By Leanne Austin
Tales of Zestiria is the fifteenth main game in the Tales series, marking the twentieth anniversary of the beloved RPG franchise, and the Western release sees the series’ first foray onto the PS4 and PC through Steam.
Seeking a return to the series’ fantastical roots after the more modern themes of the previous Xillia entries, the setting this time around centers on the medieval continent of Glenwood, which draws many influences from Arthurian mythology. The land is threatened by the Hellion, creatures spawned from the negative emotions of the populace, and the impending war between the Rolance Empire and the Hyland Kingdom. The protagonist this time around is Sorey, a cheerful young man raised amongst the seraphim, a legendary race invisible to most humans. He must become the Shepherd and travel with his party of elemental themed seraphim companions on a typical journey to save the world.
Graphically speaking, the game is pleasant enough to look at, but by no means mindblowing. The PS4 port offers smoother character models, better draw distance and more vibrant colours than the original. As part of the title’s anniversary status, the soundtrack is a pleasant, yet forgettable collaboration by long time Tales composers Motoi Sakuraba and Go Shiina. This is the second Tales game which includes the option to change to the original Japanese audio, although the English dub this time around is fairly decent.
Each core entry sees a new spin on the real time Linear Motion Battle System (LMBS) that has built up over the course of the series, but Zestiria takes this a step further with a big overhaul of the combat system. Fans of Tales of Graces will recognise modified elements of the Style Shift LMBS, resulting in a slightly slower but similar combo chaining system. A full party of four consists of two human characters each paired with a seraph partner, with access to hidden artes and seraphic artes respectively. This requirement makes party composition a bit more restrictive this time around, as you must have a human character present for each seraph. A couple of sections of the game are made a little trickier than necessary when your human partner leaves the party for plot reasons, forcing you down to two characters when fights are still balanced for four.
The big gimmick in Zestiria’s battle system is the new Armatization system, which allows a human and a seraph to fuse together into a hybrid form, combining their stats and opening up new abilities based on the element of each respective seraphim character. It’s still possible to armatize even if your human character has fallen in battle, effectively reviving them, making it a very useful tool if a fight starts to go south. Activation is low-cost and left entirely up to the player, with the ability to change element on the fly via the D-pad menu to exploit enemy weaknesses. While it’s initially tempting to stay fused full time, there are many fights where staying separated proves to be more beneficial.
In a first for the series, transitions from field to battle are seamless. Sadly, there are some issues here. Any rocks or other environmental details present on the screen when the fight begins remain and become obstacles. The biggest problem is the camera, which is very erratic, particularly in enclosed areas like corridors. By the end of the game, I found myself very well acquainted with the inside of certain arte animations and the back of Sorey’s head. Zestiria is locked to 30 FPS, but there is a lot of slowdown, particularly when using some of the game’s shinier artes. This is also present in the field, and became unintentionally amusing when I realised that the animations of enemies in the distance had slowed down enough to resemble the figures in the background of old fighting game stages.
Dungeons have made a comeback for Zestiria but are a little on the linear side, the majority of them are short and simplistic. Many of them are optional and play host to additional bosses. Each of the four main story dungeons have small puzzles themed around the four elemental field abilities you’ll learn as the game progresses. Three of them were forgettable, but the Water Trial was a test of patience, with eye-shaped glyphs on the walls that would send you back to the start of the dungeon if they spotted you hidden around almost every corner. (Just what is it about water themed areas that brings out a cruel streak in game developers?) After a bit of swearing I remembered the game also includes a quick save function which I liberally used to my advantage, although I did feel like a bit of a cheat.
The game would often leave me feeling lost too. There were several instances where the story objectives would alternate from holding my hand and leading me to the next area to leaving me stranded with only the vaguest suggestion of where to go next. I found myself searching the internet a number of times trying to figure out where to go next, wondering if I was just being daft or not paying enough attention. I was relieved to find I was far from the only one trying to get back on track, but it was another entry on a list of niggling issues that were starting to get a bit irritating.
What really kept me playing when things were starting to get a bit tedious were the colourful cast of characters. There are some great interactions between your party members across cutscenes and skits. Edna’s sarcastic quips and Lailah’s groan-inducing fondness for puns are among some of the most entertaining moments, and even the flavour text on some of the menus is particularly sassy. The story itself is a bit on the cliched side, with a basic chosen one saving the world plot that feels significantly shorter than previous Tales outings. Occasional dips into darker themes bring some interesting moments but I was left feeling that they could have been explored a little further.
The more social gamers out there will be disappointed to see that the PS4’s Share button functions have been almost fully disabled, and that the Steam version does not allow streaming. While this won’t be a dealbreaker for most gamers, it does seem a strange choice when introducing the series to these platforms in regions where sharing gameplay is currently very popular.
Aside from the usual add-ons and costume packs there is an epilogue DLC available, Alisha’s Story, which caused controversy when the game was released in Japan. Alisha was prominently featured in promotional materials and was assumed to be the game’s heroine, however she leaves early in the game and is replaced with another character, Rose. The news that Alisha’s side of the story was to be sold separately as DLC didn’t go down too well. This hasn’t been an issue with the Western release, with the trailers over here focusing more on Sorey and the updates to the battle system. Bizarrely, weapon and armour shops throughout the entire game continue to stock equipment exclusively equippable by Alisha, indicating that the decision to remove her from the main party was made fairly late in development. The DLC is fairly short, providing more of the same gameplay and resolving her plot lines in a satisfactory manner.
Zestiria retains the charm players have come to expect from a Tales game while attempting to make changes to the established formula which, while welcome, have unfortunately been poorly executed. While they’re not massively game breaking issues, the wonky battle camera, lackluster party AI and large but very empty areas all contribute towards the game feeling a bit underdone. This does feel disappointing when you realise that Zestiria had one of the longer development times of the series. Hopefully player feedback will be taken on board for the final anniversary title, Tales of Berseria, which was announced earlier this year for the PS3 and PS4. If you’re looking to break into the Tales series for the first time, I’d recommend seeking out one of the previous last-gen titles such as Vesperia or Xillia, or the HD re-release of fan favourite Symphonia, which better showcase what the RPGs have to offer. Long time fans won’t want to skip Zestiria, as it’s still an enjoyable title despite its flaws, but they may wish to consider waiting for a price drop.