I have some explaining to do. Eight months have passed since I posted my first impressions of Tales of Zestiria. That’s an inordinate amount of time under any circumstances, but particularly so in this case as those initial glowing impressions gradually gave way to frustration and despondency, meaning that T. and I took a six month break from the game. For a while I was worried in case my enthusiastic post would mislead anyone into buying a game which would ultiimately disappoint them. Having finally returned to and completed Zestiria, I’m relieved it’s not as bad as I feared it would be; though it still doesn’t live up to either its own early promise, or the standard of quality the series is generally known for.

The Tales series of RPGs is a long-running Japanese franchise where each game is generally set in its own fantasy universe, and you control a band of characters on some kind of journey to save the world. The franchise is known for its energetic real-time combat system, which functions almost like a beat-em-up with heavy reliance on combos and flashy special attacks. It also features couch co-op for up to four players, which is pretty unique for this style of game and a major selling point for the franchise. In Zestiria, the main character is Sorey, a young man who becomes the ‘Shepherd’. Sorey is a noble-minded hero tasked with quelling the ‘Lord of Calamity’ and the force of ‘malevolence’, a kind of ethereal element which can corrupt normal people and turn them into ‘Hellions’ (basically, monsters). Almost anyone can fall prey to malevolence, and it normally affects people who evince strong negative emotions. Interestingly, Sorey also has to guard himself against the affects of malevolence: it’s intimated that other Shepherds in the past have fallen victim to it, often under the pressure of the demands of a faithless, fickle, and dependent flock.

Sorey is a likable enough character, with an endearing simplicity and generosity of spirit. Sorey is accompanied on his journey by a number of Seraphs, who are elemental spirits associated with Water, Fire, Earth, and Wind. The spirits provide moral support and advice along Sorey’s journey as well as helping him out in combat. One of the new combat mechanisms introduced in Zestiria is ‘Armatization’, whereby Sorey can fuse with a Seraph to gain massive boosts to health and damage, also unlocking more attacks. This is one of the best parts about the combat system, and there is a good rhythm between pulling off combos in normal form, then armatizing and dealing massive damage.

Unfortunately, combat is seriously marred by severe camera problems. Most previous Tales games had a system where, when you encountered an enemy, you were taken to a generic instanced area to fight. However, Zestiria, in the effort to maintain an open-world feel, has you fight in the very area you encountered the enemy. Obviously, the world does not just consists of flat open areas, so this means you have to fight in corridors, around corners, on slopes, etc, and the camera is simply not designed for it. You’ll often find yourself fighting with little or no view of your own character or the enemy. In mitigation, at least this doesn’t tend to affect boss fights, but it does detract from one of the game’s main features. I don’t understand why they don’t simply switch to an overhead view on those occasions.  It particularly affects the enjoyment of players other than the first, because the camera always follows player one and his target. While I’m on the topic of co-op play, it’s worth noting that player two won’t get any trophies for this game, even if they’re signed in before they start. It’s a really weird oversight, as in previous Tales games both players can earn trophies, but here only the main player can do so. It’s either a deliberate and dickish decision, or a lazy oversight, but either way, it’s an avoidable irritation.

Over the years the Tales series has incorporated a number of different levelling systems and other mechanics that mean there is always something going on, whether its eating meals when resting at an inn to get stat boosts, or levelling titles to unlock special abilities, etc. Zestiria has a plethora of these systems but ultimately it’s easy to get lost in their complexities, and in the end we generally decided not to bother with them. It’s a shame because there are some good ideas here but they just get lost in a sea of menus and obtuse names. There are only so many unintuitive systems most players will be prepared to learn to play a video game in this day and age. Zestiria also features a huge number of skits, the talking-head cutaways featured in all recent Tales games. But sadly, the writing isn’t really able to keep up, and most of the skits fall flat.

The Tales series is known for the quality of its dialogue and the endearing and inspiring interaction between its characters. Zestiria starts well, but starts to go downhill once more characters are introduced. Unfortunately, a likeable main character is removed from your team early on, and although her replacement is endearing enough, the same can’t really be said for the seraphs in your party. The game gets the balance wrong, and there is too much sarcasm and snarky bickering, combined with too much zany nonsense. At times, the dialogue can also just be very difficult to follow, meaning jokes aren’t funny, and long sections of exposition seem impenetrable or don’t relate to what you’ve just seen. I don’t know if this is a translation issue (we played the game with the English dub), but it definitely felt like the writing was worse than most other Tales games.

It’s a shame, because the story is actually quite interesting, and features some really atmospheric anime cutscenes at reguar intervals throughout the game. The pacing really suffers about halfway through, which was the main reason why T. and I stopped playing for half a year. However, shortly after we went back to it, some important story events actually mitigated some of our frustrations with the game to the point that I felt bad for forming such a low opinion of it, and the closing sections are generally pretty good. The final section is a real slog, as the game throws several long dungeons at you followed by a marathon boss fight that forced us to turn down the difficulty to Easy (look, it was after 1am on a school night, don’t judge us). But this is within the margin of error for a JRPG, and genre fans will likely overlook it.

Zestiria’s graphics are really quite nice. As one of the first PS4 games we played, I was expecting to be blown away by the graphics, so at first was disappointed. I later learned this was initially released on PS3 and then touched up for PS4, which makes sense. However, the graphics are clear and colourful, and the more built-up environments are well-designed. The game features very large open areas between quest hubs, and these can look a bit barren, but it’s really just a case of adjusting your expectations from Skyrim or Witcher 3. The music is pretty decent for the most part, but a few dungeons have quite weird and unmelodious music, and there’s one tune towards the end of the game featuring singing that got on my nerves.

On the whole, Tales of Zestiria is a mixed bag. There are elements here of what makes the Tales series so great, with a few really moving and interesting story elements, and some good characters. But there is too much unevenness and bad writing to be able to recommend this wholeheartedly, and only Tales series completionists should play this over something like Graces, Xillia, or Vesperia. Zestiria has the feel of a bit of an experiment, and here’s hoping that they fine-tuned some of these ideas and mechanics for Tales of Berseria, which is due out in Europe this time next month.