When you become a game journalist, you’re handed a book full of clichés that you’re expected to learn by heart and stick to throughout your career. On the first page is an extensive explanation about when and where it’s appropriate to complain about something being repetitive. If a series has a strong fanbase that particularly enjoys its distinctive style of gameplay, for instance, then it’s vital to mention when that gameplay doesn’t change significantly from entry to entry. Fans might not especially care, since that’s what they’ve signed up for, but you’re required to mention it regardless. Them’s the rules, I’m afraid.
Such is the case with Pokemon for instance. Or Koei’s various Warriors games. Or Monster Hunter. Or the game we’re talking about here: Tales of Zestiria, yet another entry in the long-running and prolific Tales series of Japanese RPGs. It’s still got strong, character-driven plot development. It’s still got enjoyable action-based combat that avoids over-saturating the game and wearing the player out. It continues to do everything right, as this series has been for years now. Clearly it needs more change…right? Nah.
We’ve got a new setting here, a world divided between humans and angels that’s under assault by darkness and hatred. When the state of the world reaches a boiling point, the Shepherd arises. This legendary figure is essentially Fantasy Jesus, and it’s his job to sort everything out through a combination of leading the people and beating up baddies. Over time, though, a rift has developed between humans and angels, and when darkness begins to consume the land, the Shepherd is nowhere to be found.
After a 200-year absence, though, the Shepherd has arisen once more; this time, Sorey (Sore-ay), a human raised by angels, takes up the mantle and sets out to solve the world’s woes with the help of allies both human and angelic. It’s not so easy as kicking the crap out of every nasty that shows up, though; the Shepherd must show humanity how to lead itself, and thus can’t simply solve every issue for them. This means that Sorey must often make difficult decisions in order to let the people work through things themselves instead of relying too strongly on the Shepherd. Naturally, Sorey and his allies have a lot to learn about themselves, each other and the world around them over the many hours of this adventure, and you’ll be privy to all of it in the traditional Tales style.
That’s not to say there isn’t quite a bit of monster-punting involved, of course. As the Shepherd, Sorey is capable of wielding the power of the Seraphim – angelic beings who are close to the elements and invisible to human eyes. Many of your party members are Seraphim who are bonded to Sorey. These bonds grant him the ability to wield elemental magic and to Armatize, fusing with a Seraph to conjure a mighty suit of armor and weapon to assist with defeating the toughest foes. Or, uh, any foes really. Armatization is awesome and you’ll probably want to use it all the time.
As usual for this series, Zestiria’s combat system is addictive without shoving constant encounters down your throat and watering itself down as a result. Enemies are visible while exploring and can be attacked directly to enter battle at an advantage; in a neat twist, combat takes place right where you are instead of switching to a separate screen, including boss battles. I thought this was a fantastic way of maintaining immersion and it makes the game feel vastly more cinematic. While in combat, Sorey and three other party members – one human and two Seraphim – beat the crap out of baddies in real time. It’s possible to pause and use items, assign special Arte attacks or change party members’ tactics, as well; in particular you’ll need to stay on top of item usage, since as far as I can tell party members will prefer using healing skills to keep everyone alive.
You’ve got a basic combo tree for your regular attacks, or Martial Artes, then you’ve got special attacks, or Hidden Artes, which can be worked into your combos as well. Seraphic Artes are essentially magic with an associated cast time, though these can also be worked into combos to cut that cast time down drastically. These form a sort of rock-paper-scissors triangle, where each is useful to counteract another and keep the battle moving in your favor. There’s more to it than this – a lot more, in fact, most of which is explained in chunks via ancient monoliths strewn about the game world. You’ll want to read these even if you don’t care about the nitty-gritty of combat, since they provide points that can be spent on advanced combat techniques.
This is still a Tales game, of course, so gameplay isn’t limited to just combat. Cooking and other supplementary skills make a return on a per-character basis, for instance. While cooking is a common skill, others include a sort of radar that points out monoliths or hidden treasures, finding money at random while walking around and creating healing items. There are also equipment skills to deal with, which involves paying attention to the skills on each piece of gear you find (these can be different even across copies of the same item) and managing how they interact with one another to create more powerful bonus skills. Playing on the Normal difficulty I didn’t feel like any of this was vital to success at first, but Zestiria ramps up the challenge as you go on so you’ll eventually need to start paying attention.
Graphically, Zestiria is a treat, though not necessarily one that couldn’t have been done on the last generation of consoles; tellingly, while I played on PS4, a PS3 version is also available. I’m not sure that this is due to a lack of care on the artists’ part or the fact that, well, we’ve got systems that are capable of proper anime games these days and have had them for awhile. It’s not like the game looks bad, it’s just not going to knock your socks off with how next-gen it is. Sound is fantastic as always for this series, unsurprisingly, and voice acting is…passable, for the most part. Fire Seraph Lailah and her syrupy-sweet lilting was the subject of my ire for most of the game, but fortunately everyone else’s acting is solid.
All in all, Tales of Zestiria is another amazing RPG from a series known for its high quality and consistent performance. Fans of the genre simply can’t go wrong here, and even those who aren’t especially into RPGs might enjoy the action-based combat that other Tales games are so well known for. While it doesn’t shake up the formula to any huge extent, the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t need to; if it’s not broke, what’s the point of trying to fix it?