I’ve been a fan of the Tales series for some time, playing through Abyss, Symphonia, and Xilia and loving each one to pieces. So naturally, I was hyped when I learned about Zestiria, the newest Tales game that would be coming to America. I tried to stay away from any news about it, though, because I wanted to play it with fresh eyes, as much as I could. So it was that I bought it on Day One, and began playing it the day after.
The best part about a Tales game is the characters and their interactions, and the same is true of Zestiria. The characters are likable and memorable as soon as they appear, and I enjoyed watching them change and grow subtly across the game. Interactions are frequent and often funny, which kept me engaged with the cast. I would often stay at inns even when I didn’t need to, just to see what would be said next. There were a couple of instances where I was disappointed in how little a character had changed from beginning to end, but in the larger group, these characters still had their place.
There are always two characters on the map at all times, though who it is will change as the story progresses. It’s not simply a visual touch, either; talking to the other character will allow them to share their thoughts on the current situation, or give clues what to do with a current sidequest, or even reminders of a sidequest you have yet to begin. This function makes the game a much more streamlined product than previous Tales games, by giving sidequests more of an “I think I’ll do this one right now” mentality as opposed to the “Do I really have to visit every town at every point in the game and talk to every NPC to make sure I’m not missing anything?” mentality of previous games. It’s basically a more permanent version of the skits in Xilia that triggered after story events as a reminder of possible sidequests.
“Points of Interest” are sprinkled across every map, serving as a vehicle for some interesting skits and world-building information. They also give out “AP,” which is basically a skill point that is needed in order to equip certain battle abilities, which make combat easier and can be used in various combinations to change up strategy. Some of these “Points of Interest” are also monoliths, which teach various aspects of the game when read, thus rewarding any who go out of their way to search for them. Alternatively, you could say the game unfairly holds back key information until later in the game, making it impossible to know the full rules of combat until later in the game.
Combat itself is much more fast-paced than any previous Tales game. This is because of the lack of any “TP” meter, usually used to enact a character’s more powerful skills. Instead, every attack is attached to an “SC” meter, which drains with every attack or spell, and refills fairly quickly by standing in place. Having more SC makes attacks deal more damage, while running it out makes them deal less in exchange for a constant barrage of damage. It allows for a different strategy in every fight, whether standing back to allow friends to deal the damage or staying in the fray to keep up the pressure.
Unfortunately, beyond that, the combat system is more than a little dreary and over-complicated. About a quarter of the way through, you learn of a silly rock-paper-scissors element in combat between normal attacks, special skills, and magic spells which was unnecessary and only made fights harder and more annoying, especially while playing as a Seraph character. No character can use all three, so every character is always disadvantaged in a fight, but none more than the Seraphim, whose most damaging attacks are spells, and can be cancelled out by normal attacks. The whole system is pointless and the game would be much improved by simply removing it.
The human characters can “Armatize” with Seraph characters, doubling their power, allowing use of different skills and even stronger Mystic Artes later in the game. While playing single-player, this is a great ability that can make normal fights fly by and allow an edge against bosses for some time, increasing strategy. However, with more than one person, I’d imagine this would get irritating fast, just like Xilia’s Link Battle system. It would lock out whoever was playing as the Seraph character, essentially blocking them from the game. I enjoyed Armitization, but this is a pretty obvious downfall of the system that I’m sure will frustrate more than a handful of players.
I’ve mentioned strategy several times so far, and I’m not done mentioning it, as much as I would like to. The biggest complaint I have with the game is the equipment system. Basically, beyond basic stats, every piece of equipment can have up to 4 bonus skills, which fall into different categories. You can fuse equipment together to obtain different skills or add more skills to a previous item, but they have to be the same kind of equipment. Lining up various skills in categories or rows also give more skills, and it’s all very complicated.
And stupid. I hate this system. I’d be in an optional dungeon, searching for hidden treasures and whatnot, and run across a new piece of armor that I’d never seen before, only to find that because of bonus skills, it was weaker than the stuff I’d had since the first town. I didn’t feel like I was progressing or being rewarded. I felt cheated.
Speaking of optional dungeons (and dungeons in general), they were very underwhelming. A few stood out, if only for being exceedingly irritating (what is it with water temples being shit?), but most were straight, angular corridors or straight, slightly curved, brown caves. The fields were all very beautiful and I enjoyed walking between the dungeons, but the dungeons themselves were drab and boring.
The story of a Tales game is usually where they’re allowed to shine the most, alongside the characters, but I wasn’t really feeling this one as much as the previously mentioned Tales entries. There are never any real curveballs thrown, the bad guy at the start is the bad guy at the end, and no one among the party is a traitor or a spy. It’s all very traditional storytelling, stuff that Tales has been bending and subverting for over a decade and a half now, done completely straight. I think it might have been done as a throwback to Tales of Phantasia, which was similarly very traditional, but it only made the story a very average one at best. There are very strong emotional moments, however, and it’s not done without heart or care, so it does stay minimally interesting even in the slowest sections. The payoff is very lackluster, though. I doubt many people will be happy with the ending of this game. The ending disappointed me with its brevity and lack of any real meat. I don’t want to go any further than that for spoilers, but if you’re expecting a strong, flashy ending, you’ll be left very wanting.
This last detail has nothing to do with the game as a whole, but I felt it needed to be brought up. Namco Bandai made the previous Tales character outfits DLC for Zestiria. I got them as a pre-order bonus, but most people will have to shell out a few bucks for a feature that’s been included in almost every other Tales game ever as a bonus for fans who had played multiple games. It’s very skeevy and, at this point, feels like stealing from a dedicated fanbase they know would be willing to fork over the cash if they had to. It’s very frustrating for me to see a company I had a fair amount of respect for falling into the same pitfalls as other AAA companies.