Most Intriguing Idea: A Tales game where the hero isn’t a moron!
Best Design Decision: Sorey’s palette of elemental attacks.
Worst Design Decision: The water temple, which is just awful, continuing a proud tradition.
Look. Zestiria is still a Tales game, all right? Its themes are not exactly deep, its villain has stolen his motivation and possibly his jacket from Final Fantasy X’s Seymour, and the game can barely keep its lore straight. Zestiria’s main break comes in the tactical qualities of combat.
In almost every Tales game to date, it has been possible to win by just mashing the basic attack button over and over. Graces got away from this a little bit, but Zestiria really creates combat that isn’t just mashy but interesting. Attacking elemental weaknesses and avoiding resistances is more important in this game than ever, and the main character Sorey has many ways to do just that. His array of elemental attacks, and especially his ability to hot-swap element-associated partners into and out of combat and then combine with them to execute powerful combos, add layers of depth and flexibility to the system that go far beyond most other games in the series. Towards the end combat gets less interesting because enemies just have Too Many Hit Points regardless of how effectively their elemental affinities are attacked, but I thought this was the series’ most interesting combat overall.
Most of Zestiria’s other mechanical variations are duds, especially the fusion system that just doesn’t quite succeed in keeping old equipment relevant. However, I did enjoy having the ability to get some benefits from battle grade during my playthrough, rather than waiting for the second one.
I also liked this hero. Sorey is an unabashed archaeology nerd, a kind of character Tales games have mocked in the past (e.g. Raine). That’s not just something that pops up in a few skits, either. A surprising amount of Zestiria is built around the idea of exploring the world and uncovering the past. Having a hero with really defined interests beyond just punching evil has invigorated the design of Xillia and Zestiria and I hope Tales games continue in this vein going forward.
I’m also pretty well convinced that Sorey’s gay and that the game’s “official” couple is him and his bishounen friend Mikleo (an equally nerdy guy). I wish the game had leaned harder into this, but like most Tales games, Zestiria doesn’t develop its interesting ideas. In its world, for instance, the monsters the heroes are fighting are either literally invisible or look like ordinary creatures to most people. Most of Sorey’s allies are similarly invisible. Aside from a few moments here and there, though, nobody really mentions that Sorey talks to the air or seems to swing his sword at nothing. Still, just by having interesting ideas in its story Zestiria is about a mile ahead of most Tales games.
Aesthetically, the game is fine. Obviously, everyone looks like a refugee from Crunchyroll and the female characters are all dressed impractically. Zestiria also sort of maxes out the series’ creepy loli fetish and I hope every female character in the next game is over 25. Most regions feel kind of sparse, a clear result of the game’s origins on the PS3. The choice to have battles take place in the field rather than on a separate combat screen has literally no upside and plenty of downside, with the combat camera often getting stuck in a useless position even in wide-open spaces. While Sakuraba noticeably phones in a lot of the score, there are a few great pieces (my favorite being the game’s fire temple).
Despite the weakness of the game’s core plot I think there’s a lot to like in Zestiria and I would place it in the top three Tales games. Make of that what you will.