Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tales of Zestiria (PS3)

Tales of Zestiria is the fifteenth flagship title in the Tales series, originally developed for the PS3, it was ported over to PS4 when it was localized.  This game is supposed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Tales series and as such, it has a number of changes and attempts at improving the core Tales gameplay.  Tales games have always had a great battle system which builds upon the past.  In Tales of Zestiria, it is called the Fusonic Chain Linear Motion Battle System.  It is extremely complex with many facets to it, so much that it is entirely confusing and difficult to get a grasp upon when playing for the first time.  It takes most of one playthrough in order to understand the different elements at play.  The game features a four-member party but it is always comprised of two humans and two Seraph characters.  A Seraphim must always be paired with a human, therefore there will often be times in the story where you will only have a two-character party.  You can change your partner Seraphim during battles to capitalize on an enemy's weakness which is a nice feature.

The key feature of the battle system is Armatization.  Weaved into the story where there are humans and Seraph (who are kind of like spirits), two characters can combine into one.  The combined character has stats equal to the sum of their parts but have more powerful moves to offset the loss of one party member.  It is very powerful and can be used to get out of tricky situations.  One of the most confusing parts of the battle system is that there are three different types of artes:  Martial, Hidden and Seraphic.  Each has their own advantages such as casting time or ability to cancel other artes.  The game doesn't do a good job of explaining it in an easy to understand way though.  Characters can usually only do up to four combos in one hit, and the types of artes you can use are determined by SC points, which automatically replenish when you run around, dodge or block.  A new counter for each character called the Blast Gauge is introduced.  You can consume Blast Gauge points for a variety of actions such as extending your combo, performing powerful Mystic Artes and healing when armatized.

One of the most annoying things is that auto-item usage is removed from the game.  You cannot set conditions which trigger when to use a particular item anymore and it sucks.  You'll have to manually open the items menu, determine the character to use the item, select the item and then select the character to use it on.  It feels like a step backwards when it is so tedious to use.  Also, only the Seraph characters have access to one or two healing spells, or you can armatize and use your precious Blast Gauge to heal.  One of the neat improvements is that Tales of Zestiria features a quicker transition to the battle arena.  Whenever you approach an enemy and initiate a battle, the environment instantly cordons off into a circle for the battle to happen.  It's seamless and a step towards the right direction in updating the gameplay when so many games don't feature battle transitions anymore.  Unfortunately, this isn't without its problems because the game has a horrible camera when you battle in tight spaces.  Walls will be blocking your view or the camera will suddenly zoom into an enemy so you can't see what your character is doing.  Thankfully, all boss battles are in wide open spaces so it's only a problem when you're exploring dungeons against normal enemies.

On the topic of environments, Tales of Zestiria tries to encourage exploration.  There are huge maps for each environment which takes minutes to traverse.  At its best, this is fun and before you know it, you've spent hours scouring the environment.  At its worse though, and this happens much more frequently, the environments are simply too big and empty so exploring isn't worth the time when all you get is a few treasure chests for items.  What makes this worse is that the enemies on the fields are too frequent and quite often, you cannot outrun them forcing you to get into tens of fights.  It also doesn't help that enemies respawn so quickly.  There isn't much variety in the environments as it is mainly green fields and forests.  It sucks because the fantasy setting has a lot of potential, at least there was a desert and a mountain setting to break things up a little bit.  Tales of Zestiria is touted as "open world" but the game restricts where you can go in order to keep the story moving along, so it is false freedom.  Dungeons are usually filled with padding like blocking you in a room to force you to wait or do mundane tasks before you can plod along.

While exploring, superficial abilities like burning spiderwebs that block your way or speeding over a short gap also serve to further irritate the player.  Later dungeons have "puzzles" which amount to little more than even more padding.  It feels like the developer is testing how much they can get away with wasting the player's time.  In Tales of Zestiria's case, they have gone too far.  These "puzzles" including lighting torches in a specific order, scouring around to find items to open certain doors and crumbling platforms that cause you to repeatedly fall onto the floor below are frustrating.  Worse yet, there is a whole dungeon where if you accidentally get "spotted", you are sent back to the very beginning.  The plot follows the protagonist Sorey, who lives in Elysia.  He is the only human with all the other residents being Seraphim who are normally not able to be seen by normal humans.  One day, he meets the Princess Alisha and Sorey ends up journeying out of Elysia along with his friend Mikleo.  From then on, it is your typical JRPG plot but even simpler, as Sorey travels the world gathering more party members including the assassin/merchant Rose, and a few more Seraphim.

The key concept in Tales of Zestiria is the legend of the Shepherd, who returns to bring the world back to peace.  Needless to say, Sorey is this generation's Shepherd and he goes on a grand quest to gain more powers and eventually defeat the great evil that is threatening to destroy the world.  The plot never gets more complicated than this but it sure loves to try via convoluted plot devices, exaggerated scenes and an extra dose of padding.  The story stagnates early on in the game and it never recovers.  It is extremely boring because you just don't care about the characters or the scenes.  Everything is so dry and bland, with the ending being average, most of it coming from that you're glad the game has finally ended.  One of the big drivers of the player's lack of attachment is that Tales of Zestiria tells its story so obnoxiously.  There are frequent cutscenes which break the gameply up so much that is gets frustrating.

The game plays like this:  a 2 minute cutscene, the player takes four steps, a 4 minute cutscene, the player then takes 5 steps, now a 2 minute cutscene, okay, now we can go into the next area, oh wait, here's another 5 minute cutscene, then rinse and repeat.  It is mind numbing and it would have been more preferable if they had just shoved in all the cutscenes in one hit without trying to be interactive when there isn't any.  There are plenty of attempts at humor and some of it works.  When the humor does work, it works well and is funny, although it's only the one or two characters that carries it for the game.  Skits make a return, which are additional pieces of dialogue from characters.  However, a large amount of them feels like it is explaining the game mechanics to the player, so they are not fun to watch and skits needs more interesting ways of triggering because most of them are regulated to being seen at save points and inns.  Tales of Zestiria still uses save points but there is a quick save feature which allows one save file to be saved anywhere.  This is to avoid save scumming and to be frank, the one save file for saving anywhere is enough if you're playing normally.

It takes around 10 hours before you really get into the game, it handholds you so much in the beginning, from the frequent tutorials and clear objective markers.  However, midway through, the objective markers become vaguer and makes you waste your a lot of time and gald to travel around the large empty environments to find your next destination.  Fast travelling requires gald (the currency in the game) which is annoying when money is hard to come by unless you play on higher difficulties and grind.  The fast travelling cost is on a stupid system where the more gald you have on you at the time, the more it costs.  At certain points in the story, fast travel is disabled and you need to trek through the large empty environments gain to progress along, another case of excessive padding.  In terms of developing your characters, the basic levelling up system is still in place.  You defeat enemies to increase your characters' stats.  In their infinite wisdom, the developers decided to tie the stat boosts to consumable items that you find in the environments and beating various bosses for additional HP.  As a result, there is a heavier reliance on equipment as they provide additional stat boosts, "encouraging" the player to spend time and farm for better equipment.

For a game developed specifically for the PS3 and after the first two Xillia games, it is seemingly worse than Tales of Xillia.  There are heaps of jaggies and dull environments that are severely lacking in detail.  There is heavy pop-up and the draw distance is low.  Despite this, the game still stutters from time to time even while the character is only running.  The PS4 version seems to be definitely be better optimized compared to the PS3.  There are multiple difficulties where interestingly, each has its advantages and disadvantages.  Hard Mode will provide less experience but more gald to spend, while easier modes have more experience but less gald.  Once you finish the main story, a bonus dungeon becomes available which gives another 4-5 hours of gameplay.  This dungeon is very difficult as the enemy levels ramps up a lot forcing you to grind levels to stand a chance on even the easiest difficulty setting.

Another staple of the series is the New Game Plus where you use grade you have earned during the game to spend on bonuses such as double damage, higher item capacity etc.  The grade, which is another category of points, this time around accumulates in a stupid way.  If you don't deliberately farm it and find an efficient way to do so, you will not be able to get much grade to spend.  Once you have most of the bonuses, New Game Plus is actually more fun since you don't have to sit through the story and can blast your way through all the monsters.  Overall, Tales of Zestiria is a divisive Tales game.  You can see what the developers were trying to do but a lot of it fails and combined together into a very irritating and frustrating package.  The main flaws involve a chore of a story, a chore of traversing the huge empty environments, chore of time-wasting mundane events that are forced upon the player and an overly complicated battle/equipment system.  It's even worse when Tales of Zestiria is supposed to celebrate the 30th anniversary.  While there will definitely be fans of this game, in the reviewer's opinion, Tales of Zestiria isn't that fun and is best to avoid as there are too many things that ruin it.

Alisha's Story:  The Strength of a Knight
The very first story DLC within the Tales franchise and with additional Trophies to boot, this additional story is titled Alisha's Story, The Strength of a Knight.  The plot follows Alisha after the game's ending with how she finally accepts her path and believing in herself.  She is discussing the peace conditions with Roland when hellions attack.  Naturally, Rose turns up with Lailah and Edna to help her, before joining into the one party to find the source of the new malevolence.  Unfortunately, the story paints Rose in a really horrible picture.  Rose's attitude towards Alisha is disgusting and feels different to how Rose acted during the main game.  The beginning is some pointless bickering between Rose and Alisha with some extremely awkward and cringeworthy dialogue.  It is made the worse when you know that they will make up.  Rose's behavior during the whole DLC is hard to sympathize with and seems contrived.  In this DLC, most of the areas are blocked off as expected but there are two new dungeons and one new pathway in between them.  One of the dungeons is 12 floors filled with dead ends, treasures and multiple routes.

At the end of the day though, these dungeons are still the same backdrop so there is nothing much exciting.  You will be running through environments overfilled with enemies, watching the cutscenes that frequently crop up and break the gameplay.  Surprisingly, there are a few pieces of new music, or at least ones that isn't played as often during the main game.  It gives it a fresher feel.  There are new items and enemies to encounter, although the enemies are recolors of existing ones from the main game.  One of the neat things is that you can bring in a save from the main game after you've finished the story and it will keep your bonuses, gear and levels which makes it so much easier.  Otherwise, you can play with predetermined levels and gear.  Overall, the DLC will take 3 to 6 hours to complete depending if you end up fighting monsters along the way, skip them, or are going for the Trophies.  Alisha's Story was free in the first few weeks after release and for that, this is nice.  However, it now costs around $10 and considering that it doesn't feel substantial or memorable, it is not a must-have DLC.


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