Tales of Zestiria - Review  

Passable Adventuring
by Trent Seely

Tales of Zestiria
40-60 Hours
+ Combat and customization is excellent
+ The soundtrack and voicework is wonderful
- Narrative is unoriginal and convoluted
- Poor technical optimization on PS4
- A crazy amount of unrealized potential
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   Tales of Zestiria is a Japanese role-playing game that seems tragically content with status quo. The fifteenth mainline entry in Bandai Namco's long running series adjusts the formula in a few respects, but is ultimately an uneven experience. It fails to fully capitalize on fresher elements and plays it safe in a way that feels stale, even backwards. Zestiria isn't welcoming to non-Tales fans, runs poorly on current generation technology, and has been saddled with a paint-by-numbers central narrative. Still, the experience had enough going on to be engaging until the final hours.

   Set on the fictional continent of Glenwood, Tales of Zestiria follows a proto-Jesus named Sorey and his posse of humans and spirit-people known reverently as Seraphs. Glenwood is primarily divided into two warring countries, the Hyland Kingdom and Rolance Empire. They are equal measures corrupt and have been actively contributing to a nebulous dark energy known as the malevolence. This force makes good things bad and bad things worse, none more so than the world's citizens.

   In contrast, our protagonist is pure as snow. Unselfish and unassuming, Sorey's simplicity leaves him feeling a little bland towards the start but he grows to be endearing. His relationship with Mikleo, his foster brother, is also quite charming until it gets shelved for most of the pilgrimage in favour of a passé chosen one story. Other cast members fit cleanly into tired genre stereotypes, making it more difficult to give a damn about their respective issues. A been-there-done-that narrative full of mostly uninspired characters does Zestiria a disservice.

   The will to push through Glenwood's many insipid plights can be directly attributed to the game's gameplay and vast customization options. In terms of progression mechanics, this game is well designed. Systems and subsystems touch every point of play, layering and adding more depth to the experience.

   Equipment, titles, and techniques all feature proficiency gauges. The more these elements are used the greater the potential stat bonuses and battle benefits. The player should be changing their loadouts often, not only to build on proficiencies and improve base stats but also to align for additional stacking bonuses. Different pieces of armour, accessories, and weaponry fill each party member's equipment attribute grid. This grid offers bonuses if items with certain patterns are layered on top of each other or adjacent to each other. It makes optimization a more stimulating experience.

Evangeleon A lot of customization options.

   Using techniques in particular has a host of benefits, as continued use of certain techniques in battle will unlock upgraded versions of those techniques or different combo chains. Techniques in Zestiria mostly come in three different flavours: Martial Artes, Hidden Artes, and Seraphic Artes. There is an almost rock-paper-scissors paradigm at work, but traditional elements (Earth, Fire, Water, Wind) also play a crucial role in combat. The Seraphs of the party are aligned with each of these elements, and success in battle will largely be based on the players' ability to exploit enemy weaknesses through the use of elemental techniques and rotating party members mid-combat.

   It's not all hacking and slashing though; it can be smarter at times to hang back and defend then rush in to exploit an enemy's weakness. Rather than having SP and MP, all actions deplete the Spirit Chain (SC) gauge, and each character has a flat 100 SC to work with. Characters regain SC by not moving and/or defending. Depending on the Battle Actions layered on top of characters, there may also be other, more effective ways to recharge SC. Still, the depletion of the gauge forces the player to be more patient and wait for the right openings to wail on creatures big and small.

   The Blast Gauge also plays an important role in combat. This gauge allows characters to heal, release incredibly powerful attacks known as Mystic Artes, restore SC in a pinch, and Armatize. Armatization can only be done by human characters. This battle ability allows Sorey or Rose to fuse with their Seraph partner. Their hybrid forms are incredibly powerful and come with their own sets of techniques and attacks revolving around the use of special weaponry. While unique, the usefulness of Armatization is limited outside of boss battles. Zestiria also encourages the player to spend more time Armatized than not, which does them no favours when it comes to character skill development.

   One of the more impressive elements of gameplay is how easily the party jumps in and out of combat. No longer is the player whisked away to a separate plane of existence for combat to take place; the hallways and planes of the dungeons, fields, and shrines the player explores are the battlefields. It's a subtle improvement, but it makes the experience feel more immersive.

   The world itself is quite open; there's a vast landscape for players to explore. Unfortunately, this often works against the game due to its poor technical optimization. The draw distance in the PS4 version of the game is atrocious — featuring a bewildering amount of graphical pop-in, screen tearing, and framerate slowdown. This is most apparent in Glenwood's desert, where many of the monsters in the distance seem to move in slow motion freeze-frame. This slowdown can also be seen in combat when there are more than five enemies on screen; it seems almost as though the game is buckling by trying to do too much at once. It reeks of inadequate testing.

Bleh Sorey is Jesus in every way.

   It's not all doom and gloom in Glenwood, though. Some of the dungeons feature thoughtful design, the game's puzzles are smart, much of the dialogue has a levity that has been missing from most modern JRPGs, and less enjoyable gameplay elements can sometimes be disabled or altered through the use of Battle Actions. For instance, it felt restricting to not have free movement while in combat. This was remedied through the use of battle actions. Customization does make up for a number of design shortfalls, though not all.

   The art style is a mixed bag. Characters were clearly designed with love; their outfits, hairstyles, and gestures are all excellently rendered. The development team should also be applauded for creating so many costumes and adornments for the party. The game's environments, however, often feel lifeless and art assets can sometimes looks as though they were pulled from the PS2 era. Creature designs are interesting and detailed, but a lot of palette swaps have been used to multiply a small pool of original designs. Had more time been spent in development there may not have been such an apparent disparity between art elements.

   Zestiria's audio really stands up. All skits, conversations, and cutscenes are fully voiced and the acting is top notch. The game's dialogue is made better by how genuine these characters sound. Likewise, the soundtrack has surprisingly many standout pieces.

   Overall, Tales of Zestira was an enjoyable experience that did a reasonable job scratching the JRPG itch. However, this game had significant room to improve given how much potential there was at hand. It fits the billing of diamond in the rough well, and although it shines it is also marred by unrounded elements that should have seen more development time. Perhaps Tales of Berseria will benefit by from lessons learned by this ultimately uneven entry.

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