The Tales series has always openly worn its anime influences on its sleeve, and Tales of Zestiria is no different. Each character can be reduced to a single wide-eyed trope and prop, the plotting is exaggerated and often panders for laughs even in the middle of calamity, and there are cute, fan-service-y costumes everywhere. And yet, there’s a reason why this series has made it all the way to this 15th iteration, as that relentlessly charming formula works.
It therefore doesn’t matter that the story, in which an evil Malevolence threatens to corrupt the warring nations of Hyland and Rolance, is basically cribbed from Legend of Legaia, Shadow Hearts, and Persona. Never mind that the majority of ruins and fields are unnecessarily large and empty: This is what’s known in anime as “filler.” And ignore the jarring art style, which props the crisp character models against dull and poorly textured landscapes, for this all literally fades into the background. Whenever attention starts to flag, Bandai Namco adds a new customizable feature or tests a player’s reflexes with its active combat system. In battle or out of it, Zestiria relies entirely on its entertaining, colorful cast of characters to distract players from anything even remotely tedious or derivative.
Thanks to the constant bells and whistles, Zestiria’s grind isn’t just palatable, but often enjoyable. Recuperating in the local inn doesn’t just rank up the stat-boosting cuisine offered there, but often triggers a comic yet informative skit as the party members remind players how the various fusions operate. Nor is upgrading gear a mere chore to be accomplished at each new outpost; instead, stats and skill bonuses are embedded in each item and combine on what’s essentially a bingo board, turning in-depth optimization into a literal game. Even the quest to increase the odds of acquiring items with specific abilities pre-attuned to them is charmingly done, as it’s tied to one’s ability to track down the bunny-like Normins that are hiding in, on, or behind the various barrels and crates festooning each new region.
Like Disgaea, cuteness masks the serious work that goes into optimizing gear. But all this preparation is especially important for those unaccustomed to Tales’s deceptively complex combat, which frowns upon button-mashers by forcing players to defend or dodge attacks in order to recharge their stamina, and rewards those who master the rock-scissors-paper priority given to the three major types of attacks: seraphic, hidden, and martial.
Zestiria goes a step further, too, by giving your two human party members the ability to fuse, Dragon Ball Z-style, with the four elemental seraphs accompanying them. One imagines that the NRA might approve of this, for despite this power being called “armatization,” it doesn’t represent some overpowered, lethal weapon so much as a necessary defense mechanism against enemy “hellions” that, in the right hands, can decisively turn the tide of a battle. Tales’s LMBS (linear motion battle system) has never felt as fluid, and the way in which this ability can be used to resurrect downed partners at last manages to resolve some of the outstanding A.I. issues that have long plagued the series. (The game suggests that solo players can conduct their party like an orchestra; that may be true, but so far as my experience goes, the A.I. is either deaf or just tin-eared.)
The seraphic nature of these elemental companions is also relatively well-used outside of combat. From a story perspective, Sorey, who’s the heralded Shepherd, and his appointed squire are the only humans who can see these otherworldly creatures, which makes for some amusingly awkward interactions in public areas. (Sorey’s companions play Cyrano and both feed him lines and puppet his limbs so as to smooth-talk past a suspicious guard.) Meanwhile, on the field, these elementals can trigger special powers that aid in exploration and puzzle-solving, from dashing across gaps with the power of wind to shielding oneself from sight in a bubble of water.
Being able to see these invisible agents—the evil ones are known as hellions—also lands solid points about how easily humans can be led astray by good intentions; jingoism, zealotry, and desperation are given tangible and sympathetic forms. The shallow characterizations of these seraphs does, however, constantly threaten to undermine the narrative, particularly when it comes to Lailah, who acts like a ditz whenever asked something that violates her oath of silence, or Edna, an adorable, pint-sized font of sarcasm.
It’s not meant as an insult to suggest that Zestiria relies on addicting its user base to pave over some of its many flaws. Instead, it’s an acknowledgment of how well Bandai Namco has perfected its design over the course of 15 titles, and respect is due to the studio for the fact that it never takes advantage of its captive audience. The action actually picks up considerably after the halfway point, not just in regards to the addition of relevant subplots and optional spelunking, but in terms of mechanics, with boss fights that require light environmental manipulation and more than mere combat mastery. It’s blessedly ironic, in the end, that for all of its cloying silliness, Zesteria culminates as a thinking man’s game.