available in Tales of Zestiria intertwines with the main story line. Each side quest is an opportunity to learn more about the story and are required to reach a meaningful conclusion. They are mostly focused on exploring Ruins found all over the continent, where Hellions, treasures and hidden secrets can be found. You are rewarded for exploring Glenwood, earning ability points, cosmetic accessories and character titles for each discovery.
Out of the most recent string of JRPG titles, the characters in Tales of Zestiria are by far my favourite. Each character has their own distinctive personality, which by themselves is entertainment, but they synergizes so well with the wit and banter between them. While all JRPGs attempt character development through their story progress, Tales of Zestiria has done it the best. The progress of each character’s story feels wholehearted and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel emotional during a few of the scenes.
The animated cut-scenes are definitely a highlight of Tales of Zestiria. Animated by Ufotable, these anime-style cut scenes help deliver key story points in a really impactful and entertaining way. The opening cinematic alone, left me in awe and left me wanting to watch more.
The combat system in Tales of Zestrilia is reminisce of previous Tales titles. You have the freedom of movement on the battlefield and you control your character’s ability in real-time. You also have the ability to choose which character you want to play as in combat. The mechanics focus on two categories of ability, Artes and Hidden Artes, each bound to their respective keys. Combining this with directional inputs execute different abilities that can be chained together. Human characters excel at melee-based at Artes, while Seraphim primarily use ranged magical abilities. You can have a maximum of four characters in each fight, with one Seraph linked to each of the two human characters. Each character is also capable of performing a “Mystic Artes”, which is a powerful attack used to finish off enemies, that looks pretty flashy.
Tales of Zestiria takes things one step further. You have the ability to perform “Armatization” with your Seraph partner, which fuses your stats and unlocks more powerful abilities. While in this form, your abilities will manifest themselves depending on which Seraph you fused with, changing your approach and the elemental attributes of your attacks.
Having the ability to guard and dodge enemy attacks gives the combat more flexibility and allows you to tailor your play style to each specific fight. When fighting grunt-level enemies, the combat is swift and is usually finished within thirty seconds – and you’re rewarded for your speed. Boss fights however, tend to be more methodical, requiring you to study their attack patterns and plan your approach accordingly.
The combat difficulty can be changed any-time outside of combat and it scales fairly well in Tales of Zestiria. You also have the ability to change how you control your characters, from fully-manual, semi-automatic and fully-automatic controls. While manual and semi-automatic controls require you to push the buttons, if you don’t care about the combat or are struggling in a fight, the fully-automatic feature works surprisingly well, even against the final boss.
Unlike previous Tales titles where each battle took place in a separate location, in Tales of Zestiria, each fight takes place where the encounter occurred. While this is a nice change in scenery, this often resulted in the game camera getting stuck in walls or doorways whenever you would fight indoors.
Even with the addition of Armatization, the combat in Tales of Zestiria still feels like the same – but still great – combat system we’ve seen for a number of years. With the recent trend of JRPGs adopting this real-time action battle system, which usually devolve into senseless button mashing, you are left wanting a bit more spice in the combat system.
When you first start playing, Tales of Zestiria appears to be a well-polished game that takes an interesting story and melds it with refined mechanics. Zestiria follows the same principal as other JRPGs – when you’re not in a town, you’re out exploring the lands and fighting monsters. It has been awhile since I was excited by a JRPG and I was driven to keep playing, but the more I played, the more the cracks began to show.
At first, it appears to give you the freedom to explore the world at your discretion, but it’s merely an illusion. Overall, the game play is quite linear and often blocks you from exploring outside the region the main story is taking place. Even when I received a side quest directing me to a neighboring region, it was either physically blocked off by a convenient landslide or completely overwhelmed by malevolence that my progression was inhibited – despite a NPC strolling around in front of me, completely unaffected.
My biggest issue with the game was the performance. Playing on a Playstation 4, I experienced consistent frame rate drops when using a specific Armatized ability with Mikleo. This also occurred in a specific scripted battle further into the game. It also appears that the game logic is tied to the frame rate, which resulted in my controller inputs not correctly registering when these frame rate drops occurred. For a combat system that is so heavily focused on well-timed executions in real time, it was unbearable when it occurred. I have not been able to confirm whether this issue is isolated to the PS4 or if it is occurring on the Xbox One and PC versions as well.
Outside of combat, there are four elemental abilities you have access to – a fire blast, earth shatter, a wind-dash and a water bubble. These abilities are used to help discover secret passages and unlock hidden rooms in the Ruins that you explore. However, you gain access to these abilities are completely arbitrary points in the game, with only the water bubble being directly tied to the story line. Even though your Wind-based Seraph joined your party long after your Earth-based Seraph, you gain access to the dash ability well before your earth shatter. This often meant revisiting different areas after unlock a specific ability, to solve the puzzles despite already having the required Seraph in the party at the time. It felt like Tales of Zestiria tried to take a page from Castlevania, but completely missed the conflict in logic.
In Zestiria, the world is quite vast, so the distance between places is quite large. To make travelling easier, the Save Point Travel system allows you to teleport to previous visited save points. However, while the travel system has the World Map visible, it doesn’t visually display the location of your selected destination. I found myself having to close the travel menu and opening the World Map countless times to figure out which location I needed to travel to, despite the travel system showing the exact same map.
Finally, getting lost in Tales of Zestiria will not be uncommon. When it comes to keeping track of different quests and objectives, Zestiria doesn’t do the best job at letting you know what you need to or where you need to go. Although you can access a pseudo-quest log through your companion, it often doesn’t give you enough information to help you progress.
With the recent decline in the quality of JRPGs in recent years, Tales of Zestiria is a much needed relief. The issues that Zestiria suffers from leaves it feeling unpolished, but don’t detract too much from the experience (with the exception of the frame rate drops). Between the comical character interactions and the stellar soundtrack, it is an enjoyable game for anyone interested in a JRPG.
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios, tri-Crescendo
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform: PS3, PS4 and PC
A review copy was provided by the publisher.