Played on Windows
Also available on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4
The “Tales of” series and I have a long history, I believe my first Tales of series was the Tales of Phantasia for the SNES using fan translation when I was in college during the PS2 era of gaming. It was one of the best RPG I played because it used an action gameplay in the middle of a normal RPG story.
A couple of years later, Tales of Symphonia came out for the GameCube, and it was brilliant. A fantastic story, great characters, and that same brilliant battle system combined to make an extraordinary game. It was long, it was a little hard, but it was excellent.
Now I’ve grown up even more, I may still play games around the same amount, but the fact is I have less time and more money so I don’t need the longest games, I just want quality entertainment. But when I saw I could get a Tales game for Steam, I jumped at the chance. Well I jumped on it and waited a while. I wanted to see if the series was as good as I remembered, but the Tales games have always been long and I heard this game would take me 50 hours. That’s quite a bit of time. Over a year later I’ve now played Tales of Zestiria. So that means it’s time to review it as well.
As the game boots up, it immediately plays an anime opening, and I have to say this, the opening is pretty amazing. It has all the makings of an intro to an amazing action anime, though probably one that has very little fighting even though the opening has a ton of it to show.
That’s honestly one of four times that the game shows an anime cutscene. Four small cutscenes over a very long 50 hours or more of gameplay. I’d call this out as a problem, but it’s a staple for JRPGs outside of Final Fantasy and specifically the Tales Series to do this.
The entire game though has an anime style to it, even if the game relies on more 3D models than 2D animation, and the entire aesthetic of characters is based on anime tropes. You have the loli girl, the shirtless guy, the taciturn assassin, the large breasted woman, a woman who fights while barely wearing a skirt. It’s not necessarily bad to sit on the tropes but this game doesn’t attempt to push beyond what is expected of it in terms of graphics. I suppose it’s fine because that’s what fans of these games now expect, this has been the style for entirely too long. However if you don’t enjoy the anime style, Tales of Zestiria might not be for you.
That style is also infused in the story. The main story is “A Shepard is coming to save the world from the Lord of Carnage”. It’s not clear who the Shephard is from the beginning, but of course, you are. I’d hold back on the spoiler, but we’re talking about the first couple of hours of a very long game and it’s a bit obvious once someone defines what a Shepherd is. I’m going to talk a little more in depth on the story though so hopefully you’ll bear with me.
The game has an idea of the Shepard being the only person who can talk to Seraphims, this world’s version of “angels.” The first couple of hours use this to great effect. Your best friend as you start the game is a Seraphim and there are points where you talk to humans who can’t see Seraphim. You’ll pick up on something being off during the conversations but the game really struggles in coming out and saying that the Seraphim are invisible for a while, or that anyone other than one other person notices you turning to an empty space and talking.
However there are a couple of really clever scenes where sometimes the Seraphim are visible from the main character’s point of view, but from other angles you don’t see them. It works but this is mostly done in the first two hours. Much later (forty hours) in the story they try to use this aspect again but no one makes it clear who can see who or what class of people anyone is, and thus the novel idea doesn’t land as firmly as it should.
I do like the idea of the Seraphim, it’s quite clever. However the idea is not executed in a clean enough way to set them up so you understand the limitations of people. You’ll understand the gist of the idea, and I believe it gets spelled out but it’s a bit too late in almost every use.
Worse, there are not defining features to the character design, so later when you meet a Seraphim, the characters react like it’s obvious that someone is one, and it’s not entirely visible to the player as Seraphim and humans look similar. A simple aura might have made it easier to see visually.
This is a constant problem with the story in Tales of Zestiria though. The delivery of the entire story is a little off at almost all times. I asked around about this and it seems that fans of the Japanese version say it had similar problems. There are definitely some translation artifacts but the original Japanese isn’t considered a lot better, and there are a lot of theories of why, which I’m sure I’ll misrepresent, so I’ll avoid going farther than just mentioned they exist.
The one thing the story and game does do well is develop a world. The Tales games tend to always develop rich and vibrant worlds and characters, and sticking with the characters for fifty to sixty hours make this somewhat easy. There’s a ton of “skits” which are little pieces of the story acted on with 2D anime style cutscenes, apparently there are 336 of them. That’s an insane quantity. Most of the ones that I saw are interesting or funny, usually both.
Most of the story is fully animated, and looks great.
However the delivery of the story is mixed. You will understand the story by the end of the game, it’s just not always consistent in quality. There’s a section of the game where a character reports to your party. “We asked mercenaries they said no.” Then your party member says “Go ask other mercenaries.” The people leave and then one of your party member says to another. “Let’s go talk to those mercenaries.” What? It’s a confusing delivery that becomes commonplace in the game.
Those mercenaries have a leader called Lucas. Now this is about ten hours into the story. About fifty hours into the game when the game is winding down someone goes “Lucas is at the gate”. WHO? WHAT? The game just assumes you’ll remember who Lucas is, and the fact is, he’s not even there for a real purpose, I don’t know why he appears, he is standing with another character but the other character could have come alone. You instantly assist that character and don’t say a word to Lucas?
Lucas isn’t the only example, there’s another major character who goes away for about forty five hours with no interaction with them, and then reappears as a boss.
Some story lines seem to have the same problems, a few stories get mentioned and won’t get a resolution for hours, if any at all. A group gets attacked by a mysterious organization. You can ask your partner if there’s any word about who attacked them. Eventually this is just dropped as if nothing ever happened?
The game also sometimes will give you vaguish directions as to where you are to go, and then send you off. The good news is your partner (if you have one) will assist you and remind you where to go. The bad news is sometimes that assistance isn’t really helpful.
There are other times when there is a scene and the party talks over each other. It happens twice in the story, but both are back to back, and then never again. It could have been a skit, because it’s funny when it happens, but it distracts from what needs to be heard for the story.
Speaking of humor though I laugh a few times at the story, it’s a solid idea of a story with good humor. It’s just that it never executes the serious moments anywhere near where as good as it needs to. The humor always seemed to land, but that alone doesn’t keep the game together. The story is not clean, it’s not well written and the translation/original story just makes it hard to follow at times.
In fact I feel that there’s a blink and you miss it aspect to the story at almost any time. If you skip two lines of dialog, you could be lost. The game doesn’t completely leave you in the dark, but major ideas sometimes only appear once or twice in the game, and then you’re expected to act on them or understand the concepts they’re talking about.
I wish the story could be better, because Tales games are already a big demand when you talk about a forty to fifty hour game where the story is a big pull for it. It’s just this isn’t one of the better ones.
On the other hand, the characters in the story are well built, at least most are. There are a few well developed playable characters in the story, and I like that. The main characters of Sorey and Mikleo are extremely well done. The two of them grew up together, and rather than have them bicker to develop some story, they have a solid bond in the game they keep building upon. They may disagree but their bond is well done. There’s also Laliah who is a Seraphim who assists the Shepherd and has assisted others in the past as well and she’s quite funny.
Easily my two favorite character, Laliah and Edna.
I won’t go into too many more characters because many have spoilers but they’re all good. In fact there are a couple I really want to talk about because there’s some great development, but it’s sufficient to say they are well made. At least the characters in your party get a lot of development, and interesting stories.
The one character I feel I should discuss is Alisha due to an issue I have with the marketting of the game. She is a princess and a knight of Lakeland. She’s a rather interesting character. Problem is at least in Japanese promotional material they heavily showed her off, so she seems like a main character. She leaves the party quite early, never to really return. It’s an odd situation where she feels out of place in the game. The character is interesting, the motivations are good, it’s just makes me ask “why?” Why develop a character with a unique weapon and fighting style only to drop her suddenly. It’s a shame especially because she’s still in the promotional material even on Steam.
So without spoiling any more about the characters, I’ll move on to talk about gameplay and there’s a lot to talk about here.
This is a Tales game, and that means you won’t be done with tutorials before twenty to thirty hours but what stands out to me in Tales of Zestiria is how poorly some of the systems synergize or just work.
There’s over twenty systems working in this game all focused on the battle system. Just to recite some of them, There’s Skills, Normins, Monoliths, Weaponsmiths, fusions, equipment proficiency, titles, elemental weaknesses, type of attack weaknesses, battle actions, support talents, map actions, the Lord of the Land system, Bonus Skills, Armitizations, Blasts (multiple types), Mystic artes, Spirit Chain, Blast Gauge (different than just blasts), Ailments, Power Links, Martial Artes, Hidden Artes, and Seraphic Artes. I’m sure some of those are the incorrect names, and some of them are spelt wrong, but it’s just to give an example of just how many systems are in this game.
One example of a system that doesn’t really make sense is the map actions. You can swing your sword for instance to attack an enemy and do some damage as you enter the battle. Problem is it’s not a lot of damage, and feels like a rather minor start to the battle. Whereas another system like the power link might make it impossible for you to win a battle if you don’t deal with it. There are very different tiers of importance here and the game is all over the place.
Mystic Artes for instance are very powerful attacks that you can do when your Blast Gauge is at 3. But they’re really not used for “attacks” but rather they double the Grade you earn from a battle. In addition I found I had some problems pulling the moves off reliably.
However I will say that the combat in the game is the same great combat that the Tales series has always had since Tales of Phantasia, and Symphonia. You run around on a linear side scrolling style to attack, though you can move to the sides through either dodges or a button press to let you move in 3D motion. This allows you to focus on a specific enemy normally but gives you the freedom to move around the arena as you want.
Battles look complicated but once you know what works, most of the trash is easy to take out.
If you’ve never played a game in the series, I would explain it as a 2.5D fighter similar to Tekken, where you can move to the side but the game tries to keep you on a linear plane with the enemy so you easily can move towards and away from them. Enemies attack and you’re able to dodge or block those moves, and return with your own attacks.
In Tales of Zestiria there’s no MP system, but rather a Spirit Chain system, which works almost like a stamina bar. You can use attacks until you run out of “SC” and from there you need to stop the attack to recharge the meter. That meter can be used for normal attacks (martial artes) or special attacks (hidden artes), which take a bit longer and can’t be chained together.
I realize this might not fully explain the combat system and I am trying, it’s a very complicated battle system, but the game spends over twenty hours teaching it, eventually showing you everything you can do and from there you can find what works for you. For the hardest parts of the game, it’s usually better to have an understanding of what you’re not using but for the most part I think if you realize what’s working, you can focus on that.
There are even difficulty modes in the game, and those have an interesting implementation. Normally as you go up a difficulty system you get more and more challenge and get better rewards, however in Tales of Zestiria, they remove one piece. On Normal difficulty you get 100 percent of your experience, on moderate, which is the next highest difficulty you only get 90 percent of your Exp. On Hard you get 75 percent. Essentially choosing higher difficulties seem to require more grinding. The theory of it is that they also have higher levels to their enemies. As an idea it might work, but in practice it just doesn’t make a ton of sense.
There’s also an easier mode (Simple) that’s a nice touch so if you’re completely stuck on a boss, you can turn that on and hopefully sneak by. I tried it once or twice when I was dying to a special attack of a boss. I reset both times I used it as I didn’t want to win on Simple, but the option is great for people who really want to just progress through the story of the game. The idea that you can customize your game and choose the difficulty is a great touch especially if you want a more challenging game that requires a higher mastery of the battle system.
The challenge from the difficulty systems is there and I tried Moderate and I enjoyed it, but the minute I felt like I was making an already very long game even longer I dropped my difficulty to Normal. I had already played almost twenty to thirty hours on Moderate but the experience idea doesn’t really work in my mind.
On the other hand on normal at the least, there’s very little grinding that you can do. The majority of the non boss enemies give you minimal xp, and aside from loot you mostly will fight them once on the way to boss (unless you avoid them on the map) and then you’ll fight the boss of the areas which tend to give you a huge amount more experience. I believe there’s a level based system to the EXP (if the enemy is lower than your level the experience quickly drops off) but the fact is, grinding just doesn’t work like you expect it to.
The loot though is underwhelming. Enemies drop a lot of gear for the player, the problem I have with the loot though is most of it is meant to be fused together and Skills/fusions are two systems I really didn’t dive fully into because often by the time the equipment would matter, there’s another piece with similar or better stats There’s a good system in the game for it, and I’m sure experts would be able to explain what’s going on but for the most part it seems like a system only an expert would really need to care about.
I wish the game had an “optimal equipment” button because the loot/equipment system was deep, but I never felt like I was getting better gear with each incremental piece. I usually would wait a couple of dungeons and then when there was a hard boss I would change the equipment for all my characters, but even there, some of the equipment raises different stats. It sounds interesting but if you don’t choose ATK+ equipment for your main weapon your character loses a lot of generic damage. So going Artes Attack + might sound better, even at higher values, but the loss of the generic damage was hard to deal with. I wish this was more fleshed out or made easier because it’s an over complication that doesn’t make a better game.
It’s this huge range of decisions that had to be made all that time that made me wish for a simple optimize equipment button. I didn’t need the best gear but it was hard to choose what actually might be the best gear to have even after spending a couple of hours with it. Skills matter, stats matter, but neither seemed fluid. Even when trying to fuse two pieces together there’s a whole formula to what the final gear would look like, and it’s a shame that I couldn’t have more control over it, because at times I just wanted a specific gear. Instead it gets into randomness to the point where I threw up my hands and just ignored it, instead just choosing which gear had the best stats, and didn’t have many problems from that.
There’s also a huge open world portion of the game. The first half of the game is fairly linear, however there’s a specific part about half way through the story where the game just says “Ok now we’re an open world game.” The transition isn’t really fluid, it just stops holding your hand with where to go.
This was a mixed bag. I liked the ability to explore and see a number of side missions appear. Your follower could be talked to and would give hints on almost every mission that was going on including missions to collect Iris gems, side stories. The story you’re supposed to follow requires you to find three locations, and I liked how they developed the idea. Though I feel the side quests were almost required as you gained valuable levels from them, and as such you need those levels to continue on in the game.
When the game wants to look good, it does.
After completing the first open world section, you get the second open world quest. There are “Iris gems” that are scattered through the world. They mostly have quests or hints on how to get them, and they have been optional throughout the entire game. Suddenly they become mandatory, and you are tasked to complete all of them. You need fifteen of them, and only maybe three or five are part of the story line. You then have to go hunt the entire world for at least ten. The good news is that if you’ve been following along you might have twelve or more, but if you haven’t been paying attention to them you now need to heavily backtrack to find all the gems.
There is still more good news with this quest in that there are now stars on the map to tell you where you still need to go, but the bad news is there’s a lot of random wandering to find them even when the locations are identified, and usually a few dungeons. Many of which are leveled, so you might need an Iris Gem from a place that’s vastly under leveled. They don’t feel like good dungeons, just monotonous chores to kill the same low level enemies over and over and a boss that offers very little challenge.
However I like the attempt, both parts of the open world do work here, they just feel very odd. I like the exploration aspects, I just would have turned a little more information on where to go at times. The game seemed to delight in making you wander until you find a cave with the specific name you were trying to find.
I mentioned dungeons with underleveled enemies. If you’re a few levels under a group of enemies you can find yourself in a lot of trouble. Enemies will be powerful and you might be able to tackle a level 60 enemy as a level 50 character and the game will challenge you. But those level 10 enemies at the beginning of the game aren’t easy. You should be able to kill them quickly, but you usually need entire combos, where in many RPGs a single attack should dispatch enemies if the game even tries to make you fight them. It’s a shame because when the game makes you return to the original areas, I wanted to feel like an an over powered tyrant and instead your characters never feel like they’ve advanced that far. You feel more like a slightly more powerful version of yourself.
There’s so much more to really look into, the game is chock full of features and story that I can dig into, but I’m mostly trying to give a review to see if you might enjoy this game.
The real conclusion of this game is it’s the discount buffet of RPGs. It’s long, very long, and you’ll get your money’s worth just on the quantity of time spent with the game. The battle system isn’t bad either, but the story didn’t leave me feeling thrilled. I didn’t want to stop the game, though I will say the last five to ten hours felt like a very long ending where the game just kept going after establishing what the final battle should be.
If the game was better written this would be a better game, if it kept the same length but had less content and evolved the story and gameplay better, I think it would have been a better game. I have theories on what happened here, but ultimately I won’t speculate more than I have.
On the other hand I started this review and considered giving this game a 4, but the more I think about it, the weakness of the story, the amount of systems in the game drives down the score to a 3, which is still considered a good game that I recommend. The amount of content and the quality of the battle system does raise the score a bit, and I found the story funny at times.
So I do recommend this game to players who want the most time out of a game. There’s at least 60 hours of content in here for a single play through, the ability to replay multiple times, the grade shop, and other changes for new game+ can make someone enjoy the second playthrough. I just don’t think I’ll tackle that experience at this time or for the foreseeable future.
Final thoughts: A long JRPG with a lot of content. Enjoyable but brought down by too many battle systems, and a story that isn’t very good. However it’s a quantity over quality smorgasboard of JRPG goodness.
Stats 63.7 hours 17 out of 56 achievements earned.
I bought this game in the Humble Namco Bandai Bundle 2. I bought the bundle specifically for this game.