The Tales series finally reaches new-gen with Tales of Zestiria, bringing with it the flavour you know with characters you don’t. As is the wont of JRPG developers, there is a brand new cast of characters to meet, and an all-new quest to take them on. I’ll spoil one thing right off -- if you like to collect every achievement, then prepare for well over 100 hours of gaming: you get a Trophy for completing the game a fourth, fifth and sixth time!
Viewed from the third person, the graphics are very bright and colourful. However, it doesn’t match up with the tone of the game in some sections, as you wind up fighting every fantasy creature available -- werewolves, giant spiders, zombies -- and see cutscenes of an active battlefield, not to mention a guy literally shooting himself in the head on camera…
The sound design is great, with a fantastic opening theme, good voice acting and very fitting incidental music, some of which (the Fire Trial comes to mind), I really enjoyed. However -- it’s very loud. I usually have my TV at volume 15, but have to keep it on 6 at most, to avoid deafening the household. On my other TV I have it at 11 - if it’s above 3 I’m uncomfortable. And for whatever reason, the music isn’t licensed, meaning the PS4 is unable to stream, record footage or take screenshots (even when getting a Trophy)...
You meet Sorey, the star of the show, as he and his friend Mikleo are searching the ruins just outside their village. They discover an unconscious girl, and that’s where things take a turn for the strange. She’s a human, just like Sorey is, but the village is a Seraphim village -- and only humans with the gift can see Seraphs. So as far as she can see, Sorey has lived alone for his entire life, and yet she doesn’t run away at the first chance she gets…
She explains the main plot line before returning to the capital city Lady Lake -- despite it being the capital of Hyland, she is surprised that Sorey knows of it. That’s like someone from London being surprised that someone in Slough has heard of it… But: anime dialogue. Like when Sorey says “Who knew these ruins were underground too?” -- everyone, Sorey. Everyone knew. That’s what ruins do, and you literally keep on about having read the Celestial Record, which explains most of the ruins in the world.
The country has gone to pot, basically. People are in unrest, there is disease and war is on the horizon -- it’s up to the chosen one, as stated by the narrator: “In times of calamity, people pray for a Shepherd…”. The Shepherd being someone with powers who can save the people from themselves.
The Seraphim cannot be seen by humans, but if you pray to them they will give their blessing. The one human who can talk to them is sent out into the world, and through little fault of his own, is drawn into the role of Shepherd. He gathers a bunch of followers and gets magical powers which look like miracles to those who cannot see Seraph. He is feared by some, and those in power try to use his existence to further their agendas. If this wasn’t heavily influenced by Christianity and their Jesus ‘shepherd of men’ Christ, I’ll eat a snack.
It takes about ten hours to get your full compliment of powers, and learn how to use all of your special moves. However, combat can be as easy or difficult as you want, as it can be set to auto, semi-auto or manual control. I kept mine at semi-auto for the most part, as that lets you just mash buttons -- which is the best option for me. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if you really enjoyed the fighting system in Final Fantasy XIII, then you will want to put it on auto and see fights as cutscenes.
As you progress, you gain the Armatization ability, letting Sorey merge with one of the Seraph’s that you join up with. It’s certainly easier than the Dragon Ball Z Fusion Dance, with just a button press to instantly change. This joins both characters’ health bars, as well as giving you a new set of element-based abilities -- but comes with the risk of only having one health bar: only one person for the Hellions to attack. You also get a cool outfit and, usually, longer hair -- again, yes, like that one thing in Dragon Ball Z… It uses up your Burst Gauge, so you can’t just spam it in every battle -- but it’s not difficult to refill your burst gauge if you really do want to use it in every battle.
Hellions are the enemies, formed out of the ether by the malevolence of people in the area. The stronger that is, the stronger the Hellions. Humans, animals, Seraphim and plants can all become Hellions, giving a huge array of enemy types to battle. I mentioned werewolves and zombies before, but there are flowers, octopi, dogs, soldiers, harpies, scorpions… Not even including recolours (“stronger versions”), I’m certain there are more enemies in this than there were in the last couple of RPG’s I played, put together.
With the amount of enemies and their different types, it can make it hard to build a good all-around squad, with only two humans and two Seraphs able to battle at once. No matter your attack, there is an enemy that is resistant to that type of damage -- elemental, physical, Artes (special moves)… You can switch Seraph on the fly, so if something isn’t working you have options.
Each area of the game is either big or huge, and there are plenty of them. The problem is, that they feel pretty empty a lot of the time, and some feel artificially bigger thanks to various things blocking your way. These make the game very linear, which helps when you have no idea where you should be heading, which happens often. Your objective has a star on the map and minimap, but that doesn’t do you any good when it’s in another area. If you’re in Lady Lake and your objective requires you to leave the city, head across the field and into another area (three area transitions), then you had best hope you know where they want you to go. If you hold R1 it tells you in a sentence what you should be doing, just not where that is.
I mentioned that the writing is a little dire at times, and a lot of that can be blamed on the translation. It all makes sense and is in pure English, but rather than re-write some of the lines to be more natural, they seem to be straight translations, meaning some of the jokes don’t land properly. And this, coming from someone who watched (and adored) 52 episodes of a fan-subbed anime that dealt purely in Japanese-flavoured jokes. It’s not all bad, and I’ve laughed loudly at several of the skits and cutscenes, but it can sometimes lack panache.
The other problem is that the story is very generic. Hero rises from nothing, love of his newfound friends makes him stronger, save the world from devastation, protect all peoples within all nations, Jesse, James… Sorry, that’s Team Rocket… One of the characters, Lailah, is very secretive about her past, to the point that she changes the subject or pretends not to hear questions about it. She also gives a very specious reason to travel the world - “I want you to find out these things for yourself” - you’d have to not realise that ruins go underground, to not think she was hiding something that would become relevant in the third act.
That said, it’s a very enjoyable game. The character interactions are where it shines, and it shines brightly. At save points, when staying at inns, upon finding Discovery’s (landmarks, or things of note), it kicks into a skit which lasts one-to-four minutes, and sees the characters discussing this and that. Some of the cutscenes are, as I said, hilarious such -- as when the Seraphim are puppeting Sorey’s body to make people think he’s uncoordinated.
With a raft of customisation options and more fun than uncomfortable moments, JRPG fans will get a lot out of this game. And if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, your Trophy/Achievement boxes will soon be full.
Tales of Zestiria (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
With a raft of customisation options and more fun than uncomfortable moments, JRPG fans will get a lot out of this game.