Platform: PC, PS3, PS4
Release Date: 16 October 2015
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
It’s been a month since Tales of Zestiria came out and honestly, I still have no idea what to tell you about it. The latest in the Tales Of series is a gargantuan, sprawling behemoth that attempts to balance keeping classic franchise features with new additions. The result is a JRPG that’s pretty overwhelming and clumsily realised, but also incredibly fun and rewarding if you persevere through its flaws.
You play through the game as Sorey, a naïve but cheerful human who quickly finds his life complicated by wars, unrest, and the seraphim – spirits he’s grown up with seeing, but who are invisible to normal humans. He’s joined by a rotating array of characters, from princess-knight Alisha to childhood friend Mikleo, and all the characters do a good job of being likable, distinct personalities (which really shine in the optional voice-acted skits, a staple of the franchise). Each character also get their own distinct combat style, from fighting with a sword or staff to less conventional things like pendants and parasols.
Changes to the combat system also mean that fighting is now much more balanced between characters: for example, there is no one healer character, nor a single tank: everyone is capable of doing (almost) everything, though their stats will still lean them towards a set position in the party. For example, Mikleo has a great heal and decent ranged spells, while Sorey doesn’t have any healing abilities at all but destroys with powerful sword attacks.
Combat itself now relies more upon combos, unleashing the “blast gauge” to do damage, and a new mechanic called “armatizing”, where a human character combines with a seraph to become more powerful. This is a godsend in single player, but in multi-player mode, control is entirely given over to whoever’s playing as the human, making it a frustrating mechanic as you can suddenly lose control of your fire spellcaster in the middle of a devastating combo. This is eased once you reach a 4-player party, but the set-up also means you are forced to keep two humans and two seraphim in combat at all times, though the seraphim can be switched at will mid-battle.
The characters’ stats can be affected by both equipment and skills, and skills are locked to different pieces of equipment. This adds another layer to equipment shopping and fusing: my earth seraph hasn’t improved any of her armour or weapons for a good 10 levels now, purely because her current skills are perfectly aligned and any changes will break her beautiful skill combinations (which unlock extra skills).
However, for all the game’s complex and intricate mechanics, it’s also incredibly clumsy. As opposed to previous Tales Of games, where encounters, dungeons and world-map exploring each took place in a different level, now all events take place in the same one. This means the camera is truly abysmal, will get stuck on every column it sees, and thus can actively hamper gameplay.
The story also suffers from this heavy-handedness: one particularly emotional scene is ruined by the insistent breaks between cut-scenes and railroaded action, while in another town a key plot point is delivered to you by a random NPC. So far, 24 hours in, the main story seems somewhat clichéd, but there’s plenty of time for the signature plot twists to take hold.
Despite all these flaws, Tales of Zestiria remains a compelling game. Playing in two-player co-op mode on PC, there has been a lot for my partner and I to complain about. But by this same token, there’s also a lot to like about this game. The difficulty levels can help balance the convoluted nature of the mechanics, and some of the extras are delightfully silly. The attachment system encourages silly and incredibly adjustable alterations to characters: chests around the world have so far contained topknots, white bunny ears, and Shiba Inu tales (with Doge meme references in their description). Battle skills and support actions are nicely streamlined to provide helping hands both within battle and outside of it.
Overall, Tales of Zestiria is worth playing. The story mode is good for probably 70 hours, and the pacing starts slow but picks up well. While not the best JRPG out there, it’s a solid addition to the Tales Of franchise that’s let down by its messiness more than anything else.