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Tales of Zestiria (PlayStation 4) artwork

Tales of Zestiria (PlayStation 4) review

"A Tale of taking a step backwards from previous efforts."

Man, there's a lot for me to unpack when it comes to discussing Tales of Zestiria. It's been a couple weeks since I beat its final boss and, other than knowing this installment of Bandai Namco's long-running RPG series doesn't match up to Vespiria or The Abyss, I have no real idea where this review is going to go. Not ideal, considering I've already started writing it and am currently struggling to extract myself from this introduction, but one must make do with the hand they are dealt.

According to Wikipedia, Zestiria is the 15th main entry into the series and was originally released for the PlayStation 3. It then was ported to the PS4, where I experienced it. This puts it in a zone where its visuals certainly look pretty, but aren't quite up to the standards one might expect from Sony's fourth console. Much like the game itself was definitely serviceable, but not up to the standards I was expecting after really enjoying the last couple Tales games I'd played.

Your main character is Sorey, a naive and idealistic young man whose main love is exploring ruins with best friend Mikleo. Plot happens and Sorey soon finds that he is the new Shepherd -- a mystical figure destined to combat and overcome the forces of evil and their leader, a figure known as the Lord of Calamity whose mere presence is sufficient to turn normal humans and creatures into foul beasts called Hellions as long as they have darkness in their heart. One of the side effects of being a Shepherd is the ability to see and interact with elemental guardians known as Seraphs, something he'd been doing his entire life. It's only a few minutes into the game when Alisha, the princess of a nearby kingdom, wanders into Sorey's village and only notices him, spilling the beans that Mikleo and the other residents happen to be Seraphs.

More plot happens, leading to Sorey and Mikleo choosing to leave their village to see the outside world, which leads to him becoming the Shepherd and gaining the allegiance of Alisha. From there, he goes out to do whatever he can to help people, fight monsters, gain additional Seraphs and an extra human to help in combat, and edge ever closer to his confrontation with the Lord of Calamity.

It's all decent and the characters are entertaining enough to carry a person through Zestiria's plot, but in comparison to the average Tales game, things are pretty predictable. Many games in this series have possessed complex protagonists who undergo a lot of character development over the course of their adventures. I might not have thought Tales of Legendia was great, but I did love how Senel started out as a standoffish prick who could barely tolerate his teammates into the heart of the party, selflessly working to carry them through their own issues and personal traumas.

With Zestiria, Sorey is what Sorey is. He starts the game as a selfless lad who might not be great about thinking things through, but has a good heart and is determined to use his Shepherd powers to help the world. Throughout much of the game, you'll hear warnings about how it's possible for a Shepherd's desires to outstrip their capabilities, leading them down a dark path that could be disastrous for the world. There are moments of emotional stress and self-doubt, but they never lead to any of the huge revelations or game-changing incidents that gave previous Tales games such strong narratives. I mean, one of Sorey's greatest allies is Rose, a merchant moonlighting as an assassin. You'd think having a hired killer on staff would lead to interesting plot developments, but instead, it's simply taken for granted that she has enough purity of heart that her career choices won't lead to her becoming a Hellion. Just like how Sorey is Sorey, Rose is Rose and, as a result, potentially intriguing story-telling falls short of the mark.

Which could be said about a lot of this game's story. One of the main themes is that, as the Shepherd, Sorey's responsibility is to challenge the Lord of Calamity and not use his station to overly meddle in worldly affairs. The problem is that the Lord of Calamity hits every box on the Generic Doomsday Villain checklist, while that other stuff involves warring nations, corrupt leaders -- both governmental and religious, opportunistic shysters looking to cash in on the general unrest and other things far more intriguing. While much of the most important stuff does connect enough with Sorey's quest for him to play a role in its resolution, a lot of things happen offscreen or perhaps simply wind up as loose threads. In a way, this makes sense, as it shows how the world is a big place full of many moving pieces, and that one person, no matter how skilled and devoted, can't even begin to solve all of its problems. However, from a gaming perspective, it doesn't lead to a truly fulfilling experience.

This problem becomes worse when you consider how Zestiria is a Tales game. One thing I've noticed about this series s that you have to either use a guide or be beyond thorough in traveling the world in order to find all the side quests and optional content. We're talking constant back-tracking to talk to people, often at very particular times, and re-visiting previously explored dungeons in hopes that a new optional boss might have claimed it for its own. From a story-telling perspective, the game feels a bit incomplete if you do everything, so imagine how things would be if you miss out on a number of those optional tasks. From a gameplay perspective, every optional boss you miss adds to the game's difficulty because beating them typically gives you orbs that boost your characters' health, which is very nice since gaining levels really doesn't do much to enhance their attributes.

Take away those qualms about the plot and story-telling and this is a pretty serviceable RPG in spite of itself. Zestiria is one of those games where it seems that understanding its battle system is akin to learning a new language from scratch under a strict deadline. You'll get all these mini-tutorials giving all sorts of information about various things you can do and it feels pretty overwhelming to the degree I could type 2000 words solely about your combat options and still not be sure I properly explained things. And then you'll get in fights and watch everything turn into you tapping buttons like crazy until everything is dead.

For Sorey, one button controls one sort of attack, while another controls a different kind. Multiple attacks are programmed into both of those buttons, with the direction you're pressing an analog stick determining which one gets used. So, you'll fight enemies, discover which attacks cause the most damage to that particular sort of monster and remember to use the proper inputs against them. Against tough foes, you'll likely want to join with a Seraph to amalgamate two characters into one that is more powerful and has access to strong attacks of whatever element your chosen Seraph possesses. You'll also set up AI routines for your teammates while occasionally using items to heal or revive people from a menu and that will carry you through nearly everything in a system that feels super-complex, but actually is fairly intuitive, if a bit repetitive.

Tales of Zestiria is a reasonably fun game -- it just doesn't reach the heights that the last couple Tales games I'd played did. For me, the high point was simply the characters and their interactions, which often were pretty humorous. But it was hard to shake the impression that Bandai Namco played things a bit too safe when it came to telling a story, giving players a pretty interesting world and then putting most of the focus on a generic do-gooder's quest to overcome a generic evil overlord, with all the usual cliches and tropes being played straight instead of subverted. It's a decent game for RPG fanatics, but in the grand scheme of things, its destiny is to be relegated to "just another game" status along with the other competently-designed offerings that just don't add anything neat or essential to their given genre.

overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (December 10, 2021)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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dagoss posted December 14, 2021:

The Axe of the Blood God podcast did a ranking of Tales games back in Sept. They called it "the Spectre of Tales games" (referring to the Bond movie). I haven't played a single Tales game yet (though I have Vesperia for Switch), but I did watch Spectre, which I remember being inoffensive and entirely forgettable. I can't tell you a single thing that happened in Spectre.

I was thinking about that when reading your review, and lines like "plot happens" had me shrugging and thinking "I guess it really is like Spectre"
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overdrive posted December 14, 2021:

That is a pretty good comparison. With the added impact for me that: 1. I was really looking forward to Spectre because I'm a huge Bond fan, the Craig Bond films had been 2/3 great and I figured the return of Blofeld would be impossible to screw up AND 2. I was really looking forward to Zestiria since it'd been 10 years since I'd played a Tales game and I really liked Vespiria.

And with Spectre, I got a decent movie that got bogged down in its excess towards the end and ended kind of with a whimper, putting it in the upper echelon of the bottom half of Bond films for me. And with Zestiria, I got a decent game that didn't have enough ambition or neat moments for it to be near the top of the list of Tales games I played.

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