Bandai Namco’s Tales series and I have never exactly seen eye to eye. A lot of gamers like to point towards Dragon Quest as a franchise that never evolves beyond its typical formula, but news flash! Dragon Quest VIII redefined what it meant to be an expansive RPG, Dragon Quest IX practically invented Streetpass, and Dragon Quest X is an MMORPG which revolutionizes distribution through streaming into even the 3DS.
And yet, here we are, 2014 and Tales of Zestiria is still using the same action oriented combat system that its series has been using for the last fifteen years.
Now, improvements have been made. The camera knows how to make the quick, flashy action look really good, and a new level of depth has been added allowing characters to combine into a “super being” to chop away at enemies even faster. However, at its core, it’s still the same hackin’ and slashin’ we’ve been doing since Tales of Symphonia or maybe even further back.
In what has become a bit of a theme today, Tales of Zestiria‘s combat revolves around a lock-on system. Players will be able to walk only in a direct line towards or away from the enemy, and holding the L2 button will open up the chance for free running. In a troublesome moment, I launched an attack on an enemy fairy who was floating on the opposite side of a tree root. Not a tree, just the root. Instead of walking around the tree root or up and over it like a decent AI system should do, he ran headlong into it, moving his legs in a running motion and yet not going anywhere for a good 5-10 seconds.
If a tree root was able to trip up the protagonist of our adventure, what will a fire breathing dragon do?
After taking control with the L2 button and re-positioning my hero to launch an attack again, our devious fairy villain moved itself a few inches to the right, and the same phenomenon occurred. My character could not figure out how to get around that tree or over that root!
The problem with Tales of Zestiria is that its enemies are smarter than its developers. No doubt, these hideous beasts were programmed to know the exact flaws of the battle system and take advantage of them, and that stupid fairy knew that our protagonist’s AI didn’t have the intellect to run around trees!
In the end, it didn’t matter though. Once I finally got to it, the Tales combat kicked in and it was chopped to death after about a hundred different attacks landed, not a single one feeling like it had any punch behind it. Games like Dark Souls feel great because every attack is a huge step closer to death. Tales has always been about chip damage, and a hundred attacks which equal the power of one of Dark Souls attack just don’t feel satisfying.
Beyond the battle system, the demo took place in an open field with a huge scope and gorgeous coloring. It looked soft and pleasant enough like a JRPG of its type should, but the detail in environmental objects and the pattern that went into laying out the trees and making it look like an actual place comes up short. The frame rate failed to keep up with the scope of the world though, and it sputtered way more than I would have liked.
I’m not sure if I can recommend Tales to anyone other than fans of the series. If the high-octane chip-damage battles are your thing, and you like battling as bubbly anime characters, you’ve found your game. Otherwise, newcomers should skip this one for the time being and check out the PlayStation 3’s Tales of Symphonia HD, a game that actually gets Tales‘ insane brand of action right. You can play Zestiria afterwards if you like that.
Those who want a deep battle system with planning and attacks that feel like they matter, stay away.
Tales of Zestiria will be released for the PlayStation 3 in Japan in January 2015. Bandai Namco has promised an English release within a year of that date.