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November 28, 2016

Tales of Zestiria: I Want You

I have a lot to thank my mom for, but I’d wager that my general avoidance of sweets is one of them.  It’s not that I have anything against candy (except chocolate, because I’m secretly history’s greatest monster), but I don’t go out of my way to get my hands on it.  Same goes for stuff like cake and ice cream; honestly, a few weeks ago I had Pop-Tarts for the first time in years.  As a result, I’ve never known the pain of cavities.  Likewise, I’d imagine that axing the most heinous of food groups has helped me keep my figure svelte and lithe -- and not at all comparable to a skin-clad sack of bones.

Still, I know the taste of sweets.  I know the effect.  There are just some foods out there that are pure bliss in edible form; I’d count a warm blueberry muffin among them, for example.  Will eating sweets lead to regret later?  Possibly.  Probably, if they aren’t eaten in moderation.  On the other hand, sometimes you just have to indulge and take in whatever you can get.  Sometimes you just have to spoil yourself.

That’s what Tales of Zestiria does for me.  Because the more I think about it, the more I realize I’m absolutely in love with this game.

I’ve been sitting on it for a while.  The game came out last year, after all; I started a playthrough with my brother, but we decided to split things up and start separate files (for reasons I’ll get to in a minute).  The idea was that I’d be able to play and finish the game at my own pace, but “my own pace” eventually became synonymous with “indefinitely put on the backburner”.  I still have most of 2015’s greatest hits to parse through -- Metal Gear Solid V, The Witcher 3, and Bloodborne to name a few -- and I just finished Xenoblade Chronicles X a few weeks ago.

Maybe I would’ve gotten to Zestiria (and others) sooner, but I have to reiterate: there was a time when I was seriously thinking about giving up video games.  As controversial an opinion it may be, it’s because I played through all four of the Uncharted games -- games that made me progressively more miserable, frustrated, and outright angry the further in I went.  I forced myself to soldier through with minimal pauses (i.e. playing something else) for the sake of writing about them someday, and to know what all the noise was about.  But when given the choice between “play Uncharted” and “do literally anything else, like sleep”, you can guess which one I tended to opt for.  Spoilers: it was the one that didn’t feature Nathan Drake.


There was a time when it felt like the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” had been blocked off by a wall of mangled bodies and PS4 boxes (because “greatness awaits”!), but I did eventually break through.  Xenoblade Chronicles X helped immensely with the healing process, mending burns and broken bones as best it could.  Now that I’m done with that, it’s on to Zestiria -- and with it, I’m back in fighting form.  My spirit has been cleansed, massaged, and offered a steaming plate of blueberry muffins.

Here’s the thing, though: even if I love Zestiria, I don’t think it’s solely because of its qualities as a game.  In fact, that might be what lets it down the most.

From what I can gather, Zestiria is a contentious entry in the Tales series.  There was a controversy a while back because it advertised one of the main characters -- the young knight Alisha -- pretty heavily.  Come release day, however, it turns out that she sticks around for just a short while, and then (almost) never appears again…well, except for some DLC.  That’s not a great situation to put fans in, especially those who bought into the game solely for Alisha.  And those who became her fans through the actual game likely felt burned when she basically went “lol, bye!”, only to return for real if they slapped down some cash.


The problems go deeper than that, though.  Starting with Symphonia, my brother and I have played through nearly every single Tales game since via a JRPG rarity: couch co-op.  (Legendia was single-player only, and neither of us had the will to get through Dawn of the New World or Xillia 2.)  The plan was to make it through Zestiria, but the game isn’t conducive for co-op play thanks to some baffling aspects.  Chief among them: the camera during battles is a mess.

Unlike previous entries, Zestiria has fights take place in a facsimile of whatever area you’re in.  In theory, that means that if you’re in a dungeon, you’ll fight in the actual dungeon instead of an imaginary arena that copies its aesthetic.  In practice, you’ll fight in arenas where the camera will consistently get stuck on walls, on the ground, and on enemies.  Given that the franchise thrives on real-time battles, it’s a serious issue when you can’t see what you’re doing because a snake slithered too close to you.

By the way, these are camera issues that happen when you’re playing solo.  Imagine how much those problems are compounded when you’re playing with just one more person.  Congratulations -- you’re still off by half.


It’s also worth noting that Zestiria is a cross-generational game (and on PC), meaning that you can get it on the PS3 or PS4.  But whether you’re playing on last gen’s model or with one of the strongest consoles to date, concessions have still been made for reasons I can’t wrap my head around.  I’m on PS4, so I’d very much like to know why battles -- and the game at large -- have seen a drop to 30 frames when the PS2’s Tales of the Abyss could handle 60 despite popping up about a decade earlier.  It’s not deal-breaking, but I’m left wondering what the point of stronger machines is when it’s being outclassed.

There are other issues, too.  For reasons known only to the gods on Mount Olympus, the enemy AI has a habit of running to the opposite end of a map whenever they feel like it.  It’s not as much of an issue when you’re playing characters with long-range attacks, but two of the main characters have nothing of the sort -- so if you want to keep up your flurry of combos, you have to chase them down and hope you don’t get clipped in turn.  And because of the way the game works (wherein you fuse with party members), you can easily run into instances where Player 2 gets his control in a fight stolen because Player 1 needs to turn into a Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan.  I know that’s not what it’s called all the time, but….cripes, what a stupid-yet-perfect name for it. 


So in general, it’s hard for me to recommend playing Zestiria with two players -- and woe to anyone who tries playing with three or four.  Even if you’re playing solo, though, it feels like there are some missteps.  The Tales games have always put an insane amount of emphasis on world-building (sometimes to excess), to the point where “two different worlds coming together” has become a running theme throughout.  Comparatively, Zestiria’s world feels kind of ho-hum.  It’s fine, sure, but it’s lacking in the pizazz that other entries have had before it.  Given that Zestiria’s in the midst of an age where corruption is spreading malaise and disasters, it’s not that hard to defend.  Still, in the face of the artistry featured in Xillia’s opening hours alone, it’s hard to get hyped by Zestiria and its vaguely-medieval world and just-over-functional dungeons.  I’m not done with the game yet, so there could be some real stunners waiting for me; on the other hand, I’m almost 40 hours in and I’m not exactly impressed.

That’s a lot of negativity to heap right off the bat onto a game I supposedly love.  But you know how it is: the more time you spend with something, the more aware you become of the cracks and faults.  Really, I think it’s a good sign that I have been willing to stick with the game, even if I’m wary of its issues.  There could be more along the way -- and I suspect there might be, given that my brother believes that the story craps its pants somewhere down the line -- but for now I’m satisfied.  The good outweighs the bad in both story and gameplay.  And since I’m still focused on that, let’s talk gameplay.

Here’s the thing: Zestiria’s battle system basically turns the game into Kamen Rider: JRPG Edition.  Which Kamen Rider?  There are plenty of viable choices, but let’s go with this one for now.


To be clear, it’s not as if being vaguely similar to Kamen Rider automatically makes it better (and I’ll explain why Zestiria is special in a minute); still, the comparisons are easy to draw.  The crux of gameplay and story alike is that Sorey is more attuned to spiritual forces than the average Joe, which means he’s capable of seeing and talking to the seraphs that walk among the populace.  By extension, that means he’s the perfect candidate for being the Shepherd (AKA the chosen one, AKA Jesus, AKA whatever messiah figure you put stock in).  By taking on seraphs as his Lords -- a Prime Lord, who then takes on three Sub Lords -- he’s able to use their powers as his own.

So the reason why the gameplay is so multiplayer-unfriendly is because of the interplay between Sorey the human and the seraphs (and another human who joins later, with much the same benefits).  The humans go all in with melee attacks and direct pressure; the seraphs can do the same if you want, but they’ve also got access to magic of both the offensive and defensive variety.  I personally enjoy playing as the seraphs more, but the nature of the game makes it so that you don’t have to stick to just one and ignore the rest.  Arguably, that’s the whole point.


Each seraph has an elemental attribute, so you have to stay mindful of it to exploit enemy weaknesses and avoid pointlessly wasting your party’s energy and time.  Luckily, you don’t have to be a psychic and set up your party in advance; a quick tap on the d-pad is all it takes to swap out your fire-based seraph for your water-based seraph.  It’s simple, but it does add an extra layer of thought to the Tales series, whose battles can devolve into mindless button-mashing.  If you go full ham and keep whacking a water-resistant enemy with water attacks, you’ll drain your stamina faster (which means you take more damage) and risk having the baddie shrug off your blows.  Hit his weak point, though, and you’ll make combo-ing him into oblivion that much easier via damage multipliers and bolstered status effects.

It’s doubly-important to keep track of enemy weaknesses, because the game strongly recommends having your human and a seraph fusing into a single super-warrior.  And it’s not just something to whip out when a boss is stomping your ass; there are instances in regular battles where you need a power boost to survive the enemy onslaught.  By the same token, there are times when you need to fight as a party of four, but the important thing is that you have to manage your seraphs as best you can.  They’re your allies as well as your power, so knowing who to bench is crucial as well as tactically rewarding.  And while I doubt anyone’s going to say Zestiria’s as technically complex as, say, Virtua Fighter 5, it’s still satisfying to fight it out with rampaging hellions.

It certainly helps that there’s a “Blast Gauge” that gives you access to extended combos, which by extension packs mechanics from Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, and Marvel vs. Capcom into one game.  Definitely not complaining about that.


But again, I don’t love this game solely because of its gameplay systems.  I am impressed by the fact that it integrates its story and gameplay so boldly (for good and for ill), but for me?  The real draw is what Tales games have routinely delivered, and what may have reached its apex here with Zestiria: charm.

Without a doubt, Tales of Zestiria is a charming game.  It’s warm and cuddly, with more than enough potential to put a smile on even the most tear-soaked of faces.  I know that a lot of people play video games to have fun, but it’s been a hot minute since I played a game that’s basically the embodiment of fun.  I have a hard time skipping the intro each time it starts up, because not only is it one of my favorites -- especially with the Japanese vocals -- but it’s also the best way to get me hyped for the adventure I’m about to go on (or resume).  Seeing Sorey and his seraph pal Mikleo overlooking a sprawling world always makes me go “Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” internally.


It’s true that a lot of the scenes and images in the opening imply darker, heavier times ahead.  Having played through a big chunk of the game, that’s entirely justified.  In typical Tales fashion, there’s an examination of storytelling elements (or JRPG clichés, if you prefer) that follows them through to the logical conclusion.  Sorey becoming Anime Jesus isn’t just a bunch of fun and games; so far I’ve seen him 1) get extorted into fighting in a war using his seemingly-divine powers, 2) become a willing accomplice to murder in order to preserve his image of a saintly Samaritan, and 3) bear witness to the corruption that’s woven its way into the offices of organizations large and small -- to the point where the ex-pope is running an illegal cartel of fake medicine.  

And that’s on top of the tireless work Sorey has to put in saving the populace from the malevolence causing plagues and natural disasters, while also shouldering the burdens with a smile on his face so as to preserve the people’s peace of mind and keep himself from becoming corrupted.  Basically, shit’s whack.  The player and the character alike have to confront some nasty stuff and deal with the ramifications of being a demonstrably-existent messiah -- which is great from a storytelling perspective, but hardly something anyone would actively wish for.

How do you counteract all that heaviness?  With scenes like this one.


Or this one.


Or the skits, the number of which is probably just a few steps shy of infinity.


Somebody had a hell of a fun time with bringing this game out -- be it the eastern devs or the western localization team -- and that sense of fun shines through.  Even if Zestiria ventures into some serious territory and pushes Sorey onto the brink of despair, it’s got more than enough content to soothe the soul.  That’s kind of the point, I bet; if you’re going to make something that can really weigh down on a person’s soul (in-universe or out of it), then you need something to counteract that heaviness.  Zestiria’s sense of humor goes a long way towards that.  Not every joke or quip lands, of course, yet the sheer multitude and general quality of them make up for any misses.

It’s not just about the jokes, though.  It’s about the affect.  The tone.  Generally speaking, Zestiria won’t win any awards for the design or aesthetics of its world; despite that, it’s still a world -- a world that gives players plenty of options to explore, and plenty of majestic sites for Sorey to uncover.  Though he willingly takes on the role of Anime Jesus, his primary goal before (and even during) his journey is to find ruins and get glimpses of the past as spoken of in his favorite books.  He’s already got his mind on adventure, with the learning and self-improvement inherent within to match.  That spirit is so infectious it carries over into the first battle theme...which I’d listen to even if I wasn’t writing this post.


It’s impossible to overstate just how important characters are to a product, video games included.  Maybe someday, devs up and down the industry will understand that and we’ll get actual characters on a regular basis -- not just cookie cutter archetypes that are just avatars for violence or revenge.  Until then, Zestiria’s picking up the slack with its modest squadron of lovable characters.  Each of them brings something delightful to the table; whether they’re viewed individually or as a whole unit, they infuse the game with smile-inducing charm.

It’s not hard to see how things could’ve gone awry, but they didn’t.  For example: it would’ve been easy to just have leading man Sorey be some grinning, pure-hearted cinnamon bun without a thought in his head -- BUT he’s actually much smarter than his easygoing nature suggests, he’s fully aware of the circumstances of (and dark side to) being a Shepherd, and he’s got ambitions that don’t start and end with “doin’ it for da girl”.  Hell, it’s looking like he might not even have a girl -- and by extension, doesn’t have a romantic arc.  Instead, there’s just this refreshing, endearing friendship with his bro Mikleo.


It would’ve been easy to just have Mikleo be the smart, cool one to Sorey’s dumb, hot-blooted persona -- and that’s their bit on a surface level -- but there’s more to him than that.  He’s got a brain and a sense of maturity about him, and tries to reason his way through situations…but at the same time, he’s also the butt of various jokes, can be pretty childish, and despite his “too cool for school” airs, he’s just as passionate about ruin-exploring as Sorey.  I don’t know if the two boys are (or will be) the game’s official couple, but whether it’s left implicit or made explicit later on, the dev team made a really dynamic duo.

The same could be said of the rest of the cast.  They could’ve just made Prime Lord Lailah a dealer of exposition and a passive hanger-on of a waif, but it’s impossible not to be enchanted by her honest, ditzy self -- especially when she’s secretly channeling the spirit of Final Fantasy 10’s Lulu.  They could’ve just made Edna into the token loli, but they kicked the snark into overdrive with her and made her an unrepentant troll (and The Littlest Racist to boot).  Same goes for Dezel, albeit on a different axis; he’s so committed to the bit of being a vengeful edgelord that it ends up working like gangbusters.  I guess that’s kind of to be expected when his corruptive, murderous impulses are just barely held in check by Rose.


Speaking of Rose, she’s good for more than just a Phoenix Smasher straight out of Paul Phoenix’s playbook.  She gets a lot of good lines, but it’s her general cheer and reactions to the absurdity du jour that make her fun to be around…and then there are moments where she’ll remind you why she’s the boss of a deadly assassin guild, complete with a stark change in voice and mannerisms.  She’s a good replacement for Alisha, but I’m not about to sell the princess knight short; with nobility and grace in spades, she’s a breath of fresh air in-universe and out of it -- especially in the former where she’s campaigning hard to purify the world.  It just so happens that her sheer pure-heartedness is enough to make her say and do some silly things (like a fantasy Macarena).

Alisha doesn’t stick around for too long, but even without the DLC she leaves a decent-sized impact.  Arguably, she’s the one who embodies the game itself.  So to reiterate: Tales of Zestiria isn’t just a game I love because I think it’s funny, or even fun.  I love it because it’s overflowing with -- and pardon the cringe-inducing pun -- zest.  The game itself has its issues, but the gameplay overall is well above par.  The story goes to some interesting places because it’s willing to probe concepts and ask “what if” questions.  And of course, the characters themselves are a huge draw -- men and women with problems and foibles, but a litany of reasons why they deserve your attention, respect, and even love.


In a world where games can’t always be counted on to care about charm or charisma, it’s important to recognize the work of games that understand how important it can be.  These are characters that like each other, like their world, and like going on an adventure (yes, even the crusty-hearted Dezel).  They’re all trying to be more and do more -- a reflection of the devs’ beliefs, alongside effort and skill alike.  In the same sense that Alisha tries steadfastly to brighten her world for the sake of others, so too does the game try to brighten our world -- all for the sake of anyone willing to give it a chance.  It stumbles sometimes, it’s easy to laugh at instead of laugh with, and it might be too much for some gamers to bear. 

You know what, though?  I don’t need to try and explain; I just hold on tight.  And if it happens again, I might move so slightly to the arms and the face of the human cannonball that I need to, I want to.

…Why yes, this post WAS written with the intent to eventually, clumsily cram in a reference to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.  Can you blame me?  Josuke’s freakin’ cool.  And his hair is awesome.


Gureato daze.

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