Welcome to the world of Palamecia, where the proverbial shit has hit the proverbial fan. Here, people, plants, animals, and even angel-people are turning into demo– I mean hellions – killing and eating everyone and turning every cave and field into a living nightmare. War is on the verge of breaking out, plagues are decimating villages, and children are being slaughtered. It is in this world where the hero of Tales of Zestiria, Sorey, steps up to become the light in the darkness, so to speak.
Developer: Bandai-Namco Studios tri-Crescendo
Publisher: Bandai-Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation3, PlayStation 4, Windows
Release: January 22, 2015 (JP) / October 2015 (US/EU)
Best played with a controller
Tales of Zestiria is the fifteenth (15th) iteration of the long-running Tales series. Like its predecessors, Zestiria blends JRPG-style levelling systems and storytelling with its unique action-oriented combat.
Each Tales entry has something in its combat that sets it apart from the others. Tales of Zestiria has a system where the two human characters can “armatize” with any one of the four element-based Seraphim characters. This armatization is basically just a fancy word for fusion, and it charges your attacks with an element, gives major buffs to stat parameters, and unlocks an array of new attacks.
Armatization is balanced by Zestiria’s ability system. Every attack thrown by you or at you falls under one of three categories, each of which are balanced by a rock-paper-scissors system. At any given moment, your individual party members only have access to two types of attacks, and when you armatize, you switch which ones you get. The goal is to cater your strategy around whatever enemy you’re fighting. While fun, it makes your companions feel more like pieces of equipment, since you change them more often than you’d change your underwear.
Zestiria also replaces the traditional mana system with an energy system that depletes and replenishes rapidly. Spamming attacks will deplete your energy bar (called a “spirit chain” in game), while standing still, guarding, or dodging attacks at the last second with fill it. It’s an elegant way to discourage random button-mashing without forcing you to worry about mana management between battles.
This entry does have its share of needlessly complicated mechanics, though. The equipment management is so convoluted that it almost needs its own college degree. Each piece of gear has buffs attached to them, and all those buffs interact with each other based on where they lie on this chart, giving you new buffs on top of the old ones. Then you can fuse gear together, which combines the buffs depending on which buffs are being fused and where they are on the list of buffs.
If that sounds confusing as hell, then congratulations! You’ve understood it about as well as I did. Thankfully, you can largely ignore the equipment system altogether, because none of it matters anyway.
The Tales series has consistently used dark themes in its stories, and Zestiria is no exception. In fact, it may be one of the darkest entry in the series – even compared to the one where you burn down half a port town, on purpose. There are enough dead children in Zestiria to fill an orphanage, and it seems like half the point of it all is to get the main character to understand that he cannot save everyone from dying.
I honestly found it a little refreshing to find a fantasy game that isn’t afraid to speak on the permanence and inevitability of death. There is never a miracle cure for you and your party to find, no magic balls to summon a life-bringing dragon. A lot of people die, and they stay dead, and Sorey is forced to accept that. Despite all that edginess, Sorey and company force themselves to hold onto hope and fight to end the “Age of Chaos” they live in.
That said, the ending was so unsatisfying, it made the story feel worthless during the whole time I sat there watching the credits.
While the actual plot is well told, the real draw of this game is the interaction between characters. The brotherly love between Sorey and Mikleo is always fun to see. The way Edna teases Mikleo is adorable. And anything Rose does or does is freaking awesome. There are a few misses in the character department – especially when you look at them individually – but the way they interact with each other is awesome.
The Tales series’ graphics have been highly stylized for as long as they’ve been three dimensional, so it’s often hard to get a good read on how good or bad they are. Zestiria’s graphics do hover along the bad side, though. The animation makes characters look like they’ve been made from cardboard, especially during cut-scenes. It may be intentional, but it still doesn’t look great. The anime-style cut-scenes are beautiful, though, and so are the battle effects.
The visual quality might not be quite up to par, but the audio quality is a hole-in-one. Tales of Zestiria features a fantastic soundtrack, and the voice acting is spot-on. They give both the characters and the world itself a breath of life.
Some consider Tales of Zestiria a low-point in the series, and for the most part, I’m inclined to agree. It is certainly less impressive than Symphonia and Berseria. That’s not to say that this entry is without merit, though. Though much of it is confusing, the interactions between characters alone made the 50-hour journey worthwhile. I hold most of the Tales titles in high regard, and Zestiria is only a little worse off than the average by way of the sheer brilliance of its siblings.
+ Fun characters
+ Unique combat
+ Daring themes
+ Great soundtrack
– Some weak characters
– Super confusing equipment system
– Unsatisfying end
– Animatronic graphics
Score: 3 / 5