Tales of Zestiria is a game that’s been infamous since before it even came out thanks to really terrible marketing and poor explanations of the game by the staff misusing buzzwords that don’t even apply here; things only got worse once it released in Japan and complaints flooded out. The most notable issues were the “open world” direction the game was supposedly taking based on what was said by Baba and others, combat looking really bad in all the pre-release stuff, and the other – the biggest – was that players found out Alisha is only around for about 10 hours when she was advertised as the main romance interest and secondary lead. So, is the game actually shit like everyone says?
Surprisingly mostly no…but at the same time yes in a pretty important way. This is a game that’s challenging for me to review because almost everything about it was fantastic or PROMISED TO BE fantastic and the problems lie entirely in things that DIDN’T HAPPEN but NEEDED TO. The game feels half finished, more so than any other game I’ve seen that be said about. The last quarter of the game, all of which comprises the finale, has a clear change of everything from dungeon design, battle balancing, and writing than everything up to that point. Something happened during the production of this game, it feels even more clear here than fucking MGSV that they had to remove a vast amount of content, however whether that’s CORRECT or NOT doesn’t change how the game actually IS. There’s no excuse for how this game ends, the plot lines it teased you with that lead to nowhere, the mass amounts of foreshadowing to events that don’t exist yet should given the lore and also for making a good narrative, and the literal – I am not exaggerating – just about 95 second dialogue-less video for the ending cutscene after defeating the final boss as your reward for finishing the game. Worse, they throw in a supposed epilogue DLC (not even free if you didn’t get it in the first month of release, if I recall) which doesn’t actually help the story or ending at all and instead is just an incredibly lazy, boring, and uninteresting way to make the already sour taste the final chunk of the game left you with feel even worse.
Anyway, let’s start over with the whiny otaku fanbase crying and moaning over their ‘waifu’ not being in the game long enough. I mentioned earlier that she’s in the game around 10 hours, in a normal JRPG that would actually be pretty terrible – a sixth to a tenth of the full game is all she’d be around. For Zestiria though? The game is roughly 35 hours long, she’s in the first 10 hours, sporadically throughout the game she appears more often, she joins your party again for about 30-45 minutes later on (which is awful because it forces you into a shitty boss fight with the worst combatant in the game as your teammate), and she’s the main character in the retarded DLC extra chapter. She’s in over a third of the entire game and is a MAIN STORY ELEMENT the entire time, so for anyone worrying about this issue – it’s not a real one. Even if it was, you’ll be thankful upon playing that she’s gone most of the time, Alisha is the most one-dimensional completely flat and vapid character they possibly could have made. She’s “likable” but she has nothing to her at all and she genuinely drags down the quality of ever scene she’s part of – she’s either moping and whining about chivalry and honor or going on about her fucking retarded beliefs about pacifism and expecting peace to be a magical thing that comes to you as long as you cry hard enough. Oh, can’t forget the super naivety that comes with the honor and chivalry thing, she just constantly doesn’t understand anything to the point that it makes her unbelievable and impossible to feel any sympathy towards. I don’t hate her at all, but if she was around the entire game it’d be a fucking intolerable journey.
Instead, the secondary lead is Rose who is also objectively a character with far more depth and personality. Where Alisha is a one-note character, Rose has more depth and complexity to her than most Tales characters in general. I’ll admit I personally like her a lot more because of her looks, her personality, and of course her voice actress who is one of my favorites in dubs (Caitlin Glass), but there’s no getting around the fact that she is a fully realized character with a lot going on in her head and her life, while Alisha is the most lifeless and naive stereotype of a pacifist knight as possible with zero else to her. It’s also pretty clear that these otaku got mad because Rose is very clearly written as the closest thing to a romance interest for Sorey that the game has. Alisha barely knows the guy and neither of them ever shows interest in the other, but with Rose there’s a lot of connections between them – that isn’t me shipping them, it’s the game doing it (not that I wouldn’t anyway). However, it doesn’t matter given everyone already knows he picks Mikleo, yeah, that’s not some false rumor, though it’s possibly not as gay as people enjoy making it.
Honestly, Zestiria has one of the better casts in the series with what felt like a lot of personalities born from taking Xillia and Graces characters and smashing them together. In terms of the cast it’s definitely no Graces, and I’m not sure if I’d say better but it’s at least on-par with Xillia. If you’ve only seen a bit or played a handful of hours, that might seem totally wrong to you, and I’ll admit much of the first bit of time with each character comes off a little flat. There are some exclusions though. Rose is great right off the bat with a mix of typical tomboy and modern (for some reason) city-girl personality who talks and acts much more like a normal human being than almost anyone else in the game. Zaveid is one of the best direct rivalries (so not including ones the cast aren’t aware of most of the game) I’ve experienced in any modern JRPG and although it’s not often until far later in the game, each time you end up meeting him brings a very cool atmosphere as well as by far the most memorable fights in the game (accompanied by the best song in the entire OST for those fights, possibly one of my favorites in the Tales series overall).
There’s also Sergei who is essentially a genderswap of Alisha in terms of his personality, yet his lovable stupidity and the fact he actually takes action towards his beliefs makes him a much better character than her.
However, while that side of the cast is great, the main antagonist and his…uh…’entourage’ of literally one other person is beyond lacking. Just like Zaveid you rarely meet or hear of the antagonist, The Lord of Calamity, yet unlike Zaveid this guy is just a generic tiger-man thing with evil purple waves flowing out of him because he’s evil, plus Zaveid ends up a pretty central figure later on with lots of development and moments. They try building him (the bad guy, not Zaveid) up through backstory, and I enjoyed that, but that’s where it stops. That is literally all you get. Some backstory without any dialogue or even sound effects over it, as you only get it through collecting orbs that magically let you see the past (these are never very well explained which is fucking stupid given they are a thing you are forced to collect and watch to progress and they are just magical cutscene balls sitting around in the world at random as far as the lore is concerned).
His partner is a very flat young girl who is a not-even-thinly-veiled attempt at recreating one of my favorites – Agria – and yet falls far short. While she’s interesting at first she’s there very briefly and then they suddenly throw her at you as a boss in the final chunk and have what was meant to be an emotional scene with her that absolutely nobody could possibly connect with because she (unlike the big bad who has at least a very tiny bit of it) had basically no backstory and no STORY at all, she just kind of existed, was bad, and now regrets(?) being bad and cries about it because you showed her the power of friendship…then she shows up in the epilogue DLC as an enemy again!
That’s another issue with this game – aside Zaveid there’s a massive lack of meaningful or memorable battles. The coolest fight in the entire game is against an enemy that doesn’t even exist prior to the scene seconds before you fight it and there’s no development or build up to it, the presentation and way everyone gets involved is really cool though plus the enemy itself seems worthy of the drama it gets from the cast. Another boss issue – all of them are just damage sponges rather than truly challenging, making them very frustrating and obnoxious rather than exciting and rewarding to beat and doesn’t leave you with something rewarding or that you’ll ever remember.
What’s that? Oh, what about the REAL boss? You must know your Tales games and their tropes pretty well! Surely there’s a twist and this boss, who even within this story is built up not to be the true enemy, will end up only leading to another 15 hours and building up the REAL antagonist, right? Well this game doesn’t share that same knowledge, because it lacks almost all of what you’d expect! Second ‘world’ or equivalent? Nah. Betrayous cast member? Not really, a supporting cast member who had maybe 20 lines up to this point does ‘betray’ one of the characters at some point but that’s as close as it gets. Big twist when you think you’re at the end that leads into the ACTUAL final chapters of the story? Too much work. The real final boss is the fucking lion-man who would only be worse if he was a pro wrestler.
The whole game takes place in a fairly small world, which I can’t tell if it’s actually smaller than prior games or if it’s just how lazily crafted the areas are that makes it feel so crunched in. Anyone that presents themselves as good or maybe good is good with one slight exception.
There is one single legitimate twist you may not see coming and it was actually fairly effectively done and had some emotional impact, but nothing like what you’d expect from the old games such as you being a clone-toddler all along or one of the main protagonists who was built up from the very beginning ending up as the main antagonist for most of the game. Really this game does the bare minimum to make it a typical Tales…yet that could be a good thing, as the series has been forcibly stagnating for ages now in every aspect from the story to the music.
Let’s move on to another important aspect and big worry I had though – the so-called “open world” direction this game took. If I recall, Baba himself said very directly and openly that they were trying to aim for the Skyrim audience and attract more western players to the game, and they’d do so by making the game open world. I hate open world games for the most part and I definitely didn’t want this coming into one of my favorite franchises and destroying it like what happened to MGSV. Yet, luckily in this case it was just marketing bullshit. The game is no more “open” than Xillia was, the only difference here is that some of the areas are SLIGHTLY bigger and the towns are more than one or two tiny screens (sometimes THREE!). It’s essentially Xillia minus the load times for each area within the same zone because they are now all in the same one zone usually. That’s all. It’s actually LESS of an ‘open world’ than prior titles, as you are locked out of half of the entire world several times throughout the game – think of it as two halves, one nation and another nation, you end up stuck in one or the other a few times and you can never progress further than the game wants you to into areas you are not yet meant to be. They did introduce some mechanics back from Abyss and others dealing with traversal such as ‘cut that spider web’ or ‘burn that poison mist away’ which at least mixed up traveling around or dungeon diving. So anyway, just like the Alisha debacle this wasn’t an actual problem, though it was another blatant lie from the director.
Then there’s what some people might consider the most important – the combat. Everything about it looked bad in the promotional content and preview coverage from the camera ending up in the wall 9 out of 10 fights to what sounded like an “action game” combat system which wouldn’t be a huge leap from the usual but still a big step if there weren’t fight ‘instances’ and just open battle in the world. The camera is a legitimate issue, a BIG fucking issue if you are in a fight…well, anywhere really. You might think being outside in a big open area might help and it kind of does, but if there’s a single fucking rock, tree, bush, ANYTHING there the camera WILL get caught and stuck in it and completely fuck you over the entire fight. I’d say this is luckily a more 50% of the time than 90% thing, but boy does it get fucking frustrating fast – especially if it happens (and it does) during a boss fight. Other times it gets stuck zoomed super far in just looking at the ground or right in an enemy’s face, making it useless as well. It’s even more frustrating when you consider the fact that the combat in this game is really great.
It’s a mix of a few games, but the most recognizable would be Graces with a bar-equivalent to the CC counter, and some elements of older titles such as having to manually use items. The fusion system is also something I didn’t expect much out of but actually turned out really cool and well implemented. It’s a JRPG so you always want to focus on enemy weaknesses, and fusions essentially let you do exactly that on a whole new level by basically melding with the element you need (through fusing with the character of that element) and turning you in to something that not only dishes out elemental damage but higher damage in general with a new moveset. Fusion also introduces a concept not very common in the Tales series – actually having to manage more than one or two things in fights. Not only do they help power you up and add elemental damage and some special moves, they also can be used to REVIVE you or your partner (parties are now only 2 humans, including Sorey, and up to 4, two at a time in battle but always interchangeable during battle as well, seraphim characters) which becomes INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT and something you need to be able to do on the fly and with good judgment of when to do it, who to do it with, and so on. On top of that, Seraphim revive and recover HP when not swapped in to fight, so you also have to keep on your toes about their HP levels (them reviving takes awhile) and keep swapping them out during hard fights so that you will always have them for revives for you or your partner.
The biggest problem with combat aside from the camera would be one of the controls. The way you execute a Mystic Arte now is almost the exact same way you use the incredibly useless “burst” system which just lets you chain combos together a little longer. That’d be fine if not for the fact that Burst uses the same charged up thing that you need 3 of to use a mystic art, so if you fuck it up you can’t just do your MA anyway because you basically wasted it. I will admit early that this might have been a misunderstanding on my end, but given it worked maybe 30% of the time and not ZERO that sounds to me like it’s just stupid and not me being retarded (could be though!). The second biggest issue (or third including the camera) would be the enemy AI which has so many of the fights ending up just you running all over never hitting shit because so many of the enemies are programmed to keep trying to stay a certain range from you at all times so the moment you run up to hit them they just fucking keep running away before you can. Plus the boss damage-sponges as mentioned before, as well as the fact bosses CAN SPAM MYSTIC ARTES NEAR-ENDLESSLY. YUP. FUCK THAT.
The huge legitimate issue with this game is sadly the story, yet as I said earlier…it’s complicated in what I mean by this. The story is NOT BAD, it’s pretty STANDARD for Tales but I liked that about it and it felt more mature compared to typical Tales while still being in that line of no-blood (only Xillia 2 had any) and mostly simplistic storytelling. It had the same charm as ever in that regard, yet also felt like it was dealing with war, politics, interpersonal relationships, and personal struggles much better than in prior games in many ways.
For example, I won’t name who (albeit it’s incredibly obvious the second you meet them) but one of your party members is actually also an assassin with a lot of actual genuine murders under their belt, including a very large number they personally killed, let alone who knows how many they ordered their subordinates to take care of. Typically these games would have that as something the MC changes or has a problem with and eventually the character agrees and stops – here? No. The assassin is a fucking assassin, Sorey takes issue with it at first but very quickly it’s explained and he comes to understand it and never complains and even is fine discussing the latest target the assassin is trying to murder without saying “you shouldn’t do this” but simply being interested in their job and often extending a hand to help (that gets turned away because the assassin doesn’t want to bring Sorey into that life).
There’s also a mercenary unit you run across several times in the story that you start out on bad terms with but almost instantly Sorey matures up and realizes this guy isn’t bad at all – he has to get money for his services because his men need money to support themselves and their families, he’s not abusing people in need and refusing to help for shits and giggles, and soon he ends up one of your best buds. This is a theme that comes up often in this game and could have lead to really great places, luckily the game doesn’t TOTALLY waste it all. The story has a heavy focus on the world being fucked and the monsters in it being created from people’s bad thoughts (including things like fear or depression rather than purely just hate or anger, which creates an endless loop of more monsters because more monsters means more fear and more bad things happening) and discusses in a pretty good way how people like this assassin group and these mercenaries can manage NOT becoming monsters while going around murdering people for money which sounds like it shouldn’t be possible.
The story itself is basically “bad feelings create bad things, and there’s a big bad who purposefully causes those things to create worse and worse monsters” including a currently ongoing war between two nations that is getting fired up again after a short peace. The game has some REALLY fantastic moments throughout and very well done story beats. Hell, the best part of the game may be against an enemy that comes to exist right then (I don’t want to explain in detail, it’d spoil some things but it makes sense in-universe) who shows up on a battlefield and starts raining down death on fucking EVERYONE. You and your party come charging out to the battlefield through foes on both sides as well as monsters showing up and when you finally reach the biggest enemy you’ll face in the entire game aside the retarded final boss’ final form? A FUCKING INSERT SONG WITH LYRICS AND ALL STARTS TO PLAY. And as you start tearing up this boss you get cutscenes thrown in and eventually everyone on this fucking battlefield is helping out (resulting in the boss staggering whenever it keeps charging up it’s otherwise near one-hit AOE wiping move). It feels so fucking cool during it and it’s something I haven’t really gotten from a Tales game in the past.
There’s also really great usage of the fact that all but 3 of the main party are not visible to normal people. Throughout the game they show you without any real ‘cut’ between them, both the way Sorey sees things and the way normal people would see them, so you’ll watch a cutscene and half the time you’ll see Sorey with Mikleo and Lailah there, but then you’ll get an angle change and suddenly you just see Sorey talking to himself. It’s really well done and serves as a good way to remind the player these other characters you see and treat as humans the whole game aren’t, and are also invisible to everyone else in the world. It also comes off pretty cool at times, like in the above-mentioned fight, during those clips of other characters coming to help and/or watching, they see only Sorey and Rose just fucking flying all over the place chopping the shit out of this thing like crazy and doing all sorts of cool shit – they don’t see the fusions that sometimes literally give them wings, nor the rest of the party helping out, making them seem like mythical heroes to the in-universe crowd, which Sorey literally is.
Another thing this game SEEMED to do well, yet in this case fucking didn’t bother following up on it, was this concept that EVERYONE – even Sorey, Alisha, or Rose, could be overcome by “Malevolence” (the thing that turns you and things around you into literal out of control monsters). Rose they do explain quite well…but Alisha and Sorey? The game actually HEAVILY FORESHADOWS at least Alisha being taken by it later in the game. Remember as I explained earlier, even things like fear, sorrow, despair, simple fucking stress – large amounts of any of this can cause malevolence to easily take you over. Plus, that would just be a cool twist and also explain why she’s not in the game so much.
Alisha throughout the game is nothing BUT despair because of her insane amount of naivety, a character trait that SEEMED to be written so fucking heavy-handedly because she’d end up losing herself to Malevolence at some point…right? No. Of course not. NOTHING FUCKING HAPPENS. She is fine the entire game somehow, same with Sorey. Not only is Alisha naive and constantly horribly sad and taken with grief, worry, and stress on high levels, but the entire cast constantly reminds Sorey about the fact she could end up a monster and that it’s real likely and oh boy we better be careful she might turn into a monster or even YOU might Sorey if you keep letting things get to you so much! Fear not, this game goes ABSO-FUCKING-LUTELY NOWHERE WITH IT. NOWHERE. EVER. THE ENTIRE GAME PASSES WITHOUT ANYTHING EVEN SLIGHTLY HAPPENING FROM IT, EVEN AFTER ALISHA GOES THROUGH HELL AND IS BETRAYED AND IS ALMOST KILLED MULTIPLE TIMES BY HER OWN PEOPLE SHE TRUSTS AND CARES FOR AND THE GAME KEEPS HAMMERING IT INTO YOUR HEAD THAT UHH OHHHH SHE’S GONNA END UP MALEVOLENT OR SOREY WILL FROM WATCHING HER GO THROUGH ALL THIS AND SHOULDERING EVERYONE’S BURDENS. Nope.
This is true for many of the aspects in the plot – there are a lot of really cool scenarios built up, foreshadowed, straight up directly said to you. Yet almost all of them either don’t fucking end up going anywhere, are completely forgotten, or are left for NG+ and grinding only. A good example of the latter would be Edna’s request of killing this dragon near where you originally meet her ,which carries heavy emotional baggage for her and would otherwise be a great story beat…but instead it’s given to you as optional content, let alone content that’s impossible without being max level.
Then of course there’s the actual ending. Well, spoilers, the ending ISN’T A FUCKING ENDING. Yeah, it’s one of those pieces of shit where you beat the game, go “wait, really?” and only get to be surprised this is the abrupt, zero-closure conclusion to the 35 hours you just spent. Which, yeah, 35 hours – pretty short for a JRPG, especially one WITH NO GODDAMN CONCLUSION TO ANY OF THE FUCKING STORY STRINGS. What do you get? Ah, about a minute and a half of a cutscene before that too abruptly cuts off into credits, wherein you get short ~15 second clips of each character as an “epilogue”. That is LITERALLY THE WAY THE GAME ENDS. It’s pathetic and it really pisses you off given it’s what you earned by going through a horribly designed final dungeon and one of the most shittily thrown together final bosses in a JRPG without any effort put into it at all and mostly having “wait until he does this thing to do this thing, now do that again” forced onto you over and over because you literally – LITERALLY – cannot hurt him in his final form without doing this in order to cause some story stuff to happen each time.
And oh boy, epilogue, right – Alisha’s Conviction, the epilogue DLC chapter which isn’t even free anymore if I remember right. It’s a handful of the most monotonous, boring, uninteresting, fucking stupid content imaginable that doesn’t really give any further closure to any of the story anyway. You play as Alisha, which sucks because her combat style is fucking awful, and you fight through a couple incredibly overly drawn out dungeons with copy pasted designs and the same lazy textures being reused from the main game and ultimately end up fighting a few bosses that are also direct rehashes from the main game against characters you (well, the assassin anyway) canonically fucking killed but magically are fine again. It serves as nothing but a waste of time and a way to appease Alisha fans by giving them a complete pile of shit to shut them up.
I forgot another thing about the story that ties into the gameplay as well – temples for the elements, like some kind of JRPG from over a decade ago or fucking Zelda. This game is very short and over half of your game time will be spent running to a temple or doing a temple, and the temples are sometimes obnoxious. Oddly, they have some of the best music in the entire game, especially Edna’s (which also wasn’t that bad in terms of playing the area either). You’d think doing these would be the lead up to entering the second half of the game, but in this case they are the primary goal aside from killing the lord of chaos or nightmares or whatever his dark and evil fucking name is which you can’t do without the power of the temples.
This is getting a little too long so I’ll throw some bits and pieces in real fast now, starting with some more things I really found charming or liked about the game. Any time you fight a new enemy the characters will have a short talk about it during the fight, sometimes it will be a jokey skit-like conversation while other times they’ll tell you tips, strategies, and so on about this particular enemy type. It feels kind of like a “codec call” from the MGS series and I really liked it. The writing overall is pretty witty and charming, not just the dialogue throughout the story and skits, but even the bestiary and tutorials and such are filled with worth-reading quips and silliness. The OST is brilliant compared to basically the entire franchise, thanks certainly to Go Shiina, but you can hear Motoi’s efforts mixed in throughout as well creating a really cool feeling of that traditional “Tales” feeling with Shiina’s far more varied and powerful styles. Oh, also,
THE BEST OPENING IN THE ENTIRE FRANCHISE
Even the vocal-less western release version is fantastic thanks to whoever did the Abyss guitar-vocals clearly showing up for this as well and adding an entire new and awesome sound to the song to replace the lyrics with. Hell, I don’t know which I actually like more, just like with Abyss, and I love both the original songs but damn they sound so cool with the awesome guitar.
I’ve said a lot of good and probably even more bad…but honestly, I really loved MOST of this game. In fact, from pretty early on and through most of the game right up to when I realized I was nearing the end of the game yet the game was barely about halfway through as far as I was concerned, I thought this could be my second favorite ever Tales and at times even thought it might overtake my incredibly strong love for Graces F. That is how highly I thought of everything about this game even with it’s flaws like the camera and such. Yet that last fifth exists, rather, the fact it is the “last fifth” is the problem. There was so much more story yet to be told, so many more things yet to be concluded, so many foreshadowed shoved in your face situations that never happened, and so many hours more expected from a Tales game. Yet the game just cuts off out of nowhere, tosses you the least conclusive “ending” imaginable, and gives you a hearty fuck you before dropping you back to the main menu.
Yet, again, everything but that ending portion was fantastic. Keeping that out of mind, this felt not only like a REALLY FUCKING GOOD GAME but also like an INCREDIBLY important step for the Tales series. Not just a step, but a leap in the right direction for moving this series forward, evolving it in a very positive way, and managing to bring it’s themes, charm, and overall feeling along with it and through that process. This is a “next gen” Tales game, it’s a new showcase of what this series can and should strive to be in the modern age.
Oddly, given Baba’s talks of how different and westernized this game would be, Zestiria is essentially an amalgamation of the best parts of every Tales before it. The story has clear inspiration from Symphonia mixed with Abyss, the characters are an obvious mix of Graces F and Xillia, the combat is almost identical to Graces F with bits of others for things like item use and linking, and so on – everything feels heavily inspired by prior Tales games taken to the next level and placed together in a “Best Of” fashion. It also does that without feeling lazily derivative or slapped together, rather it manages to have a very strong sense of being something wholly “new” while sticking to tradition at the same time. I’m very glad I played this, but I’m also glad I did NOT buy it at launch or for full price (technically I didn’t buy it AT ALL, as I rented it), and I’d suggest others also wait till it’s maybe about $30 or less. It is something you SHOULD play some day if you’re a fan of the Tales franchise or are even simply a JRPG fan…just not for $60.