Tales of Zestiria – Two Steps Back

The venerable Tales series, one of the longest running series in gaming, recently released another monolithic JRPG for us all to enjoy: Tales of Zestiria. Zestiria takes places in the continent of Glenwood, a place inhabited by Humans and spiritual entities known as Seraphim. The Seraphim are invisible to most of humanity – only people who are sufficiently sensitive to them (a trait known as ‘resonance’) can see them – but they possess tremendous power to influence the world around them.

Humanity’s negative urges and feelings create an almost tangible energy known as malevolence which corrupts the world around them, turning people, animals, inanimate objects and even Seraphim into evil entities known as ‘Hellions’. In times of crisis, a Human with extreme resonance will form a pact with a strong Seraphim and become known as a ‘Shepherd’, drawing upon the power of the Seraphim to help cleanse malevolence and restore the world to a more natural state.

The world is in a worse state than any can remember, dubbed the ‘Age of Chaos’. It is into this world that a naïve child raised by a community of isolated Seraphim steps, accompanied by his childhood friend, and seeks to right the wrongs of the world.

Cast

History Being Written

A Sorey Protagonist

This child is Sorey, our protagonist and this generation’s Shepherd. His friend: the Seraph Mikleo. These two will form the core of the game’s cast, accompanied by several others as the game progresses. Sadly, these two are also the game’s most hollow characters. And Alisha – Sorey’s first human companion – is little better. It is hard to express how grateful I was when they were joined by the Seraphim Lailah and Edna, the game’s two most interesting and well-designed characters.

Overall, the cast is pretty good. It is just unfortunate that it is anchored by two characters who I can only describe as hollow, childish parodies of famous characters like Indiana Jones or Sydney Fox. Not to say those are bad characters to model after, but part of their appeal is their maturity and intelligence… taking that same level of ‘knowledge’ and putting it on a child makes for a character that is both annoying and hard to relate to.

Doomed to Repeat

The story itself, despite its weak protagonist, is quite good. I enjoyed the gradual unfolding of the history of this world. It even had a few twists I didn’t predict. There were a few things that could’ve been handled better, but overall I was very pleased with the way that history tied into the present and with the way that the story seemed to be trying to teach us something. It felt a bit like a fable.

Skit

There is one really interesting twist, that does a really good job to explain how things are as bad as they are yet nobody seems to be doing anything… people don’t see Hellions as the monsters they are. They just see something mundane… so they’ll see a person committing a crime, or an animal being savage, or a force of nature doing something horrible. Only people with extreme resonance recognize the truth, and they’re extremely rare in this day and age. This not only explains the Hellions getting away with what they do, but also why the Shepherd seems so magical. He changes people, soothes savage beasts, swings his sword and stops a waterspout. It’s a fascinating and unique take, and I loved it.

Zesteria also continues the Tales series tradition of having most of the side story told through optional skits, which were awesome as always. However, they were a bit more predictable than normal, with skits most often being found when staying at an inn, at save points, or at discovery points.  Not a huge issue, but possibly a sign of where things are going.

The one sour point was the ending, which felt both poorly paced and incredibly anti-climactic. The primary plot is technically resolved, but only technically. The characters’ fate is left to your imagination, which isn’t always a bad thing, but in this case it just didn’t work. There’re several elements of ‘sacrifice’ in the final scene, but none of them really felt moving. I never felt saddened by any of the events, despite them clearly meaning it to be a bittersweet ending. And yet, at the same time, there was no joy in it either. It just kind of left me feeling ‘meh’.

Armatized and Ready for Battle

The biggest disappointment for me in this game, even moreso than the ending or the awkwardly written protagonists, was the combat. Zestiria’s combat is a giant, fast paced game of rock paper scissors. You have a series of extremely hard counters and if you don’t pick the right type of move to counter what the enemy is doing, you make matters worse for yourself. It is particularly annoying because the AI has to pick the right type of counter too, and the AI isn’t that smart. Which means your AI allies will be out there doing abilities that will actually be making the enemies able to deal more damage while you’re trying to do what you’re doing. It took me ages to realize why I was having so much trouble, but that’s it. The AI was making life harder for me. I  prefer combat based more around finding your own personal style and making it work – a soft counter approach rather than a true hard counter approach. But that is not present within Zestiria.

Additionally, the game offers a lot less customization for combat than in previous entries. The AI scripting is a lot less robust than I expected, which leaves you without a whole lot of choice. In fact, once I’d set the AI initially, I never went back to review it except for a few times when I went to verify that I hadn’t missed an option (I was pretty sure I had, but sadly I hadn’t). You can’t pick your regular attacks, you’re just given a standardized combo tree. There are also very few special abilities, and often the higher tier ones are simply upgraded versions of the lower ones, leading to very minimal reason to ever use the lower one (why would I summon one mine when I can summon two that each deal the same damage with the same cast time?).

Combat

Additionally, there is no ‘team attack’ system, so it doesn’t matter who you group with except when you make use of the game’s transformation ability: the Armatus. Not to be confused with Xillia 2’s Chromatus, the Armatus allows you to merge with the Seraph you’re currently linked to and become a more powerful version, adopting powers based off of the Seraph you combine with. Combine with Lailah, our lovely fire Seraph, and your Armatized version will wield a fiery longsword and an array of explosive abilities to set your foes ablaze. The problem: Armatization has very few restrictions, and very few downsides, so outside of interrupting spells being cast there’s very little reason to ever not be Armatized. Which means that, since you have even fewer abilities than normal while Armatized, there is even less practical variety than it seems.

That isn’t to say the combat wasn’t fun. It was, it just was a very restrictive setup. There were moments of great joy within the gameplay, but those moments were harder to find then they should have been.

Final Thoughts

The game, as expected, both looks and sounds quite good. Don’t be mistaken, the art style is very ‘anime’, but it is cleanly animated and fun to watch. And the soundtrack is very fitting. It is not the most memorable soundtrack I’ve ever heard… but not every soundtrack has to be. Zesteria’s music fit the game, never once did I find myself thinking that the music felt awkward or out-of-place, which is an impressive accomplishment and a sign of how well the composer understood the game.

There was one control issue that was a constant source of frustration. The ‘L3’ button, which for those unaware refers to the act of pushing in the left analog stick, switched your control mode from manual to automatic… and could not be disabled or remapped. The PS4’s analog sticks press in quite easily, so I frequently accidentally pushed that button while simply moving in combat. This, quite simply, infuriated me. If I could’ve turned the hotkey off, I would have… but there was no option to do so.

Sky

Additionally, for some strange reason the developers have decided that people don’t like loot and not included all the little random items all over the place that previous recent entries have featured: the sparkly gather points, the random sacks of loot, etc. There are a few treasure chests, but those only respawn very slowly and only if you have a certain feature turned on. It’s a minor point, but it certainly made me less eager to revisit places.

I will also offer a small warning. When you reach the end of the game and it asks you if you want to save the ‘completed’ file, make sure you pick the file you want to save it on the first time. Because clicking ‘cancel’ during the save process doesn’t return you back to the ‘select a file to save’ menu, it cancels the save entirely – ensuring you retain no completed data file and no ability to create a new game + until you go and beat the end boss again.

Overall

I enjoyed Zesteria. I really did. Most of the characters were well designed, the series’ trademark sense of humour was as strong as ever, and the overall story was engaging. But, after the amazing job they did on action rpg combat for Xillia and Xillia 2, I expected more out of the combat than this. I didn’t expect to be pigeonholed into a bland rock-paper-scissors game. I didn’t expect to have a ‘super transformation’ that was essentially permanently accessible. I didn’t expect the type of control issues I had with this game. But I did expect to enjoy my time, and at least in that regard I was right.

Zestiria’s a strong game, but for every step the developer has taken forward, they took two steps back with this entry in the series.

 

 

Hope you all have a happy Holidays! Sorey about the missing Monthly Recommendations update, illness and Trails of Cold Steel ensured I did not have the opportunity to write!

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