The Tales series has never enjoyed the same level of success in the West as some of its peers, but in Japan it forms a triumvirate with the iconic Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises. With the launch of Tales Of Zestiria – the 20th game in the series – on the PS3, PS4, and PC, Bandai Namco will be hoping to finally make a similar impact on these shores.
You take control of the gifted Sorey – the prophesised Shepherd – who has grown up amongst the Seraph, who are celestial beings who remain invisible to the majority of humanity. He sets out into the world with his friend Mikleo after encountering Princess Alisha, the monarch of their embattled kingdom, and they become embroiled in a quest to rid the world of malevolence, the hateful Hellions, and their master the Lord of Calamity. The plot places a great emphasis on relationships and psychological wellbeing while economic problems and political intrigue lend it plenty of real world significance, and it’s delivered in such a way that it retains drama when so many Japanese RPGs don’t, whether due to a poor translation or by design.
There are plenty of different gameplay systems at work in Tales Of Zestiria, but while they can seem slightly overwhelming it soon becomes second nature to set your character up in order to make the most of their abilities and equipment. Alongside the standard boosts you’d expect from new armour and weaponry, every item also carries additional skills, and you can aim to create complimentary sets or, if you’re lucky, ones that will stack on top of each other, or form blocks on the skill sheet for even more benefits.
You also have a range of martial, hidden and Seraphic artes that you can assign to different stick and button combinations, support talents that assist during exploration of the world, and battle actions that allow you to set various passive combat benefits. The ability that you’ll need to make heavy use of is Armortisation, where you can draw on your Seraphic partner’s powers and fuse with them, granting you enhanced attacks and artes, and the ability to resurrect your main character in a pinch. It’s a mechanic that’s been seen in everything from Power Rangers to Digimon, but it’s no less effective here.
You can also assign an increasing number of automatic battle actions depending on your AP level, which is built up by visiting stone monoliths found in many areas. Overall there’s definitely a lot to maintain, though equally plenty to customise and get your teeth into.
With the return of the free-flowing Linear Motion Battle System, you can initially wade through combat by hammering away at the circle button, but it’s not long before those additional artes and actions become integral to beating your opponents, as well as keeping combat exciting and immediate. It’s a system that has remained amongst my favourites ever since Tales of Symphonia, and while it isn’t always the most challenging series, there’s tons of fun to be had as you make your way through the often convuluted story.
Tales Of Zestiria offers the welcome option of playing with either English or Japanese voices, though this can only be changed from the main menu and not mid-game. Though the opening cut-scene has an awful English voiceover – think 80’s movie trailer bad – the actual translated voice work is of a surprisingly good quality, though it’s a mild shame that none of the lip syncing has been reworked for it. Fundamentally the Japanese voices match the feel of the characters and world perfectly, and with the perfect lip syncing it was my favoured way to play, though you won’t be disappointed by playing in English.
The dialogue moves along swiftly and, unlike some RPGs, continues to make sense. One of the Tales series’ key characteristics that makes a return is the region-specific skits which you can launch into as you wander about the world. While they’re not in any way essential, they often give you more back-story or add to the each character’s development, and while they’re not likely to have you rolling in the aisles with laughter they’re often amusing in some way. You now also get extra conversations, and internalised comments, which pop up on the left of the screen during play, all of which serves to draw you further into the game’s world and the character’s mindset.
Tales Of Zestiria’s orchestral score is simply fantastic – some themes reminding me of John William’s iconic arrangements for Star Wars while others are more traditional anime-esque refrains. They lend a real sense that this is a high-quality release, often adding weight and gravitas to proceedings. Adding to that sense of quality are the cartoon aesthetic to the visuals, with the player character models standing out in particular. Sorey himself has a few visual and characteristic similarities to Vyse from Skies Of Arcadia, and I was reminded of the SEGA classic at various points.
Overall it feels as though they’ve aimed to make this an interactive anime adventure, and with the animated cutscenes, and indeed the ‘season trailer’ over the game’s opening title scene – energetic electric guitar riffs included – fans of series like Sword Art Online will immediately be drawn in.
While the Tales series has always utilised these elements, Zestiria is certainly a high-point for them, and arguably boasts their most effective use. The only slight negative is that the backgrounds perhaps lack some of the detail you may hope for, and while it’s clean and bright, it doesn’t really push the envelope on and feels beholden to the original Japanese release on PS3. It lacks the grandeur of a modern Final Fantasy title say, but doesn’t remotely hinder a player’s enjoyment of exploration.
Sadly, despite the relatively smooth refresh rate there is obvious pop-in of level furniture in the larger areas, though how annoying this is will be down to personal taste. The other main technical shortfall is that the combat camera can occasionally go awry, particularly when indoors, leaving you stuck viewing an enemy up close when you’re mid-battle. These problems stand out in what is otherwise a well-presented package.
Tales Of Zestiria is a highly enjoyable JRPG, with likeable characters, fun combat and an engaging plot, that’s only mildly let down by a few technical hiccups and a lack of grandeur to the locations. For Tales fans, Zestiria is certainly amongst the best entry’s in the franchise and one which deserves to finally enjoy success in the West.
Version Tested: PS4