Hideo Baba, the Tales series producer, once compared the popular JRPG franchise to gum drops. Every game has the same general feel, but the flavor is slightly different with every iteration. Going with that metaphor, Tales of Zestiria is the largest gum drop to date. The flavor is just slightly off, however.
The game opens as its protagonist, Sorey, is exploring some ruins. Players are quickly introduced to his best friend, Mikleo, a supernatural Seraphim that humans worship. Within the ruins, Sorey discovers another human and is thrust into an adventure that finds him pursuing the path of the Shepherd, acting as a liason between human and Seraphim in an effort to inspire peace and cooperation between the two races.
Sorey is essentially King Arthur. He pulls a sword from a stone and that cements his identity as the Chosen One. From there, he joins forces with the Lady of the Lake, who doubles as a stand-in for Merlin. Sorey even helps to defend the kingdom against an invading force (albeit unwillingly). The game runs with the concept and even names locations after characters featured in Arthurian legend, but it never really goes anywhere beyond that. Instead, it tells the more interesting (I thought) story of a man who is clinging to his innocence while living in a world that demands he shed it for the greater good.
Though some fans might prefer the story offered by Tales of Vesperia, which featured a darker protagonist, I personally appreciated Sorey’s goody two-shoes personality. He firmly believes he can save everybody from a dark force (known as “malevolence”) that transforms humans and Seraphim into monsters. As you might expect, he fails numerous times over the course of his journey, but he never lets that get him down for more than a few moments at a time. It’s refreshing, in a world now filled with stories of anti-heroes and morally ambiguous protagonists, to see someone who is sufficiently good-natured that failure and corruption just wash off his back like so much water.
Sorey is the only pure-hearted fellow in the game, however, and the rest of the cast serves as an excellent foil. The real standout is Rose, a woman that is the complete opposite of Sorey in almost every way and yet wants to protect his innocence, even if it means dirtying her own hands in the process. I found the dynamic between them quite enjoyable for the 70 odd hours I spent with the game.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the biggest “controversy” regarding the game’s story. Sorey and pals first team up with Alisha, a princess knight from the kingdom of Hyland. Around 10 hours into the game, Sorey parts ways with Alisha and Rose joins in her stead. This development caused a huge uproar in Japan, since the game was marketed with Alisha as the main heroine despite Rose filling that role for the campaign’s bulk, but I didn’t see it as that big of a deal. Rose is arguably a much better character, and those who miss Alisha can still interact with her plenty often if they tend to every side quest.
I really enjoyed the story in Zestiria. It’s certainly not as strong as some past games, but it’s serviceable and the cast more than makes up for any low points. The skits are among the strongest in the franchise, capably balancing their dramatic and comedic elements. The cast (especially the Seraphim, since they’re hundreds of years old) may be talking about their sordid pasts one second and then discussing the finer points of curling animals the next. I experienced some of the best laughs in the franchise with Zestiria, and the excellent delivery from the English dub cast further accentuated the humor.
The relationship between humans and Seraphim dominates the story, and the gameplay system is also impacted. Combat’s main gimmick this time around is the ability Sorey and Rose have to fuse with one of four Seraphim partners that represent the four standard elements: water, fire, earth and wind. While fused, the stats of both characters are combined and their attacks are imbued with the relevant element. It’s essential to effectively use this ability in combat, as Zestiria is certainly no cakewalk. I’d consider this one the hardest Tales game since Tales of Graces f, even.
Speaking of Graces, Zestiria returns to the excellent combat system from Asbel’s adventure, meaning all attacks drain the same reserve of points, instead of working like the TP system found in Vesperia or the CC/TP system from Xillia. That approach may not be every fan’s cup of tea, but I personally found that it made the game joy to play. With that said, there are a few nitpicks of note.
In combat, you may notice that some enemies (bosses included) will randomly stop taking damage. That usually happens as the enemy is setting up a large-scale attack, but its ability to randomly cancel your attack makes combo chasing a difficult endeavor. There’s also too much emphasis on fusing with the Seraphim partners. Even when you’re only fighting regular enemies, a battle can last several moments if you don’t quickly fuse.
Nitpicks extend to the rest of the game’s systems, as well. Zestiria implements an interesting character growth mechanic, in that each weapon has attached skills that can be stacked or placed in rows to unlock still more skills. The rub is that these skills are only available while the weapon with that skill activated remains equipped. You can carry over skills by fusing two of the same items, but the game does a poor job of explaining how such fusion works. Most players will likely be stuck with basic skills throughout most of the game. It doesn’t help that any equipment possessing skills that are actually worth something is mostly only dropped when you’re playing on the Hard difficulty setting or higher.
Zestiria‘s open world, a first for the series, also disappoints. It’s certainly the most open Tales game yet, but the world feels sparse. You’ll often find only a dungeon or two populating otherwise empty landscapes, and the dungeons themselves aren’t even that great. Most are comprised of the same boring hallways on repeat, or they employ infuriating puzzles. The latter point is especially egregious during one late dungeon, where the player must sneak past panels that send him back to the area’s entrance if he is spotted.
Visually, Zestiria is obviously a PS3 game that has been modified to run on the PS4. That isn’t a problem, however, as the aesthetic design is some of the strongest in the series to date. Nearly every character is fantastic, and the environmental design features some of the best architecture I’ve yet seen in the series. The only real downside is that the PS4 and PC versions are capped at 30 FPS. It’s not a deal breaker for me, but it could matter to some fans.
Tales of Zestiria feels like a transition title, as the team tries a bunch of ideas in an effort to see what sticks. The open world and skill system are examples of excellent ideas that hopefully will be honed in future titles. Even with some of the more disappointing elements in tow, however, Tales of Zestiria is one of the strongest Tales titles to date. It earns an easy recommendation for Tales and JRPG fans alike.