Nothing improves a game quite like having all the characters wear cats on their heads.
As we count down towards the release of Tales of Berseria, I’ve been spending time with the previous game in the series – Tales of Zestiria. I had put Zestiria aside in 2015 after being underwhelmed with it, and upon returning to the game, it did little to acquit itself.
At the outset, Tales of Zestiria began promisingly enough. Like many RPGs, it is set in a world that has fallen far from its golden age, in which malevolence has spread across the land, and most humans have lost the ability to see the mystical Seraphim race. The hero of this tale is Sorey, a human raised by Seraphim. Sorey spends his days exploring ancient ruins with his Seraph best friend Mikleo, but naturally, destiny has greater plans for him. When he encounters another human for the first time, it thrusts him into an adventure to become the legendary Shepherd and save the world from the Lord of Calamity.
So far, so good, right? After all, that doesn’t sound like anything too unexpected from a JRPG – just another plucky bunch of heroes saving the world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take too long for the story to develop into a mishmash of dull and indistinct plotlines.
Zestiria’s first and greatest sin is the one that cause such outcry upon its release – the lack of clarity surrounding the female lead. Those who saw the trailers, played the demo or watched the anime OVA would have naturally expected that Alisha, knight and princess of Hyland, was meant to be the female lead. Indeed, for the first few hours, Alisha seems core to the story, with her hopes of preventing a war by finding the destined Shepherd. Hell, she even becomes Sorey’s Squire for a while, enabling her to fight alongside him.
And then, with an almost painful abruptness, Alisha is removed from the story. It turns out that her low spiritual resonance is too much of a drain on Sorey, and that instead she must leave from whence she came. Instead, your new human companion will be Rose, a merchant and part-time assassin who has a high spiritual resonance thanks to having been frequently possessed by a Seraph without her knowledge or consent. In the middle of a battle, Rose and her companion Seraph Dezel join the party as abruptly as Alisha left, and from then on, she is your constant companion. She even keeps up her part-time work as an assassin, which feels a little odd, to say the least. Yes, the Tales series is known for giving us morally ambiguous party members, but having one who cold-bloodedly kills people during the course of your adventure is a little unsettling.
But it’s not just about the whole Rose/Alisha debacle. Tales of Zestiria’s plot seems to have been designed by committee, and it’s never really sure what it wants to be. When he first becomes the Shepherd, Sorey isn’t really sure what to do, and decides to train himself and his powers by visiting the ancient ruins scattered about the world. Fair enough, except that visiting ruins and fighting the bosses therein then becomes completely optional, with little bearing on the story as a whole. I’m all for freedom of choice, but when there are numerous dungeons that you don’t even need to set foot in, it all feels a bit detached and redundant.
Well then, maybe Sorey could help out in the war between the countries of Hyland and Rolance. Obviously he probably shouldn’t take sides, but a war that involves the two biggest countries in the continent has got to have some effect on the story, hasn’t it? Alas, think again. Whilst the war seems important near the start of the game, once Alisha leaves the party, everyone forgets that it’s even on, at least until late in the game when it suddenly crops up again out of nowhere, and you have to fight a random dragon.
Fine – no war for us. But Sorey, through his Prime Seraph Lailah, has the power to purify malevolence, so maybe he should do something with that. Okami made an excellent game out of the concept of purifying a land covered in darkness, so Zestiria would be in good company if it tried that. Except, again, purification seems only incidental to your main journey. Yes, each region of the world has a Lord of the Land who bestows their blessings and keeps their land pure, but rescuing all of them isn’t even compulsory. Just leave the land to rot in its own malevolence if you so desire.
And, speaking of malevolence, Zestiria’s take on it is particularly depressing. It feels as if, any time anyone experiences any kind of strong emotion, they are immediately doomed to become overtaken by malevolence and transformed into a hideous monster. Now, I get that it’s unhealthy to wallow in negative emotion, but Zestiria takes this idea to a dangerous extreme – there are plenty of times where it feels like the only way to live in this world is to be as blandly neutral and apathetic as possible! Not to mention that all these emotional outbursts tend to lead to lengthy cutscenes in which the characters ponderously dissect what went wrong and why.
So, if the game isn’t about any of these things, what is it about? Well, after you wander around for a while, it suddenly becomes a good idea for you to power up with that most classic of devices – the four elemental dungeons. Instead of gathering crystals, you get powerful finishing moves for completing each dungeon, but the general principle is the same. And the first trial, that of fire, is even pretty decent – there are monsters to fight and puzzles to solve. It’s just a shame that the other trials feel a lot more rushed and half-hearted.
The earth trial is a small dungeon with only really one thing to do – sneak up on the boss before he runs away. That’s it. Oh sure, there are a few blocks you can punch to reveal treasures, but those are merely optional.
The water trial is probably the most frustrating of the four. It depends on your ability to use Mikelo’s invisibility skill to remain unseen by a series of watching eyes – fail, and you get teleported back to the beginning of the dungeon, every single time. Yes, there are two warp points you can use to skip redoing the beginning of the trial, but it’s still a painful tactic that discourages exploration in favour of getting the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.
Finally, by the time you reach the wind trial, it’s like no one even cares any more. There’s a rudimentary attempt at a puzzle in which you must activate wind spinners to open doors, but it’s so simple and basic that there’s no real challenge until the seventh floor – and what you have from then on is merely frustrating.
Anyway, now you have the four classic elemental powers, so it must be time to kick some bad guy ass, right? Well, not exactly – yes, you get a fight with the final boss and the chance at an alternate ending, but other than that, you’re in for another thrilling ride. After Dezel sacrifices his life in a plot twist that makes no sense, he is immediately replaced by wind seraph Zaveid, and your new team gets handed a massive fetch quest. Yes, in order to save the world, you need to understand its history – so go and fetch a bunch of FFX-esque spheres, sorry, iris gems, which will show you how the Lord of Calamity came to be. Oh, come on, is anyone really trying with the plot any more.
So, off you trot around the world to collect these gems and discover that the Lord of Calamity was once a pragmatic general who was cursed by a former Shepherd, causing general darkness and corruption throughout the land. Nonetheless, your duty is to go and kill him, so off you trot to the final dungeon for a boss battle. Sorey sacrifices himself for the greater good in true Tales protagonist fashion, everyone else gets on with their lives, and that’s your lot.
Or is it?
DLC: Alisha’s Conviction
Faced with complaints about Alisha’s sudden disappearance from the game, Bandai Namco promptly released a DLC chapter that promised to put her character front and centre. They even made the DLC chapter free for a limited time after the game’s release, which is just as well, as no one should have to pay for this tripe.
Set several months after the conclusion of the main game, Alisha’s chapter sees our heroine working for peace between the two countries, and generally wondering what she wants out of life. Should she pursue politics, continue as a knight, travel around the world with her friends, or just settle down and live a quiet life? Unfortunately, before she can ponder this further, she gets attacked by some random generic minions of evil, prompting Rose and the Seraphs to come and save her.
Great, you say – now Rose and Alisha will team up and fight evil together. Well, yes, but first we have to have an extremely out of character scene in which Rose first runs away from Alisha, and then claims that she hates her for being a perfect, righteous princess. Hang on a minute, weren’t these two perfectly friendly towards each other in the main game? Yes, I get that Rose is trying not to get Alisha involved in events, but this scene still feels harsh, unnecessary and out of character.
Nonetheless, the pair finally agree to work together, and are joined by Lailah and Edna (Zaveid eventually shows up too) for the most tedious and painful dungeon crawl in history. Much of my Zestiria battle strategy depends on armatization, so the fact that Alisha cannot fuse with the seraphs really put a dent in the efficacy of my party. As if sensing that weakness, the DLC throws as many post-game enemies as it can find at you, and tops it all off with a series of frustrating boss battles where you have to simultaneously fight not one, but two tough adversaries at a time. To add insult to injury, for the final boss, you have to defeat both of them simultaneously, or the survivor just heals its twin. Great. Just great. Rest assured that I did not enjoy myself at any stage during that twelve level dungeon, and neither will you.
To be honest, the Tales series can be a bit hit and miss with its characters, but most of the other games have included someone I really liked. Zestiria has plenty of characters who look promising, but who just aren’t that appealing. Even skits, that Tales staple, become tedious and near nonsensical, instead of being amusing or revealing.
- Sorey: Sorey is a typical destined protagonist, in that he’s earnest, righteous and has amazing powers. Other than that, there isn’t a great deal to him. He’s a blank canvas onto which the story will be written.
- Alisha: as already mentioned, Alisha is a decent character, and deserves to be the female lead. Unfortunately, she is struck from the roster pretty quickly, and even when she is in the party, her lack of ability to armatize throws off the balance of the game. It’s like when Shana/Miranda in Legend of Dragoon was the only party member who couldn’t use the Additions system. Why make a system that’s so critical to doing a decent amount of damage in battle, and then stop one character from making use of it?
- Rose: Rose’s character design doesn’t even look detailed enough for her to be a playable character, but she steps up into that role anyway. She starts off as annoying, and evolves towards being largely inoffensive. In a better world than this one, Rose and Dezel’s story would be DLC, and Alisha would be Sorey’s Squire for the entirety of the game – with armatization and everything.
- Mikleo: A water seraph, and Sorey’s childhood friend. Mikleo is meant to be the pragmatic foil to Sorey’s wild dreams, but whilst I felt like I understood what the depth and nuance of their relationship was meant to be, it never really came across in the game itself.
- Lailah: A fire seraph who has journeyed with previous Shepherds, and is thus knowledgeable in purification, the spread of darkness, and so on. Unfortunately, the price for all her knowledge and abilities is that she must never talk about them, so whenever the game’s many cutscenes veer dangerously into plot territory, she starts spouting nonsensical rhymes. This was so annoying and stupid that I would have welcomed a “Lailah has amnesia” trope with welcome arms in its place.
- Edna: A goth loli Earth seraph with a bad attitude. Normally Edna is exactly the kind of character I like, but there was just no depth to her – yes, she had the pain of seeing her brother turn into a dragon – but again there’s no nuance in her interactions. Instead, she’s just outright nasty and insulting most of the time, particularly towards Mikleo.
- Dezel: The first wind seraph in your party, Dezel is out for vengeance – and to that end he has repeatedly possessed Rose against her will. Apart from the skit where his affinity with dogs is revealed, he lacks anything in the way of a personality, and tends to be that quiet but intense guy who hovers near the back of the room at social events.
- Zaveid: As you can guess from the mere presence of a second wind seraph, dear Dezel does not survive the game, and is ultimately replaced by Zaveid. Zaveid is the typical bad boy who tries to be obnoxious, but is actually secretly quite likeable. Take this victory quote, in which he gets totally burned:
Zaveid: Hey babes, what kind of guys are your type?
Rose: The type that don’t even ask that.
Edna: Or say “hey babes” either.
There’s also a wide variety of supporting characters, of course, although apart from the fat cat Morgrim, they are largely forgettable. It’s worth noting that no women are allowed to be powerful and high ranking in this game without turning out to be evil.
To be fair, the battle system in Zestiria can feel quite intense and exciting when you’re armatizing in and out of different forms and dealing masses of damage. However, it too is not without its flaws.
First up is the game’s rigid insistence that you can only have either as many seraphs as humans in the party – i.e. if, as you sometimes do, you have just Sorey plus three or four seraphs, you can only have Sorey plus one seraph in your party at any one time. This is a real pain when it happens in the mid to late game, at a point where enemies are tough enough that a full party of four is much appreciated.
When it comes to controls, through much of the early game, battle feels a lot like button mashing, without much engagement in what’s going on. Later on, as you start trying to actually land specific moves and combos, it can feel like the game is fighting against you – no other game seems as sensitive to accidental presses of the controller, whilst deliberate attempts to set off Mystic Artes seem as likely to trigger a blast as to succeed.
Everything else that frustrated me about the game
And now, a catch-all section for everything else I want to complain about, because no, I’m not quite done yet.
- Fast travel costs money. Remember in the old days, when after a certain point you could go anywhere you liked for free? Not any more – Zestiria will scalp you for every journey you take, so think carefully before going anywhere. Also, the fact that ‘Save point travel’ is divorced from the R3 world map can sometimes make it difficult for you to figure out where to go.
- At certain points in the game, the plot wants to force you to go to a particular place in order to trigger an event. To that end, instead of taking you there, or making it clear as to where you can and can’t go, you just end up going into the save point travel menu and trying desperately to find an entry that isn’t greyed out. There’s got to be a less frustrating way to handle this.
- Weapons and items have abilities attached to them, which can come and go as you fuse and upgrade them. It’s just one layer of micromanagement too far, especially when you add in the hidden bonuses for stacking similar skills. For better or worse, I just ignored this.
- The guiding star that shows you where to go only appears when you are already on the map screen that includes your destination. So if you’re on the adjacent screen, or indeed anywhere else in the world, there’s no way of telling where exactly you need to be.
- It’s possible to take on missions which can’t even be completed until later in the game, leading to you trying to do them as sidequests when it isn’t even possible.
- There’s a ton of optional bosses, but you hardly ever have any in-game guidance as to where they might be. At least Xillia 2 had a quest board that you gave names and rough locations of said optional bosses.
The one innovation I do like about Zestiria is that you can use the ‘item preparation’ field skill to duplicate stat raising items, thus guaranteeing a steady supply of them.
Far from being a polished game, Tales of Zestiria is a mish-mash of half-baked ideas, none of which come together to make an immersive and enjoyable experience. Don’t feel bad if the game starts to feel like a bit of a slog partway through – it’s a pain that comes to us all.