I am not the biggest fan of the Tales of series. In the past, I have absolutely adored some of the best entries in the franchise – Tales of Symphonia on the Gamecube, and Tales of Vesperia on the Xbox 360 immediately come to mind – but the last few years have killed any fascination I may have had with the games, thanks to a glut of increasingly poor entries. Graces F, Xillia, Xillia 2, and Hearts R were all bad, or at least middling, enough, that I had come to the conclusion that maybe this is just a franchise not for me.
So you can understand why I was cautious going into Tales of Zestiria- I’m not the games’ biggest fan to begin with, and from what I gather, Zestiria generated a fair bit of controversy in Japan earlier this year upon its release there. I was fully prepared for another disappointment. All of it was unnecessary, however, as Tales of Zestiria proved to be a surprisingly fresh and fun take on the series’ established conventions, and a game that I greatly enjoyed my time with, in spite of its numerous apparent faults.
"Tales of Zestiria proved to be a surprisingly fresh and fun take on the series’ established conventions, and a game that I greatly enjoyed my time with, in spite of its numerous apparent faults."
Tales of Zestiria is a traditional ‘Hero’s Journey’ fantasy epic- we have a world in peril, besieged with dark forces, and currently in an ‘Age of Chaos,’ and a hero, the prophesized ‘Shephard,’ who arises to save it. We have a race of supernatural beings, whom humans cannot even perceive, let alone communicate with, unless they truly believe in them, and open their hearts to their resonance. We have a journey about saving the world, and setting out to fulfill your destiny.
Really, it’s nothing special. Tales of Zestiria sticks to the template, some times almost to a fault, but on the whole, I enjoyed its take on the formula. It helps that the game mixes and matches things up a little, introducing them when you least expect it (an early game revelation regarding the hero Sorey’s true nature is particularly memorable), which keeps things unpredictable, as juxtaposed against the game’s more predictable structure.
It also helps that Zestiria has a largely pleasant cast of characters. Once again, these are all characters that follow established archetypes, and characters that very rarely seem to grow beyond the tropes that define them, but they’re all likable, and seeing them interact with each other keeps the story enjoyable even in portions of relative lull.
Tales of Zestiria also sidesteps some of the more egregious excesses of its immediate predecessors when it comes to its storytelling- the past few Tales games have been marked by some poor, hamfisted writing, over the top and contrived situations, terrible voice acting, and relatively poor production values. Zestiria, which began its life as a PS3 game, hasn’t thrown off all of these shackles, but it is a noticeable step up. The voice acting suits the characters and is never jarring (at the very worst, it is inoffensive, with maybe one or two exceptions), the writing seems to be a lot more grounded this time around, the anime cutscenes seem to be fine, if not particularly impressive, and while the game still veers into anime territory a lot, the larger story sticks to its fantasy template, and provides a grounding for the player to stay invested in.
"The graphics, though gorgeous, thanks to a very pretty artstyle, are besot by sparse environments, which stand in stark contrast to just how open and vast the world is."
There still are issues, of course- the graphics, though gorgeous, thanks to a very pretty artstyle, are besot by sparse environments, which stand in stark contrast to just how open and vast the world is. Meanwhile, the music is grating, repetitive, and annoying, and I am sure that it will be the soundtrack to multiple nightmares from here on out, simply because of how bad it is.
All of these issues are easy to ignore, however, thanks to the game largely playing well. Tales of Zestiria’s battle system is a real time action battle system. It can look deceptively simple, and on lower difficulties, and in earlier portions of the game, it is actually entirely possible to button mash your way through encounters. But the entire thing has a startling amount of depth to it- multiple different kinds of attacks, which can be mapped to different buttons, stringing combos, proximity to enemies, elemental attacks, assigning tactics to your party members, action points which govern just how much you can do, character builds, passive abilities, skill stacking, equipment, and more, slowly start stacking up to create an almost overwhelming array of options for you to explore.
This last part is important- I am actually still not sure I fully understand the game’s myriad of systems (I swear I lucked my way into a few important combinations that gave me a great build), and that has to do with just how terrible the game is at explaining all of them to the player. Right at the beginning of the game, there is a tutorial dungeon that will take most players 30-40 minutes to finish, and during this dungeon, a tutorial message pops up just about once every five seconds to explain some mechanic or the other to you. But this is terribly done, because the messages never actually explain anything, usually leaving you confused, they don’t connect a new system they introduce to the other systems (even when such a connection exists), leaving the player without a larger context, and in most cases, they introduce concepts and gameplay mechanics that a player will literally not be able to use for hours and hours, because the game, like most RPGs, has a curve with which it introduces mechanics.
"This last part is important- I am actually still not sure I fully understand the game’s myriad of systems (I swear I lucked my way into a few important combinations that gave me a great build), and that has to do with just how terrible the game is at explaining all of them to the player."
The tutorials are definitely an issue, but if you stick with the mechanics, the startling amount of depth, and the sheer funness of how the game actually plays in the moment to moment gameplay, will definitely get you on board. Series fans will forever debate on Zestiria’s battle system’s ultimate ranking compared to other games in the franchise, and while I have nothing to contribute to that discussion, I can at least safely endorse it as being fun, deep, strategic, and addictive.
Ultimately, that is Zestiria’s true strength- warts and all, it is still a great game to play, and I do not hesitate in recommending it to fans of either the series, or the genre, at all. Whereas Zestiria is not the kind of genre defining game that can be recommended safely to everyone, like Symphonia or Vesperia were, it is still a good Tales game, and after years of bad Tales game, that was enough- it has resparked my faith in the franchise, and eagerly has me looking forward to its future.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Great, addictive battle system and gameplay, and a game that mostly learns from the mistakes of previous games in the franchise- we have a good story here, good characters, good voice acting, good graphics, and good cutscenes
The world feels sparse, the music is terrible, and the game is horrific at actually explaining its multitude of systems and mechanics to the player
Fans of the series, or JRPGs, should not hesitate to pick Tales of Zestiria up.
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