The Tales games have always been a good series for scratching that JRPG itch. Solid combat, memorable and likable characters, interesting stories, and irritating dungeons. Okay, that last one isn’t a good thing, but they all seem to have really annoying dungeons, so it’s kind of a necessary evil at this point. Anyway, I haven’t been able to play a lot of Tales games in the last few years because I wasn’t on the Sony bandwagon, so when I found out that the new game in the series, Tales of Zestiria, would be making its Steam debut, I got pretty excited. It seems, however, that Tales games are a bit different than I remember. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Let’s discuss.
Tales of Zestiria is the newest game in the Tales series developed and published by Bandai Namco. Don’t worry if you haven’t played the others, the Tales series is purely episodic; every game has a different setting and cast, so any one in the series can be played independent of the others. The setting this time is the continent Glenwood, on which there are two ruling bodies: the Hyland Kingdom, and the Rolance Empire. The nations are locked in an unseen battle for resources, and war is looking more likely every day. On top of that, mysterious illness and phenomena have been plaguing the countryside. These trying times have been collectively referred to as the “Era of Chaos”. During previous chaotic times, a human with the ability to communicate with spirit folk called Seraphim would appear to bring people hope, known as The Shepherd, but no such human has yet shown themselves. Our protagonist is a young man named Sorey. Taken in and raised by Seraphim as a child, he has lived a simple mountain life alongside his surrogate brother Mikleo, a Seraph of water. Upon a chance encounter with Alisha, a princess of Hyland, Sorey learns of the state of the world, and sets off for the city of Ladylake to learn more. Here, Sorey meets Lailah, a Seraph of fire, and upon pulling her sword from a stone, forges a contract with her to become the new Shepherd and cleanse the world of Malevolence, a kind of evil magic stuff that arises from negative human emotion. Along the way, Sorey is joined by other Seraphim who pledge their services to him, as well as several humans who become his Squires.
If it seems like I’m skipping details here, it’s because, as you may expect from a Tales game, the story is rather dense, and would take ages to explain in detail. Let me just give a blanket statement here: compared to previous Tales games, the story is, overall, a bit on the weak side. A primary contributor to this is the explanation of Malevolence, or rather, the lack thereof. Malevolence, as well as the monsters it creates known as Hellions, is very poorly explained, and I couldn’t really feel like Sorey was being any kind of hero because his adversary is almost completely faceless. An antagonist does surface later on, but that antagonist exists as a result of Malevolence, not the other way around, so it still doesn’t really explain anything. Also, the characters while fairly enjoyable in their own rights, are poorly handled. The aforementioned Alisha, who joins the party at the start and is set up as an important character, leaves the party after the first act, rejoining once later for a quick boss fight, and then she’s basically just an NPC for the rest of the game. It’s kind of like a mishandling of Chekov’s Gun; you point at the rifle above the fireplace, draw everyone’s attention to it, but then it never actually comes into play in any meaningful way, which happens repeatedly with multiple characters.
The Tales games are known for their real-time combat, as opposed to traditional turn-based RPGs, which has carried over into Zestiria. On the field, enemies can be seen wandering around, and you can attack them with Sorey’s sword to begin combat. Combat takes place in a designated arena, of which you have free reign, though characters will automatically beeline for enemies unless the free run button is held. The biggest departure, combat-wise, is the removal of a traditional MP system. All attacks, both physical and magical, are linked to the Spirit Chain gauge under each character’s health. Human characters like Sorey rely on combos attacks, and each step of the combo consumes a bit of SC. Seraphim characters use spells with cast times, which consume SC in a more traditional way. Damage increases the lower your SC gets, but if it hits zero, you’re stuck with single attacks until it recharges. In theory, this promotes a kind of risk versus reward system that encourages you to try and cut your full combos as close to the edge of the bar as possible. I say “in theory”, because I would often just spam whatever combo I wanted until the gauge ran out, then block until it refilled, which took maybe two seconds, tops.
Seraphim characters need a human to act as a conduit in order to fight. This means that your party will usually be composed of two humans and two Seraphim. This is usually fine, especially since you can switch your Seraphim partner on the fly if you need different tactics or different elements, but a problem that arises from the story is that there are multiple occasions where Sorey’s human Squire will leave his company for a time. Since Sorey is the only human at that point, you’re stuck with a two-man team until the story feels like giving you your Squire back, which can make some fights unnecessarily difficult. Speaking of human/Seraphim relations, one last new mechanic is Armatization, in which a human character fuses with their current Seraph partner, gaining a giant weapon and a small arsenal of spells and attacks. As cool as this is, it also provides a similar problem to the Spirit Chain gauge: Armatization is simply too powerful. Whenever a fight wasn’t going my way, there were very few times I couldn’t just pick whatever element the enemy is least resistant to, Armatize, and brute force my way through the fight while necking health items. Armatizing and removing the MP bar have taken out a significant level of challenge from the game, and while I don’t dislike being able to actually progress, I constantly had the feeling I was playing the game incorrectly. A lot of systems are introduced, such as the rock-paper-scissors nature of physical attacks, special attacks, and magic attacks, or the skill boosts granted by fusing your equipment, but actually indulging in those systems was never really made appealing to me, because there was virtually no situation I couldn’t punch my way out of.
An aspect I am happy to give credit for is appearances. The game is very pretty, and has a powerful and memorable orchestral soundtrack. Character models look a little derpy if their mouths hang open too long, but for the most part the characters are well voiced and animated, and the Tales series signature skits have made their return, showcasing amusing conversations characters have while traveling. The landscape varies from hilly countrysides to swampy wetlands and vast deserts and plains, and the overworld feels appropriately large. This does work a bit to the game’s defect, however. You can fast travel between save points for a small fee, but frequently your fast travel will be disabled for story reasons, requiring you to shlep halfway across the continent for a story cutscene (often followed by another shlep back the other way). As pretty as the countryside is, it’s hard to appreciate it while being repeatedly chased by monsters you don’t feel like fighting.
Tales of Zestiria is by no means a bad game, but it’s not a great one either. The story is weak and full of plot threads that go nowhere, and the gameplay is full of superfluous systems that don’t actually add anything. Still, I played it all the way through, and the characters kept me entertained, and the aspects of combat that actually mattered were fun and strategic. Despite its dense playtime, I can’t really recommend it at full price, but if you can pick it up on sale, then I would say to give it a go. Hopefully the recently announced Tales of Berseria (which is also coming to Steam) will clean up its act a bit.