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.

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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.

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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 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.

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.