The Tales series has been treading water in the shallow end of the pool for too long. After every installment I play, I keep waiting for the next game to discard the floaties and dive into the deep end. Unfortunately, Tales of Zestiria is more of the same formulaic Tales fare. But... that's not necessarily a bad thing. A somewhat common sentiment among people familiar with the series is that once you've played one game, you've played them all. Even though this is a rash generalization, there is a hint of truth to it. It's as if the creators have found a formula that works and they've latched on to it so tightly, that they're afraid to stir any new ingredients into the recipe. But, having said all that, I still found myself helplessly addicted to Tales of Zestiria. And even though I would like to see this series make some drastic changes, I still had a blast with the same old formula.
The Tales games penchant for predictability isn't necessarily a fault or a downside as you will come across many Tales fans who keep coming back precisely for that predictability and feeling of sameness. But enough about what Tales of Zestiria doesn't change; let's talk about what they have changed. Even though the Tales games have never had the most engaging narratives, they always tend to weave in some form of social commentary into their plots. In Tales of Symphonia it was racism and bigotry, Tales of Graces f was largely about the importance of friendship and protecting what was important, and Tales of Zestiria has decided to tackle the often divisive issue of religion and spirituality.
Although many Tales games have an underlying theme of faith, it's more overt in Tales of Zestiria. Our protagonist Soray is referred to as "The Sheppard" by the common folk, Soray can also see seraphim who accompany him on his journey to ride the world of "malevolence," and he has a "squire" who believes in his divine vision of world change... sound familiar? As weird as it sounds, the basic plot of Tales of Zestiria is an anime retelling of books from the New Testament from the Judeo Christian bible. But the interesting story beats and social commentary clash with some truly melodramatic lines, such as "Battlefields are the cauldron where malevolence is brewed," yikes. But as much lip service Tales of Zestiria pays religion, they don't actually blast spirituality or tear it down, but rather admire and revere it. And even though Zestiria only does a somewhat cursory job of presenting ideas pertaining to faith and ideology, it still handles it rather elegantly. If you can get by all the melodramatics, the story has something to say about politics, war, faith, the war economy... it's just that it's buried in an anime goulash of caricatures and paint by numbers storytelling.
The story actually goes to some pretty dark places but the tone is all over the place. This is kind of par for the course in Tales games, but the shift from hourly pun slinging to children dying right in front of you is very jarring. And I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the humor. A lot of it is kind of hit or miss depending on your penchant for anime humor. There is a sizeable chunk of overly cheesy puns scattered throughout the dialogue, but they're delivered in a pretty self-aware, elbow nudging kind of way.
So let's talk about the actual combat and gameplay in Tales of Zestiria. I'm happy to report that the combat here is some of the best I've seen in the series so far. I played on Moderate difficulty (which is basically a bump up from Normal mode) and I found many of the boss fights and special encounters rather challenging. Tales of Zestiria adds a new wrinkle to combat by introducing the Armatization mechanic. The four seraphim in your party serve as a means of exploiting elemental weaknesses. Swapping seraphim in and out on the fly depending on an enemies weakness is effortless and makes for some decent strategizing. There are also quick party commands you can issue with a flick of the right analog stick during combat. Telling your A.I. controlled members to focus on defense or blitz the enemy can make or break certain battles. However, the one annoying thing about the majority of the bosses is that their difficulty basically came in the form of one-hit KO's. I don't mind managing my HP and looking out for my AI controlled teammates, but a lot of the bosses can basically cleave through your entire HP bar in one or two hits. This can be especially problematic when the AI doesn't seem to know how to guard or quick step and seems intent on offering themselves up for the slaughter because they just hate the fact that you've stockpiled 15 life bottles.
Combat does take a while to master, but once I started experimenting with the small nuances like using the right analog stick to issue quick commands for your party members, the battles became much more engrossing. Armatizing is still a surefire way to make quick work of most normal battles and some bosses, but for some of the harder fights involving bosses with a myriad of resistances, knowing how to keep your AI partners from dying is paramount to emerging victorious.
Even though the combat is fun, there are a copious amount of systems in place in this game: Fusing items, bonus skills, normins, battle skills, player skills, seraphic arts, hidden arts, mystic arts, the list goes on and on. It can bog down a new player and feel overwhelming. In fact I was still discovering things about the combat or item fusion some sixty plus hours into the game. Depending on how you look at it, all these systems can either feel like an overbearing nuisance, or a welcomed addition that allows the player more control over how they build their characters. At times the weapon fusion system and the art of lining up bonus skills can feel onerous and unnecessary, but thankfully you can largely ignore these features and still get through battles just fine. But it's nice that hardcore players who want to test their metal on the higher difficulty levels can deep dive into these systems to maximize their damage output.
There's been some talk about the overall look of this game and I admit that the environmental graphics and textures are exceedingly bland and frankly, rather boring. The majority of the world feels... empty. Spaces lack any sort of small details to give them character. Furnishings are exceedingly sparse, and the houses and dungeons in particular feel very hollow. However, the character designs look great, as is per usual for the series. I know the whole, "well this is an uprezzed PS3 game, you can't knock it for the graphics" complaint sounds like a solid defense. But frankly, some of the environments look like late PS2 era quality. They're just very blocky and uninspired. As boring as some of the environs are, the color palette is nice and vibrant, with lots of bright, primary colors used.
Tales of Zestiria is a long game. It took me roughly eighty hours to finish the main campaign. The majority of that time was spent with story related quests coupled with a generous dose of sidequests and distractions. As much fun as I had over my eighty plus hours of playtime (and I'm still going back for some post-game content) I can't help but wonder what this game could have been. Bandai Namco just seems behind the times in regards to industry practices and gaming trends. This is evidenced by the bizarre choice to prevent PS4 users from streaming or taking screenshots of the game via the built-in features on the PS4. Tales of Zestiria has its fair share of flaws and blemishes, but the engaging combat, coupled with a likeable cast of characters kept me engaged; it's just too bad that a faint whiff of déjà vu still lingers over this franchise. I don't want the Tales series to change so drastically that it becomes unrecognizable, but I would really love to see what would happen if the Tales developers decided to push this franchise into the 21st century.