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I've been thinking about why I find Zestiria disappointing for a long time now, and I think that at this point I can narrow it down to two major factors.
A) The game doesn't take nearly as much time as it should developing its plot and characters. As a result I felt myself asking "Why should I care?" a lot while I was playing. The beginning was really promising, opening very grandiosely and immersing the player in a nicely-paced prologue, before beginning the main game by throwing Sorey and Mikleo into the world that they've never had the chance to explore all their lives. But then so much of the subsequent game failed to deliver on the same level as it did at the start. Most of the party members do not evolve as people as the story goes on, the antagonists feel like they lack even basic character traits sometimes, and there are some glaring plot holes. A lot of the attempts at drama fell flat for me as a result. Sorey, though I like him as a person, I feel is a pretty weak protagonist because we don't really get to see much conflict within him. Also, the lack of character development really makes it hard to get attached to anyone, I feel.
B) The story is taken way too seriously for what it is. There are lots of plot points, both major and minor, that revolve around something really heavy and depressing. There's the question of whether it's necessary to mercy kill people to save them, there's a lot of people dying horribly, more violence and less idealism than previous entries in the Tales series, etc. But like... this is a game about an ancient prophecy, a conflict between good and evil, and a determined happy-go-lucky protagonist accepting his destiny without any real internal conflict about it. To me, this juxtaposition did not work. It can work if you're trying to do a Deconstruction, but this felt more like the writers started out aiming to write something cliche and typical then changing their mind halfway through and trying to transform what they already had into something dark and morally-grey, with clumsy results. I would have liked it way more if they had stuck with the typical-JRPG approach all the way instead, because then at least it would have a Narm Charm quality to it instead of coming off as a desperate attempt to take a cliche story seriously.
This is without going into the gameplay, which I found irritating on many levels. It feels a lot like they rushed the playtesting process.
I need to give this game credit, though. The character designs are fantastic, the opening is kickass, the inter-party banter is really fun for the most part, the shrine temple music tracks are A+ and the voice acting is superb. The game really fails to deliver where it counts though, which is unfortunate.
When NAMCO released Tales of Zestiria, they really thought they going to get a home run. Suffice to say, they franshised the heck out of this game, anime, light novel, and manga adaptations were already in the works. Yet this game was a spectacular failure. I've had highs and lows when it comes to enjoying different installments of the Tales series just like any fan, but when I pull up any of Zestiria's floorboards I find myself seeing its foundation infested with woodlice and termites.
Enduring Zestiria's cast of characters is more a testament of patience than a developing of affection. This mostly has to with the fact that the characters have no chemistry together. For example, Sorey likes archaeology, but because the story already has exposition delivered from Lailah, that trait stops mattering after they meet Lailah. Edna's only standout interactions are making Mikleo miserable and throwing in the occasional deadpan comment. Sorey and Alisha relationship is of obsessively trying to please the other with little existing outside that dynamic. In contrast, Sorey and Rose's relationship is almost a satire about moral compromise.
It's bad enough to watch these characters undermine through dialogue, but watching them act it through the context of a JRPG from 80's only worsened my headache. Prophetic nonsense, cyclical villains, and characters acting stupid just to move the plot forward. In one memorable point, Alisha barely escapes a coup conducted by some angry nobles. Later in the game, she returns to the nobles alone, with no protection whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, the nobles use Alisha to blackmail Sorey into doing whatever they want. This is just one of the stupid plots in this game.
The gameplay a tedious slog. This game is chock-full Fake Longevity. Need to fast travel? The game will charge you an amount proportional to your gold savings. Need to better stats and abilities to make fighting encounters and bosses less difficult? Well, their are three reddit pages full of notes to consult, explaining how character skills, enemy types, and item fusion correspond to make that perfect weapon that you discard two towns later because it doesn't scale as effectively as the new weapon available. Weapons need to be bought multiple times and certain abilities have to be grinded against weaker enemies unless you want the process to take even longer, meaning even more uses of fast travel, and none of this is even getting into shop investment.Eventually, I realized I was playing a virtual pyramid scheme and just used EXP and gold exploits to beat the remaining bosses. This isn't good game design.
I have always been a huge Tales game fan. I may have not liked Vesperia, but I do recognize that it had some good points. But I can't recommend Tales Of Zestiria to anyone. I remember feeling exhaustively weary after finishing the game and wondering to myself "Did I ever have fun playing this?" The answer was no, I did not.
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