"Fans will be glad to immerse themselves in the fantasy world and the rich, engaging combat, but it's far from the series' best efforts."
The Tales series is well known for its exciting battles, quirky casts, and anime charm. As a huge fan, I've found it to be one of the most enjoyable and consistent; lately many feel Bandai Namco have lost their touch by compromising certain elements to meet release dates. So on the cusp of Tales' 20th anniversary, Tales of Zestiria hopes to remedy this situation. Marking a thematic return to the series' roots, Zestiria wants to recapture the feel of older titles whilst introducing new elements. Though some tweaks and additions work better than others, overall there is much for diehard fans to enjoy.
Zestiria begins with the human Sorey and his Seraph best-friend Mikleo. The two leave their home after saving the knight Alisha and embark on a quest which sees Sorey become the Shephard, the fabled savior of the land. He must rid the world of "malevolence," an evil produced from the negative emotions of humans and Seraphim alike, which transforms into monsters called hellions. Sorey's adventure is nothing new for Tales, with a typical focus on the ties of friendship and the savior of mankind, all recycled from previous entries. Zestiria also suffers from some lacklustre villains who barely get any screentime. However, the game has enough enjoyable elements for players to love — for instance, dragons have a unique origin linked to malevolence. The outbreak of war against the hellions truly kickstarts the narrative and evens out the initially slow pacing. Increased tension allowed me to understand the consequences of my journey and appreciate the experiences of my companions. Standout moments are rare, but whenever key scenes occurred I felt compelled to watch and experience them.
Namco once again introduces another strong cast to the series. Given the predictable plot, they help maintain interest through their distinctive traits and group camaraderie. Sorey and Mikleo's geek-out sessions are adorable; Lailah the fire-Seraph will have you in fits over her terrible puns; and Earth-Seraph Edna is my favourite companion as she steals each scene through sardonic humor and challenges Jade Curtiss' own repertoire of hilarity. Enemy descriptions act as windows to the characters' mindsets — from Rose's fear of spiders to Edna's blunt dismissal of her adversaries, they're joyous to read. Such clear bursts of personality enable players to build emotional attachments to each companion. I may not rank this cast among my favourites due to some of the humor not being to my taste, but they still trump most other RPG rivals with their chatter — I believe I understood every single member and experienced each step of the journey with them; surely this is a hallmark of a great party.
Due to its expansive overworld, travel in Zestiria feels the most grand out of the entire series, and marks a refreshing change from more recent entries. The continent of Glenwood is crammed with colourful and vibrant vistas that stretch for miles. Bolstered by clean, sharp graphics and wonderful art direction, field maps never felt repetitive and I spent hours foraging for herbs and discoveries just so I could stay. However, one thing sorely missing is enemies — maps feel empty as beasts are spread so far out that it takes a good while to reach them. Furthermore, when enemies are far away, their frame rate drops and animations look clunky. It's clear Zestiria never stretches the PS4 to its limits, which is a real shame. Despite this, I was still awestruck whenever I headed to my next destination.
The soundtrack does marvels for exploration. Zestiria's gorgeous soundscape relishes in a beautiful symphony that immerses you entirely in the adventure. Motoi Sakuraba's melancholic piano themes often left me questioning my resolve, yet it is Go Shiina's return that steals the show. Where the temple dungeons lack ingenuity, the music does not; Shiina manages to convey their mysticism and exoticism via upbeat melodies. Moreover, he brings to the fray an epic dragon-slaying masterpiece which screams empowerment and majesty. Zestiria's music and artstyle work in tandem to make up for the boring dungeons and empty overworlds, immersing players into the environments.
The game's other crowning glory lies in the fantastic battle system. Zestiria's fighing is akin to Graces' own; artes are assigned to two buttons, and each action consumes part of the Spirit Chain which controls how many attacks you can use. Button-mashing won't lead to victory; instead, players are required to exploit enemy weaknesses and engage them in high combos to survive. Previously, I've found spellcasters difficult to control, but in Zestiria, everyone is a delight to use as they move fluidly. As a result, I swapped between Mikleo and Rose throughout — Mikleo for his ranged aquamancing, and Rose for her lithe knife attacks. There's a playstyle to suit everyone, and plenty to try and master for veterans. Something I've loved about the series is exposing a boss' weakness and reaching triple-figure combos only to mercilessly end their life with a Mystic Arte, and in Zestiria this has never felt better.
Zestiria's unique battle element comes from the ability to merge a human and Seraph character in a process called Armatization. Armatization combines the characters' stats together to create an elemental powerhouse capable of taking anything down. All four elemental transformations are vital in rescuing players in tight spots, because they bestow new artes and crowd-controlling attacks to your controlled character to devastate large groups when overwhelmed. I used water-Armatization most as I could destroy enemies from a distance with stunning aquatic archery. I found myself reliant on it much more than Ludger's Chromatus from Xillia 2, yet it became the easiest way to expose enemy vulnerabilities while never feeling overpowered because characters are not immune to damage or being stunned. It's another great addition to an already stellar battle system.
Open landscapes lead to new battle transitions; battles now take place directly in the field with a close camera. However, this caused much aggravation in dungeons. If players engage in combat in a corridor, through a doorway, or near a wall, the view is consistently obstructed by the camera, and this became a real pain as I couldn't track what I was attacking or where the rest of my team were. Even after a day-one patch, the camera was still a notable issue. Another aspect that prevents this from being the best battle system is down to healing; although every Seraph gets at least one healing spell, no one's given a revival or status-healing spell — the latter feels unjust as characters who're crippled by negative status effects cannot recover health. During the latter half of the game where almost every enemy could inflict you with conditions, it doubled the difficulty unnecessarily. Regardless of these problems, I still had a great time toppling enemies.
Zestiria also introduces Skill Equip. Skills come from weapons and armor which provide stat boosts, influence recovery rates, and add elemental bonuses. Skills have a set square on a grid, which lights up when that skill becomes activated. Skill effects increase by wearing two or more of the same skill to stack them, or by lining up a row or column on the grid. Although hugely fulfilling when a hidden skill is gained, it's spoiled by an overly-complicated execution. Players can fuse two of the same weapon, but this alters skills or entirely removes them depending on which slot they occupy. Players also have no option of what skills to keep, because they cannot be permanently learned. I managed to gain some of these bonuses through luck, because most happened by coincidence. Even though this happens regularly, more often than not players will lose that bonus from changing equipment. To fully reap the benefits players need to plan thoroughly. You'll be delighted when you do gain a boost as they can be the difference between life and death.
Tales of Zestiria is still a whole lot of fun regardless of the problems it has — fans will be glad to immerse themselves in the fantasy world and the rich, engaging combat, but it's far from the series' best efforts. Aside from the soundtrack, every component in Zestiria has been better implemented before, and some new features may baffle newcomers. With four releases in just over two years, I'd be happy to wait longer for Namco's next instalment so they can fine-tune and restore their flagship series to its best. However, the inclusion of two post-game cameo battles, an ex-dungeon, and Alisha's Story mean I will definitely come back and enjoy this game over and over.