Tales of Zestiria

The nine-billionth entry into Namco’s long running Tales RPG franchise, Tales of Zestiria, is theToZ-PS4-CE-Ann-US-Init 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.

The Setting

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.

When you fuse, you grow a ponytail. I am not sure why.

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.

See? Almost not ridiculous.

Other Notes

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.

The Conclusion

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.

The Last Story

The Last Story was released in the US market because people like me whined enough that The_Last_Story_NAXSeed decided to pick it up. I bought it at release knowing that I wouldn’t get around to playing it for some time. I didn’t expect it would take three years, but hey that’s how it goes for a dope like me who buys far more games than is possible to play. Here are my very late thoughts on the game.

The Setting 

The world of The Last Story is typical to JRPGs. A medievalish land with magic and a dying world. The main character (Zael) is a member of a group of mercenaries and aspires to make something of himself and become a knight of the land. Lazulis Island is at war with a quasi human species called the Gurak. At the start of the game Zael is granted mysterious powers by a godlike being and also falls in love with the princess of the realm. What else is there to do but save the world?

While saving the world, Zael and his band of mercenaries get caught up in political intrigue and find out things are not as straight forward as they seem because this is a JRPG so that’s how things go.

The Battle Mechanics 

The battle system in the last story works a bit like Namco’s Tales series in that you directly control one character in real time and can give orders to the rest of the party. However, you cannot switch which character you control (it is always the party leader) and there is a very limited amount of choice in the actions you can take. You must fill up the Command Gauge to give any orders, but as you are directing action rather than actual skill casting and use there is no need to access orders constantly. Command Mode is not available immediately because of a decision to tie certain gameplay aspects to character progression in the story.

By default the game has battle mode in “automatic” which means you’re playing a 3D version of Ys I (you run into enemies to attack them). I played in this mode for a while because I missed that you could change it to manual where you use a more traditional button mashing attack style. I really disliked auto because in multi-enemy battles I found myself attacking enemies I was trying to get away from. I don’t really understand why the developers thought this was a good idea.

You can also drop behind cover and use crossbow bolts to eliminate distant enemies or order teammates to take specific environmental damage actions in certain scenarios. When these are available the game takes your hand and says “do this thing”.

The Graphics and Design 

The character designs (done by Kimihiko Fujisaka, known best for his work on the Drakengard series) in the game are really neat/extremely early-middle Square FF, but the colors in the game are all muted and things look mushy at times. I think this was an intentional choice to express that the world is unhealthy, or at least I have decided to believe this because the Wii features some of the most beautifully colored games ever. There is lots of lots of greybrown on greybrown.

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Nothing is done badly, here, it just never becomes very exciting or notable.

Other Notes

There are times when you’re running around and you hit some slowdown due to the amount of characters on-screen. This is, I believe, caused by the hardware limitations of the Wii but I’d rather have no slowdown and less people walking around on screen. It happens enough to be notable and annoying.

There is a lot to do in this game if you’re into side-questing, which I really appreciated. Doing sidequests get you useful items for crafting to improve your weapons or unique weapons that aren’t available elsewhere. There are a couple of extra dungeons which give you some extra insight into the world/your companions.

The Last Story doesn’t spend a huge amount of time telling you about your companions, but talking to them between the main mission gives you some idea of everyone’s background. Everyone is pretty well fleshed out without a ton of exposition, which I appreciated.

The Conclusion 

The Last Story is a very solid, well-made JRPG that you will enjoy on a scale of “how much do you like JRPGs?” If you really enjoy JRPGs, you will really like the game. If you think they are bad, there is nothing here for you.

The Suikodening

When Dragon Age: Inquisition came out, I upgraded my a computer a bit so that I could play it without the game suiciding constantly. A side-effect of that was that I could run PS2 emulation on my PC pretty well. I’d been wanting to replay Suikoden V for some time, and from there I decided to just replay every Suikoden game. Thus, the Suikodening.

It took a few months for this to get off the ground, because that is how things always go with me but it is now underway. I also did some poking around and discovered that there are now fan translations of Suikogaiden 1 and 2 out there, so they’ll be included in this insanity. I’m going to play them after Suikoden II as Nash is introduced into the mainseries in Suikoden III.

I’ve already taken care of a new replay of Suikoden (the game was much shorter than I remember it being, but other than recruiting all the stars stars I didn’t really wander off the path much), so this is already my most successful video game project of all time!

I put up very boring streams on Twitch when I play unless I am just doing level-grinding type activities, so if watching RPGs happen on your screen sounds appealing to you follow along here: http://www.twitch.tv/leokittie. When I get to Suikoden IV I may set up a web-cam to show my annoyed at how bad the game is face for the amusement of any watchers.

Let the Suikodening begin.

The Games of 2012: Tales of Graces and Tales of the Abyss

In 2012 Namco took pity on Tales fans in North America and released localized versions of both Tales of the Abyss (which was a re-release, but I don’t care) for the 3DS and Tales of Graces F for the Playstation 3. It’s an interesting contrast in games because while both of them feature fantastic battle systems, Abyss has a good coming of age story and Graces features a bunch of characters who are stuck in childhood and never grow at all during the course of the game.

The lead character in Abyss, Luke, is spoiled, self-centered and very sheltered. He is incredibly unlikable in the start, intentionally but a little over the top. He makes a really terrible mistake that in non-RPG land nobody would ever be able to make up for but luckily it’s a video game so he can go on a journey to redeem himself. It works because Luke is not instantly redeemed and he is earnest about growing up and working to make things right/better. The timeline is a accelerated but none of the other characters just go “Of course we love you, you silly town-destroying boy!”

Meanwhile in Graces the main character and his friends almost get the world destroyed because friendship is forever, even when you haven’t spoken to each other in 10 years and the friend in question has been possessed by an ancient evil and is killing people willy-nilly. The cutscenes are unbearable and the characters ridiculously shallow. Bland stories don’t bother me, you can just ignore them. Outright bad ones, however, really take away from my overall enjoyment of a game when I am constantly given story updates accompanied by horrific voice acting. It really is a shame because as I mentioned in my full write-up, Graces has the best battle system in the series to date.

I’d say that if you smooshed the battle system from Graces together with the story from Abyss you’d get an ultra-fantastic game but Abyss doesn’t really need any help to reach that level. It’s the best entry in the Tales series by a significant margin and getting to replay it right before getting my hands on Graces reinforced this for me.

I leave with with this trailer for Tales of Graces F with the hilariously misleading “Everyone Changed” tagline. Enjoy the voice acting.

Very Quick Reviews – The Baconing, Costume Quest, and Sequence

I’ve had a busy, busy last few weeks and fallen behind on Dragon’s Dogma (which I was really enjoying) but I decided to sit down and finish up/play through some of the indie titles that I’d purchased from Steam.

The Baconing – The third DeathSpank game, this time with no Ron Gilbert involvement and it shows. It’s an okay game but falls kind of flat. It feels like it was written by a Gilbert fan who was trying way too hard and though the core gameplay is the same as DeathSpank 1 and 2 they ramped up the difficulty to a pretty absurd degree. Worth a pickup on sale if you like action RPGs and don’t mind dying a lot.

Time Spent: Steam says 8.6 hours and that sounds about right accounting for pausing and bathroom breaks.

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Costume Quest – Adorable short RPG from Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine. A mean witch has kidnapped your brother (or sister if you play as the boy) on Halloween and you have to get him back. You collect candy, battle bad guys and put together costumes with new powers along the way. The battle system is simple as can be, you either attack or have a special move that depends on the costume you’re wearing (they can buff, heal or do extra damage). You can (should) also trade in your candy for battle stickers that you can equip your party with, they give your trick-or-treating pals extra boosts in battle (regeneration, do poison damage, etc).

Although Costume Quest is at face value an RPG like an adventure game the thing that keeps you chugging through is a fun story you want to see through to the end. It’s full of pop-culture references that are executed well and  the designs are charming. The price is a little steep at $15 but you are paying for the production values and it’s worth it.

Time Spent: About 5 hours to get everything in the normal game, have not done the (free!) DLC yet.

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Sequence – A rhythm action game I grabbed for something like $2.50 during one of the big Steam sales. This game is definitely worth the $5 it normally goes for but is flawed. First, it’s very repetitive because the way the game is structured you fight a small number of enemies over and over for materials to craft items. Second, you will want to set the game’s main characters on fire because they are really smarmy.

The battle system is the core of the game and works like this: Each enemy has a song attached to him which plays during the battle and sets the time limit. During the fight you flip between three boards while fighting enemies big and small hitting notes to the rhythm of the music. One board recharges mana, one board is where notes for the spells you cast show up and one is the enemy’s board where you hit notes to avoid damage. It works pretty well, but like I said fighting the enemies over and over to get drops and level up is very grindy and makes it nigh impossible to play for long periods at one time.

Time Spent: 15 hours, this is bloated by a few long pause and wander out of the rooms and having to start the game over after a bug. I’m currently attempting to get the true ending, I would guess it really tops out at more like 10 hours if you want all the spells/achievements/etc.

Tales of Graces F: Friendship is Forever Annoying

When most people think of what an RPG is they imagine a game with a solid or better story buoying a flawed battle system. I don’t believe that this is actually the standard in the genre but it’s happened enough that it’s the stereotype. Tales of Graces is the opposite of this—a game with a really flawed story that keeps you playing because of its combat mechanics. I have played many titles like this as well but never found myself so annoyed at every character in a game and still had as much fun with it as I did here.

The theme of Graces F is friendship. They made a whole trailer about it and all the text on the back of the game talks about being buddies for all eternity. That’s a fine theme and there are many things you can do with it but there is just so much wrong with the execution.

The main characters in the story form a friendship pact as children, then a bad thing happens and they don’t see each other for something like 10 years. When people start trickling back into the picture, they are friends again (mostly) which is natural and fine.  Then it starts to go off the rails.

One of the characters as a result of the bad thing that happened is evil and is going to destroy the world. His group of friends wring their hands and cry about it and at every turn go “NO! WE CANNOT FIGHT OUR NOW EVIL FRIEND WHO WANTS TO KILL EVERY LIVING THING AND HAS ALREADY KILLED MANY PEOPLE!” We’re not even talking about killing here, even the idea of confronting their buddy is too much to bear. I was not expecting a Suikoden II style approach but this shallow idea of what friendship means—apparently loyalty and never questioning anyone—makes the characters really annoying. They do dumb things and don’t learn from the dumb things. They’re all very immature. If you’ve played Tales of the Abyss the main character is a lot like Luke if Luke didn’t grow at all. It is very annoying.

This honestly wouldn’t be so bad but there are a huge number of cutscenes (featuring mediocre to awful voice acting) in the game that appear to exist solely to show how everyone is friendly friend friends. Luckily you can skip them once you determine whether they move the not-very-good story forward (there are a lot that don’t) and get back to the thing that makes the game worth playing: the combat.

The battle system in Graces is very different from any of the other Tales games that have been released State-side, but my understanding is that they borrow a bit from PS2 remake of Tales of Destiny. It’s official fancy name is the “Style Shift Linear Motion Battle System”, which it derives from players switching between two different types of fighting styles by using different face buttons to attack.

The fighting styles are very simply named “A” and “B” with A being more traditional physical attacks and B being spells and special moves. Mana is tossed out the window and characters have what are called Chain Capacity points, determined by level/equipment/skills and each move uses a certain amount of CC. CC recharges rapidly when you are doing nothing and meeting certain battle conditions (critical hits, weakness, etc) will add to the gauge during a combo.

A-type skills work along trees where a combination of a direction+button press with each successive skill using more CC than the last. You can’t customize them, it’s very much a traditional combo attack system. The B-type attacks are special attacks (skills with lightning, fire, etc and in the case of  mages their spells) that you map to four direction+button matches. You unlock skills and power them up by using them a certain number of times and by equipping and mastering titles.

When you put all these elements together you feels like what the “it’s a fighting game!” system of Legendia tried to be and it is really, really fluid and fun. The only drawback is that free run isn’t really free–it costs you CC points–and so it can be hard to get away from an enemy quickly. It is so fun that it makes Graces absolutely worth playing through if you like RPGs even if you want to set all the characters on fire. I’ve always been a bit of a crazy-combo person and this just feeds into that perfectly. I haven’t gotten a 999 hit combo yet, sadly, but it’s on the agenda.

I enjoyed the combat so much that I even took the plunge into the extra dungeon for crazy people who like getting their ass kicked (some of the optional bosses are just ridiculously hard). I’m even contemplating another run-through to try and Platinum the game which is something I usually don’t even consider doing. I also figure that skipping nearly every cutscene or going to the kitchen for sandwiches frequently will help the second play-through experience quite a bit.

Tales of Graces F features the best combat of the series, hands down but on the flip side also the worst/most annoying story by a long shot. If you’ve been looking for a battle system to love then this game is for you but be prepared to roll your eyes to the heavens whenever people start talking.

A Sentence About Every Tales Game Released in the US

In honor of the Tales of the Abyss 3DS release in the US, here is a sentence about every Tales game that’s come out over here (ordered by release date).

Tales of Destiny – Talking swords but no personality.

Tales of Eternia – Save two worlds in one game but don’t fight Maxwell too early like I did.

Tales of Symphonia – Exspheres created by not very nice angels turn people into monsters.

Tales of Legendia – Botched Namco release in the US, surprise!

Tales of Phantasia – Battle system feels a bit stiff these days.

Tales of the Abyss – Best battle system, best story, best Tales game.

Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology – Why not just release Tales of Rebirth in North America, you jerks?

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World – I’ll play it some day.

Tales of Vesperia – Any game with a pipe smoking dog in your party has got to be good.