The nine-billionth entry into Namco’s long running Tales RPG franchise, Tales of Zestiria, is the series debut on PS4. It overhauls some of the familiar systems quite a bit, but it’s not a shakeup that will make fans of the series recoil in horror.
Tales of Zestiria takes place in a world looking for a hero–specifically a person who can assume the title of “The Shepard”–because of an overwhelming evil that is influencing the land. Vaguely Arthurian trappings are used to create the mythos of the game, with the Shepard being a person who can pull a special sword out of a stone. It takes a while for this to happen, but our hero Sorey who can see Seraphim (a race of magic based humanoids who act as the balance keepers in the world) without assistance (he was raised by them and it’s how we know that he is a pure-hearted softy) pulls it out, makes a pact with the Seraphim who is connected with the sword and sets out to fix all the bad stuff happening in the world.
While all the otherworldy evil is going on that needs stopping, the two main empires of the world are on the verge of war so something needs to be done about that as well. So many bad evil things to fix!
Some have railed on the simplicity of the story, but I thought it was well done and I don’t understand the need to complain about a straight-forward good-vs-evil deal. This isn’t the atrocity against story-telling that Graces was, it’s just to the point. The characters are very likable, the actions they take have consequences, sorry if there’s not angst up the wazoo.
It is also definitely a bishi shounen-ai inseki game in disguise but that is a matter best left to those who doujin. If you understand any of that last sentence, I apologize.
The Battle Mechanics
Like all the games in the series, there is a lot going on in the battle system in Zestiria. The very basics are that it’s a real-time battle system where characters have two types of moves: Regular attacks and special moves (human characters) or spells (Seraphim). New attacks are unlocked as you go by leveling up previously learned moves and titles. Combos are regulated by a stamina bar: No stamina, no attacking. All moves take up a certain amount of stamina, which goes down as you level them up, and you recover mana in battle by either standing still or guarding. You will guard a lot in this game.
The battle party is four (usually)–specifically, one human paired with a Seraphim. There are parts of the game where there is only one human so the party is only one pair. The reason for the pairing is, of course, explained in the story, but it comes through in the battle system as humans and Seraphim can fuse into a more powerful elemental form that does a lot more damage, has a lot more hitpoints, and can unleash absurd moves when the battle gauge is built up to a certain point. This doesn’t break the game since elemental damage is not always a plus, you often need a character on the side casting healing spells so you can’t be bundled together, and so on. In most boss fights I spent very little time in fused form, fusing only when a character’s hit points ran low.
You can hop around and directly control the character of your choice, hot-swap the active Seraphim for both you and the second active human character or sit back and be less of a crazy-control freak if that suits you. Unlike other games in the Tales series you can’t give direct orders to party members, instead titles determine the basic AI (healing/magic attack/physical attack). It took me a while to figure out this is what titles did other than boost stats, and I spent way too long looking for a way to map skills to my right analog stick. They probably mentioned this at some point in a tutorial but I tend to gloss over those when they pop up.
There are so many ways to customize battle conditions and behaviors that I am not going to get into all of it because it would wind up being 10,000 words, but there is a lot for the tinkerers of the world to get into if they please. And more importantly, those who choose not to dive into things won’t hit any walls on the easier difficulties.
Other than being driven nuts by not being able to be super crazy micromanager by spamming specific skills (Nurse-Nurse-Nurse-Nurse-Nurse-Nurse), I would say that the battle system in Zestiria is the best since Graces and unlike Graces, the non-battle elements of the game don’t make me want to die. It is certainly the most unique even if a lot of the available skills across the characters are familiar to fans of the series.
And, because it was mentioned so much in the marketing, open world aspect is not really open world in the sense the term is normally used. It just means that when you encounter an enemy instead of it happening on a set battlefield it happens wherever you’re standing on the map. This leads to getting stuck in corners and bad camera angles. The battle areas for normal encounters are pretty small and when fighting large creatures the lack of mobility (I turned on free run as soon as it was available) can be aggravating.
The Graphics and Design
Let me cut straight to the chase: I played Zestiria on the PS4 and the graphics are definitely more PS3, and not even good PS3. The textures aren’t super great and there’s a lot of fuzzy stuff around. I did not really have an issue with this, but I know a lot of people care about such things and it needs to be mentioned. Games in the Tales series never look bad, but they are never on the cutting edge since they’re mid-budget games.
Given that limited budget, the Tales series has always relied on the character–specifically the costume–designs are what give entries a unique look. The characters in Zestiria wear colorful, unique costumes that stand out against the medievalish background of the game. They are only somewhat ridiculous, and compared to other JRPGs downright grounded.
Beyond the changes to the mechanics battle system there are also major changes to the experience and grade systems in Zestiria that I am not sure will carry over to future titles because they are a radical departure from the norm.
The first is that leveling up does not work the same way as you normally find in JRPGs (or RPGs in general). Your stats don’t get a significant boosts and you can’t grind your way through fighting alone to overpower a boss. Instead you have to farm for equipment and fuse it together to get better stats. This costs money and time, but probably less than running around for hours eking out a few levels to take on a boss. Now, if you are an extreme under-leveler (hi, that’s me) you will still get pounded and on higher difficulties you’ll need to farm equipment for skills but that’s for crazy people (hi, that’s me).
The change to the Grade system is just as drastic. You still get Grade for completing battles, but not as much of it as you would in previous games. Instead, you sacrifice items to the protector Seraphim of a region (at save points) for Grade. So the real farming in Zestiria is for money to buy items, to give to the Seraphim. As you get more Grade, the Seraphim level up and you get certain bonuses in their region. You can also give them items that have been fused to +10 or higher to get a fancy upgraded version of the item with much better stats, but these items are not fuseable.
For some reason you can’t capture video or take screenshots in Zestiria except when doing some specific battle dungeon side quests, for reasons I don’t understand but it was very vexing to me, a person who likes to share stupid videos and screenshots. And who would have liked to use video to show all the things going on with the battle system to help clarify.
Tales of Zestiria is a game designed to make the fans of the series happy, offering something that feels similar but not exactly the same. It’s a little game full of charm, and a lot to do if you’re so inclined. If you don’t like JRPG trappings, stay away, but if you do it’s sure to scratch that itch.