Review: Tales of Zestiria and the arte of reinvention
Tales of Zestiria represents a franchise in transition. That’s true in a purely technical sense, of course; the game bridges the gap between console generations and even extends its footprint to PC. It’s also true in a creative sense: after building the world of Xillia that captured fans’ imagination in a way its immediate predecessors couldn’t and expanding on that for a second installment, it’s in the unenviable position of following that act.
We’ve seen franchises do that well and poorly, and that’s clearer to discern with time, but in the moment it’s never quite that easy. Expectations and attachments to the old ways form barriers that can be scaled, but it’s never painless. A follow-up has to navigate the tricky path between innovation and comfort, and Zestiria smartly starts out with that in mind.
Much of Tales of Zestiria banks on a plan to make its world feel more contiguous and lived-in. This is most obvious in battles, as they now take place in the actual spot in the countryside or dungeon where the encounter’s triggered. Elevation is now a factor, though that’s largely cosmetic and isn’t used for many strategic purposes.
Much of Tales of Zestiria banks on a plan to make its world feel more contiguous and lived-in.
The real thing here is the shape of your arenas, as actual obstacles and narrow pathways mean it’s sometimes smart to lure enemies in a direction for a tactical advantage. What if you can make a choke point on a bridge and keep your casters safe behind you? Or keep your foes from fleeing by driving them into corners? Zestiria definitely makes this choice for feel rather than mechanics, but the side effects are promising nonetheless, and certainly worth exploring as the series progresses.
Outside of battle, you’ll find that Zestiria makes more of a point of decorating the areas out of your reach, such as cliffsides and alleys. In previous games, the world generally stopped when you did, and even when it didn’t, these areas were bland and empty. It may not be a believable world in the way that Western RPGs have worked hard to perfect, but it provides nice scenery for the adventure.
The writing side is as consistent as ever — the localization has a lot of fun, and that’s great — but from a storytelling perspective, it’s a shame that more wasn’t done with seeing through the elements set out in the exposition. An example: early in the game, a lot of time is spent explaining a difficult method of communication between certain characters, but then it quickly wraps up those threads before it can really explore this conceit in any intriguing ways. It probably would’ve made the job of crafting this narrative a bit harder, but when it makes a show of swinging for the fences, it’s a bit disappointing when it bunts.
Visually, it’s clear that Zestiria was never intended for release on PS4 or PC. The more powerful platforms offer performance and resolution advantages, but the assets and world are strictly PS3-quality. It’s not a problem for a game with this sort of design, but it’s good to know not to expect gorgeous environments. Still, it’s a good note for perspective: it may be the first step onto new hardware in the West, but it was designed as a late-generation experiment.
That experimentation is important to do to keep a franchise fresh, and the end of a generation lets you try things without worrying about whether they’ll continue. Would inns work better if they’re combined with cooking, adding various special effects to your health replenishment? Should other party members augment the main fighter’s combat abilities instead of fighting themselves? Should combat be more about reading the context than enhancing your party’s specific skills through a complicated tree? Zestiria‘s status means these things can totally disappear if they don’t work out with no problem. (For the record: the food inns are fun, the combat is better for solo play at the expense of the cool Tales multiplayer and I do miss the skill trees.)
Tales of Zestiria may be the first step onto new hardware in the West, but it was designed as a late-generation experiment.
Most importantly, though, Tales of Zestiria still feels like a Tales game despite these changes. You’re still playing around with decorating your characters with accessories. You’re still finding and talking to all the dogs, just because it’s a thing you can do. You’re still stopping for off-the-wall conversation skits (or not), and embracing this world that doesn’t for a second ground itself in reality. In many franchises, this could be a problem, but Tales is very much about this comfortable consistency, so managing to innovate without changing too much is the happy medium most fans want.
Tales of Zestiria isn’t the genre’s new standard-bearer or anything, but it never tries to be. It’s a calculated iteration rather than a paradigm shift, a friendly face you can always count on that does what it must to avoid stagnation. And yeah, it can be a lot of fun. It certainly has room to improve in the future (and we hope it will), but for now, Zestiria is enough.
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