Tales of Zestiria PS4 Review
Promising signs are at Bandai Namco UK for its Tales of games, as this is the first time a game in the 20 year history of the series has released in both Japan and the UK in the same year. It’s also the first time it has step foot on this current generation of consoles, well, that is for the Western world, as the original game in Japan was only for PlayStation 3. For its release over here, Bandai Namco has seen fit to port it to PlayStation 4 and PC, obviously seeing the popularity of those platforms grow over the last couple of years. Tales of Zestiria is the 15th instalment of the series, and also the game that celebrates its 20th birthday. With such a milestone hit, Zestiria returns back to its thematic roots to bring a familiar, yet tweaked, experience for fans, who by now know what to expect, but Tales of Zestiria holds a few surprises to allow it to stand on its own from the 14 other Tales of titles.
The game centres around Sorey, a young guy who has lived in the mountainous village of Elysia with a magical race known as the Seraphim since he was small. Been around Seraphim all his life has given Sorey the ability to see and speak to them, even gaining a best friend with Mikleo, but normally, these beings are invisible to the common human eye. Seraphim are worshipped by the humans as guardians for the big cities that inherit the continent of Glenwood, giving them a holy responsibility to help the humans from the growing threat of malevolence and the monsters known as Hellions that grow from the negative emotions of humans. It doesn’t take long for Tales of Zestiria to throw Sorey into the open world after he meets Alisha, a knight lost in the ruins, who influences Sorey to begin his grand adventure by luring him with the prospect of seeing the sword mentioned in a historic book about the tale of the Shepherds – a saviour that appears in time of needs with the support of the Seraphim to take on the hellions and their leader, The Lord of Calamity. Of course, in typical fantasy fashion, Sorey becomes a Shepherd and gladly takes on the role to adventure the world and try bring unity to the land.
There are a few hours of character and world building – and a crap load of tutorial pop ups – before the story begins to hit its stride, but once it does, it’s an enjoyable trip that doesn’t throw many curve balls. Even though it’s predictable for the most part, it does bring situations that ignite the story for a while before returning to the standard program, which focuses on friendship and responsibility. What really makes the journey shine and uplifts the overall plot is the likeable characters. From the get go, you are introduced to the positive personality of Sorey, who has this charming attitude that fits well with being the hero of the game. Mikleo plays off Sorey nicely, being the sensible guy who keeps Sorey close to him. In fact, when the whole gang gets together, they all work well to bring a party of colourful personas with cool designs and personalities, so when someone leaves, especially a certain princess, their presence is missed from the gang. Tales of Zestiria is a game you will remember more for the cast than the story, which isn’t necessary a bad thing in a genre that can often forget to create heroes who stick with you long after the game is completed.
A sense of scale comes on the continent of Glenwood. The world map feels bigger and more open than the traditional world maps of older Tales games and often other classic JRPGs – worlds where the characters are disproportionate to the scale, making them giants walking on a globe. The world map in Zestiria keeps the scale a little more real, with wide areas of land to venture through to find treasures, special weapon buffs in the form of creatures called normin or other secrets scattered around. It still presents itself with a linear goal, marked with a star, but as the game progresses, side quests and other tasks open up to give you the opportunity to break away from the main plot and do a little running around. It’s very traditional to the genre and Zestiria does not try to break the mould with how the game progresses from start to finish. As scale goes, this is no Xenoblade Chronicles big, but compared to previous entries, Zestiria creates a world where the player feels more closer to its grand scale than before. To give you an idea about the focus of the game’s world map, there are no vehicles or airships featured, rather, you have to run or, once unlocked through finding specialised Seraphim known as Lord of the Land, fast travel to previous visited locations to get around in a speedy manner.
Opening up the scale of the world is a nice step, but the content inside this is rather bare bones, most likely due to the heritage of being built for the PlayStation 3. The game does get across what environment it represents, with fields, mountains and cities all capturing the essence of those locales, but these landmarks could do with being more detailed, as the ground is flat and vegetation is a minimal with sparsely populated trees, shrubs, rocks and other filler objects not exactly used to bring the world to life. Dungeons feel the exact opposite of the larger world space, as these are very much closed linear spaces that don’t offer much wonderment that should come from exploring mystical ruins, but do throw in a puzzle or two to uphold the tropes of exploring dungeons.
The extra power of being on PlayStation 4 only feels to be used to clean and smooth the edges of models, as other areas where the power could be used isn’t in effect, such as the game’s 30fps lock – another thing likely inherited from being developed with PlayStation 3 as the key platform and animations or calculations being based around the frame rate. If there is a consultation, it is that the frame rate seems to keep at 30fps, which isn’t exactly something to celebrate about when running a game coming from an older generation, but this keeps the combat smooth, and to be honest, the combat in Tales of titles is something that does not need fast responsive input that is gained from faster frame rate.
Combat sticks to the series’ fast and fluid linear motion battle system that makes for rapid fights and plenty of showy combos that are easily performed with directions of the stick and a press of the circle or x buttons. The linear motion battle system has always been a key feature that made Tales of titles feel different than their rivals and that still remains true now, only now battles no longer requiring a separate screen to jump into, as hitting visible enemies on the map will just load straight into a fight without the need for a fancy loading swoosh to cover the transition. Battles initially lock the player in a line with the enemy, acting like a 2d plain, but I always found it more fun to hold down L2 to activate the free roaming that forces the battle system into 3d space. There is an option to have the reverse happen, where L2 forces the 2d lock, an alternative that I easily prefer over the standard setting, but it does come with the need to keep an eye on the spirit chain metre, a blue bar that sits under the health bar, as this will not fill up when moving around in 3d space. Spirit is needed to perform any actions from either the Martial, Hidden, and Seraphic artes available. These varieties act as a rock-paper-scissor system against each type, but doesn’t go as far as making one weak against the other in terms of damage, but changing their properties, such as the Seraphic arte caster no longer succumbing to stun when hit with an Hidden arte during casting of the seraphic spell.
General foes are usually easy to take down, allowing the player to get away with mashing artes to win. Strategic battles are usually saved for boss fights or higher level creatures that take skill in both defence and offense to defeat them. A retry battle exists for anyone who ends up at death’s door – always a nice feature to have. As characters level up, more artes become unlocked and can be assigned to the various input combinations to activate them. Going all out will leave you drained of spirit, so hanging still will allow it to regenerate. Dodging or blocking incoming attacks will offer a quick boost of spirit, and is the preferred way to gain back spirit without having to wait in the middle of battle when enemies are all around you. There are options to customise the battles to your liking, such as turning on an automatic dodge that will perform these dodges when the character isn’t receiving an input from the controller. Either way, if you learn to dodge on command or offer to let the game do it for you, the combat remains hectic and highly fun when you are in harmony with its mechanics.
The biggest changes that come to the linear motion battle system is the inclusion of armatization. This is a new feature built around the game’s story concepts of humans and seraphim combining for greater power. The party can consist of four heroes, two humans and two seraphim that back the human player they are assigned to. Only one character can be controlled at once, with the AI taking over the other three, usually doing a good job with the scheduled programme that you have assign to it from a small predetermined selection. Taking over a character can be done at any point, allowing people bored of being Sorey to control other heroes and have access to their moves to have a different flavour of combat. When a character has built up enough metre from dealing damage, they can summon the ability to fuse with their linked seraphim to change into a celestial elemental-based killer machine while looking stylish to boot and having combined health points. These forms unlock new combos that dish out damage, especially so if you are using an element that the enemy is weak against, and if you failed to do that? Simply switch the correct seraphim on the fly with a press of a d-pad direction before calling for armatization. Death during this state will KO both the human and seraphim, but pressing the activation button will dispel the fusion and bring everyone back to their basic states. Armatization brings flashy colourful action and depth to the linear motion battle system to make Zestiria‘s battles some of the more entertaining in the series.
Skills in the traditional sense are no long gained from levelling up, rather, weapons come with attached attributes that alter the 5 x 10 grid skill graph that shapes what skills are available. The skill graph is displayed with icons across rows and columns. Managing to highlight a row or column will grant bonus skills, and having the same skill across multiple gear will stack the effect. It can be complex to understand at first, but not shying away from its design opens up its potential. The game makes it easy to set up gaining the skills required by showing what weapon in your inventory will fill in the missing icon. Filling in the graph a specific way can activate helpful benefits, such as highlighting three fire slots to gain fire resistance or having a vertical line across all five types to gain HP increase. Weapons and gear are obtained frequently throughout the game, but you will notice that a lot of the gear is duplicates. This is down to the new combining system where improving an item with another of its kind will merge a skill, meaning that fresh gear isn’t always going to be the best offering after riding equipment that has been tuned multiple times. Combining the items with the right skills attached will make it easier to highlight the skills graph and gain those bonuses for easier combat. Zestiria might not seem like it at a glance, but the game does offer quite the customisation when it comes to its battle mechanics and the features associated around it.
Having a presentation influenced by anime gives Zestiria some lovely character models. Sure, I mentioned the environment might not be as sexy, but characters benefit more from the sharper resolution, with the artwork for skits even more so. It’s a colourful and nice enough looking game, just not a technical marvel. Camera can cause issues when locked onto enemies in enclosed environments, especially during fights, obscuring the view of the controlled hero and pointing the camera at the enemy with no idea what exactly is going on in the heat of battle. The audio on the other hand I cannot fault, as it is great across the board, with Japanese and a solid English voice over track featured along with a great soundtrack composed by Motoi Sakuraba and Go Shiina, two Tales of veterans, that sticks an emotional flow to important scenes, but never forgets the fun and catchy beats in between the seriousness, while smartly invoking the wonderful music these composers have done for the series in the past.
Tales of Zestiria comes with a lot to like about it. The characters are fantastic and make themselves easily appealing, the battle system keeps the series’ trademark action refreshed by blending in old and new mechanics for fast and exciting combat, and the music is simply wonderful. The only downside to Tales of Zestiria is that while its story is enjoyable, it’s nothing special. While you might not come out this game’s 40+ hour adventure with memories of the plot, you will remember the heroes, their fights and the lovely music that wraps it up to signal this as the best Tales of game since Tales of Vesperia hit the Xbox 360 back in 2009.