I spent most of this week playing the new Tales of game, which in all honesty, never really felt very new. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed myself; after all, a JRPG is a JRPG – tropes and all. The series, which has put out over fifteen games in the last twenty years, has always had an evolutionary approach to bettering itself, tweaking small details and trying new approaches, all the while maintaining the distinct identity that we’ve come to expect from a Tales game.
The setup is familiar enough – you’re cast as the only teenage boy capable of redeeming a world plagued by chaos, who, along with the rest of the equally stereotypical cast, slowly find themselves the strength of character to save the world from destruction. That’s a shame really, because the previous entry, Xillia 2, in a refreshing twist, had you play as a young adult saddled with a mountain of debt after being accused of groping someone on a train. Zestiria is firmly knights, castles and devious villain territory.
Along with the plot, the combat remains a fairly standard Tales of affair, with the recognizable attack, block and arte options all present and accounted for. However, your strength in battle is no longer solely determined by your level; it is significantly more dependent on your equipment and your choice of AI partner and their associated elemental affinity (whom you can switch out on the fly to suit). Leveling past a boss is no longer a guaranteed win, as important character stats such as HP and Attack no longer increase with your level – gaining experience only serves to teach new artes. Equipment, and the skills attached to them, are the path to victory in Zestiria.
Past its basic attributes such as attack, equipment comes with four slots, of which each one can have one of 50 skills attached. Improvements can be made by fusing two of the same equipment together, improving its stats, and possibly imbuing new skills or strengthening current ones. The magic happens however, by tactically crafting the right skills to the right equipment to gain a bonus, which often means a traditionally underpowered weapon may in fact be the superior choice, by virtue of the skills it has attached. Each of the 50 skills available has a corresponding place on a 5×10 skill grid, and forming lines or columns of different skills, or stacks of the same skill, will impart a bonus. For example, forming a horizontal line of three skills on the top row would give you an increase to physical resistance, but a line of three on the last row would increase resistance to wind. Having two lines of three on the same row compounds the effect further, and considering you can have columns, rows and stacks of various sizes, the initially restrictive system soon becomes incredibly complicated. That new hat might seem better, but forget to check the skill grid and you could find the easy battle you just fought is now rock hard.
On the subject of difficulty, Zestiria actively encourages you to keep changing it, as each setting has something to offer. Normal mode offers more Exp than Hard, but Hard gives you those all-important equipment drops more frequently. At a certain point, you can even influence the skills attached to dropped weapons, in an effort to fuse your way to the perfect skill grid.
The game is fairly linear up until about 20 hours, when it opens up and gives you a bit more freedom to explore and do what you like. New game plus options are aplenty, with your progress in game translated into ‘Grade’, which can be used to purchase modifiers for your next run, such as increasing the money earned from battles or your progress towards learning artes.