Tales of Zestiria
Too Much Lemon “Zest” Can Make A Man Sour!
By: Head Writer – Justin Tafoya
Staff Writer – David Thomson
Hello Giga-People! It’s been a long minute since I’ve written a video game review. Come to think of it, my last one was on another Tales of game as well! It’s a series I keep very close to my heart and one I wish other people to enjoy as well.
I tried my hardest to be objective as possible with the key points of the game here. For reference, I go over the Synopsis, add some personal thoughts, do an overview of the core elements of the game, a final summation, and finally my personal score. If you want (mostly) the hard facts, skip the “personal thoughts” and “personal score” section. For everything else, I tried to label it as clearly as possible to make it easy for you all to read and/or find what you wanted.
There will be a minimal amount of spoilers in this article. All spoilers will be noted by very large, bold print.
Without further ado . . . You’re welcome!
Following the release of the overall success of Tales of Xillia 2, Namco-Bandai (Hereafter: Bamco) followed up with a series to “bring the zest back to RPGs”, hence the “Zest” in Tales of Zestiria. Released in Japan in January 2015 solely for the PS3, BamCo surprised all Westerners with an announcement for its first PS4 and PC publication. Thrilled at this prospect for new players, fans of the Tales of series were ecstatic to finally receive a port to the systems that actually matter!
But, it was met with severe backlash especially in Japan for several reasons, one more prominent than the others. Did this game bring the much needed “zest” back to the genre? Could it be the one to light the fires of a dying archetype? Let’s see if we can’t dissect a few “bugs” in a game that has seen more positive than negative reviews . . . even if by the slightest of margins.
On the continent of Glenwood, in a world with no apparent name, there exist two races: Humans and Seraphim. Seraphim, you see, are beings that are deeply attached to nature, able to draw out its energy and use it as “magic”. Humans are, well . . . humans. It has been a very long time since humans have seen a Seraphim, let alone believed in one. Seeing these beings requires one to be born with a large amount of spiritual attunement called “Resonance” because, without it, a Seraphim can neither be seen nor heard.
Our hero, Sorey, is a human boy who was raised in a village of these Seraphim. Having never even seen a human, Sorey was deeply in tune with nature, much like the Seraphim (minus the magic). With no one other than his closest friend, a young water Seraph named Mikleo, to keep him company, Sorey has become something of a bookworm who is obsessed with exploring ruins. The only problem with this . . . hobby, is that there is only one of those ruins near his home.
Whilst exploring those very ruins one day, Sorey and Mikleo spot a young blonde woman passed out on the ground. After rescuing this young woman, Sorey escorts her back to his home, Elysia, his village of Seraphim that no other human other than himself has visited in decades. But, here comes his first problem: This girl cannot see the Seraph standing right in front of her face, making Sorey seem much more . . . insane than he actually is. After a slow introduction, this young woman would come to accept Sorey and introduce herself as Alisha, Princess of the Hyland Empire. She then reveals that she had been looking for the one the legends call “The Shepherd”, one who would guide the people in times of darkness and stop the tyrannical “Lord of Calamity”. Hearing how the continent had been wrought with war, strife, and starvation, Sorey and Mikleo take it into their hands to explore the world and do all they can to help.
Striking out on the first journey they make their way to Ladylake, capital of the Hyland Empire, to hear rumors of a “Sword in the Stone” (ring any bells?). When Sorey goes to check out the sword for himself, he sees a silver-haired Seraph guarding it. Before he can speak to her though, a monster attacks Alisha. Without thinking, Sorey grabs at the sword but is warned by the the Seraph: If he should pull the sword from the stone, he could lead the continent to peace, but his life would be filled with pain, betrayal, and hate. Without a second though, Sorey pulls the sword and promptly purifies these demons called “Hellions”.
Sorey now knows that the Lord of Calamity has been infecting the continent with an unseen darkness called “Malevolence”. Malevolence comes from Humans and Seraphim alike, feeding off their negative emotions: Hate, revenge, depression, jealousy, and anything that is seen as undeniably evil. Sorey’s job is to gather a group of Seraphim and lead the two warring armies against the Lord of Calamity and to once again bring peace back to the continent.
With his best friend and water Seraph, Mikleo, the Lady of the Lake and fire seraph, Lailah, the hermitous earth Seraph, Edna, and the rebellious wind seraph, Dezel, Sorey sets out to become a Shepherd worthy of the people and to learn the true beginnings of the Lord of Calamity.
Personal Thoughts –
Since this section is about my personal feelings on the game, I highly suggest you skip over if you’re a sissy and can’t handle opinions.
I genuinely disliked this game from about two hours in all the way to the finale. Without being too judgemental, I feel like this game had a myriad of good ideas but they were used in such a way that it felt like I was just watching anime tropes strewn about in a video game. You can say they dropped the ball. A lot. In fact, they dropped the ball so often, they might as well have been playing soccer with all their ideas.
The story itself, while somewhat interesting, was extremely sporadic throughout the game. ToZ never really delves too deeply into any characters, other than the antagonists oddly enough, and just tiptoes around a lot of deep ideas. Malevolence is brought up as something of a “gray area” on what it is and who it infects. We’re shown an assassin’s guild who are completely devoid of Malevolence, but every person in a skirmish during a war is filled with it. But, the writers seem fit to just explain it away as, “If you truly believe in what you’re doing, and that it is correct, you won’t be affected by Malevolence.” effectively making a human who makes his living out of torture, resilient. I don’t deny the basis of Malevolence, just how the writers choose to treat it.
Following the story, or lack thereof, was the characters. When I said “anime tropes” I really meant it when it comes to the actors in this play. The most infuriating of all was the main character himself, Sorey. Starting as the all-too-common “badass pacifist”, it becomes insulting how the game expects us to walk through a war without hurting or killing another human being. I understand that he hates hurting people, I accept that. But, rather than taking a human approach to the subject, they force magic into the game to leave (most of) the bad guys just hurt just enough not to fight back or to be purified. What’s worse, when Sorey finds his revelation, his answer to the problems he is faced with, it’s nothing less than a jarring change of character. Much worse than Tales of the Abyss’ Luke, Sorey randomly changes from one archetype to the next.
On a side note or, more of a rant, this game got a bad rap for how it treated Alisha. You see, Alisha isn’t in your party for more than a couple of hours and then she becomes a recurring background character. For the Japanese audience, and the more . . . -er, waifu watcher(?) audience in general, this really struck a sour note. Though, I can honestly say for myself and David, we could have cared less. Alisha is little more than a tool for the writers to push the plot in a certain direction. As a character she’s even worse. Have you ever known a King or Queen to bow to every Joe-Nobody during their reign? Any monarch to bend their knee at the slightest whim? No. That makes a bad ruler and an even worse diplomat. She might be cute, she might be your waifu, but objectively she serves no purpose other than to be arm candy for Sorey which is probably more insulting than her being written incredibly stupid.
I could go on about the characters and story, I really could, but then I’d just be repeating myself at a certain point. Yes, it’s bad. No, our characters don’t get nearly any backstory. What’s worse? I cared more about the antagonists for most of the game which, I assume, was unintentional. Without spoilers, I can say he had a pretty terrible life and we know more about him than most of the main cast.
There’s a lot to dislike about this game and really not much to get attached to. I loved Edna and Lailah, who were treated more like comic relief than actual people, because they were funny. But, I couldn’t tell you much about who they were or much about their origin.
But, when the game goes out of its way to deify and protect literal drug runners and illegal arms dealers, you know someone f—ed up.
The story, if you haven’t guessed, is an allusion to King Arthur and The Sword in the Stone. The obvious hints being, oh, I don’t know: The literal Sword in the Stone, the Lady of the Lake, a Shepherd to guide the people in times of war? Just some really, really obvious tiny (read: humongous) details I picked out. But, regardless, I’ve been enamoured with the legend of King Arthur since my teens, so I went into the game with good expectations. Though, whether Sorey lives up to the allegory he is given is a completely different matter in general.
One of the things I thought was done very well in this game was it’s take on how war affected the non-combatants. Just about every village you travel to is stricken with some kind of dire situation: Sickness, burglary, drugs, famine, scorched earth, and death. These subjects really shone through and helped pinpoint why ongoing wars don’t just affect the dead, they have an everlasting toll on the survivors as well. Even going so far as to smuggle drugs akin to heroin, which I should add is never really pointed out by the characters, the wartime forces the innocent to suffer in ways we can only imagine.
Which brings me to another point: how the war itself is dealt with. King Arthur was renowned for being able to bring peace to his country through selfless and courageous acts on, and off, the battlefield. It wasn’t just the sword that made him a good king, it was his righteous nature and willingness to fight and ultimately die for what he believed in. ToZ, however, takes a much more passive approach to this. The underlying thought throughout the game is, “If we get strong and beat the Lord of Calamity, everyone will be happy and make peace!” as if killing a single faceless man would erase the opposing forces’ hate for each other. And, while that is pushed aside by a very convenient common enemy, it is also a bit of a faux-pas . . . as it were. They never point out that, by Sorey being the pacifist, he never really finds a solution to the war which in turn means he only extends its length. Had it not been for that convenient excuse, there would be literally no excuse for the two armies to get along. Which, in my opinion, forces Sorey out of the allegory he’s given.
I speak a lot about these characters, these actors, in this ongoing play. It’s painful to say that, of all the Tales Of series, this one might have the most unrelatable cast so far. Most other RPGS give us some sort of backstory or a look into these characters lives and why they fight. It makes us want to root for them and it gives us an emotional tie to the characters we grow with. The writers force a very strong disconnect throughout the game by omitting any form of backstory for most of the characters. This, in turn, makes it difficult for us to care about their cause or, hell, even the characters in general. Sure, you might like Sorey’s innocence and sure, I might adore Edna’s sassy nature. Heck, we might even love those puns that Lailah throws out from time to time! But, without any depth to the characters, they are little more than personified archetypes thrown in for the sake of filling a certain character role.
To end on something of a sour note, I’m going to add a *SPOILER WARNING HERE*: This is the first game since Tales of Destiny that there has a permanent death in the main cast. But, as insulting as it was stupid, it was extremely obvious that this character was going to leave the party from very early on. Hell, I called it maybe 30 minutes after they joined the group. But, that didn’t stop the game from disgorging some attempted semblance of a backstory literally seconds before he became less . . . alive. If that doesn’t prove my point, I don’t know what will. *SPOILER END*
JRPG’s have long lived under the rule of, “Walk somewhere, exposition, fight things, fight the strong thing, repeat” and ToZ is no different. In fact, it’s too ‘no different’ enough to be iresome . . . if that makes sense. The largest portion of the game revolves around you finding a problem, walking somewhere while fighting things, finding a solution, fighting a boss, then fixing said problem. In that order. Most of this game’s exposition comes from the beginning and ending of those formulas with large gray areas in between.
Though, if you are a fan of the Tales series, you’ll be glad to know that they’ve kept their patented skits intact. These skits, or small cutscenes of dialogue with interacting character portraits, have long been a staple in this series to help fill in some story-wise blanks or add some comedy. While the former is slightly less apparent, the latter is amazingly present. The story may not have been an altogether victory, but the comedy is golden for sure.
One of the things advertised by Bamco as a selling point was the new look and open world feel of the game. Traveling from point A to B was no longer an oversized character on a world map. Zestiria now provides an expansive world in which to explore and discover. In a similar fashion to a Zelda game, Sorey can explore parts of the world as he learns new abilities. Able to dash across huge gaps, being able to destroy giant boulders, and even able to sneak past enemies with his Seraphim helpers, exploration has been given a fresh new take for the Tales of series.
The only downside may be that it might be a little too expansive. The new open areas, while remarkably beautiful, are also quite . . . barren. As large as it was, spotting these gargantuan areas with a tree or two and a couple monsters here and there really didn’t add to the “exploration” factor. Coupled with either a poor port or limitations due to the PS3, the game had a very difficult time rendering these areas, making it difficult to take in how vast and appealing it was.
In the end, if you’re expecting anything other than a typical JRPG progression, you’ll be quite disappointed. Veterans of the genre know exactly what they’re getting into!
It’s going to be very difficult to try and objective on this one. . .
The Tales Series has always defined itself with its Active Battle System deemed “X-LMBS” (Something-Linear Motion Battle System). In a fight, the game draws an imaginary line between you and the enemy, allowing you to run to and away from them or even around them to dodge incoming attacks. Being able to create your own combos by mixing in different moves has long been a staple since the first Tales Of game. ToZ uses the FC-LMBS (Fusionic Chain-LMBS).
As the name implies, Sorey can fuse with the Seraphs during battle with a process known as “Armatization”. Sorey will take on a new form, new weapon, and new elemental attributes based on the Seraph he fuses with. This is a cool idea, in concept. Being able to “gattai” with your buddies is kind a guy thing that (most of us) wish we could do(no homo). In this particular game, though, it poses a few glaring problems.
Fusing with someone, while making you much stronger, also gives you a much, much smaller list of moves to choose from all while being of the exact same element. While forcing your party to lose a member, and only healers in the game, you effectively put yourself at a disadvantage if there is more than one enemy type on the field. On the flip side, if you fought a boss that was weak to your particular element, you could effectively do great damage while keeping the boss stunned . . . or so you’d think. The game had a strange way of letting the monster just walk right through your strongest attacks literally unharmed. More on that later though.
Most Tales games keep you enthralled with the battle system because of the different character types to choose from: Yuri was an aesthetically pleasing swordsman capable of fluid combos, Philia was a caster who could build momentum in her combos that made her nearly unstoppable, Pascal was a fighter who could cast spells with a very small range but insanely high damage that made you think about risk vs. reward. ToZ? Well, ToZ didn’t have much of that diversity present in it. Yes, the moves look different, obviously. And, yes, having different elements meant different movesets. But, what I’m talking about isn’t just moves based on character type and/or color. What I look for is how each character is created with a certain theme in mind like the aforementioned three. Why would I choose to use Rose, whose “traps” had nearly no range and damage, when I could just play as a caster against whatever monster I was fighting?
Along with elemental advantages/disadvantages, ToZ uses a literal form of Rock-Paper-Scissors as well (because being five again just makes us all so happy). What I mean by this is that there are three types of attacks: Standard, Artes, and Magic. Artes beat Standard, Standard beats Magic, and Magic beats Artes. Meaning monsters could walk through your attacks if you used the wrong one. An example: If a monster was casting a spell, and you decided to use your cool new Arte on them, it would make them cast faster. No you did not read that wrong. Because, last time I punched an old wizard in the face, it made him stronger. It’s an insanely aggravating system that works mostly in the monster’s favor as you have almost no way of knowing what types of attacks monsters are using, aside from spells.
As a side note, the battle camera for this game could not have been any worse. I give this game points for letting you fight where you come into contact with a monster, rather than giving you an instanced battle area, but it does itself no favors with how jarring the camera was. In enclosed spaces, the camera would get stuck behind corners, inside rocks, and on walls making it impossible to see if someone was casting a spell or moving around. Even in the open field it would swing in odd directions making it extremely difficult to see what was happening in the fight. The wayward camera might be the strongest enemy in this game. . .
This battle system also takes some points from Tales of Graces where your “Martial” (or physical) attacks linked in a predetermined combo that you cannot change. In Graces, they used this to their advantage by giving you a very large pool of CC (or basically, points to attack with) to use for combos. Zestiria? They gave you four hits for your combo. Just four. The very first Tales game, Tales of Phantasia, would at least let you hit three times and use two Artes afterward. There are (very difficult) ways to up the combo count, but that involves using the absolute worst equipment melding system I have ever seen. Forcing you to farm for hours on end, praying that you’ll get the right skill, just to find out that the next weapon you can buy is almost twice as strong and doesn’t really suit the “let’s build weapons all game” theme.
As a side note, 80-90% of your stats come from your gear. Yes, leveling means almost nothing in this game unless you have certain skills or are still learning new abilities. Further proving that it’s the weapon that makes the man, not the other way around.
I’ve long said that Motoi Sakuraba, the composer for the series, needs some kind of sabbatical. That is, until I heard his work in Dark Souls. It was then that I knew he still had that spark in him, that love for music. With all the negatives that encompass ToZ, the score is not one of them. Most other games in the series have a set of songs that sound eerily similar. Zestiria, however, had several songs that stuck out and even had my foot tapping.
The battle music might not be anything to throw on the ‘ol I-Pod off the bat, but every song that was from the certain elemental temples was both distinct and powerful. It gave me the sense that, with every element, there was a piece to personify it. Those aside, this one has one of the best “Vocal Insert Songs” I’ve heard in a very long time. Too bad the story didn’t live up to its greatness. Not every song is a hit, but it’s definitely above par for the rest of the series.
I title this section “Sound” now, because that was the only way I could think of to involve the voice acting and dialogue portions. . .
It’s pleasing to me that Lailah’s ridiculous puns have been kept around and Edna’s silly naming conventions still make me smile from ear to ear. But, that doesn’t mean everything is perfect. Part of the gameplay is making sure that everything runs smoothly. One of the least “smooth” things in this game is its completely asinine dialogue.
I don’t ever crack down on games for using modern English colloquialisms during conversations, but this one just takes the cake. I found it strange that Sorey could use modern expressions like “Dude, that was off the chain!”, when he had never interacted with another human before. . . I’d prefer not to give more examples because I felt silly enough writing the previous one. . . But, that may just be a personal hang-up and I don’t know that it would particularly bug everyone.
Beyond that, a good portion of the serious dialogue is very stilted. Sometimes comments come from the depths of nothing and other times the characters’ exchanges won’t follow any coherent speech patterns. It boggles my mind how something so . . . cringe worthy could have gotten past any proof readers.
To the point, Zestiria is the best looking Tales of game to date, graphically speaking. The long winding paths of a mountainous region and the lush green meadows all do and extremely good job of creating a beautiful world. The backdrops and cities look period appropriate, not to mention the [human] clothing, that all set a certain tone. One of my favorite pieces is the archeology of the ruins themselves. As the “ruins nerd” that Sorey is, I’d expect nothing less. While not on the same level as BamCo’s Dark Souls, it creates a wondrous visage of a mysterious past that yearns to be explored. The calligraphy on the walls, the strange contraptions that litter the ruins, and the mysterious placement of certain remnants all paints a beautiful idea that was sadly never expounded upon.
Though much of the game was beautiful, several of the “open world” areas seem much too big for the scope of the game. Reusing certain assets to an almost infuriating level, it was easy to get lost in certain large areas that all looked exactly the same, north and south. In fact, it felt that those particular areas were large for no other reason than padding the game with more running effectively making those “nice environment” areas feel stale and boring after so much walking.
The characters themselves were . . . color coded. I understand that “fire is red” and “water is blue”, I really do. In fact, I’m so aware of this, I don’t need the characters that personify those elements to match that idea. I liked the designs of the clothes in general and thought they stood out as original. But, it felt like the designs were created because they needed to stick a certain color to a certain character to make sure we knew exactly what they were: an element. Barring that thought though, I thought the character designs really embodied the characters very well . . . except for Sorey and Rose. Sorey’s incredibly normal attire paired with a butterfly-like cape made him seem a bit out of place. And Rose’s heart-printed clothes really didn’t shout “I’m an assassin!”. But, again, that may be my personal tastes talking again.
On a final note, the Mystic Artes (the characters special moves) are extremely lackluster this time around. Several of them are even re-hashed versions of older Mystic Artes as well. The three seconds it takes to use them really doesn’t hit home as the character’s’ “ultimate attack”. They lack the impact and overall “coolness” that the previous titles’ had. But, maybe I should have expected that since the normal moveset for this game is extremely stale as well. Previous titles had moves like “Demon Fang” or “Tiger Blade” and Yuri’s patented “Dragon Swarm” that all made an impact but I can’t say the same for more than one or two moves in this game.
If you’re a veteran of the “Tales of” series, you’ll probably grab this game either way, just to support the company which I can definitely appreciate. Hell, I wouldn’t judge you even if you liked it. “To each his own”, I say. But, If you’re looking for a quality game with much to offer, you may want to read more until you decide.
Zestiria brings one of the shorter games to the table and never really provides a cohesive story as a whole. The characters are shallow enough to where, if I were standing in a puddle of them I wouldn’t get wet. The only character to find any real development was the antagonist which, again, may not have been intentional. Several story elements and characters are brought up that have an intriguing concept. But, these appealing parts are more often forgotten about or, worse yet, explained away magically as we never come back to most of those plot points.
The game even misses points as a parable from the legend of King Arthur. Most of the parts of that legend that made it a classic are either bypassed or tiptoed around as being too deep might insult our minuscule intelligence.
The Tales series is capable of so much more than this, yet ToZ is still a part of the series and, if you’ve never played any part of the games before, this will not likely be a foothold for an entrance to the rest of the games.
PERSONAL SCORE – 4/10
This has been an excruciating ride, to say the least. I can say without a doubt that this has been my least favorite Tales game since Tales of the Tempest in all of it’s same-series idea-stealing creativity.
The lack of character depth really destroys this game in the end. I expect a half-cocked story from JRPGs, and I don’t mind something being more corny than a farm in Nebraska. What really defines the strength of this genre (most of the time) are the characters we can get attached to. But, when I know more about the antagonist and his struggles than I do the main character and any one of his companions, you can bet someone f—ed up somewhere. One of the biggest failures of the game is Edna’s story itself. Introducing her brother Eizen early on who had been corrupted and turned into a mindless man-eating dragon, the game almost completely forgets about him as soon as you walk off his mountain. Hell, you can miss her story entirely as it becomes a side quest in the final moments of the game. But, the solution they find to Edna’s problem is nothing short of disappointing, unemotional, and just plain stupid.
If you play the games for the battle system, I would highly suggest skipping this one. As one of the worst battle systems to date, I could write a college-length thesis on this pile of crap. Starting with an over-complicated and overall useless armor synthesis system, down to the horrendous party A.I. Hell, the game is coded so badly that every monster could just walk through certain moves, regardless of weakness to damage or type, and take literally no damage for whatever reason (and believe me, I did testing on this phenomenon). Once you get all your moves, it becomes more of a hack’n’slash-style button masher for whatever predetermined move-set does the most damage. Including the most infuriating camera known to mankind, the least aesthetically pleasing move-set since the PS1 era, and the unbalanced human-to-monster hitboxes/frames, there were no words for how bored and upset I was with this system. Forget playing co-op, this game can barely pass as a single player.
I can’t condemn this game enough, honestly. I felt that very few parts of the game were redeeming in any fashion and most of it treats the player like they’re unintelligent. An example of my aforementioned “hand-waving”: Symonne, a Seraph employed by the antagonist, is brought up as a hateful and resentful character. When you finally beat her, the conversation afterward brings up that she hates humans and how sparing her is the worst thing the party could do to her. Why? Yeah, I’d like to know that too. The party just leaves her on the floor to cry away her problems as she literally disappears from the story afterward.
The finale had the ability to be an emotional ride due to how Sorey had to handle the final battle. I can even say I got excited at a certain point. But, like the rest of the game, all of the problems are hand-waved away by an unknown and unstated magical solution that took all of the emotional depth from the ending. A final middle finger, after the credits were over, really helped seal the deal for this one. Though, I suppose I deserve that after expecting anything from this game.
One of my biggest hang-ups on this game was its overall message. What I took from this game was “Resign yourself to your destiny and don’t try to find any way around it”. This really hit a nerve for me at the final moments of the game. Sorey did nothing to try and find a separate solution than “what he was meant to do”. It’s aggravating for more reasons than one but, the most prominent idea is that the Tales Of series is one that seems to have prided itself on a deviation from one’s predestined path. Tales of the Abyss was literally about fighting against Luke’s ultimate end in which he dies after murdering thousands of people. Tales of Destiny, oddly enough, was about Stan fighting for a brighter future that didn’t involve the destruction of humanity. Hell, Tales of Xillia 2 was about Ludger fighting for his adoptive daughter to survive in a world that only wanted to use her for her birthright. To me, when Sorey found his revelation, it felt like he was giving in more than finding out. In a long line of games that teaches us to fight against all odds and to find a way where we don’t have to sacrifice the ones we love, Zestiria showed me that conforming to a predetermined outcome is more important than what you want or need.
I don’t expect award winning performances every time I play a game, just something that I can get attached to. This game provides none of those benefits and drops the ball on so many occasions that my feet physically swelled after finishing this game.
If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll likely pick this up anyway. All I can recommend is playing for about two hours a day, with a guide, so you don’t waste more of your valuable time on this. If you’re on the fence, or are looking for a good RPG to sink your teeth into, I would highly suggest looking elsewhere.
4/10, needs to put on some big-boy pants.