I give one of Bamco's most divisive games in recent years...an 80/100!
So...in case you guys couldn't tell, I've been on a HUGE Tales of Zestiria kick since summer of last year. I kept seeing commercials of the anime version on Daisuki.net whenever I watched an episode of Mother Is a Fourth Grader, and since that anime was testing my patience, I decided to check out Tales of Zestiria The X and see if it was any better. The Age of Chaos episode almost put me off entirely, but I perservered and saw the first season. Then I began watching playthroughs of the game and found myself wanting to play it myself. On Christmas Eve of last year, I finally made a Steam account and bought ToZ on sale for $15. I never regretted my purchase. As of now, I've written four fan fics for ToZ and have been more involved in the fandom. Now, I won't lie, Zestiria definitely isn't one of the best Tales games. But I do feel it deserves more love than it gets and that the controversy around how it handled its characters does seem blown way out of proportion. Plus, Zestiria is now the first Tales game I've ever fully completed on my own (Abyss was the first I bought and played, but I didn't get too far with it. I ought to get back to it once I finish Symphonia), so it's only fitting that I give it a review!
In the days of old, humans and a magical spiritfolk called the seraphim used to coexist in peace. But due to wars and other calamities, people lost their respect for the seraphim, thus losing their ability to see them. But whenever chaos would fall upon the world, a being called the shepherd would be called to save the world from disaster. Sorey, a human living in a village full of seraphim, starts a chain of events that would lead him to become this generation's new shepherd, thus tasked with saving the world from the evil Lord of Calamity. But is there really all there is to it? His dream in life is for humans and seraphim to coexist again, just like in the past, but being the shepherd is serious business, and Sorey may have to learn some harsh lessons and do things he may not want to do in order to not only achieve that dream, but to make sure that he himself doesn't fall into the hands of evil.
Now, with a premise like that, it's easy to say that the storyline is rather cliche. A random chosen one appears to save the world from evil forces. That story's been done since the dawn of time, and it's hard to come up with an original spin on it anymore. Zestiria's take on the premise isn't exactly the most original. However, I am a strong believer in that cliches aren't bad. It depends on the execution. It can be easy to botch up a story like this and make it into a tepid black-and-white morality tale. But the Tales games are known for going against typical RPG tropes, and Zestiria, while not as deconstructive as its predecessors in the story department, is no exception. The story isn't entirely the best, but sometimes it's nice to have a simple story that's easy to understand, even if some aspects of it are left unexplored. Plus, it still gets very deep and emotionally heartrending near the end, when it becomes a very morally gray tale where Sorey has to make very agonizing decisions in order to save the world, and there's no easy fix for anything. I really like that aspect of the story, unoriginal as it is, because life isn't black and white. Sometimes good people have to do things they won't want to for the greater good, and in that department, Zestiria definitely succeeds, even if it does hit a few bumps in the road along the way.
One of those bumps happens to be the battle system. The Tales games are known for having very complex battle systems, which get more and more complex with every new game that comes out. As of now, that's actually become a point of contention among the newer games. Unfortunately, Zestiria's battle system suffers from being needlessly complicated and hard to understand. I don't know how it plays on the PS4 or PS3, but I bought my copy off Steam, and I was hardly ever able to use any Martial Artes without pressing a gajillion buttons at once, and that barely helped because I wanted to use a certain arte like Tiger Blade but it wound up using all the other ones, but with initiating Seraphic Artes, I was able to do it just fine, but a random arte appears every time unless I have them set. Plus, unlike in Tales of Symphonia where you can set whatever spell or arte on whichever button you use, Tales of Zestiria doesn't allow that unless you meet certain requirements. Even now, I still don't quite know how the battle system works. The arte system always forced me to put the same attack twice in two slots, no single attack for a single slot unlike in Symphonia where you were allowed to do that from the beginning. Heck, the battle system is so complicated that there are even entire skits in the game dedicated to explaining them. Oh, and you need to upgrade your weapons. A lot. So in this game, you're not gonna be able to just mash the A button to save yourself. You really need to plan and strategize if you want to get through this game.
I'll go over the game's positives first before going into the negatives, because I like this game and I don't want to be a killjoy. First off, the graphics are great. A lot of people I know hate that the game doesn't run at 60FPS like other games before it did, but personally, I never found this to be a problem. Why does a game have to run at so many frames per second to be beautiful to some? I don't see it that way. An anime or game can have terrible art, but if other aspects are great and make up for it, I'm willing to give it a pass. Zestiria's artwork and graphics are great. The dungeons and buildings are all delicately detailed and you really feel like you're a part of Sorey's party, exploring all the different dungeons, going through every nook and cranny, and they're all so big. You can go through every aspect of whatever area you're in, and there's still so much more to see and explore. The Tales series has really come a long way since Symphonia in terms of world maps and world exploration and design. The actual fighting and attacks and spells in the game are also beautiful to look at, especially the Mystic Artes. You can tell the creators went all out in making the Mystic Arte attacks look as beautiful, epic, and jawdropping as possible, complete with awesome effects and execution. In that aspect, I think the game succeeds.
I've also heard people say that the characters in Zestiria aren't as complex and interesting as other Tales games. Then again, Symphonia kinda set the standard for characters, so I'm not surprised there. In some way, I do agree. The characters don't really look or act all that different from others who have the same archetype. Sorey's the nice, sweet, idealistic hero, Mikleo's the serious snarker, Lailah is the wise, caring mentor, Zaveid is the token skirt-chaser, Dezel's the lone wolf with the super tragic backstory who hates everybody, Rose is the happy-go-lucky genki girl, etc. It can be easy to dismiss them as cookie cutter or stereotypes of stereotypes. However, I feel that Zestiria's greatest strength when it comes to its characters is its subtlety. On the surface, the characters seem cliche and by-the-numbers, but various small actions and skits show that there's so much more to them than meets the eye. For example, one skit reveals that Sorey sucks at writing poetry, Mikleo dreams of writing a book someday, Dezel loves studying animals and insects, Rose was an orphan before being taken in by the Scattered Bones, etc. Sorey is actually smart, and not dumb as a rock. Mikleo actually acts like a friend to Sorey, has believable chemistry with him, and never teases him in a needlessly cruel or mean-spirited way (Take a lesson from this, Twin Spica), Alisha cares about her kingdom and wants to take ruling it seriously, etc. One of the reasons I came to love anime so much as a kid was that the characters in most anime I saw, while they looked and acted cliche at first, had a lot more subtle layers and complexities to them than what was shown on the surface, and I feel Zestiria captured that perfectly.
I don't think I can say much about the soundtrack that others haven't said about it already. The Tales series always has great soundtracks. There's no way Bandai-Namco would ever let one of their famous franchises have bad music, Zestiria being no exception. I do think the theme song by Superfly is a bit too hard rock for my tastes. I like it, but I feel it's a bit too bombastic and screechy for my ears. It really says something when I like the official orchestrated version way better...and the two opening themes for the anime version. Both the English and Japanese tracks are also above average in quality, especially the English dub, which I think is absolutely stellar. Seriously, this was the media that got me to notice Robbie Daymond (English voice of Sorey) in particular. He's just adorable as Sorey, giving him a simple, typical everyman kind of voice but without making him come off as annoying or whiny. He sounds like he'd be a regular kid, and not once does he ever sound like he's trying too hard, and I love that! Then again, one of my absolute favorite anime voice actresses, Wendee Lee, had a hand in the cast directing and the direction of the English localization as a whole, so I think she deserves a standing ovation for that one.
Alright, now its time to get into the negatives, and believe me, I feel bad about pointing out its flaws. I already talked about the overly complicated battle system so I don't need to get into that again, so I'll just talk about the other stuff. First off, some of the sidequests can either be really missable if you don't know where to go or what to do, but are really, REALLY tedious. Some of them even get in the way of the main story, and often times you're not given directions on where to go in order to get the item or thing you need. One important part of the story involves getting these items called Iris Gems, which you gather during most of the early parts of the game. At one point, you need to get all of them in order to progress the main story, but you have to go through some sidequests to get them, and there isn't anything in the game that tells you that you need to go to certain places or activate certain events in order to get them, so unless you have a guide or got them all on your own, you're gonna be clueless. There's also the fact that the game requires you to go through four trials, and they can be done in any order, but they're considered not only really slow and tedious, the game doesn't give you anything else to do during those times, locking you into certain areas unless you progress, slowing down the game's already rushed pacing. Yeah, the game doesn't seem to know how to pace itself, and makes you either go really fast, breezing through the story like crazy, or forcing you to literally stop and finish a tedious task if you have any hope of progressing, and not giving you anything to really make the dungeon crawling worthwhile.
Secondly, the writing is wildly inconsistent at times, particularly with characterization. At one point, Rose, one of the main characters, is revealed to be part of an assassin's guild, and the game makes a point about how she has to make hard decisions based on her profession, and shows that she's willing to kill if she feels the world will be better off for it. It tries to make her a morally grey hero, and hey, who doesn't like characters who aren't always heroic? But at a later point in the game, during a skit, she claims that killing is wrong no matter what...so says the professional assassin! Do you see the contradiction here? An assassin, who makes a living off killing people saying that killing is wrong. The game is littered with quite a few of these kinds of contradictions in its writing.
However, my biggest beef with the writing in this game is that the creators seem to go out of their way to completely ignore things that are really important to not just the overall narrative, but missing huge opportunities for character development. For example, there's a BIG revelation near the end of the game that completely redefines the main characters' roles in the story, turning everything on its head, and you'd think its potential would be used to its fullest, have the characters have some healthy angst about it, and having them be forced to actually confront the full ramifications that come from it. But instead, it's treated as a mere afterthought, and the characters have little, if any reaction to it at all. Uhhh...no. You don't drop a massive bomb and have the characters treat it like a pebble in their shoe! There are several storylines that are implied to be important and, if explored, could have been great chances for fleshing out the characters and making them more three dimensional, but the game either ignores them (Dezel, Lunarre, Lailah, and Symmone's backstories, the latter's only being revealed in a freaking game manual!) or doesn't make any effort to explore their potential. To me, this is the game's biggest setback as a whole. There's so much the game could have done to be even better and make good use of its story and characters, and instead just ignores them or only scratches them at the surface level without even making a mark. There's a reason people love Tales of Symphonia so much, flaws and all.
I do feel kinda bad about ragging on this game, because personally, I enjoyed every minute of it, even with its flaws. Do I think it could be better? Of course. But does that mean the game itself is bad? I don't think so. There are far worse games out there than this, and while I do like Symphonia better, Zestiria has a lot to like. It's not for everyone, and there's no denying that it does have problems beyond its pacing issues, glitches, and inconsistent characterization, but if you're looking for a decent adventure game that requires you to put more thought into your battle strategies, than Zestiria gets my vote.