October 29th, 2016

Red Ribbon Reviewers Contribution: Not!Review for Tales of Zestiria The X

(As of November 18th, 2016, this article I wrote will serve as a contribution to The Cartoon Hero's week of Red Ribbon Reviewers, not just to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS, but as part of a campaign to entertain people and make them smile and laugh. With everything that's been going on this year, with the worst person ever having become president, I think we all need something to find hope in now. Anyway, Red Ribbon Reviewers is part of an annual project designed to spread HIV and AIDS awareness. For more information on how you can help those afflicted with these diseases, please consult the following resources: Red Ribbon Reviewers, The Foundation for AIDS Research, and AIDS.gov )

This won't count as an actual review, as I don't plan on giving it a real review until after the second season comes out, which might be next year. However, this show has given me a lot of itches that I REALLY need to scratch, in a good way, and I have a LOT I want to talk about. But the content of this post is both too full of spoilers and wouldn't fit in an actual review, so I'm going to talk about my thoughts on Tales of Zestiria here, both the anime and what footage of the game I've seen so far. Be warned, as this article contains major spoilers for future events in the game, so skip those parts if you don't want to be spoiled. But I really feel like I need to talk about it here, because lately this anime has resonated with me on a level that I couldn't have imagined.

To begin, I'd like to talk about how storytelling has evolved over the years. Let's face it, every single story has been told, whether with a new coat of paint or blatantly ripped off, there's no such thing as originality anymore. Most of your favorite books, shows, video games, etc. have ideas and characters that have been used over and over since the age of myths. For me, it's all about the execution. Ideas that are similar to others can be executed well if the staff behind them are willing to go the extra mile and put in effort to make their product stand out. But there have been far too many times where the product is either too cliche for its own good, held back by its not wanting to stand out (Miraculous Ladybug, anyone?), or because people want to play it safe and it winds up suffering as a result. Others try to be too creative, and wind up getting held back by their own ambition, or making massive missteps that make them shoot themselves in the foot. But let me ask this...do we even need to be original anymore? Some of the most beloved pieces of media are or adhere to tropes that the mass majority consider cliche, whether in the franchise itself or in general. On the other hand, Leonardo Da Vinci once said, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." A story can be cliche as heck, but can still be so full of life that it can still resonate with many people and give them something they can love and cherish forever. Some people nowadays have forgotten what makes a story good, and instead of trying too hard to jazz it up and make it into something bombastic, going back to the basics can be the best thing that can be done. Sometimes, retelling an old story can be good, which is why people retell the same stories since the age of myths, because even now, stories like that are important.

Tales of Zestiria's premise is pretty simple. Long ago, humans once coexisted with magical beings called seraphim (No, they're not angels. They don't have wings in this series). But war and chaos waged, and humans lost their reverence for seraphim. In turn, seraphim isolated themselves from the humans, with no wish to interact with them anymore. Legends state that when the world is plunged in chaos and darkness, a Jesus-like figure referred to as the Shepherd will save the world using his powers. But no Shepherd has appeared in years, so the humans are losing hope. Not all hope is lost, however. A young man named Sorey (Yes. That is his name. Not even kidding. Insert your own "I'm sorry" joke here) has lived among seraphim his whole life, and dreams of creating a world where humans and seraphim can coexist in harmony once more. After a series of events, Sorey, along with his seraph friend Mikleo, go down to the human world, where he becomes the Shepherd, whose destiny is to purify corrupted creatures called hellions and save the world from malevolence.

On the surface, Tales of Zestiria, both the game and anime, doesn't seem to really stand out. Boy meets girl, happy-go-lucky and naive main character is the chosen one who pulls a sword out of a stone, makes a contract with magical beings, becomes a magical girl/boy, and goes on a journey with his friends to save the world from the forces of darkness, with a couple of sidequests and a healthy dose of humor along the way, etc. One could even call it cliche, and I have heard people say that Zestiria's story and characters are either bland, cliche, vanilla, or not as interesting or developed as other famous Tales games (Apparently Symphonia, Abyss, and Vesperia are the most popular and well known). However, does this make Zestiria bad? In my opinion, no. Sure, I won't deny that both the game and the anime have a lot of flaws, the game even more so. However, both mediums have their strengths, and I think those should be acknowledged. The game itself amazes me with all the subtle details it gives to the characters, making them feel more...three-dimensional, but the game also gave me a new respect for the recent anime adaptation, Tales of Zestiria The X, which in itself rectifies many flaws the game was plagued with.

This is especially prominent in the beginning. In the game, we just meet Sorey and Mikleo, and they find one of the female characters, Alisha, unconscious in the ruins. In the game, there's no real given explanation for why she's in the ruins or why she's in their village. The anime made an entirely original episode (Called episode 0, Age of Chaos), showing not only what went on before the events of the game actually start, but actively explains and shows what Alisha was doing and what happened to her beforehand. Continuing onto that, episode 1 of the anime proper actually shows how she stumbled across Elysia and how she got trapped in the first place. This is a huge detail that the game was sorely lacking, and the anime did a great job in putting a gigantic plot hole to rest. Furthermore, in the game, it's not explained why she came to Elysia in particular, but in the anime, they have Alisha come to Elysia so she can find seraphim and ask for their help in saving the world. It's details like this that can really make or break a medium, and in the case of the anime, it really works.

Speaking of Alisha, the anime took great pains to give her a much bigger role than she did in the game. There's a lot more context behind this: apparently, when the game was first coming out in Japan, Alisha was supposedly shilled as one of the main characters in many trailers...only for fans to find that she disappears after a certain point and never comes back. This, along with supposed accusations of nepotism for another character who I'll mention further down, caused huge controversy, even after the creators explained that the characters were introduced by appearance, not importance. Fans were angry that Alisha was basically made out to be important and then supposedly thrown away like garbage. The creators of the anime not only made an entirely original episode centered around her, but increased her role in the story and in Sorey's journey in that they make her FAR more proactive than she ever was in the game, which, according to most fans, myself included, was a HUGE step-up from the game.

Adding onto this, the anime also went out of its way to make sure every scene with her in it made an impact. This is especially important when Alisha becomes Sorey's squire in the end of the anime and the beginning of the game, and her being able to see the seraphs. Personally, I feel the anime handled Alisha's transition toward seeing seraphs better. There, she had to work really hard for the sake of her country and stop a colossal war from happening, putting her life on the line in the process. She takes time to bond with Sorey and believes him despite not being able to see seraphs at first, and in spending time with Sorey, her resonance builds, allowing her to go from having to hold Sorey's hand to talk to them, to being able to hear them all by herself. This shows us that she's worth caring about, which makes the audience want to see her succeed. After all the crap she goes through, it's so rewarding to see her finally meet the seraphs in the end, which gives the scene far more impact, because we see that she's earned the reward of being able to see them. In the game, it doesn't mean a thing, because she doesn't do much of anything to both become Sorey's squire and be able to see the seraphs, as it just kinda...comes out of nowhere. Her ability to see the seraphs comes really suddenly, and only for the sake of plot convenience, so any emotional impact that could have had is hindered, especially since it comes about during a quest and when Mikleo and Sorey have their argument, which is considered more important.

In light of this, the events of the game play out differently in the anime. For example, when the party tries to go to a plague town called Marlind, the only way to get there, a giant bridge, has been destroyed. In the game, the only way to get across is for the characters to go to a mountain and recruit Edna, who has Earth powers. Nobody even thinks to try to consider other solutions (Well, Sorey tries, but Lailah shuts them all down, and for good reason). In the anime, Alisha and the others try to explore all other possible options, and only when all of those fail, do they consider going to the mountain Rayfalke Spiritcrest to recruit Edna. Plus, since the party isn't always with Alisha a lot of the time in the anime, this helped give Alisha a ton of extra character by forcing her to find solutions to the Marlind problem all by herself in the beginning, allowing the eventual solution in the end to have much more tangible substance. This scene makes the characters feel far more proactive, and they don't come off as being stupid for the sake of plot convenience. Even the encounter with Edna itself is different in the anime. In the game, the characters just run away from the dragon and then meet Edna. In the anime, the dragon is clearly causing trouble, and both Edna and Zaveid, along with the rest of the party sans Mikleo (I'll get to why further in the next paragraph), make an effort to fight the dragon by any means necessary because they had no other choice at the time. It's only after Sorey helps Edna with her brother somewhat that she becomes his Sub Lord in the anime, whereas in the game, after a couple childish arguments, she's all like, "Yeah, fine, I'll be your Sub Lord, whatever."

Even Mikleo, Sorey's best friend and the secondary main character, is given his own chance at development in the anime. In the game, before Sorey and the others go to the Galahad Ruins, Sorey and Mikleo get into an argument and Mikleo storms off. Later, it's revealed that he has been following Sorey, Lailah, and Alisha the whole time they were in the ruins, and once he and Sorey make up, Sorey is able to armatize with him. One other criticism of the game I've heard is that the game is told entirely from Sorey's point of view, no one else's, which limits character development. The anime had its own take on that scene: they had Mikleo leave the group for a couple episodes to go to the ruins all by himself to find the Armatus, (which is why he's not there when the gang meets Edna, whereas in the game he is present), all in the name of wanting to help Sorey in his own way. The game version of this is well-liked, but by taking a different approach to that part, the anime had the extra benefit of sprinkling in some extra development and adding extra layers for Mikleo and showing how dedicated he is to Sorey and why he does what he does, whether its for himself or for his friends. Although, to the game's credit, Sorey and Mikleo's argument scene is one of the most well-liked in the entire game, especially the scene after they reconcile, which contains some tooth-rottingly cute and hilarious homoerotic subtext that really made people sail the ship, me included.

Now for the parts that most people have a big issue with. Just to be clear, I've only seen up to when the gang goes to Marlind and meets Dezel for the first time, so I don't know how these events play out in the game. There's one character in the game, Rose, who, unfortunately, has a VERY bad reputation in the Japanese Zestiria fandom. There were rumors that Hideo Baba, one of the producers behind the game, really liked Rose's seiyuu, Mikako Komatsu, and in order to show how much he liked her, he gave Rose a lot of spotlight in the game, much of which was unneeded, to the point where she's able to armatize with other seraphs even though she's not the shepherd, a plain human being, and shouldn't have any reason to do so. Not only that, she supposedly had a very warped personality and her actions made little to no sense, none of which were called out on, and the characters were too busy talking about how right she is about everything. Again, I haven't seen enough videos of the game or her role in it to know if this is true or not, so I unfortunately can't comment on this. But I do know that the hatred for Rose in Japan and the controversy surrounding her character in general is almost as well known as the game itself. The anime greatly reduces her role, and since the anime only had thirteen episodes (Well, eleven, not counting the episodes involving its prequel series, Tales of Berseria), they didn't have time to really go into her character. But what screen time she did receive in the anime has been far better received, and her character isn't as supposedly insufferable like in the game.

In comparison, the anime has done a lot of things right compared to the source game. Now, don't get me wrong, the anime isn't perfect, as, like other adaptations, it has its problems. What adaptation doesn't? The game itself has almost 40 hours worth of content, and considering how the anime industry has been favoring the production of 12-episode anime rather than longer series that aren't Naruto, the amount that can be adapted obviously has to be either left out completely, compressed to a smaller form, or the creators can go into a different direction, which happens here. This can either benefit the anime (Ie Naki Ko Remi 1997), not have much effect (Sword Art Online), or be detrimental (Sailor Moon Crystal and Ace Attorney being two such examples). The producers of the Zestiria anime knew how to adapt the game and make sure its not just a plain rehash of the events, nor did they just try to do a straightforward adaptation (Pokemon Origins), so on that note, they succeeded, as it's clear that a lot of thought and effort went into this particular adaptation, and nothing happens just to give fans of the game a big middle finger or out of nowhere.

Plus, the game, naturally having much more content than the anime, has a lot to offer in its own right. Obviously, since there's almost 40-50 hours worth of content, there's a lot more to learn and explore. I don't know which games started this, but the Tales games are known for these little inter-game interruption scenes called skits, where the characters just interact and talk to each other, whether it's about something mundane, fun, or something related to the storyline, like stuff from the past or show character traits. The anime only has a few of these, and they're restricted to next episode previews. There's TONS of these in Zestiria, and some of them are not only cute and funny, but add a lot of extra details to the characters, making them feel more three-dimensional, like Sorey not knowing about how certain animals look in areas outside of Elysia, Mikleo's desire to write books about his journeys, Dezel being a great cook, Lailah knowing how seraphs are created, Alisha reading a picture book about seraphs as a child and loving it, the history of the Normin Seraphs, the meaning of Alisha's Squire name, etc. There's even really, really little things, like Mikleo and Sorey talking about a rare butterfly, or Sorey noticing a nest of baby birds that are highlighted, and I think those small details really work in the game's favor when it comes to developing their characters, even if they are still kinda...vanilla.

The soundtrack is very good as well. The anime kinda rehashes it, using the music from the games, so it doesn't really have its own original score, save for the theme songs. Still, the soundtrack itself has a lot to like about it. Certain pieces in particular really know how to set the mood and create atmosphere, such as the cheerful, Shakespearian score for Ladylake's theme, the soothing, melodic melodies of Elysia, the somber, solemn music that plays in Marlind that shows how low the town has sunk to rock bottom since the plague hit, etc. Even the battle themes are very compelling. The best thing about said battle themes? They evolve. The battle theme is lighthearted in the beginning, when Sorey is just fighting monsters for the sake of it, and it grows more and more serious when they finally fight the big bad, the source of all malevolence, showing how high the stakes have become and how difficult Sorey's journey is becoming. It takes a good soundtrack to highlight the story and character development, and I think this one did it. Although, personally, the game's opening cinema isn't exactly one of my favorites.

Now don't get me wrong, Superfly's "White Light" is a pretty good song in its own right, and the animation accompanying it is pretty darn amazing. But I do feel it's a bit too heavy metal for me. I've never been a fan of hard rock, with few exceptions, and the singer's voice doesn't exactly endear me to her. Eh, I guess it boils down to personal taste on my part. Personally, I think the anime's opening is a lot better.

Again, like White Light, FLOW's "Kaze no Uta" is also a rock song, but not only is it softer and not nearly as bombastic, I feel its more epic, and captures the zest and triumphant sense of optimism that Zestiria is known for. Plus, the vocals aren't nearly as abrasive, and the lyrics fit the show very well. And again, the animation and character movement is amazing and amazingly fluid. Ufotable's pretty much well known for their good use of their animation budget, so kudos to them for that. So both the anime and the games have great animation and the same animation team in common, so on that level, they're pretty even.

Though, just for fun, I honestly like this version of White Light way better. Like Kaze no Uta, it's epic and has the right amount of bombast, and it also perfectly captures the game's sense of adventure and optimism. And zest. Don't forget zest. Seriously, listen to those trumpets!

Now, I've heard people complain about the finale to the anime series, claiming that Sorey was out of character in that he's suddenly making heart eyes at Alisha and fawning over her, supposedly "picking favorites" as the complainers have said. I personally liked the ending to the anime, as I felt it to be very heartwarming and cathartic after what she went through. Plus, there's the fact that Sorey almost succumbs to his anger and attempts to kill a corrupted general after finding out he was the one who tried to kill Alisha. To the complainers, I say this: Remember when Mason got hurt by Lunarre? Or when Mikleo was almost killed by Lunarre also? Sorey handed Lunarre's butt to him both times in a roaring rampage of rage. I don't see how that's different from his getting angry over Alisha having been mortally wounded. Who's to say he doesn't do the same for the others? Did you just conveniently forget that Sorey cares just as much for other people in his life? That's not picking favorites, that's being a decent person who cares deeply for his friends, no matter who or what they are, and would go to the ends of the Earth for them. Besides, it's not like Sorey and Alisha are romantically involved. Everyone, even the game/anime staff, know Sorey/Mikleo is a thing, and the anime itself offers plenty of Sorey/Mikleo moments in abundance, so it's not like Mikleo is being given the shaft. Adding onto this, there's a second season coming in January, so there's still more for the anime to offer, possibly to make up for giving Alisha so much screen time. And, let's be honest, at least be happy Alisha isn't annoying or a spoiled brat. So I really don't see what all the hubbub is about, and I've seen far worse anime endings than this.

If I could name one huge flaw that the anime has, it would be episodes 5 and 6. Those two episodes have absolutely nothing to do with Tales of Zestiria at all. Instead, they're a whole new series, Tales of Berseria. I don't know whose idea this is, but apparently someone thought it'd be a good idea to use two episodes to promote another Tales game that has yet to come out in Japan, let alone the US. The only things I know about Berseria is that it supposedly takes place several thousand years before Zestiria and the game itself is a prequel. Normally, I wouldn't mind this, but...seriously? Why shoehorn these episodes into an already existing show, especially when the two have little to do with each other? You can skip the Berseria episodes entirely and not feel like you missed anything, as episode 7 of Zestiria The X literally takes place right where episode 4 left off. Look, Bandai Namco, if you want to promote Berseria, fine! Promote it! Advertise it! But don't shove said promotion into places where its not needed, as the Berseria episodes on their own are completely out of place in Zestiria. Besides, you could have used those two episodes to add more to Zestiria, but instead those opportunities are wasted in favor of an unneeded advertisement for another game! Why didn't they just use the full 13 episodes for Zestiria and just make Berseria into a two-episode OVA or something? The anime OVAs for Phantasia and Symphonia did that, and last I checked, I didn't see anime creators shoving random episodes of Xillia into the Tales of the Abyss anime, now did I?

Okay, this article's gotten long enough. So, in short: Tales of Zestiria the game is very flawed, but still has a lot to offer in its own right, whereas the anime, Tales of Zestiria The X, while having its own flaws, rectifies many problems the game had. I haven't played the game or seen enough LPs of it to know how it ends (Though I do know about the ending) and how the rest of the story goes, but I feel that both are worth watching or playing if you like a good old-fashioned adventure story, and both the game and the anime are different enough so that they don't feel like simple retellings of the same story. The second season of the anime is coming out in January, so the anime isn't finished yet, and you can bet that I'll be watching it, no matter how it turns out. So that's basically it. Sorry if it was so long, and I hope you enjoyed this shlocky little piece I wrote!

Finally, hey, Cartoon Hero. If you're reading this, I have a message for you: You NEED to hear this rendition of Tales of Symphonia's theme song.

It's honestly one of the best renditions of Starry Heavens I've ever heard, and I think it'd make an epic ending theme song for your series if you wanted to. And thus concludes my contribution to Red Ribbon Reviewers 2016!