Reviewing a Tales of game and fixating on things like characterisation and plot is about as fair as criticising The Walking Dead for poor combat. So, in an effort to remain loyal to the games journalist’s template without criticising a game over the quality of its purely auxiliary features, I’ve simply listed what I consider to be Tales of Zestiria’s irrelevant deficiencies as a sort of preamble. The characters in Tales of Zestiria are as one dimensional as you’d expect; the dialogue swings from wackiness to mawkishness in a way only the Japanese seem to manage; the premise is pretty much the same as all other Tales of games, being ‘gather a group of unlikely friends together and save the world!’; and the environments are fairly boring, both to look at and to move through. The same list, I’d argue, could head the review of any other game in this series, but none of this really matters. To enjoy a Tales of game you have to take it with a pinch of salt. Once you accept that they are not meant to be sophisticated works of art, you can begin to appreciate their wacky charm, and enjoy them for what they are.
Zestiria, in most respects, appears to pick up where Tales of Graces left off. Though it isn’t as visually striking as Graces, and the amount of artes you can use in battle is reduced from eight to five, it does improve on the combat in a number of ways. Rather than sticking to the confusing and somewhat limiting CC system, which discouraged the use of advanced techniques because of their unjustifiably high cost, Tales of Zestiria uses Xillia’s AC system, in which every action taken reduces the resource by one. It may sound minimal, but this subtle change allows for much more flexibility in combat, and the artes acquired later in the game don’t become redundant as a result.
A slightly more obvious deviation from Graces, and from all other Tales of games, is the replacement of the ‘overlimit’ or ‘arles rise’ system with a new fusion ability called ‘armitization’. Instead of building up one bar during battle that you can eventually trigger for overwhelming but momentary power, you stack up BC points which cause various combat-related effects like refreshing your combo life, performing mystic artes, and ‘armatizing’ with a chosen seraphim when expended. The armitization mechanic is excellent for giving the player more control over the battlefield. One of the most frustrating things about past games in the series is the unreliability of the AI. Watching helplessly as your healer charges into the fray has always been something of an occupational hazard for Tales of fans, but with the introduction of armitization, it’s possible to snatch your companions out of harm’s way at the last second, making it a welcome addition for its tactical deployment alone.
Other than the tactical advantage it presents, however, the armitization system feels a little lacking. The limited amount of artes at your disposal in your transformed state, alongside the fact that you have spells instead of melee techniques which cannot be combined seamlessly with your standard attacks, encourages you to simply spam the same button until all the enemies are wiped out. I don’t think this feature would’ve been a disappointment had they kept a version of the Arles Rise system in conjunction with it, but as a replacement, it fails to compete with that blistering frenzy every battle in Tales of Graces threatened to tip into.
The fluidity in battle is, as always, a joy. The main character, Sorey, is slick and elegant, and his associates (particularly Rose) aren’t too bad either. The dungeons are fairly typical, intersecting combat with basic puzzles, allowing for minor detours, concluding with the usual boss fight. The boss fights themselves are certainly a step down from previous games, if only because they fail to leave an impression. Hedalf, the final boss, is probably the worst boss I’ve come across in any Namco Bandai game simply for the fact that he’s a huge head and a pair of arms hanging on the edge of a platform, and it has never been fun to fight against a huge head and pair of arms hanging on the edge of a platform.
Probably the biggest change Tales of Zestiria makes from earlier games in the series is the exploration. Until now exploration in a Tales of game involved you running through a sort of diorama of the game world, bumping into magically appearing giant chickens and treading over towns. For Zestiria, they opted for a more conventional approach, designing the environments and the enemies to scale and keeping the camera in the familiar third person position. I have no qualms with the new exploration, for the most part. It’s certainly an improvement on the previous games, though perhaps it loses some of the series’ unique charm. The open grassy plains in Zestiria subtract nothing from the experience. It pales in comparison with something like Xenoblade Chronicles, but it’s a step in the right direction.
There are more petty gripes I could express about the game, but it would very easily spills over into mere pedantry. Tales of Zestiria is possibly the worst Tales of main title I’ve played, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. It’s actually a good game, all things considered. It entertained me right until the very end, which is all I could ask it to do.