For years now the Tales franchise has remained the last truly safe bastion of high fantasy JRPG. In a world that has become increasingly fascinated with cyberpunk sci-fi and techno-dystopias, the old guard has fallen to the way side with JRPGs focusing more on sci-fi settings and scenarios over the tradition magic filled fantasy of the genre’s past.
The genre’s biggest series like Final Fantasy have shifted gears in recent times to science fiction and so too did the Tales series with the two Tales of Xillia games. Xillia released to a mixed reception with many claiming that some of the magic of Tales had been lost. With Tales of Zestiria, I can say for certain that the high fantasy Tales of old is back and it has never been better.
Tales of Zestiria marks a significant return to form for the series as the game tackles a fantasy world once again. With influences of both medieval and biblical nature, Zestiria feels like a breath of fresh air for not only the franchise but the JRPG genre as well.
You play as Sorey, a young man who has grown up in the domain of the Seraphim, this world’s equivalent of Angels. After an attack on the domain by a Hellion, an agent of Hell, Sorey and his Seraphim brother Mikleo decide to set out on a quest to right the wrongs of the world and explore some ruins because its a hobby of theirs. It is about as classic a tale as you can get from the Tales series and it is this back to basics approach that makes Tales of Zestiria feel both like a throwback and refreshingly simple as far as JRPGs go.
The story plays out at a steady pace and the characterization is given plenty of room to breathe. There are plenty of great little character moments as you’d expect from the series and the bond between Sorey and Mikleo stands as one of the finest in the series now 20 year history. If it reminds you of the brotherhood between Cless and Chester in Tales of Phantasia, I can assure you it is no accident. The parallels with that game only add up more and more as you play through the game and it is a nice little nod to where it all began two decades ago. The return to the series more simplified roots is a welcome change as the series has become rather convoluted with recent entries often being too complex or their own good and as such difficult to follow.
Tales of Zestiria not only reinvents the wheel with its back to basics take on story telling, it also improves upon the franchise’s signature Linear Motion Battle System. While all battles play out much like the always have, the game no longer takes you into a separate battle scene, instead the battle takes place within the overworld map which is more detailed in terms of topography than any world in the Tales series history. If you are attacked by an aggressive Hellion in a rocky area, you must do battle with the rocks part of the battlefield. The same applies for lakes, ponds, trees and other environmental objects. This is a first for the series as the overworld combines with the world of battle in a way never seen before in the series.
Also worthy of note is the new Armatization mechanic which allows you two fuse Sorey with a Seraphim to unlock a super powered form unique to each Seraphim combination. The fused form can be activated at the click of a button and can change the way you fight completely on a dime. Each Seraphim has a different specialty and the fusion with Sorey allows him to become not only stronger but capable of abilities he normally is not. The system is great and makes for a lot more strategic options in combat with the amount of fusion possibilities and different abilities that comes with each creates nearly endless combat scenarios.
Aesthetically speaking, the series has never looked so good and the rendering of the overworld on the PS4 is utterly seamless. Combat is never cluttered and the visuals are pleasantly composed with a great balance between vibrancy and grittiness. The game knows when it needs to be dark and when it needs to be light and uses colours effectively to evoke emotion. A lot of game designers overlook the importance of visual presentation but Tales of Zestiria shines thanks to its attention to detail and understanding of tone and expression.
The game is also fully voice acted with a stellar cast that clearly had a lot of passion for this project and put a lot of emotion into their performances. It is also worth mentioning that the game has an absolutely jaw-dropping soundtrack and one of my now all time favourite theme songs, with Superfly’s ‘White Light’ which sets the stage for the game perfectly in epic fashion.
Tales of Zestiria is the culmination of 20 years of blood, sweat, tears and unimaginable adventure in fantastic world’s greater than our own, hearkening back to the series’ roots all the while etching out its future in doing so.
What was old is new again and Tales of Zestiria proves that not only has Hideo Baba and his team learned something over the two decades of ups and downs they have had with this franchise, but they have put those lessons into practice and made what is truly the franchise’s finest hour.
Tales of Zestiria carves out the future of this legendary JRPG series by going back to where it all began. This is a must play for any Tales fan. True fantasy is back and its name is Zestiria.