The gradual decline of Tales over the past decade has been heavily disputed, with its journey into HD at the heart of the matter. Any potential brought forward by Vesperia was quickly snuffed in favor of rushed products and randomly adapting to AAA-standards. Namco clearly didn't have the budget to elevate Tales to Final Fantasy production values, and it showed in the mediocrity that were the Xillia games, what with the banal fields that stretched on forever and various cut corners (not the least of which were the limitless assets reuse; how many identical, music-less port towns were in the game, again?). Aimless stories and Motoi Sakuraba's homogenized score only cemented the notion that Tales games had grown creatively bankrupt.
When I reviewed Tales of Xillia 2, I dismissed the game as being the latest in a series of JRPG junk food because, really, that's what the series had become: an assembly line of fast food that barely scratch that RPG itch. That analogy is inapplicable as of Tales of Zestiria, a complete failure in everything from level design, pacing and progression, modern graphical standards and proper storytelling. I can't claim to have played every Tales game of the past nine years, but I remain confident in stating it's the absolute worst since the abominable Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World (and what a coincidence that they're from the same series; I can't think of any game I've hated as much since).
I mean, Jesus Christ. I knew during pre-release the game was likely to continue the series stagnation, as the previews showed little evidence of Namco learning from Xillia's missteps. It's not that I believed such a tone-deaf game would reinvigorate the series (not to mention the controversy surrounding the Alisha character, which signaled alarm bells rivaling that of Xillia 2's debt system), so I walked into Zestiria thinking it'd be the latest batch of sub-par takeout that I'd maybe write about.
Boy, oh boy, was I not ready. I wish I could say the game's return to swords and sorcery was as base as its overall presentation; in particular, the latter is just a stunning display of laziness and inadequacy. I mean, where do I even begin? The inconsistent character framerate? The empty dungeon design? The terrible facial animation? The pathetic pop-in and draw distance? The pixelated tree shadows? The sound glitches that plagued the PC release? That one scene where two characters not only talked over each other when they were clearly not supposed to, but the dialogue didn't even match the subtitles? How some of the anime cutscenes output sound with all the glory of a 240p stream video, including the very first one you see?
Needless to say, I'm beyond shocked production values have fallen below even that of the Xillia games. The framerate particularly caught my attention; it's not like Zestiria looks even that different from those games, but apparently Namco spent a couple years developing a new graphics engine that can't produce 60 FPS for an overworld monster unless you're standing less than five feet away from it. With how ghastly their movements carry even into battle, I wonder if 30 FPS would be pushing it.
Not even the in-game cutscenes are exempt from this, as it's not rare for characters to fluctuate in frame animation and slowdown from the most minor of movement. On top of how the rocky character animation itself, you can hardly take them seriously regardless of context. Above is an example of the blank facial animation: here, the character is supposed to be shellshocked at a betrayal, but the way her mouth morphs into a near-smile renders the scene almost comical. Oh, and just to clarify, that GIF is from the Playstation 4 version. Let that sink in for a moment.
To top it off even further, Xillia's dry color scheme and static field designs are alive and well. I mean, the former was at least kinda acceptable before considering the new setting, but there's just no excuse for the latter anymore. The Tales team is clearly ill-equipped in adapting the series to an "open-world" environment and it shows in everything from the needlessly broad overworld maps to the boring mazes. It's gotten to the point where I have to ask what's the point in suddenly pretending Tales an AAA effort when all the obvious cut corners immediately dispel such fantasy.
The dungeons are the perfect example here. No matter how bombastic Go Shiina's music may be, the level design never lives up to any such standard no matter how much the context wills it to be. Rooms are designed with bare minimum effort, devoid of any aesthetic value or interesting features besides enemy/treasure chest placement and whatever half-baked gimmick each respective dungeon decides to throw at you (the most torturous of all being the water dungeon, a convoluted maze which zaps you back to the entrance whenever you come across a sentry's line of sight.)
So how on earth did Zestiria end up being this cheap? With the Tales Studio being laid-off/absorbed into Namco and other huge internal projects developed within the same timeframe (notably Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U, which borrowed a portion of Tales staff), Namco had no choice but to rely on heavy outsourcing; more than any Tales game before, in fact. While it's unfair to say outsourcing is solely for conserving money, that the game required such a ridiculous extent and still looked this terrible proves just how limited the game's budget was (the convoluted web of external assets likely contributed to the mess).
And what was it all for, really? It only serves as a detriment to the actual gameplay, as already seen in the worthless dungeon and field design, but what about the combat? For the first time in Tales, Zestiria opts for seguing battles into the overworld rather than transitioning to specialized battlefields. See, there's a neat idea for evolving the series...had the overworld been competently designed and the characters/battle camera didn't get stuck behind walls and pillars (seriously, just watch this).
It's actually pretty funny how much it falls into the pitfalls as Xillia 2. Just like Xillia 2, the impact of attacking monsters feels as dull as pounding on a wet paper bag. And just like Xillia 2, it's only worth using the characters gifted with super cool awesome Plot Powers (in this case, Sorey and Rose's Armatization, where they combine with one of their element-coded Seraph friends). And hey, just like Xillia 2, they try to make you work for those via combos, but unlike Xillia 2, there's no limit or penalty to how long you can use Armatization. Consequently, battles just boil down to pounding down on enemy weaknesses, and the inclusion of Graces' CC combo system does little to ease the tedium.
The second point is particularly interesting, considering how just like Xillia 2, the whole game is a vehicle for a plot not worth a damn. Of course, that's how JRPGs work, but everything from the overworld to the combat just renders Zestiria a slow, terrible slog to wade through, one that not even the fast travel option can fix (something you actually have to pay Gald for!). That, and...well, JUST LIKE XILLIA 2, it decides to piss me off with horrible, horrible padding. I was not at all happy to discover I was being gated off from continuing at one point until I gathered all the Iris Gems, which magically project the disposable backstory of the generic villain.
Rare is the Tales game that actually has a well-rounded story (that would be Tales of the Abyss), but it's especially bad here since in recent years, Tales has fallen into a bad rut with goody two-shoes protagonists and characters who join your party just because. Not once am I given a reason to care about Sorey (who falls squarely into the "Chosen One" trope right down to pulling the generic sword from the generic stone) and his band of Seraphs and squires, as Zestiria frequently screws around with natural foreshadowing and player expectations.
Just take the character Edna. The diminutive, snarky Seraph only joins Sorey's gang in the faint hopes of reverting her brother back from being a dragon, yet apparently the developers had the bright idea of relegating that subplot to a sidequest. As far as the main plot is concerned, not once do Sorey's idealistic dreams of curing dragons from malevolence ever become important, and not once does Edna ever embark on a character arc, remaining static in her snarky ways of harassing party members. Other party members fall in similar traps, but she's the most striking example.
On top of out-of-whack story beats and base "twists", there is no reason for investment in anything that goes on. A character turns into a monster? That other one betrays me? Someone dies? I don't care because the game won't let me care, because it refuses to properly foreshadow, engage in proper pacing or, y'know, develop its characters. As to why, a good chunk of this can be chalked up to the elephant in the room: a shift in party members so nonsensical in concept I'm beyond baffled it was actually executed.
I'm talking, of course, about the Alisha bait-and-switch. Yes, we can bring up her gradual absence in pre-release material or producer Hideo Baba claiming they never said she was the heroine despite her being the very first female character they introduced, but how it happens in-game is ultimately what's important. There's just no getting around how jarring it is, as the character is the catalyst for Sorey leaving his village of Seraphim and fulfilling his destiny of becoming The Shepard. While there's nothing particularly nuanced about her character, her role as Sorey's squire sets one of the game's few fathomable themes in stone: two people with entirely separate backgrounds helping the world in ways the other cannot (in this case, an idealistic country orphan and a troubled princess knight).
That is, until said role randomly causes Sorey to temporarily grow blind and she decides to up and leave six, maybe seven hours in. It's as random as it sounds, and what makes it even worse is that her replacement (Rose) is later thrust into the role despite being casually introduced as a NPC (some have defended this saying it plays into the revelation of her spoiler-related job, but, well, she's right on the box. Every other Tales party member has had an elaborate introduction).
I'll refrain from citing any of the vague *conspiracy theories regarding the situation, but regardless, it's just so easy to frame the contextual reason as "well, Alisha wasn't working out for whatever reason, so here's another character that works better just because!" It's not even as if Rose brings anything to the party that Alisha couldn't aside from having a foul mouth and her relationship with Dezel, a Seraph whose endearing traits are being reclusive and getting pissed off at everybody. (This isn't even getting into how poorly Rose takes over Alisha's role; heck, her fellow guildmates don't even acknowledge her absence!)
In attempting to have Alisha take care of Zestiria's events by holding the fort back at her kingdom, all it does is invalidate her character. Rather than sharing a dual role, any appearances from then on are fleeting, and she possesses absolutely zero involvement with the climax. As it is, it's the biggest screw-up in an indecisive tale right down to the context of the "surprised" GIF: a delayed reaction to a twist we already knew and don't care about since she's become superfluous; at that point, we've gotten so used to Rose cementing over her role that Alisha may as well have been that background character.
Can I say anything positive about Zestiria? It has a solid localization with solid voice acting (despite that aforementioned "speaking over each other" goof-up), and there's some sidequest meat to chew on. Sidequests I chose not to partake, but they exist in case you enjoy the contemptible thing. Oh, and being able to customize flair and costumes for characters. Having Sorey wearing giant sunglasses and Mikleo being stalked by a floating Yuri Lowell doll was the only thing that dulled my pain (aside from South Park episodes playing on my tablet. "Suck my b-b-balls, PC Principal!").
Is that it? I don't know, and honestly, I don't care anymore. Between this, the fiasco that was the Tales of Symphonia Steam port (and to a lesser extent, its PS3 "remaster"), a separate Namco development team being unable to tell who Zestiria's main heroine is (look up the controversy surrounding the Tales of Asteria mobile game), and the upcoming Tales of Berseria being a prequel to this game, I've given up hope Namco and the Tales team can provide a quality experience for the series in this age. They're clearly unable to manage quality control across the board, and so any aspirations for evolving a niche RPG series remain futile.
The days of relatable characters and fun battle systems are over. Tales is dead.
*Which reminds me, there's nothing in the main plot that even remotely hints at a homosexual relationship between Sorey and his BFF Mikleo. Sorry, Fanfiction.net!