Tales of Zestiria Review – Change Comes to the Unchanging

As any gamer is well aware of, when you get the latest chapter of your favorite series and it fails to meet your expectations, it’s a lot harder to deal with then if it was just some random bargain bin title you pulled out of a GameStop sale. Tales of Zestiria was one such game to me; a chapter of my favorite series that barely lasted me a week before I quit it and sent it to my backlog.

Tales of Zestiria
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Bandai Namco
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC
Release Date: October 20th, 2015
Players: 1
Price: $30.00 (Review Copy Purchased)

Now, this wasn’t the first time a Tales game underwhelmed me. I never finished the post-game content in Legendia and still believe Innocence had the worst main character of any JRPG ever…but Zestiria was supposed to be different. Zestiria was to be the beginning of a new era in Tales games, one that would bring all the modern RPG accoutrements other developers were using into Namco Bandai’s underappreciated little digital redheaded stepchild.

In the end, however, the game had changed too much for me and many other Tales fans. The strange weapon fusing system, the skill chart nonsense, the whole Normin thing…it just reeked of feature creep and exhibited a cheap sense of false complexity that seemed to complicate otherwise simple actions just to make the game look more advanced. Perhaps that’s not true and is just my elitist Tales fan bias showing, but Zestiria was – at least I believed at the time – a complete failure.

So why am I reviewing it over a year after it came out?

Probably because last month I restarted it (in preparation for Tales of Berseria’s release) and made an honest effort to understand its systems.

Let’s be frank, Zestiria is needlessly complex. The equipment fusing system and the way skills have to be farmed and placed on items to unlock stat boosts lacks any kind of intuitiveness whatsoever. What makes it worse is that while the game tries to train you in its use, it slices the info into tidbits that are sprinkled seemingly randomly onto the game’s maps. I think the Dutch settlers who stole Manhattan from the Native Americans explained their deal better than Namco has explained Zestiria’s systems within the game. It’s really that bad.

Of course, if you have a lot of patience, a good amount of free time, and some well written online guides…these hurdles can be leapt over with some hard work and perseverance. Granted, you won’t truly master the Normin, skill, and fusion systems until you’ve outgrown their usefulness, but once you do, you’ll become addicted to how you can bend the game to your favor with them.

Whether it’s boosting all your stats with the “Soljur” G-Union, cranking your hitpoints up with “Preest”, or going for the “Atakkus” E-Union and getting a piece of that wonderful attack boost parameter increase at every level up, you’ll soon utterly break the game with your juiced up party. For that reason alone, those who enjoy min/max’ing and “working the math” will enjoy learning – and exploiting – Zestiria’s headache-inducing mechanics. Just don’t make the mistake I did and spend all day on the couch comparing equipment loadouts and fretting over fusing while your significant other sits next to you thinking you’ve gone crazy for staring at an unmoving screen for 2 hours.

It can get terribly addictive if you’re the OCD type.

That being said, once you get past (or just ignore) the initially impenetrable gameplay mechanics and reach the real meat of the game, it’s not too bad. Though the cast isn’t as diverse or entertaining as Vesperia’s, and the story doesn’t have plot twists like Xillia 2 did, Zestiria manages to be a fairly decent and middle-of-the-road Tales game in terms of quality. Though that may sound like a backhanded compliment, it isn’t meant to be. Considering how good some of the previous games have been, it’s impressive praise.

Tales of Zestiria has you playing the role of Sorey, an orphan raised amongst Seraphim who has a nerdy fascination with ruins and ancient lore. Thanks to his pure heart, Sorey is not only able to see the usually invisible Seraphim that he lives with, but does his best King Arthur impersonation by claiming a sealed sword that marks him as the land’s chosen savior. What follows is a long trip through his war-torn world to purify the hearts of his countrymen and correct the mistakes made by the heroes who had come before him.

The story isn’t terrible and does have a few moments where tears may be shed (The battle with Tiamat comes to mind), but for the most part it’s a watercolor paint-by-numbers that didn’t get me caring for my party members until a good 25 hours in. There were some characters that impressed me immediately – namely sarcastic goth girl Edna and sweet little Alisha – but one of those characters disappears for most of the game.

After some story progression, I found myself connecting with Lailah and felt she had the same motherly appeal Star Ocean 5’s Miki exhibited. Even Sorey – who I felt was incredibly naive and reminded me of a “weenier” version of Stahn Aileron – made a believer of me towards the end when his innocence gave way to a delightfully profound world weariness. Sadly though, I never cared much for the rest of the cast and I felt this played a big part in my initial backlog abandonment of the game.

Thankfully I stuck with it, since most of the remaining features in Zestiria are some of the best of the series. The nearly seamless combat transitions, Sakuraba’s excellent soundtrack, the gorgeous visuals, the large amount of ancillary content…Zestiria simply isn’t deserving of all the derision it receives from the Tales fan community.

Combat has always been the one strong point of every Tales game, and at least in my opinion, it’s been honed to a razor’s edge in Zestiria. Though I feel the “Armatized” forms are too powerful (That’s when your human characters merge with a seraphim party member), I love all the options it creates in battle. Not only do you have regular moves and hidden artes, but you also have spells, mystic artes, and “banish blasts”. All of these maneuvers are linked to an ever-filling “blast gauge” that – like most parameters in the game – can be exploited to your benefit.

It’s a slick, magic point-less system that rewards careful timing and dodging rather than button mashing, and it is my second favorite combat engine after Tales of Graces F. Though I wish the computer controlled party members weren’t saddled with brain-dead A.I. which required me to babysit them during some of the late game optional boss battles (Dragon Warlock and Demon Rodler especially), my own skills were able to solo most enemies in armatized form on moderate difficulty, so I can’t complain too much.

There are other little quibbles I have with Zestiria, such as the god awful battle camera that often zooms in on enemy feet while I’m trying to figure out where I am and the sometimes overly-expansive overworld that has to be walked through until you unlock save point travel, but once again: it’s not a deal breaker.

In the end, your enjoyment of Zestiria depends on how patient you are as a Tales fan and how forgiving you are as a gamer. Sure, there are problems with the game, but the addictive combat, fun to exploit skill systems, and the gorgeous visuals all add up to outweigh the negatives.

Just be sure to take a look at the fan-operated wiki and study up on skill stacking, because you’ll need it when your NPCs bum rush a boss without their guard up.

Tales of Zestiria was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a physical copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict 8.5

The Good

  • Gorgeous visuals and soundtrack
  • Challenging, addicting combat
  • Lots of options available for character growth/tweaking
  • Great fun if you’re into min/max’ing

The Bad

  • Horrible partner AI
  • Battle camera needs work
  • Quasi open world areas a bit too large
  • Maddening if you’re not into min/max’ing
  • patyos

    Aww nice review :D Was a pretty cool with alot of mechanics although the story and themes were pretty bland.

  • patyos

    “(in preparation for Tales of Berseria’s release) ”

    I Assume is there a Berseria review coming XD ?

  • Ian Stoianov

    Just leaving this here: both PS4 and PC versions are locked to 30fps from being ported from the PS3 version, but the PC version has a mod/fix that correct a myriad of performance problems with the game, as well as unlocking full 60fps.
    Tales of Berseria was properly ported and both the PS4 and PC versions run at 60fps

  • Ian Stoianov

    Nice review. Personally, I really liked the game, and even the “weak” story managed to “click” something in me. Guess I’m just weird like that. The min/maxing is WAY too dependent on farming, but I didn’t have to focus on it until endgame, so it’s not like it’s a critical component to beat the game.
    Also, it was my first Tales of game, as I never had a Gamecube, and I came in late on the PS3, only picking one up after the PS4 had released. Maybe that influenced how much I liked the game, who knows

  • CRES

    Unfortunately, my experience with Zesteria was less then stellar. I’m not a huge Tales fan, but I do enjoy the games I have played…. UNTIL Zesteria.

    The Story for me was a MASSIVE disappointment, especially once you get to the end and suddenly everything needed to be wrapped up in record speed. Seriously, I thought I was halfway through the game up until the characters started talking about how “This is going to be the final battle.” And poor poor Alisha. One of the more interesting party members with the greatest potential for development, and she gets sidelined for 80% of the game and forgotten about.

    Even the Battle system, the one thing Tales was great at, felt underwhelming. Seriously for all of the mechanics and features stuffed into battles, your strategy for every single battle is “Hit the enemy a lot.” Hit the enemy. Hit the enemy. Wait because your stamina meter is empty. Hit the enemy. In fact, the more you break the battle system down, the dumber it gets.

    Okay, they moved the camera from a side view to a behind the shoulder view, but you are still limited to moving towards or away from the enemy. That sounds like the older Tales games right? That is until you realize that the reason they limited you to moving left or right on the side view, was so that you can jump and duck with UP and DOWN. In Zesteria you can’t side step unless you are in Free Run mode or are Guarding first. Why? I have no idea. Also with removing TP and having both Normal Attacks and Hidden Artes consuming Stamina, there is no actual difference between a Hidden Arte and a Normal Attack besides the “Pulled-Out-of-Their-Ass” Rock-Paper-Scissors relationship between Normal Attacks, Hidden Artes, and Magic (Seraphic Artes). Forming combos use to be a fun little challenge where Normal Attacks cancel into Artes which can be cancelled into more powerful Artes, but now it’s just a four hit combo where it’s either four normal attacks, three normal attacks and an Art, two and two, one and three, or all Artes. And lastly WHO’S BRIGHT IDEA WAS IT TO HAVE STATUS ALIMENTS NULLIFY HEALING!?!

  • DynastyStar

    Tales games are on most consoles. ps2 had Tales of Symphiania, Tales of the Abyss and though its sort of the black sheep of the series perhaps to some its also got Tales of Legendia. and I believe Tales of Vesperia. Xbox 360 I believe had at least Vesperia that I know of. ps1 had some too but I don’t know the exact ones(I think like… Xillia or Destiny or something else?)

  • Yes.

  • Cerea

    What year is this

  • Can we get a Tales of Destiny review too?

  • For me, it was Tuesday.

  • bomblord

    I never completely understood a single of these systems.

    Yet, I got through the entire game and even a good chunk of the postgame dungeon without issue. The basics of the battle system can get you through the entire game without a single bit of time spent on the equipment system.

    What kept me going was the story and the cast. Sorey is my new favorite tales protagonist. There are so many moments (especially in the optional quests) where you can really see him struggling in a world where “power of friendship and positive thinking” just doesn’t cut it. He actually grows considerably throughout the story and it makes the ending incredibly impactful.

  • Lucky

    PS1 got Tales of Eternia and a port of Tales of Phantasia. At least for the west is concerned.

  • fnd

    Can’t say the same about The Last Remnant. I beat that game with a trainer, lmao

  • Dead Jester

    I still haven’t finished this game. Others might forgive me for that before they would have you, I only just picked it up during the last Steam winter sale. For the most part I enjoyed it. What got me to stop playing is when I felt that I was already at the end of the game. I kept having to tell myself “No, there has to be more” finally I looked up a quick summery of the events of the game and realized that the place I stopped playing was almost just before the final boss.
    I mean, is the game really short for a Tales game, or was it because I was already going out of my way to grab those memory orbs before the game needed me to?

  • Obbliglol

    I’ve been trying to get through NG+ for about half a year. The game is nowhere near as terrible as some people make out (SO5 still manages to be the worst thing I’ve played for a long time), but THAT equipment/skill system is just terrible. Apparently it’s been fixed in Berseria (which I’m buying next paycheck). Having said that, I’ll be checking that wiki.

    Why can’t we just have the FF9 equipment/skill system again, it’s super enjoyable learning skills from equipment and stacking them up in an easy to understand way that doesn’t require hours of farming. The fact that you have to farm even the ultimate weapons in Zesteria is a pain.

  • Ax

    To me it would a 7.5/8 game but thanks to Rose it’s a 5, the damage she caused to the story and her character made me fume with anger “you must have a PURE soul to see and fuse with Seraphs, what? she is a ASSASSIN? no problem she still pure!” and my hate only got worse after a Nip friend explained to me what Baba did.

  • Taiga Gao

    I think you are the only single person I’ve seen that likes Sorey in any way form or shape.

    He’s literally the most one dimensional character ever made, and he really do doesn’t grow at all. That’s one of the biggest issues with the game, hell, even people who somehow liked the game have said issue him. He starts as a stupidly idealistic retard and ends up as a stupidly idealistic retard. He never changes nor grows as a character. At all.

  • I don’t care what the internet/other JRPG fans say about Zestiria. It’s pretty damn good aside from you being locked out of fast travel on certain parts of the story which was horseshit. Other than that I had a good time.

    It’s way WAY WAY better than FFXV ever was. 10 years of nothing.

  • Sylveria Shini

    I played all the way through Zesteria and feel it was a tremendous stepdonwards in every conceivable area after Xillia. It quickly became one of those games I kept playing to finish for the sake of finishing rather than any actual enjoyment.

  • 2501

    There needs to me more Raul Julia Bison memes.

  • Lol, look at this funny guy! :^)

  • erohakase

    This was probably one of my most hyped Tales games in a long long time. One of my favorite VAs coupled with the best weapon type in a character? Sounds awesome, I’m 100% in. Then I got to playing it and this character goes away and I’m stuck with mostly characters I don’t give a flying fuck about or outright dislike. The complexity of it all was something I kind of liked when I cared but after that event it became a downside. Oh well, haven’t played through Berseria yet. Does Eleanor leave the party too?

  • Zen

    All praise Baba-san for forcing his shitty waifu into the game

  • SiliconNooB

    Carl, I hadn’t realised that you were writing for NG again! Good to see you!

  • SiliconNooB

    Zestiria was absolute trash with very slow pacing.

  • CRES

    See I don’t mind slow pacing, but there was absolutely no pay-off. All of the subplots got “resolved” in the span of one hour despite some of them taking the entire game to build up.

  • SiliconNooB

    I didn’t keep playing to see anything resolved – the game was too miserable to waste any more of my time on it.

    I liked some of its references to King Arthur and the Grail legends, but it was all wasted potential.

  • Malcolm_Ecks

    My favourite Tales game for Story is still Abyss. For combat, its Xillia. Can’t we have a Tales game that has both elements at that level? (Or a 3D Star Ocean game that’s has a story as good as the first 2 for that matter?)

  • Malcolm_Ecks

    Play Xillia, Xillia 2, Abyss, Vesperia and Hearts.

    I honestly think Symphonia is supremely overrated and only gets as much love as it does because it was a GC exclusive for a bit and the GC was super starved of RPGs

  • Wannabe_Baby

    I can’t say I was a big fan of Zestiria. It was fine. A good 7/10. But the only Tales game I played before this was Graces F, which blew it out of the water in every way. Combat, story, characters, framerate, weapon system, etc. The story and combat were fine but nothing outstanding.

    I REALLY didn’t like the weapon system in Zestiria. The most confusing, fiddly mess they could possibly implement. I spent forever fiddling with the G-Union grid stuff before realising that I would probably get a lot more strength just from equipping a better weapon than I would trying to stack a bunch of the same icons. It reached a point where I just couldn’t be bothered finishing the secret dungeon.

    I was hesitant about buying Berseria, thinking the weapon system was the same but I’ve just read that’s not the case. So … maybe.

  • My first Tales game was Tales of Vesperia… So Zestiria was definately not on the same level.