Where to start with Tales of Zestiria? The latest lengthy Japanese role-playing release of a series that's been a staple of Namco's output for what seems like an age, it's the franchise's first PlayStation 4 foray. There's a clear ambition from the developer to make things bigger and to explore themes, concepts, and gameplay mechanics that are new to the property, but at the end of the day this is still a Tales Of title through and through. Fans will find its tone and feel familiar, while outsiders will likely just see it as another action RPG with a typical anime art style.
And this has always been the problem with the long running series. Time and time again, the Tales Of games have come across as being a bit generic – a bit awkward in their execution, and stereotypical of what many expect from a product of modern Japanese pop culture. For the first few hours of Tales of Zestiria, it all feels tired; a kind-hearted youth who's destined for greatness, a colourful world that's on the brink of destruction, and an initially mysterious girl will have most players rolling their eyes before they've even heard the rousing opening theme song.
So far, so Tales Of, but what happens after you get through the early stages is also so typical of the franchise: it begins to grow on you. Slowly but surely, the seemingly one-note characters blossom into an endearing and energetic cast, and the story starts to hurtle towards big plot points and revelations that you actually care about. The way that Tales of Zestiria finds its footing makes us question how the franchise would be perceived if it didn't always start its adventures at such a slow and predictable pace.
Five hours in, and you'll be having a blast with protagonist Sorey and his party of mystical beings as they go about their world-saving business – it's just a shame that the tipping point couldn't happen sooner. Things also aren't helped by the fact that during the initial couple of story arcs, the game's constantly throwing new information at you, whether it's to do with the narrative or the gameplay itself, and as a result, the title can teeter on the edge of being overwhelming. Stick with it, though, and, admittedly, glaze over some of the finer points for the time being, and you'll make it to the promised land of RPG goodness.
Zestiria's story unravels quickly once you hit a certain event, and it's an enjoyable romp from then on. As mentioned, Sorey is a friendly young man, but he's perhaps a bit too eager to take on his destined role of responsibility. He's a decisive protagonist who's headstrong, and as the Shepherd – a saviour of sorts – it falls to him to steer the world back on track and fend off the encroaching darkness. Sure, it's all a little safe, and you'll see some of the twists coming a mile off, but it's a tale that's told well, and it touches on a lot of interesting points with regards to religion, personal beliefs, politics, relationships, and what it means to be human.
Speaking of which, most of Sorey's best buds aren't human – they're seraphim, and they're pivotal to the plot. These spiritual beings once coexisted with mankind, working together to create a peaceful harmony – but those days are unsurprisingly over. Humans now think that seraphim are just old legends, and because of this inability to believe, they can no longer sense that the seraphim are still living among them and watching over them. This lore creates an interesting dynamic throughout the story, where normal people and secondary characters can't actually see Sorey's seraphim allies. This leads to numerous comical cutscenes and misunderstandings, and what starts out as something of a gimmick is actually handled and implemented really well as things progress.
The plot is punctuated by several big scenarios that steal the show. Each time one of these kicks in, you're usually thrown into a spiralling set of events that hammer home the best aspects of the involved characters, and this is when the game's most memorable moments are created. Zestiria isn't the type of title that'll blow you away on a consistent basis, but when it hits its stride, it's incredibly hard to put down.
In many ways, it feels like the release is structured like an anime or something similar in terms of episodic approach. If you wanted, you could easily section off each story arc and call them episodes or chapters, and because of this, the narrative is quite engaging when absorbed bit by bit. Storylines are started, some are resolved within a couple of hours, some stay close throughout your adventure, and some disappear only to make a return later on. It's safe to say that Zestiria's varied in its methods of telling a tale, and to an extent, this helps to keep things ticking along rather nicely, even if the current narrative isn't especially important to the overall plot.
It's ultimately the characters that will keep you coming back, though. Sorey and the gang are well voiced in both English and in Japanese – the Western release includes both spoken languages – and you'll end up eager to see what happens to them. Each party member has quirks that are only revealed as you become more invested in their journey, and, much like Sorey himself, you'll start to feel as though you're getting to know these varied personalities. Crafting likeable, endearing characters is never easy, but Zestiria does a very admirable job of developing its cast, growing them into something more than what first impressions suggest.
It's time we talked about gameplay, so let's start with one of Zestiria's biggest alterations to the franchise formula: a relatively open world. Now, don't get us wrong – this isn't an open world game, but it does feature numerous very large areas that can be freely explored. They're more vast than the connected locations of Tales of Xillia, and they're quite pleasing to the eye, with 2D, drawn backgrounds adding a nice vibe to your travels.
Even though the freedom to wander around open areas perhaps gives a better sense of a grand quest, maps can be a little sparse, and you can spend a lot of time running from one edge of a location to another just to see whether or not there's a cheeky treasure chest hiding in a corner. It's not bad design by any means – some of the more natural environments feel good to explore – but it's clear that the developer hasn't taken on anything that's too far removed from the series' comfort zone.
It's a good job that potential monotony is avoided thanks to another great battle system, then. Perhaps boasting more intricacies than ever before, Zestiria's combat is fast, dynamic, and a lot of fun – at least, when you've gotten used to the basics. If you've been enjoying other action based titles, it may take some practice before you're able to wrap your head around the game's linear movement and deliberate combo mechanics, but when you're in the zone and you've got the controls figured out, it's a satisfyingly tight battle system that offers a lot of depth both on the tactical side of things and with its beat-'em-up elements.
Everything revolves around different kinds of artes – which are essentially techniques. Martial artes are physical attacks that form the basis of Sorey's moveset, for example, while other artes can be chained into combos or used like magic spells, taking time to cast. Each fighter is granted loads of different abilities as they level up, and you're eventually left with a very impressive arsenal of attacks. There's more than enough room for experimentation as you learn which moves can create combos, and obliterating an enemy with just the right onslaught feels great.
You'll often have to make use of your myriad artes, too, as your monstrous foes all feature different elemental weaknesses. On top of that, you'll also need to balance offence with defence, as doing nothing but attack for long periods will see your spirit chain – or SC – deplete at a rapid rate. Momentarily backing off and blocking or sidestepping incoming blows allows you to quickly recuperate your SC, so there's a definite focus on understanding the ebb and flow of each battle, and, like the ins and outs of the system as a whole, it's rewarding to find your perfect rhythm.
Adding yet another – this time highly entertaining – layer of depth is armatization. As the Shepherd, Sorey has the ability to fuse with his seraphim allies in order to become an outrageously stylish elemental fighter. Combining in combat with the tap of a button, armatization gives you even more options in the heat of battle, and it's really the headline act of Zestiria's action. Fusing with your buddies so that you can go toe to to with a big bad boss feels fantastic, and some of the devastating moves that armatized Sorey can pull off are worth it for the look of them alone. The best part of it, though, is that armatization can be used as often as you want; the only penalties are that both fused characters will be knocked out if your health reaches zero, and the burst gauge – which fuels finishing attacks and special armatized techniques – doesn't recover. Once again, armatization is another mechanic that ties into being able to adapt to each battle and manage your resources accordingly. Indeed, the game can be enjoyably tactical when the situation demands.
If all of that sounds a bit too complicated, or if you just want to enjoy the story without worrying too much about slaying demons, then it's worth mentioning that there's an easy difficulty setting that's perfect for beginners or players who perhaps aren't fans of hectic action. The thoughtful 'simple' difficulty level makes combat a lot less demanding, while a slew of higher difficulties are great for those who want to put their skills to the test. Of course, as expected of the franchise, there's also a new game plus option that allows you to carry over your progress to a fresh save file – an addition that's always appreciated.
However, despite it's great battle mechanics, Zestiria stumbles ever so slightly with its surrounding RPG elements. Instead of incorporating a relatively simple but effective skill tree system like Tales of Xillia, your skills here are determined by equipment. You buy gear from shops and gather it from defeated enemies, which adds a nice loot aspect to the gameplay, but the process of fusing equipment to inherit skills and discovering bonuses that are dependant on your current loadout is needlessly convoluted to the point where it's even explained by party members during cutscenes. The skill system certainly isn't a deal-breaker as there is at least some fun to be had in finding the right mix of enhancements for your team, but it's a shame that it's not executed as well as it could have been.
Tales of Zestiria is an admirable addition to the legacy of the franchise, boasting a brilliant battle system and a very endearing cast of characters. While it does falter with a few of its fresh ideas, such as its somewhat sparse open areas and its overly complex skill management, it's not enough to detract too heavily from what is otherwise a grand adventure in an intriguing fantasy world. Get through the typically humdrum opening hours and you'll find an addictive RPG with a tale well worth telling.