Tales of Zestiria has had a much divided reputation. A lot of the attention it has received since its release In Japan has been overwhelmingly negative. Fan reaction regarding the fate of a particular character clouded the game’s release in North America. After its English release, the reactions still remained negative. With there being a lull in game releases during the summer season, I was finally able to put enough time into the game to complete and discover that I mostly agree with the popular sentiments concerning Tales of Zestiria.
Tales of Zestiria features your typical JRPG protagonist. Sorey is a young boy who discovers that he has been chosen to be the Shepherd, a title designated to the person who is capable of conquering the darkness that has been overtaking the land. In typical fashion, Sorey is a nice guy. In fact, he is too nice. He never thinks of himself, and he always thinks of others first. He values his comrades dearly and would do anything for them. These might sound like desirable qualities, and they are, but when there is no other side to a character, that character becomes one-sided very quickly. A protagonist can be a relatable character throughout an entire journey if he or she is able to display different personality traits and strong growth. I felt both aspects were lacking with Sorey and it diminished my enjoyment as a result.
Sorey’s role as a friendly, vanilla main character also plays into the rather forgettable and disjointed story in Tales of Zestiria. The darkness that has swept over the land and causes problems is known as malevolence. Malevolence can cause problems in peoples’ hearts and turn them into monsters known as hellions. If this sounds familiar, it is. This is very similar to the premise in Kingdom Hearts. Sorey is unique in that he can see the spirits of the world known as Seraphim. He was raised alongside one such spirit and the two of them embark on an adventure together to save the world and make friends along the way. Zestiria’s biggest narrative flaw is the war story it attempts to hamstring into the larger threat. As the player you quickly learn that two nations are at war: Rolance and Hyland. There is not a lot of context surrounding this conflict. The stakes behind the war do not seem very high. If one country were to win over the other, I never felt that the party was all too concerned about it. It doesn’t help that war scenes are few and far between. Sorey participates in a major battle relatively early in the story and afterwards, he resumes his journey as before. Furthermore, the main antagonist is not very compelling. As Sorey is overly nice and virtuous, the villain felt evil simply to have an opposing force to contrast against the protagonist. He is given a backstory, but it does very little to help with his character or understand the motivations behind his actions. Zestiria fails to provide an incentive to want to see more of the story, and without that desire it is difficult to stay invested in this adventure until the very end.
Oftentimes stellar gameplay can mask a lackluster story. Unfortunately, Zestiria is lacking compelling gameplay as well. The party set-up is four members. However, there are only two members of the party who are important: Sorey and his female counterpart, Rose. Sorey and Rose are the human members of the party, and in the world of Zestiria they are able to fuse together with Seraphim. You can control either character and by pressing the corresponding direction on the D-Pad and the L1 button, you can fuse together with the corresponding elemental spirit. Zestiria heavily abuses the elemental system. There are four different elements: fire, water, earth, and wind. Each element is strong and weak against another. At the bare bones level, battles involve figuring out what is the elemental weakness of the enemy that is being fought and fusing together with said element. When two characters are fused together, they share the same health pool. If they are killed while fused together, they will both die. Having essentially only two characters makes you feel disconnected with the Seraphim and the party set-up feels a lot less important. Zestiria also forgoes becoming stronger through levelling and instead allows you to become stronger by levelling equipment. There are normal levels within the games, but you are forced to grind out equipment if you want to become stronger. You can also fuse the cute mascot characters that you find in the world known as Normin into your weapons for additional effects. The customization system isn’t very interesting, and it doesn’t encourage a lot of experimentation. The skill system in the game is hidden behind menus and requires you to swap equipment around to obtain new skills. Perhaps the worst part is that the Artes and normal attacks feel a lot less important in Zestiria because of how strong the fusions are in most encounters. The gameplay doesn’t take a lot of risks nor does it feel very welcome for newcomers, which is also a symptom of the environments and the world itself.
Compared to Tales of Xillia and Tales of Xillia 2, Zestiria opts for a more open-ended approach. The maps are a lot bigger, and while there is no world map, it feels open. Despite this, the areas are very lifeless. There is very little incentive outside of locked chests to do any exploring at all. All of the dungeons that I ran through had no life to them nor are they visually appealing. There was no backstory behind the locations for the most part. There is a lot of monotony inside the dungeons. You run through, fight some enemies, find the save point, and kill the dungeon boss. You can use your elemental powers outside of battle to solve environmental puzzles in the dungeons, but they require very little critical thinking. JRPGs live and die by their worlds and Zestiria does not excel in making you care about the areas you must traverse across.
The environments are bland, the story is sub-par, and the gameplay isn’t very engaging. Zestiria has two highlights however. Tales of Zestiria not only has a very interesting cast, it also has a stellar soundtrack. Generally speaking, the Tales series is not known for its music. After having completed Tales of Xillia 1 and 2 recently, the music in those games was nothing to write home about. This is the complete opposite case in Zestiria. Zestiria has a very solid soundtrack overall. One track in particular that stands out is Zaveid’s Theme. It fits his character very well and it acts as a nice introduction to his increasing importance to the story as the journey progresses. Also of note is the music played in the elemental shrine sections of the games. Each track fits the dungeon well where the Water Shrine music is mellower and the Earth Shrine music is more aggressive. Music can make or break a game, and while the game has a lot of flaws, the soundtrack is one of the highlights.
Zestiria’s strongest point is its cast, which might seem strange considering the quality of its protagonist. However, Tales of Zestiria is a game where the rest of the cast outshines the main character. Unlike previous Tales games, there is no annoying mascot character that is part of the main cast and it is instead relegated to a lengthy side quest, which was a smart decision. Also lacking is a child character. While Edna, the earth Seraphim has the appearance of a child, she is actually one of the oldest characters. Edna in particular shines because her English voice actor does an excellent job at conveying her sarcastic wit, which oftentimes keeps the party in check. Mikleo is Sorey’s best friend and arguable love interest. Mikleo is more sarcastic than Sorey and the two of them play off of each other well because they have slightly contrasting personalities. Other members of the cast include Rose, the definitive Mary Sue of the group who makes the more difficult decisions and stops Sorey’s hands from getting dirty and Dezel, the mysterious loner of the group who is out for revenge but does actually care for his comrades. Lailah is the mother figure who keeps the party together and watches out for Sorey as part of her duty as the head Seraphim. Last but not least is Zaveid, who is the muscular womanizer that keeps conversations interesting with his witty one-liners and interesting observations. From top to bottom the cast is diverse and interesting. Certain members like Edna and Zaveid stand out more than others because of their personalities, but everyone brings something to the table with their interesting conversations and skits.
Tales of Zestiria has a lot of flaws. The story leaves a lot to be desired. The gameplay could use some tweaks to make all party members relevant. The world could be better well designed by having more inventive areas and NPCs. With all of that said the music and characters are real treats but are not ultimately enough to make the journey enjoyable. I found myself reminiscing about older games while playing and think Tales could use a more introspective look when it comes to Berseria. It is difficult to recommend the game to most people, but if you value character interactions then Tales of Zestiria might be your cup of tea.