If JRPGs were soft drinks, the ever-popular Tales series would easily fit the bill of the Diet Coke: reasonably balanced, not too indulgent and one best enjoyed in compartmented doses. I’ve never personally identified as much with Bandai Namco’s go-to fan-pleaser as I have other eastern-developed franchises, be it the character-led resonance of Persona (akin to a Dr Pepper if you’re curious) or Xenosaga‘s (Irn-Bru right there) lofty ambition. Yet, there’s something whispering away to me from out the confines; whether it’s the jubilant aesthetic of Symphonia or Xilia‘s gamble with setting – of which I respect – if I know I’m not staying, I can at least damn well [try to] enjoy my time and cut right into the meat of Tales’ appeal, and by extension, its first outing onto current-generation consoles.
That’s not saying Tales of Zestiria is entirely lacking outside its signature real-time tactics and combat system, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to proclaim you won’t come out of this speaking gospel of Zestiria’s rather expendable plot, and in effect, its character roster. You play as Sorey, a happy-go-lucky young man — and potential nominee for worst running animation in a video game — tasked with…you’ve guessed it…saving the World as well as fixing a once healthy co-existent relationship between mankind and a race of invisible spirits called Seraphim. Oh, and something about evil manifesting through negative emotions and dwindled loss of faith. The story isn’t teased or otherwise prolonged anymore than what’s necessary, so come the turn of the opening hour you’re left to get on with it and explore the grand open-world — a feature making its long overdue debut in the series — before you.
Progression, in as much the World of Glenwood, feels familiarly acute to the way early 3D Zelda‘s cleverly tackled the issue by way of exploration of which was interconnected by cleverly-disguised corridor sections and regions that could pertain to mini-dungeons. Unfortunately, given we’re comparing two games from three (at the most extreme) generations apart, Zestiria‘s World looks, acts and feels untreated. For all the intriguing twists and turns that tease and allude to greater discoveries, a lot of Glenwood’s visuals — or at least that which isn’t blocked off by invisible walls and carefully-placed foliage — lack in anything other than a polished loft of color. Even with PS4’s enhanced capabilities, an added sharpness doesn’t completely help revitalise an otherwise deprived setting. There’s barely a concern to utter performance wise, though some transitions from in-game cutscene back to gameplay can freeze if for a fragment and building textures can look as clean as a splotch of porridge. Even with these minor hiccups quickly fading from memory, most of Zestiria’s ‘open’ environments, at worst, feel relegated to well-curved geometry.
Fortunately the enclosed towns/villages dotted about are a lot more invested and focused, if not buzzing with life (despite what the stock sound effects of bustling crowds, will tell you). The obvious linearity and cut-off points of certain streets or paths seldom hide from view but it’s the aesthetics that allow some narrative tone and context in situations of either great peril or welcome relief, to bloom. Such is the shame then that the supposed dungeons here are so woefully lacking, each of these such segments that play towards that treasured end-goal don’t quite meet expectations. Be it the myriad of ninety-degree corners, square-shaped rooms or the general lack of atmosphere, its sterile familiarity leaves the genuine mystery and possible anxiety of these locales to gradually wane. It’s not unlike Tales games to have a splintered layout with such stark differences in presentation, but if there’s one aspect that at least helps lift the open-World from off its lacklustre porch, it’s definitely the combat. A signature and significant staple of the franchise, but Zestiria‘s approach goes further and is immediately compelling.
As always, pitting yourself against foes — Hellion or no Hellion, in this case — lands you in a sealed-off designation of the field of battle the moment you and enemy alike make contact. Rather than taking turns, players’ actions function in real-time with combat focusing on what are dubbed ‘Artes’. The aim is to build up consecutive combos whilst keeping a tactical eye on how and where you position one’s self through either offensive or defensive measures. Your close-net allies can be given orders as to how to approach a battle and can even be switched out for further advantage. But one of the new mechanics to feature — and a notable inclusion more so — is the Armatization moves that allow human and seraphim to fuse into a hybrid, bringing increased strength as well as improved skills. In-game instructions insist these abilities, like everything else, can only be used upon meeting certain requirements (filling up its designated bar). But rather unlike the meters governing the amount of times you can attack, or indeed the one illustrating your HP, Armatizations are often devoid of restriction and consequence for overuse is non-existent.
That said, such use — which itself can turn into an addiction — adds some much-needed liveliness and enjoyment mid-battle and can turn a conservatively calculating affair into a frenzied hack-and-slash stunner. Not that the conventional rock-paper-scissors formality doesn’t itself delve into a little madness on the side, but regular combat finds itself (again) tainted by jarring camera-work and characters sandwiching themselves between yourself and the enemy you’re targeting, the urge to up the ante is never too far away. But when it works — when the pieces to the puzzle all fit — the glee of racking up combos, flashy visuals notwithstanding, are unparalleled. What’s more, the grading system that you get by way of the result screen only acts as a means to improve and push to get better and more efficient with the system in place. You won’t find anything as complex or as extravagant from designated hack-and-slash monoliths like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry sure, but Zestiria doesn’t try to play by another’s rules, nor does the more empathetic treatment of player choice (and all the mistakes it might incur as a result) permeate some miscarriage of fairness.
Those who delve into customizing both looks and load-out will find an abundance of combinations and chains that cover anything from strength to defense to magic to the amount of health-providing ‘snacks’ that can be made on the fly. Tutorials are sometimes a little too wordy and menus aren’t always well designed — least of all to those new to the series — but the fun, like so many other games, lies with experimenting and finding a way to counter the risks that come your way. I reiterate, punishment is rarely severe and Zestiria’s emphasis on the joy of combat means you won’t find yourself relying on statistical chance as much as you will on careful timing and co-ordination.
Even the result-screen chatter that often accompanies the end of battle can be modestly humorous, or at the very least welcome to the scenario as a whole. As are the return of ‘skits’ involving Zestiria’s cast, be it concerns on serious matters pertaining to the plot or more left-field discussions as to, say, which seraphim’s are the better cooks. Such light-hearted filler — because at the end of the day, it’s a little tide-you-over until the next pivotal moment — is indeed a neat touch, yet this sadly is as close to any means of character development not confined to the dreaded cliches of modern day anime characters. I’m not the most obsessive when it comes to Japanese culture, but I know enough to identify what and what isn’t a common personality trope. And believe me, some characters are personality #132A incarnate. What’s worse is that Zestiria at times forces this ‘clever’ self-parody by way of a kind of subtle wink and telling the player: ‘yeah this is so cliche…am I right guys, am I right?’
That uncalled for ‘irony’ only leaves cutscenes feeling even more stiff and artificial; all this despite the fact characters barely illustrate any body language to begin with — physical movement depriving the decent voice work from feeling anything but that, voices. Some small jabs and moments of witty banter help do alleviate some of the stress of the grand spectacle and they at least offer alternating characters a reason to do something other than stand like they’ve utterly zoned out. Yes, JRPG characters aren’t all lively firecrackers in the talking-cutscene department, but Zestiria’s spacious surroundings consequently generate a kind of vacuous plane to a situation that might, just might, in another time been so much more convincing. Thus, this is perhaps where Zestiria’s true flaw unfolds before us; for all its momentary lapses back towards concentration, to a realm of thoughtful gameplay and immersing combat that succeeds in feeling fleshed out and expanded upon, other components feel lost in a former era, reliant on old tricks to see through, rather than achieve some greater means or purpose.
By no means is Tales of Zestiria bottom of the pile, yet as far as all around quality goes — by which the many cogs keep this latest entry circulating; moving with swift, relevant engagement — Zestiria is perhaps the point wherein Bandai Namco really do have a franchise on one hell of a tipping point. If future installments can banish this belief that elements like characters, progression and World-building are some kind of temporary prop, the series could become relevant again. There’s salvation in the combat, especially when it makes the player feel — if briefly — like they’ve mastered the art[es] of strategy, and gameplay will indeed trump anything plot or visuals may throw. But these grand adventure-types have always been about more than just the momentary, short-term victory, haven’t they?