There was a time when Japanese RPGs were big news on consoles with regular updates from the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. There have been slim pickings over the last few years though. Instead, we've seen RPG elements creep into more action-orientated games. 2015 has been no different, with the great (Witcher III) and poor (Mad Max) alike bumping their games past the 40 hour mark with skill trees and lengthy upgrade systems.
But what about something unmistakably 'Japanese'? With the Final Fantasy series going online with XIV or still being miles off (XV), it's once again up to Bandai Namco and the Tales series to bring fans a slice of old-school goodness.
Tales of Zestiria, like past Tales entries, sits very much in its own groove with an action-orientated combat system that still somehow feels 'traditional' compared to the fluid systems found in say Diablo III or the melee combat of The Witcher III.
Zestiria's combat can feel limited during the game's opening hours, but it does open up once more features are unlocked. There are two melee buttons for various 'Artes' and these consume juice from a gauge, stopping you constantly hammering the buttons, as you'll occasionally have to pull back to let it regenerate.
One button handles standard melee attacks, while the other dishes out special attacks that are unlocked throughout the game. You can assign different special Artes to a direction on the analogue stick, giving you extra attacks to use in battle. In can be hard work remembering what you have assigned to each direction, but series fans will feel right at home.
As a relative latecomer to the series (Tales of Graces f on PS3 to be precise) I still can't see why the series doesn't use the other face buttons more for additional attacks, as the directional inputs are far too imprecise for getting the exact move you want every time.
A new addition to the series is the Armatization transformations. Here you merge the hero with one of his elemental partners to create a power-up mode based on fire, water, and so on. The cost of using this mode isn't high at all, so you're actively encouraged to use it often to take advantage of an enemies' elemental weakness. The costume change for this mode is unintentionally hilarious too as they all look like Liberace rejects.
Speaking of bad costumes, let's talk about your party. As to be expected, we're looking at your regular mess of odd characters and costumes. Thankfully, there are a few alternate outfits to unlock, some of which tone things down a little. Expect all the usual character tropes. The eternally happy one, the moody one, the sarcastic child and the ditz fill out the ranks. As far as story goes, you're setting out to save the world from a threat known as The Calamity. Naturally, you're the chosen one, selected by being able to pull a sword from a stone as the story riffs on the Excalibur legend rather unashamedly. Write much, Japan?
The lead hero, Sorey, is joined by a princess and a group of Seraphs, elemental folk who are invisible to most humans, which provides a fair few laughs during cutscenes as it looks like Sorey is talking to himself. Aside from a few funny lines and scenes, the story is pretty poor though. This isn't helped by what I feel may be a poor translation; some dialogue lines just don't make any sense, or they seem to be missing a line or two.
If you're a purist, there's the option to have the original Japanese voice-overs, which is a nice touch if the cheery American voices are going to grind your gears. The subtitles, which you can use to read faster than the painfully slow dialogue, are a nice large font size too, making it easy to zip through the game's many cutscenes or 'skits'. Easily readable subtitles shouldn't be worth such a mention, but if you've played The Witcher III this year, you'll understand my pain.
With combat and story being a bit by the numbers, it's down to the levelling system to take up the slack. It's a similar story sadly, although the loot system is surprisingly strong. While levelling up and gaining new skills feels very automated, your gear allows for a more personal touch and equipping items in the same 'family' can provide additional stat boosts.
If you find two of the same weapon or armour, you can fuse them together, gaining the benefit of their individual stats. The same two weapons may have the same 'attack value' but they may have different side affects like faster gauge recharging or elemental properties and the items themselves level up over time. Sorting out equipment for each party member with this system works very well and is probably where you're going to find the most depth to the game.
The game worlds themselves are often very expansive, meaning there's plenty of scope to search hidden caves or stumble upon powerful enemies that can only be tackled later on. It's a shame exploring the world feels like so much hard work though.
The objective marker is a complete waste of time, as it'll only appear once you're in the correct area, leaving you blindly searching through multiple maps before you learn where everything is. This is made even worse by fast travel options between save points costing an absolute fortune, often forcing you to walk instead.
Visually, the game looks bad, with bland textures and harsh edges in the landscape where there should be curves. This is a PS4 port of a game clearly designed to run on PS3, but this would have looked dated last generation. But the scattered anime cutscenes do look great and the game's opening theme tune is fantastic. Overall though, some series fans may be content for more of the same Tales formula, but it would be nice to see the series try something new.
- Equipment fusing adds depth
- Combat has its moments
- Nice fat subtitles
- Poor visuals
- Awful objective markers on map
- Translation seems dodgy at times
The Short Version: Tales of Zestiria is passable in most departments, but it makes no real effort to excel at anything. The combat and visuals aren't aging well and the story and characters are clichéd, even for a JRPG. There's some fun to be found fusing equipment, but overall the series needs to up its game.
Formats: PS4 (reviewed) | PS3 | PC
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Bandai Namco