Sorey is a unique individual. Unlike anyone else in current time, he is a human living among seraphim, which are element-based humanoids that cannot be seen by human beings, and he is the only one in a long time to sense them in any form. Humans and seraphim used to interact with each other by sheer sense of feeling alone, but those days are centuries past at this point.
Sorey meets his first human being in the early moments of Zestiria, and the intrigue behind his circumstance sparks the interest of this human, a knight-princess named Alicia. She tells Sorey that the world far below his solitary home is engulfed in malevolence, which is a darkness that corrupts living things by building up their evils until they’re transformed into creatures called hellion. Convinced by her urgency and his love for adventure, Sorey goes with her on a journey to cleanse the land of the evils that have taken over. His ability to see the physical manifestation of the malevolence also allows him to see more seraphim, and in the town of Ladylake, where Alicia is from, he pulls a sacred sword from a stone, granting him the title of Shepard, the historical tour de force against hellion.
The characters in Tales of Zestiria aren’t much different than what one would expect from a Tales of title, but what makes this batch of protagonists stand out is the writing. The after-battle blurbs, the events, and the skits all bring out each character’s individuality, and they all work off each other well rather than conversation being a series of one-liners between characters.
Sorey has a penchant for exploration, particularly in regards to dungeons and caves. This is reflected in how the game is played, and it makes actual exploration both engaging and well worth the effort. Searching nooks and crannies isn’t just for finding weapons and items and useless collectibles, because all the collectibles have a benefit built into them. Slabs, written in the ancient tongue, give tips and hints on how to play as well as yield an Ability Point. Ability Points (AP) are used for activating always-on abilities for combative purposes, such as longer dodging steps, automated Armatization, and on-the-fly character changes in combat, so having more points allows for more activated abilities. Normin, little elemental seraphim, can also be collected. Each one grants one ability to a piece of armor or weapon, making equipment more efficient.
When I think of this year’s combat style, it brings to mind the positives of what made Tales of Graces f so successful in its execution. Instead of being bound by combo links, Sorey can execute strings of combos based on how well his resources are maintained, but it requires a discipline that mimics more of a fighter than an RPG. Spirit Chain (SC) is limited to 100, and each preset ability requires a certain amount of SC in order to use. With that in mind, only certain abilities can be strung together to reach the four-combo limit. However, using Blast Gauges (BG) on the third combo attack enacts an automated barrage of attacks which also refreshes 50 SC and continues the combo string without a break between four-hit combos. Putting this altogether with both main characters can be huge, but as one may guess, running both players that way would still end the combo count soon after it started. Building up BG is done in multiple ways too, including blocking, dodging attacks at the right time, and attacking enemies based on their weaknesses. So, it’s best to keep resources maintained, work off what allies are doing, and regenerate resources in productive ways.
Two humans and two seraphim take the field at any given time, and they work together in a unique way. At the start of combat, a seraphim is bound to a human, which allows them to fight together. Everyone fights as individuals, but the combative reason seraphim are bound to a human is Armatization, which is a step up from Xillia’s Linked combat. The human takes on a transformation based on the seraphim’s element and the seraphim turns into something like a weapon. Armatization can also be used to string combos into greater numbers, but activating it requires one BG as mentioned above. It’s also wise to keep at least one BG at all times, because Armatization can be used to revive a fallen human as long as his or her seraphim is still kicking. So, the potential to what combat can requires a lot of skill and practice, and the effect of it all in the throws of combat is rewarding when it all plays out the way it’s intended.
The comparative I’m about to use will not have anything to do with the combat featured in Zestiria itself, but rather it reflects a similar case I’ve come across in the last few decades I’ve been playing video games. When Dragonball Z Budokai 3 changed to Tenkaichi, the perspective changed from 2D to 3D, creating a need for change in how it is played, but fans of that series will remember how clunky the camera was in response to the flow of combat. This is the case in Zestiria as well. When running free, the camera is locked in place, meaning that the field will not be in view. On top of this, the camera does not follow the controlled player when dodging, so executing successive dodges will often move the player off the screen until he or she stands there long enough for the camera to reset.
This negative is a small part of a massive positive, which requires a bit of context. Combat is not random here, so the field of play has monsters roaming around; this is becoming the standard for the console-based games in the series. What Zestiria does with combat is make the place on the map where combat was initiated, the arena where combat is held. So, if a fight begins on a cliff edge with a tree lining it and a stream flowing off the cliff while a dog dances in the tree, then that will be where the fight is held; for the record, I hyperbolized this example to show that any place on the map can become a war zone instead of it being a preset stage for each area. Now, under this crazy example, if the player were to move under that tree with the dancing dog, then the camera will zoom in so it’s between the tree and the player, often blanking out what’s going in the fight as a whole. This sort of thing happens far too often, and though it doesn’t guarantee a wipe, it’s quite the sticky wicket.
Developing characters is complicated. Each piece of equipment has particular abilities inlaid into them, and those abilities fall within particular guidelines on a chart as pictured above. The point of this gridding is to place as many abilities on that chart as possible, because the benefits begin to stack with the more columns and rows completed. However, the only way to know what the equipment will unlock is based on owning the equipment and going through them all. Equipment can be leveled up and fused together, unlocking even more abilities and allowing for the creation of some fantastic equipment. There’s a lot to take in here, and even though there are slabs and skits and menus detailing how to go about it, it’s still a lot of work and a lot to process. Early on, completing rows and columns is very, very hard, but looking through them all for possible combinations is worth even equipping things that lower overall stats. All in all, since leveling is automatic, having this polar opposite almost deters wanting to explore equipment combinations until late in the game.
The greatest part of Zestiria is how streamlined it is when compared to any other Tales of game. Going between cutscenes and gameplay is fluid and without break, and moving in and out of combat is a change in camera angle instead of a freeze or black screen transition. I caught myself forgetting that I moved from area to area as my expectation for loading screens disappeared. It was a great feeling. Amid this positive is the fact that the graphics themselves aren’t much better than they have been on the PS3, which is assumedly caused by Zestiria’s presence on both the PS4 and PS3. It’s forgettable, because the franchise has a great art style, but it’s clear through and through that the PS4 is underutilized here.
The series debut on the PS4 is a great product. RPG fans will go wild in the world of Zestiria, as the combat and character development is something that almost requires obsession. With that in mind, newcomers will have a great deal of trouble getting into it without a sense of foundation, even with the generous tutorials strewn throughout the game. Each year, exploration becomes more and more rewarding in this franchise, and Zestiria is the perfect balance of effort and benefit to justify checking every nook and cranny in the game. Without a doubt, anyone curious about what the Tales of franchise has to offer will be fool hearted not to pick it up.