I am totally in love with this game. This is the most fun I’ve had all year. Hands down.
Okay, confession time.
As a gamer who almost explicitly gets his enjoyment from long, story-driven RPGs, I’ve felt kind of left out this year. All this talk of Fallout, Halo, and Battlefield left me wondering if I would get a game that I could totally nerd out on and just lose myself in for hours. I had played only one Tales game before, which was Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube way back when I was still a teenager. I remembered that I liked it, so having seen that Zestiria was coming out on Steam, I pre-ordered it on a whim. They were offering some special deal where you could get Tales of Symphonia for the PC for free if you pre-ordered Zestiria, and how could I refuse that?
Holy gamer gods above, Batman.
This was the best purchase I have made all year! Tales of Zestiria is not perfect, especially later in the game, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t some of the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. I work three jobs and attend college full-time, yet I still managed to find a way to spend over 50 hours of game play in under three weeks. I think the most amazing part about all of this is that even after finishing the game, I’m still willing to play it over again. I’m just that in love with it. It’s that good. I’m not even sure where to start. You know what? I’ll start with the things that the game did wrong, so we can end on a happy note.
For starters, for some really odd reason all of the anime cutscenes in Tales of Zestiria were horrendously low quality on both the console and PC releases. I’m not entirely sure what happened there. Anime cutscenes have become sort of a staple of the series, only being used when major plot points appear or if there’s a really cool moment in the story. Having them appear in terrible quality didn’t exactly ruin my experience, it just left me wondering what happened. Later on, however, the cutscenes seem to suddenly improve, so I guess it’s just a problem at the beginning of the game. I can’t seem to find any patch notes pertaining to them fixing it, so that’s my only conclusion.
The second issue I had with this game was the unnecessarily complicated armor system. It struck me as a cross between Final Fantasy X and VII in a bad, convoluted way. The game also does a terrible job of explaining everything, as it just slaps menus of text at you right when you just want to get started with the game and go, so I ended up skipping the whole thing. Here’s a quick gist of what happens, though:
Both weapons and armor come with their own stats, resistances, and abilities. There’s always two base stats, usually physical and arte (magic) defense for armor and physical and arte attack for weapons. Then, on top of that, each weapon comes with a few empty slots that could sometimes be filled with cool bonuses like extra damage towards beast monsters or increasing the fire damage you do. Once in a while they’ll even come with an ability. Some are more useful than others, but more often than not they’re nice to have. Each character also has a rating system that increases with how often they use their weapons and armor in battle. The rating system helps in a separate fusion system where you can keep certain attributes the weapon has if you max out its rating before fusing it with another weapon. The drawback is that weapons can only be fused with other weapons of the same name and type. So if you have a Copper Sword that has a cool on-hit ability, but you suddenly get a Diamond Sword that increases the damage you do by a ton, you either try and fuse a ton of Copper Swords together until it matches the Diamond Sword so you can keep your ability, or just swap your weapon. There’s also a separate chart of stats and that correspond to giving your character boosts based on what skill they have in their weapons and armor, but this is where I stopped paying attention.
Honestly, I don’t think Tales of Zestiria needed this at all to be a great game. I can see how having an in-depth armor system can help, but this seemed to be trying too hard. There were too many varying types of weapons and armor to buy for each character for me to care enough about balancing all their skills and stats on the weapons themselves, especially when trying to buy everything burns you out of your money ASAP. I just bought whatever seemed better base-stat wise and moved on with my life.
As a final negative point, the game’s difficulty is kind of weird. The dungeons aren’t very hard—they’re actually pretty straightforward and can kind of feel like they’re just there to eat up your time. However, sometimes fights with enemies or even story-related ones can appear that are made too hard for you to win, forcing you to run. This kind of tactic can throw you off, especially when they appear in seemingly easy areas. There’s a specific story-heavy point in the game where you’re supposed to run from two fights in a row—that was really jarring. Either way, it wasn’t too bad of an experience. I just felt it could have been done better.
Now we can get to the good parts!
I really, really need to start with the soundtrack. Linked to you here will be three of my favorite songs in the whole game just to give you a feeling of just how awesome the music in Zestiria can be, because I honestly can’t describe it. Every trial and story-relevant dungeon had its own theme that wrapped me up in the game. I’m honestly not kidding when I tell you that the music alone made me emotional at some parts, too. The various composers and musicians just did such an amazing job that I nerd out whenever I listen to the songs on YouTube. It’s just pure ear candy in every respect. So here are three samples that I feel really represent what you can expect to listen to in the game.
The music above was featured in a heavily fire-based dungeon. Seems like musicians always like to go for flamenco/Caribbean sounds when it comes to fire themes. Is it because it’s related to passion? You know what, I don’t know. I loved this song the moment it came on. It also played without pause throughout all of the battles and continued to loop until I finished the dungeon, which I HIGHLY appreciated. There’s nothing worse than having a song you love be interrupted by a battle. Honestly.
I always love it when a wind-themed dungeon makes an appearance in games because it can only mean one thing: strings. Violins, cellos, string instruments everywhere! And man, did this theme deliver. On top of the hushed singing of the choir in the background, I…I can’t you guys, I just can’t. So good.
But this final song is the one that really takes the cake for me:
This song plays in a seemingly hopeless and difficult part of the game. It’s a battle so tedious that a cutscene actually has to play in the middle of it to give the players a break. And yet I remember nothing but totally loving that fight because of this theme. It is the perfect anime hero theme song. I felt totally bad-ass through every minute of that fight because of this playing in the background, especially at 1:25 when the song REALLY hits its stride. I’m going to be that nerd who will listen to this song whenever I need a pick-me-up because it just makes me feel SO GOOD! This is how a video game soundtrack needs to be: so good that you listen to it even out of the game.
Although, even the regular moments of the game, such as entering a city or going out into the world map, still had wonderful music playing for them, I feel like it’s the crucial plot-relevant parts of the game that truly need the best music. It needs it to deliver an accurate message to the players of what’s going on and how they should feel. Tales of Zestiria did that just perfectly, in my opinion.
I can’t really remember the last time I played a console game. I want to say it was back when Tales of Xillia (the first one) had just come out. At the time, real life took over before the game could grow on me and I dropped console games entirely. In that time, I became a huge PC game addict, though. They were just easier to pick up and put down, and were even portable so long as you had a laptop that could play them. That’s the reason why I got Zestiria for the PC (although, the game is SO MUCH BETTER if played with a controller, which thankfully I have.). I have no idea how the graphics hold up on the console version, but on the PC Tales of Zestiria looks stunning.
When you enter an area that’s supposed to look like a grassy field, the environments are perfectly lush and vibrant. The world just feels alive, fresh, and new. It’s like Spring has become permanent and stretches on forever. This feeling is especially powerful right at the beginning of the game where you’re the main character just walking around his home town of Elysia. I would kill to go anywhere in real life that looks even remotely like it. Fluffy white clouds, deep blue sky, super green grass and trees. Honestly, it’s a place in the game that looks so clean that you’re forced to imagine just how cold and fresh the air must feel there. Ugh, I can just gush on the green graphics of the game for hours!!
It’s too bad I don’t feel this way about the dungeons. When you enter areas that are supposed to represent caves, canyons, or mountains, they still look good, but I feel like Tales of Zestiria lost its attention and care. The dungeons just go on forever and all I can focus on is getting in there, getting what I need, and getting out ASAP. There’s not much that’s cool to see or that gets you to stick around and explore. Even if it’s a dead-end on the map which I know will hold treasure, I have to convince myself to go and get it because I mainly just want to get out of there. It feels like a nuisance and cumbersome, something that the design and visual appeal of a dungeon could have stopped me from feeling. While disappointing, no game can be perfect at everything, and so I just sigh whenever I enter a dungeon, complete it quickly, and get back to the game that I enjoyed. It’s honestly not that big of a deal.
Combat. COMBAT!! There was a podcast I was listening to where they called Tales games really well done fighting games dressed up to look like JRPGs. It made me laugh, but I totally agree. Tales of Zestiria would be absolutely nothing if its combat wasn’t as amazing as it is. There is almost nothing wrong with the combat of Zestiria once you get past the initial battles and can unlock permanent free-running (otherwise it just feels like you’re constantly stuck running to your locked on enemy). Except the camera. The camera can be terrible at times.
One of the best features of the combat system has nothing to do with the fighting itself, but how it’s initiated. For those unfamiliar with a Tales game, the way it usually works is that you can see monsters out on the field and touching or hitting them will initiate combat. You then wait on a loading screen as you’re transported to some fighting space that looks like the area you were just in, and there you stay until you’ve won. Tales of Zestiria improved three things that changed the whole dynamic of the fighting system for the better.
For starters, there are no loading screens for combat. This is huge, as all combat feels pretty seamless now, except for the pause at the end of a battle when characters do their little victory skits while your winning statistics are displayed. Nothing compliments a fast combat system better than fast/no loading screens.
The second change is that you’re not transported to a separate fighting stage when combat starts. Rather, the fighting stage is created around you. Once you touch an enemy a large bubble forms around you and the bad guys that serves as the combat boundary, like make-shift walls. What this means is that combat happens in the actual space where you’re standing, and knowing this can give you a whole new freedom to manipulate fights to your advantage. Say you encounter a spell-casting enemy that you could handle a lot better if you could corner them into a space where they don’t have much room to move. Well…there’s nothing stopping you from grabbing the enemy’s attention while you’re still out in the dungeon and lead them into a hallway. You can use the makeshift combat boundary as walls to press them against, too, giving you an easy victory that you may not have had if you decided to fight them in an open space.
The combat itself is pretty great. Animations are nice, but fast and short so you constantly feel like you’re having to do something. It also works on a rock-paper-scissors type system. Scrapping the terminology to save you time, it basically goes that physical attacks interrupt magic attacks which interrupt magical physical attacks which interrupt physical attacks. Attacking a person casting a spell with anything that isn’t a physical attack ends up speeding up their cast time, a feature which has lead to my death more than once. There are a few exceptions to these rules especially when it comes to attacks/spells that have knock-back effects, which seem to interrupt anything, but I haven’t paid close enough attention to really describe it in detail. I was having way too much fun killing things.
The way the story works in Zestiria was really the clincher for me. There is a hell of a lot of plot in this game and it all moves very, very fast. The slowest part of the game is right at the beginning when you’re in your starting town and the world is still setting itself up. The moment you leave with your friend Mikleo, though, you’re practically launched out of a cannon. What starts off as finding a princess leads to fighting alongside that same princess in a dungeon, which leads into political drama, then saving a town from a plague, then introduction into some deeper evil villain. And that’s not even 5 hours later. Everything in the plot gets resolved almost as soon as it’s mentioned. I’ve never played a game where the story just railroaded you through it like that and it was really fun and refreshing. I didn’t even have enough time to get bored.
I will say that around 40 hours into the game you reach a really huge plot point where suddenly the story starts to unravel somewhat. Enough to make me wonder what was going on for the first time. To avoid spoiling too much, someone pretty important to the plot of the story dies in a really fast and rushed way, and just as suddenly they’re replaced and the story trucks on. The person is then mentioned a few times after it happened with one pretty touching scene, but the story progresses as usual with any plot holes being rectified on the spot by the replacement and suddenly it’s like they never existed. The way this character death was handled seemed really strange and out of place, especially since the explanation for their backstory and reason for dying made absolutely no sense. I’m talking no sense. You’re treated to a cut scene that’s supposed to be really revealing and shocking, but so many details are omitted from the scene that it might as well just have not been there. It was a moment that sticks with me even at the very end of the game.
I will say that I haven’t gotten a chance to beat the game yet, and so maybe it’s resolved at the very end. Or maybe not. I guess I’ll have to find out once I have the time to finish it off.
Overall, even with its imperfections, Tales of Zestiria is a game that I truly loved playing. I am so happy I picked it up on a whim, and unless some super incredible RPG comes out before December ends, I can safely say this was my game of the year. For sure.