Tales of Zestiria
"A brand new adventure awaits in a fantasy world filled with magic, knights, dragons and mystery in Tales of Zestiria. Two nations fight for supremacy and the fate of the realm lies in the hands of Sorey, an inquisitive young adventurer who takes on the burden of becoming the Shepherd, the one the legends foretold would become the savior of all. Together with Lailah, the Lady of the Lake, who guards the Sacred Blade, and his best friend Mikleo, Sorey soon discovers a powerful force rising in the shadows."
A Whole New World – Explore a medieval fantasy world with cues taken from classic literature and wide and expansive environments
Instant Aggression – Seamless transitions from exploration to the trademark Tales of real-time battle system skirmishes
Fusion Battle System – Strategically fuse two characters together in battle into a more powerful form to achieve victory against vicious enemies
The Echoes of Lore – Follow the exploits of Sorey on his mission as the Shepherd told through real-time and animated cut-scenes with the original Japanese voice overs or newly added English voices
January 2015 (PS3 version)
October 2015 (PS4 version)
Publisher: Bandai-Namco Entertainment
Released for the 20th Anniversary of the Tales series, Tales of Zestiria is the “RPG of Passion Lighting the World.” The game introduces some new elements while maintaining the core of what makes the series so beloved by its fans. For example, the Linear Motion Battle System is still present, with new changes brought in for Zestiria, but the game no longer loads a separate screen for combat—instead, battles take place directly within the locales in which the players encounter their foes.
Originally created for the PS3, Tales of Zestiria was ported to the PS4 and Steam for its western release, making it the first Tales game to be released on the current generation of consoles. Unfortunately, its status as a port means that the game did not get to take advantage of all of the hardware available in the new systems, but Tales fans looking to play on their current generation of consoles (or on their PCs) can rejoice at having the opportunity. Let’s determine if Tales of Zestiria stack up to the expectations.
Tales of Zestiria takes place on the fictional continent of Glenwood, where humans coexist with spiritual beings known as “Seraphim.” Generally speaking, humans worship Seraphim, who in turn bless the people of their particular region. however, in the time of the game, Seraphim worship has declined, and an increase in “malevolence,” a corrupting influence that turns people into beings known as “hellions, ”has been experienced throughout both of the game’s continents, the Hyland Kingdom and the Rolance Empire.
Amidst this setting, we meet our heroes, Sorey and Mikleo. Sorey is a human who has an unusually high ability to see and speak with the Seraphim, and was also raised by them. Mikleo is a young male Seraph who grew up alongside Sorey and ultimately became his friend. Due to the fact that they grew up in an area protected from human intrusion, the two know nothing of malevolence or the evil inclinations of the human heart—at least, not until they meet the princess of the Hyland Kingdom, Alisha. After finding her unconscious in some ruins near their home, the two care for her temporarily until she is able to return to where she belongs. During that time, a hellion appears, seeking the girl’s life and ultimately leading to Sorey and Mikleo leaving the only home they’ve known to go and warn Alisha. This kicks off a series of events in which Sorey takes up the mantle of the “Shepherd,” a hero of legend set to rise up against the “Lord of Calamity,” who is ultimately responsible for the increase in malevolence. With his new-found powers, Sorey sets off on a quest that will bring new friends, new powers, and new revelations about his life.
Christian readers will almost immediately notice the Christian parallels in the story: a savior who must rise up to rescue his people from a corrupting influence and the evil being who exists to spread it. Of course, Sorey isn’t a perfect Christ-figure as he has the potential to fall to malevolence himself, but the general concept is certainly there. Overall, the story plays out as a classic tale of good vs. evil, which may be slightly disappointing to those who have gotten used to Tales games having more intricate plots that unfold throughout the course of the game. Regardless, the story works very well for the most part, but unfortunately begins to feel rushed after Sorey completes the four trials that he must complete for each seraph in his party (one trial for each element).
While the game does have some minor subplots up until this point, the main focus of the story is simply that Sorey must defeat Heldalf, the Lord of Calamity, and in order to do so he must master his powers as the Shepherd and decide what, exactly, he is fighting for. However, once he completes the four trials, it feels like the writers suddenly try to throw in a lot of extra details. Dezel, the wind Seraph accompanying Sorey and friends, is hinted to have some sort of ulterior motive at one point, but not much is done with this plot point until after the final trial, at which point it is suddenly made a major focus of the story—and is just as quickly resolved.
While the aftermath is still appropriately emotional, the whole thing feels rushed and thrown in, as does the inclusion of the new foe introduced at this point (again, while she was shown earlier in the game, there were no introductions or even dialogue to create any tension prior to this point). The writers also throw in the existence of a character who knows everything about the history of the world, makes the characters do the leg work to track down items that reveal the truth about Heldalf, and then ultimately sacrifices himself to reveal the truth to them anyway. While this character plays a (minor) role in earlier portions of the game, there are no mentions of the title that he holds, and the sudden reveal of the backstory makes a lot of the quests seem pointless. Why have the player work to locate items if the game is just going to ultimately hand you the answer anyway? At this point, the writers also felt it necessary to attempt to shoe-horn Sorey and Mikleo into an even more important role, making their places in the events some kind of predestined occurrence.
All that is to say that while Tales of Zestiria starts off with as simple enough story, it eventually comes to feel as though the writers forgot about several sub-plots that they meant to use and then decided to quickly write them into the latter portion of the game while simultaneously all but dropping other subplots that were introduced near the game’s beginning (such as the fact that Seraphim who are corrupted by malevolence becoming dragons). It’s not to say that the core of Zestiria’s story is bad—as a tale of good versus evil, love, and sacrifice it does quite well—it’s just to say that certain plot elements should have either been introduced earlier in the story and built up to their ultimate conclusion or excluded altogether.
Language: “h*ll”, “d*mn”, “d*rn”, “h*ck”, “fr*ggin”, “cr*p”, “j**z”, “a**”, “b*stard”, “d*ng”
Sexual Content: The sexual content is thankfully toned down considerably when compared to Xillia 2 (I’m looking at you, Muzet). That said, there are some fanservicey costumes, suggestive conversations, and monsters who could use some additional clothing (one enemy resembles a female devil that is mostly naked with a thong-backed bottom while another is a Medusa enemy with a top that only covers part of her breasts). There is also a scene where a perverse Seraph stares at Lailah and Rose’s breasts, at which point the camera zooms into Lailah’s chest.
Alcohol/Drug Use: Characters are shown drinking during the closing credits.
Violence: Well, this is an action RPG. Characters will slice, dice, burn, crush, and perform many other violent verbs in order to bring down their enemies. Cutscenes will also show characters engaged in combat.
Blood/Gore: There are some scenes of blood during cutscenes, at the very least.
Negative Spiritual Content: The biggest negative is that the religious system of the world seems to be polytheistic. Though there are five eraphs more powerful than the rest, no all-powerful god is ever mentioned. People can set up a Seraph as a guardian over their area, and each area can have its own seraph. The seraphs also aren’t immortal, at least not entirely, as they are capable of being killed at the very least. Of course, the presence of magic is here in the form of certain artes, and elements of Catholicism are used within the realm (there are priests, bishops, and a pope in this world, as well as a church body).
Positive Spiritual Content: The story of Zestiria bleeds Christian allegory. A savior who must rise up to save the world from the evil of the Lord of Calamity and the corrupting power of si—I mean, “malevolence,” putting himself in a position to be shunned and hated by the people? Sounds an awful lot like a Christ-figure to me. Oh, and he’s referred to as the Shepherd. Of course, the Shepherd is far from perfect—rather than quelling the darkness once and for all, a Shepherd rises up at different points through history to combat malevolence as it grows and becomes a danger to those in the world. In short, Shepherds are still only human, and are even capable of falling to the power of malevolence themselves. Still, it is a good allegory if you want an icebreaker for presenting the Gospel to your geeky, otaku, JRPG-loving friends.
The general gameplay is similar to previous Tales games: players will move between large field areas, dungeons, and towns, encountering roaming enemies in the first two and shops and taverns in the third. Unlike other Tales games, the fields are much larger and battles take place within the fields themselves as opposed to transferring the player to a separate battle field. This means that if the enemy you encounter is near a tree or pillar, that tree or pillar will appear on the battlefield, serving as a potential obstacle during the battle.
Battles themselves are also based upon the standard Tales formula: the player character will move on a forward/backward plane by default, with free run capabilities offered with the proper combination of buttons. Players also have access to physical and magical attacks, although unlike the Xillia games before it, all of Zestiria’s attacks are classified as “artes” Also, unlike other games, all of the attacks in Zestiria draw from the same pool of energy. This gets to be frustrating, as players will at times find it necessary to switch up the type of artes they are using in order to exploit enemy weaknesses, which makes changing up attacks types quite annoying. On top of this, the span of artes (particularly martial artes) is relatively narrow—players have to unlock their chain of martial artes throughout the game, and are unable to change out which artes chain into which, meaning that players start out with a very thin selection of artes to use, and even once all available artes are unlocked there are still less than a dozen martial artes altogether.
Another unique element of Zestiria’s battle system is the Armitization system, wherein Sorey (and later, Rose) can combine with one of their seraph partners to become a more powerful incarnation. More than likely, players will come to rely on this form of play more than anything, as the requirements for armitizing are fairly low (players must simply have one point in their “blast gauge,” which builds up over
time during fights), and it provides a much greater boost in attack strength, especially in terms of elemental attacks. Like the martial artes of standard play, armitized attacks are also extremely limited and are only unlocked periodically throughout play, with yet again a highly limited selection available.
Players who prefer to play on a higher difficulty will also find the game frustrating due to the fact that, once the difficulty is increased to “Hard” or greater, the amount of experience gained from battles decreases while the amount of gald received increases. It is slightly frustrating to be thrown into battles with enemies many levels higher than you, and yet get even less experience than if you were fighting the same enemies at lower levels on a lower difficulty. According to one of the many monoliths scattered throughout the game, players are also granted greater damage benefits on hard mode when exploiting enemy weaknesses.
On the topic of gald and experience, the game places a greater emphasis on purchasing and upgrading equipment—as well as stacking skills—than on level. Equipment upgrading is done by simply combining a piece of equipment with another. As for skills, there are a total of fifty skills available, with each piece of equipment having four skill slots available, meaning that players can only equip a limited number of skills, receiving bonuses for multiple incarnations of the same skill being equipped as well as for equipping skills that fall within the same “group.” This wouldn’t be a bad system if it wasn’t for the fact that equipment can only be combined with other equipment of the same name (for example, an Ancient Sword can only be combined with another Ancient Sword), and shops only stock one of any item at any given time. Therefore, unlike other Tales games where players could buy as many of a piece of equipment as they could afford, this time around you are limited to one, and afterward have to wait for the stock to resupply.
Even more frustrating is that the skills on any piece of gear are not guaranteed, and when combining items with two different skills in the same slot, players will find that a new skill will be created; not only is it frustrating to even acquire gear for combinations, but upgrading equipment may mean messing up a perfectly good skill set up that a player has worked to attain. When you consider that you have to do this for all six characters in your party (as you will use all six, unlike in other Tales games where you can pick your four preferred characters and leave the rest as benchwarmers), you quickly find that the gear system in the game is overly convoluted and frustrating, rather than entertaining.
The long in the short is that while Zestiria keeps the core feel of the Tales series, it tries too hard to play with the formula by adding elements that overcomplicate the ability to improve your armor and character stats, making for a somewhat frustrating experience especially when playing on higher difficulties.
Before getting into the specifics of Tales of Zestiria‘s production value, let’s tackle a large gripe with the PS4 release of Tales of Zestiria. Despite being ported to a console with social elements built right into it, Bandai Namco decided to block all use of those elements with Tales of Zestiria. This includes streaming and screenshots. Even worse is the fact that the company didn’t even bother to notify users of this information—the only communication this writer had found involved a Twitter conversation between a user and Bandai Namco. Though the company claimed copyright reasons for the blockage, and there are still portions of the game (specifically the Crucibles) which can be streamed and screenshotted. Simply put, the undisclosed exclusion of PS4 specific elements and the lack of sufficient explanation for the decision is a strike against the game, or at least Bandai Namco.
The game maintains the signature Tales art style, so fans of the medium will be pleasantly surprised while those who are not fond of it won’t likely find themselves changing their minds with this installment. The reality that this is ultimately a PS3 port is not lost though, as the graphics themselves don’t seem to have advanced much beyond the Xillia games that came before. On the other hand, the prominence of larger open fields is an improvement in Zestiria’s favor, though not as much was done to fill them. Consider that in the Xillia games there were all sorts of shiny objects to pick up, while in Zestiria you have monsters and the occasional treasure chest.
The game’s musical score also compliments the atmosphere of the game without overwhelming it. One particularly powerful moment is the turning point in the battle against Tiamat, where a powerful song kicks in, adding to the epic feel of the moment. Other than that, no musical numbers particularly stick out, but there also were not any moments where the music felt like a distraction from the game, either. Now if only we could have gotten the vocals for that opening theme song!
At its core, Tales of Zestiria is everything fans of the Tales series would expect, with a story of good versus evil where friends must work together in order to vanquish the bad guy while also throwing in side quests and stories that help the player become more deeply emerged into the world. Unfortunately, other decisions and gameplay elements serve to bog the game down, making it more frustrating than fun at times. While diehard Tales fans will undoubtedly have a blast with the game, it is not a recommended starting point for those new to the series.
+ Spacious open areas
+ Story contains a lot of Christian allegory
+ Battles begin in the field as opposed to a separate arena
- Difficulty balancing
- Weapon/skill upgrade system
- Story feels a bit bloated near the end