Tales of Zestiria sees the series make its first major foray into the world of open-world exploration. I was a bit nervous about this at first. Building an interesting and attractive open world for the gamer explore takes a lot of resources, and my concern was whether this resource investment would mean less of the high-quality writing and storytelling which have become the hallmark of the Tales series.
Zestiria takes a while to get going, with a fairly generic main character, Sorey, and what comes across at first as a very generic story and environment. However, having spent a few hours with the game I’m relieved and delighted to say that Zestiria shows all the signs of sustaining the series’ reputation for excellence. Once you gather a few characters into your party their interaction becomes hugely entertaining and very funny, and the English voice acting is superb. The story quickly starts to branch out and bring in all sorts of intriguing elements, as well as having the somber tone the series is known for. Although the graphics might not look quite as fancy as I expected from a PS4 game, the overall visual design is beautiful, and the character design is a high point once again. Well, apart from one mis-step in the form of Sorey’s bizarre earrings. The voice acting is consistently excellent and the game’s score is pretty good, firmly in keeping with other Tales games.
One of the interesting things about Zestiria so far is how it plays around with familiar RPG tropes. For example, one early encounter finds Sorey in the midst of what would normally be a standard fetch quest encounter. However, here he’s told not to get himself involved as an errand boy: if he does a favour for one person, everyone will expect him to do the same. Interactions like this subvert expectations, and it’s already possible to discern a theme about inspiring others to work at making the world a better place, rather than just waiting for a saviour to come and fix everything. Which is a bit ironic, really, because Sorey is a sort of messianic figure (‘the Shepherd’), but his role is to inspire people to do better rather than just to do their washing-up for them.
Combat in Zestiria takes place in a sort of battle area on the world map, rather than transporting you to a separate screen as in previous games. This adds a bit more immediacy to proceedings, but it means that camera problems are a regular issue. Fighting next to a corner or in front of a wall makes the camera zoom up extremely close, meaning you can end up with no view of the battlefield. It doesn’t happen in every fight, or even most fights, but it’s a glaring issue. It’s not something that has caused us to die or anything, yet, and it can normally be fixed by switching targets or making enemies re-position themselves, but still. It’s the one apparent flaw so far in a game which seems otherwise perfect.
Playing Zestiria is an absolutely joyful experience, in large part due to the mature and witty dialogue. This is a trademark of the Tales games as much as the co-operative combat; long may the Tales team continue to put out material like this. It’s certainly the most enduring and consistent JRPG series of the last decade and it’s a real pleasure to be discovering what promises to be yet another stellar game.