Tales of Zestiria (PS3/PS4/Steam)

STORY: The world is in an era of chaos. Long ago, legends tell, in such times one known as the Shepherd would rise up to drive back the darkness. But the darkness closes in, and no Shepherd has yet appeared . . .

Sorey is a rare young man: raised in a village of seraphim, he’s never met another human. Seraphim are a race invisible to the eyes of most humanity, but humans like Sorey with a high enough resonance can see them. When a chance encounter with an injured knight draws him outside to the world, he takes up the mantle of the Shepherd and struggles to bring peace for humans and seraphim alike.

I greatly enjoyed the story, although it isn’t without its flaws. The humans-can’t-see-seraphim dilemma is played up more than once for laughs—or showing how other people outright fear Sorey for the incredible forces that protect him. I also liked the way Sorey’s new Shepherd powers initially grant him nothing but sickness as his body tries to adjust. Or how learning to use techniques such as armitization leaves him asking “How do I turn this off?”

I also liked the focus on one major villain throughout. Most recent Tales games have suffered from wandering plots but this one stays pretty focused. Sorey is told as soon as he gets his power that his duty will be to stand against the Lord of Calamity, but he’s encouraged to explore and grow stronger before that confrontation. And when repeated encounters leave him unable to best that individual, he diverts himself with gaining more strength and finding out more of the real story. And the Lord of Calamity seems more bent on destroying Sorey personally than with destroying the world (although he’s not opposed to that), which leads to some really nasty tricks.

Character-wise, I liked all of the characters. Sorey’s ruin mania (often exacerbated by a friendly competition with Mikleo) helps paint him as a mostly ordinary kid who got sidetracked into this whole heroing business. And it’s not unusual for him to geek out at some historical discovery (the skit with the bust you find in the museum is particularly funny, as it contrasts what the girls think of it with what the guys think). Mikleo, having a similar interest in ruins, is a good counterpoint since the two of them often butt heads about minutiae no one else cares about (and there’s a great skit where Rose is trying to contribute to their argument and failing miserably).

Unfortunately, the other characters suffer from not having a ton of depth. Edna’s teasing really grated on me at first when she was picking on Alisha, who wouldn’t fight back, but later on she had a lot of funny moments. (Not so much when she picks on Mikleo, since he won’t just sit there and take it like Alisha does.) But Edna’s main plot thread, introduced when you meet her, is cleared up via a sidequest that’s easy to skip, and it’s relatively little content for such a big personal issue for her. Similarly, Dezel had a lot of potential, but most of his story gets crammed into a set of cutscenes between back-to-back fights, and it took me reading some outside materials to really get a good picture of what actually happened with him. Zaveid could have fleshed out both himself and Edna if his relationship with Edna’s brother had gotten more than a passing mention. Alisha actually had a plot, but it’s barebones, rushed, and a lot of it happens offscreen (oddly, despite at one point being held for questioning, she never remarks on this incident, making me wonder if she actually had been detained or if that was just a lie told to Sorey). And so on.

The most puzzling offender is Rose. I liked her (well, until the Alisha DLC, which paints Rose in a really bad way in the beginning), but I don’t find her to be internally consistent. She’s mostly the feelings-not-thoughts character. But she’s involved in professions that favor thoughts over feelings, such as her job as a merchant, and she’s supposed to be a really good merchant. Frankly I thought Eguille should’ve been the head of the Sparrowfeathers. He seemed more suited to the role. On the other hand, she seems to be a vigilante, but you don’t see a lot of the passionate drive that would give such a role a context. Why is she set on taking out bad guys? That’s not explained.

Still, even with that, I had a lot of fun with the plot. The end is mostly satisfying, though a few points are frustratingly vague (I prefer to think the figure in shadow at the end is human, not seraph, but it’s basically up to you).

GAMEPLAY: This is the first attempt at an “open-world” Tales. The world map is now fully explorable at a detailed level. After Xillia’s ugly corridor layout and profusion of brown and gray, I really appreciate all the bright colors and beautiful visuals. I got the PS4 version entirely because of the cleaned up graphics. The plot isn’t too long, but I spent a lot of time just poking around maps looking at things or looking for surprises.

The battle system is a more or less seamless transition on the world map. You’re still bounded by a circular area you can’t leave without escaping the battle, but the field objects around you when you fight are now part of the fight. This is good and bad. The battle camera is generally okay for single player, but even there it tends to get stuck on rocks or behind enemies. I was disappointed in the after-battle victory quotes, as only one or two of them was genuinely funny and most of them were more boring stock quotes. Earlier games in the series had a great selection of victory quotes.

Also, the AI will die. A lot. On the flip side, the seraphim’s ability to auto-revive in the back row, or auto-revive humans on armitization, meant that I made it through the entire game without using a single life bottle.

Artes have been broken into a rock-paper-scissors system, which I personally disliked due to how insane this made enemy spellcasters (Yes, I party-wiped multiple times against the Wraiths. Nothing like ten of the buggers constantly casting tiny spells that keep you pinned in place until dead). It can be hard to distinguish if the enemy is using martial or hidden artes against you, and since they generally know how to screw up whatever you’re doing, this can get problematic.

More positively, most of the characters have enough uniqueness that they’re fun to control. Lailah takes some getting used to for her slow attacks, but her AOE spells cheese giant mobs if used correctly. Mikleo, though, I don’t really like until armitized, as his spells are outclassed by everyone else and his melee is only average. Zaveid actually has a funny quirk where if the enemy is half-human-female, he’ll change from attack cries to start catcalling them.

I also liked the new enemy designs and enemy types. Especially elephants. Because beating up woolly mammoths is awesome.

The skills/fusion system is far too dependent on randomness, even though there are a few methods provided to make it somewhat less random. Getting a good skill build is going to take a bit of luck or a lot of patience. On the other hand, I completed a Normal/Moderate playthrough without needing to focus too heavily on skills (the Medusa fights are one notable exception, because if you can’t get the stack-6 bonus skill to prevent petrification, you’re going to have a bad time. On the other hand, you get Dezel, who automatically has this skill on all his titles, for the required one, and the other three are optional fights). Getting the skills in the first place is hard, but once you have them it’s not too bad to keep upgrading your weapon through strategic fusion.

But, if you have the time and the inclination, it’s perfectly possible to set up a character with, say, 80% casting time reduction plus absurd boosts to elemental damage plus the ability to ignore enemy resistance to that element. Or set them up to ignore 300 damage from every hit, plus the first 8000 damage total in a fight, plus 10 seconds invincibility at the start of a fight. And if you use the NG+ option to apply double/triple skills 2/3x to the skill board, that only gets more overpowered. The options are wide open and “best” build depends more on how you like to play.

OVERALL: The complaints about the game are valid, but I still found it a great time and really enjoyed playing my way through it. The story is my favorite Tales so far, though I would still say Tales of Graces has better mechanics. I spent 80 hours on the main game and am working my way through the postgame dungeon and Alisha’s DLC (which was originally free but now costs money, unless you get the Collector’s Edition which has it included). A pure plot run would be a lot shorter, but I spent a good amount of time in the optional dungeons, exploring the field, and so on. I spent almost no time grinding, as the only time I needed to get extra skills for a boss fight the normin drops were sufficient to get what I needed relatively quickly.
I would add that the Alisha DLC chapter may turn a mostly satisfying ending into a somewhat frustrating one based on what I’ve seen so far. You do get the option to play as Alisha with a better moveset and the opportunity to use her Mystic Artes, but she can’t armitize, which leaves her outside the most useful mechanics (especially revive-on-armitize), which especially hurts during bosses. That said, it has its own content that can be carried back to the main game if you play from a clear save file.

I played the first game in English but plan to do another run in Japanese. The English voices are generally solid, but the dual audio ensures that those who prefer the original language can enjoy it. In addition, the music is excellent. The Collector’s Edition sadly only includes twelve tracks, but they include Rising Up and Journey’s End, two of the best in the game (none of the elemental temple themes, though). So if you like the music, importing the OST is a better option than buying the Collector’s Edition.

I will add the Prima guide is mostly useless, though the maps can help. But the text spoils cutscenes rather than give actual strategy, the data section is missing a ton of information, sidequests are all bunched together in the back and not indicated in the main walkthrough (and those aren’t even 100% complete either), and so on. So buy at your own risk, and in the meantime the free online guides are starting to catch up.
All in all, this is one I certainly plan to replay. I rate this game Highly Recommended.
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