This is an incredibly detailed critical analysis of Tales of Zestiria‘s mechanics based on playing the import. The author is my friend Radiant Roar, who is a long time expert on the deeper mechanics behind modern Tales of games. There’s a few minor spoilers for certain party members and boss names in the post but is otherwise spoiler-free. This post covers the game’s mechanics and is not a critique of the game’s story. It’s definitely worth a read.
Here is Radiant Roar’s youtube channel as well. He’s made a bunch of great videos from various Tales of games.
After finishing up Tales of Zestiria, I feel that I needed to get my thoughts out on this game. To be fair, I will give Namco Bandai some credit in this attempt to innovate things. This time, however, I feel that they went completely off the mark on their intended goal. Out of all the Tales of games I have played, Tales of Zestiria is the only game in this series (and perhaps the only game in my collection) that had the longest time spanned between release and game completion. That said; I wanted to at least give an analysis on what I found wrong with this game from a gameplay perspective. For me, game-play needs to meet at least these three basic criteria; it needs to have promoted elements be accessible in a reasonable timeframe to the player, has intuitive mechanics, and diversity in the myriad things you can do with the party and environment.
In the following article, the issues for each category are listed from severe to minor. Several of these issues are interlinked with each other, and thus will be mentioned in more than one category. Detailed examples from previous games will be limited to Vesperia, Graces f, Xillia/2, Symphonia Chronicles, Abyss/3DS, and Hearts-R, even if some of Zestiria’s mechanics are more similar to Tales of Destiny 2 or Rebirth. This is because these latter games were never localized and not everyone have played or had access to them.
To have or not to have? In this case, never
Accessibility is one of the hallmarks of good game design. When someone advertises a product, you’d expect it as advertised, and perhaps even exceed your expectations. For example, every time Apple introduces a new iPhone product, one would expect to improve on the aspects of the previous model. Tales has always brought on new innovation for each successive title, for better or worse. However, the point remains that it would be most logical to keep or improve the most accessible options available to players for the next game, rather than changing them up drastically. Compared to its previous three predecessors, Zestiria restricts you right off the bat in several aspects:
Spirit Chain System: This is probably the most obvious thing veteran players will notice. The Spirit Chain (SC) system is Tales Studio’s answer to the previous CC and AC’s system free chain. This is achieved by combining the former Tales of Vesperia‘s arte chain restriction system and combining it with Tales of Graces’ CC free chain system, creating a restricted chain of 4 artes.
- Vesperia: As the “final” game in the line of Team Symphonia’s battle system, Vesperia‘s LMBS uses the traditional tiered arte system, separating artes into 3 basic classes: Base, Altered, and Arcane, each costing Technical Points (TP) to use. Normally, the player is allowed to use normal attacks, then immediately follow up with 1 Base Arte, then 1 Arcane Arte. Altered Artes requires a skill that will put them in between Base and Arcane. This restriction is lifted using skills gained as the story progresses, usually through weapon acquisition.
- Graces: Continuing from Team Destiny’s
Tales of Destiny-R/Director’s Cut, Graces uses the Chain Capacity (CC) system, where you have chain points, a minimum and maximum number that you can achieve for each character. Each arte will cost a certain amount of points that will be deducted from your CC, but you are allowed to free chain until you run out of CC points.
- Xillia/Xillia 2: This game is the combination between Team Symphonia and Team Destiny‘s battle system, using a combination of TP and Assault Counter (AC) points, the spiritual successor to CC points. Like Vesperia, artes will consume TP, but like Graces, you are allowed to chain any number of attacks as long as you have AC, with each action using 1 AC.
Ultimately, Zestiria‘s battle system feels more of a regression considering how the past 3 battle systems promoted player freedom in battle arte chains. While it is a way to balance out the “free chain” a player can have, it also restricts the player from playing the game once they get to a certain point, as it becomes harder and harder to maintain combos without draining your other resource, the Blast Gauge. There are skills that allow you to remove the default limit cap on your arte chain (such as the Same 4 skill Exceed or Same 16 skill Eternal), but they are not accessible to you in a timely manner, often times requiring grinding to achieve. Overall, the reward is usually not worth the time investment, as the skills you make are attached to weapons, which can get outstripped in power very quickly.
Over world travel: The biggest change to the Tales series thus far is the new over world. Instead of traveling on a shrunken map or just connected screens, the game is now mostly a seamless world resembling a sandbox game. While this is commendable, Tales Studios did not provide any streamlining to transverse in this environment. The Quick Travel and Dash mechanics both return in Zestiria, but differs in how they both operate. Quick Travel now requires ~6% of your current gald to work. There is a way to negate this, but it requires a skill a Lord of the Lands provides, something which only comes from side quests (I’m amazed that it costs 0 to equip, they might as well made it cost more). Dash has also changed, requiring a passive skill on a character to work. Furthermore, your Dash is now on a timer, ticking down even when you are standing still, and only recharged in fields after a battle. This is overall a step back in game design, taking two things that were provided to the player that allows for convenience and tacking on needless penalties. Quick travel, at this point, should be implemented without any penalties, especially how successful it was in the previous games it was in. It should especially be accessible giving how large the environments are should a player wish not to waste time traveling in the large environment. In retrospect, this feels like a futile attempt to extend game time, as combined with the gargantuan fields and dungeons, you will need to get into battles to recharge your Dash in order to move quicker.
Skills: For Zestiria, the skill system is a mix between Symphonia and Graces, utilizing a combination of both to reach higher skills. By combining weapons, you are able to increase the base strength of the power your weapon has and unlocking predetermined combination skills. While this opens up many possibilities in terms of skill combination, the execution is poor. First of all, each weapon has 4 skill slots, with the first slot being a fixed skill. Second, you can only combine identically named weapons, with the exception of the Joke Weapons you get as the game progresses. The combination skills also pose a difficult task to obtain when you have to do certain conditions to obtain them (Elm – lined up in a row; Sem – same skills stacked together; Union – a full column). This means the chances of obtaining useful combination skills without excessive grinding are extremely slim. There are methods in obtaining better skills; the game offers a higher weapon drop when you are playing on hard and above. The trade off: your experience is cut. This is combined with the game’s stamina system on your SC prevents you from excessively grinding by forcing you to return to town to recover. However, by blessing your weapon at a Lord of the Lands, you can get more desirable drops easier, but it only slightly alleviates the problem, as drops are mostly RNG. The game pads out something that previous games provided gradually; you have to grind for the skills you need, and some weapons even give skills completely unrelated to the person equipping it. In comparison, the previous games gave you access to progressively powerful skills as you go through the story.
- In Vesperia, most of the skills you can obtain from weapons provided along the way, whether in stores or dungeons
- In Graces, skills are provided through titles as you progress through the story as well as arte usage, with the latter not entirely hard to do
- In Xillia/2, you choose the skills you wish to obtain in advance. You essentially choose what you wish to prioritize over, whether artes or skills.
In the above, the most powerful skills are usually reserved to side quests or postgame content. The striking difference between the above and Zestiria is that these skills are not necessary in overcoming story bosses, while in Zestiria, your party will struggle because it stresses so much on having artes and skills to overcome elemental weaknesses, you will need skills to deal damage efficiently. With how low in availability these skills are to the player, it becomes a choice between spending your time grinding, or struggle against the boss.
As with Graces, most of the artes in Zestiria are obtained by title grinding. However, in Zesitiria, you do not get title points for every battle, and it is more or less randomized. While there are food items to hasten this, there are tact on requirements, similar to the battle bonuses in Graces. Overall, this is a minor complaint, but obtaining artes should be consistent and intuitive, especially when compared to previous titles.
Weapon Shop: To promote weapon grinding, all shops will only sell one copy of any available equipment they have in stock. If a vendor is out of equipment, they will restock after a set amount of time. However, the equipment each vendor has in stock are completely randomized, and any prospective skills each weapon can have (with the exception of the weapon’s default skill) are also randomized. This adds to the tediousness that you already have for grinding weapons.
Easy to play, easy to understand, hard to master
I feel with any real time battle system, this should be the main goal. The game should be easy to understand, but should have enough depth for those that wish to delve deeper to discover more. Zestiria falls flat on this account. Not only Zestiria is fairly one dimensional with very little depth, it fails to be intuitive with even the most basic things that a player should know.
Skills: As stated before, skills are obtained by combining weapons. However, the game does not state what combinations would create what. Each skill can have 10+ different ways to make it. However, in order obtain a desired skill on a weapon, you would need to: 1) get the required skills on the same two weapons, 2) the skill must be on the correct slot as the other skill you need to fuse with. It is further complicated with multi-step fusion, when you would need to fuse into another skill before being able to fuse into your desired skill. This is overall long and unintuitive, and makes it overly difficult and time consuming to obtain the skills you want. This is in contrast with previous games, which were, overall, more flexible for the player
- Vesperia: Skill are attached to weapons, but after a while you learn the skill itself permanently, without requiring the weapon equipped
- Graces: Skills are mostly from titles. Weapon skills can be transferred into jewel form. Similar to Zestiria, you grind fragments in order to give your equipment certain abilities. However, getting skills onto pieces of equipment is predictable, so it allows for more predictable customization. So while abilities are still attached to weapons, you can customize it more freely than Zestiria‘s system.
- Xillia/2: This game completely did away with weapon skill; and went back to an Abyss and Vesperia skill system where you learn it via the Lilium/Allium Orb system
All of the above games are well more intuitive than Zestiria‘s system. Zestiria also has a fairly confusing interface when customizing your skills, forcing you to alternate between two menus in order to fully see your skill sets. As a result, you spend a lot of time in the menu in order to properly customize your characters. For reference, I have nearly 20 hours of my 70 hour playthrough dedicated to menu usage, as the game keep track of the menu time in the records menu.
Story Progression Markers: Graces, Xillia, and Xillia 2 introduced the star markers for quest progression, with the Xillias taking it one step further and marking side quests with speech bubbles. Zestiria continues this tradition, but only partially. With how big the maps have become, stars will only mark the destination, but not the areas in between your current location and your destination. This is especially frustrating when the Next function only gives a vague hint on what you need to do next. What is worse is that the game turns a side quest into a main quest, where you needed to collect 15 stones in order to progress, with only 3 of these obtained in the main story. The game does outright misleads you in some segments when it tells you to do A, B, and C, but only C is actually required to proceed.
“If that’s the case, couldn’t we neutralize it by blasting it with the power of the opposing Summon Spirits? [ …] Shut it Genis! Professor once said that the negative and positive of a magnet neutralize each other. This is kind of the same thing right?” – Lloyd Irving
In previous games, hybrid elemental spells were usually the most powerful spells given to you. Hitting multiple elementals usually mean for heavier damage thus expands diversity in the artes you can use. In previous games, if a hybrid spell has an element that the enemy resists and one that it is weak to, it will end up in neutral damage. It is not until Xillia 1 where they overhauled this. For example:
- Vesperia: Khroma Dragon resists Fire, Wind, Light, but Weak to Earth and Dark. Using Ground Dasher (Earth) will give a “super effective” response. Using Gold Cat (Fire/Earth) will deal neutral damage, rather than weakness or resist hits (signified with Rita not having any lines pertaining to weak or resisted hits). Using Crimson Flare (Fire) Lightning Blade (Fire/Wind) will elicit a “won’t work” response. This can be replicated with Yuri’s Demon Blade – Onibikari (Fire/Darkness), which dealt comparable amounts of damage as Vesperia Second (Neutral), whereas using Blazer Edge – Abyssion (Fire) or Meteorite Blade (Fire/Wind) will deal reduced damage, and Last Fencer (Light) dealing absorption damage.
- Xillia and beyond: Milla’s Lightning spells are a good example. If the enemy resists either Fire or Wind, they will automatically resist the entire attack. Even if the enemy is WEAK to one of Fire or Wind, but resists the other, the attack is STILL counted as a resisted hit. This also made Xillia’s Supreme Elements/Elemental Mastery much more unpredictable as it will hit for super effective damage part of the time, but will hit for resisted damage on other times. This is because it is treated as all 4 elements at once, rather than 4 separate elemental strikes. (Note that this is only for Xillia, as Xillia 2 made all of the party’s Mystic Artes neutral by default, as they will not stack any additional weaknesses on top of what is already there)
Status Conditions and effects
This card sums up everything about Zestiria’s Status System
Tales’ non-volatile status conditions have always been a hit or miss; for some games, it is a slap on the wrist, for others it is extremely annoying but manageable. However, Zestiria manages to defy all expectations and conjured up the most obnoxious status system I have ever played against yet. It is that true Vesperia, Xillia and Xillia 2 had killable conditions with poison, bleed, and burn; Graces and some other previous games had fairly bizarre conditions such as taking extra damage when petrified or frozen; Symphonia had a status condition that temporarily reduced your max HP. Every game so far has had the curse condition where your artes are sealed, and paralysis where your actions can fail. All of the above are annoying, but none of the above can compare to Zestiria when it comes to punishing you for getting a status problem. Zestiria‘s special rule for status is: until the status condition expires, you cannot heal any HP. This is extremely punishing, especially during the mid game where enemies will start inflicting status problems en masse. The AI does not make things any easier as they will attempt to heal the player even IF you have a status condition. Panacea bottles are NOT readily available to the player, whereas in previous games, panacea bottles were in the shops one or two towns from the start. Most notably, the Wind Armitization fusion will be unable to use any levitating moves, including spellcasting, while paralyzed or weighed down. Thankfully, the Water Armitization fusion can heal all status effects with its Dispel Cure healing arte, making it the most useful of the four Armitized healing blasts. Otherwise, one must manually command the seraph with the healing spell corresponding to the elemental status to heal it, or have a panacea bottle ready.
Rock, paper, scissor counter: Similar to previous games, Zestiria divides its artes into three categories: Martial, Hidden, and Divine-Echo (name tentative, will refer to it as Divine) artes. Each of these artes govern each other in a rock-paper-scissor relationship. Martial artes can interrupt the casting time for Divine artes, Divine artes cannot be interrupted and accelerate its cast times by Hidden artes, and Hidden artes will counter Base arte assaults without flinching from the damage. While the premise behind it is clear, the game itself executes it fairly poorly, as this “weapon triangle” does not apply to all cases, and sometimes completely disregarded (some enemies do not have their Divine artes interrupted despite being attacked by Base artes). This begs the question on whether this triangle is implemented at all, as sometimes its seemingly random on when they actually apply.
(A note on the above point, Zestiria also changed the terminology from past games. Martial is the equivalent to Base, Hidden should be to Arcane. Whether this is the case with a different translation studio or a lack of effort to maintain consistency, I do not know. This is not the first time this has happened as Xillia to Xillia 2 had glaring inconsistency in naming as well)
Variety is the spice of life
Having a variety of things to do in an RPG is a good thing, as more options opens up more exploration. Graces and Xillia did a fairly good job in keeping party variety; almost everyone was usable and allowed the player to change things up. Xillia advanced the previously implemented accessory system, allowing the player to play around with the locations of where to put their trinkets. However, starting with Xillia 2, Tales seem to be bent on restricting the player rather than continuing this trend of player freedom. Full fixed party was implemented for the first time in a mainline game, limiting the usage times for some characters. An elemental weakness system threw in that only seemed to benefit one character (Ludger) over the others means that not all characters in the party can fight on par with each other. This did not change in Zestiria, and in some ways, even aggravated the problem.
Party and Configuration: This is the point that most people actually focus on, and has attracted major controversy. As advertised, the battle party is composed of two humans, and two out of the four playable seraphim. Similar to Xillia, the player may swap out the in battle seraphim with the ones out in the bench at any time, provided that the benched seraphim has HP. With the Armitization system, you can fuse your human and partner seraphim together, at the cost of 1 Blast Point. However, only Sorey and Rose can Armitize, while Alisha cannot. This makes Alisha a dead weight during her segments as she is under equipped and doesn’t have the necessary stamina or power to be as potent as Rose. This also segways into another issue: Armitization being a necessity to surviving mid-to-late game.
In most Tales, the instinct is to configure your initiating party with the most optimal combination in order to: be able to deal efficient and consistent damage, deal with potential gimmicks the boss might have, heal efficiently, and able to initiate combos with ease. This is achieved through each member the team covering up each aspect of the party. Armitization completely bypasses this process, and eliminates teamwork altogether. By fusing with a party member, you essentially remove them from the party. In essence, Zestiria only has two party members because Armitization requires you fuse in order to both survive and to deal damage.
The lack in party variety is also linked with the Weakness system Zestiria has. Because of the sheer amount of elemental bias for Earth and Wind resistance, Fire and Water are best suited for almost any situation. Generally from people that were asked, playthroughs, and speed runs, Lailah and Mikleo are preferred party choices, Edna is a mixed bag as she possess relatively good healing spells with decent spell canceling abilities, while Dezel is never used. In the late game, Mikleo is almost great for any situation because the lack of water resist, as well as a versatile Heal Blast makes him the preferable Armitization choice, with Lailah following second because of the Fire Armitization’s consistent damage output. With two generalist Armitizations, combined with elemental resistance, there is very little reason to use the other two members outside of niche situations.
AI Options: This is where Zestiria truly fell short in variety. Since Vesperia, Tales AI has been improving from game to game. Xillia and Xillia 2 arguably had the best Tales AI to date, with extremely responsive AIs and a comprehensive strategy menu in addition to the traditional arte shortcuts. Zestiria is the opposite; instead of having detailed orders and a comprehensive strategy menu, Zestiria opts for a more simplified menu that harkens back to Tales of Symphonia. The AI is extremely bareboned, with only five general categories: General Action, Arte preference, Aggressiveness, HP maintenance, and Blast, each with only a couple of options for customizing what the character should do. This is a stark contrast to the strategy menus of Vesperia and Xillia, where you can set positioning, actions, general arte usage, HP and TP maintenance, secondary AI options, item usage, Overlimit activation, and in Xillia’s case, Link Artes and Auto Item configuration.
With such limited options, the Zestiria AI would struggle to follow, and even disregard the strategies set. Examples include the AI casting healing spells in futile effort on statused allies, running up to attack from melee range despite ordered to attack from range, unfusing after fusing for a few seconds, etc. Extreme cases of wall hugging or confusion would happen on some stages, like the Fire temple Salamander fight where there is a gimmick involved. Party configuration, like Graces, is fixed position, so there is no option to rearrange starting positions on the field. While there are “quick commands” shortcuts in place of arte shortcuts, they are extremely unresponsive compared to the manual shortcuts of previous games.
Weakness System – the limit to variety: Since Xillia 2, I have felt this system is extremely limiting on the player. I don’t think inflicting Power Hits for combos is a bad idea, as it gives an incentive to use weaknesses to your advantage, while limiting infinite chains a player can do. However, the way this is executed in the game stifles the creativity and variety of how many artes a player can potentially use. Putting Power Hits on a timer also indirectly impacts casters, as spells at the start of chains will be detrimental to melee attackers, especially with multi-hitting spells. While starting a Power Hit chain in Zesitira is less punishing than it was in Xillia 2, it still maintains the problem of Xillia 2’s system, and in some ways, magnify it with the fixed arte tree system, as now you must perform the appropriate attack in order to start a weakness chain before you can actually combo the enemy. While this is not a huge issue, it reduces the number of artes you would prefer to start with, even forcing you to make suboptimal choices in order initiate a chain (such as the Dragon Newt encounter, which resists most of the five base elements, but a Dragon attribute attack you can have at the time is deep in Sorey’s A-arte chain).
Hybrid Attack/Spells:. As stated before, hybrid attacks in Zestiria will only have a positive or neutral effect if the enemy does not resist either of the elements that compose it. If the enemy resists even one, then the attack will be resisted. Same as the last point, this actually reduces the amount of variety in the attacks you can potentially use, as most of the enemies in this game resists multiple elements, or partial resistant to an element of a spell you can use. Again, while you can mitigate this by attacking the attribute weak point, it means you have to have the appropriate weak point on hand to do so.
Accessory slots: Customization returns in Zestiria, however, it is more limited than in Xillia and Xillia 2. Unlike previous games, Zestiria puts a limit on how many accessories you can have on a character by implementing a space limit. All accessories have a size space, most taking up 2 spaces. While you have 3 slots, the best you can do is put on an accessory that is size 2, and that is all you can put on. Compared to how freely you can customize accessories in Xillia and Xillia 2, this is a downgrade.
So, what now?
I started playing Tales when a friend introduced me to Tales of Symphonia. Since then I became a Tales fan, going from Symphonia to Abyss, Tempest, Phantasia, Hearts, Vesperia, Graces, Xillia, Rebirth, Destiny 2, and Xillia 2. I have even inadvertently became a challenge runner of this series, starting with just a minor argument over a single character in this series. While my repertoire of Tales is probably smaller than some, I want to believe that I have seen and played enough to know better; that Tales of Zestiria is not the best work that Namco Bandai can create. Zestiria feels like Tales is trying to reinvent the wheel; trying to excessively change a successful formula that has worked for years into something that does not resemble its former self.
I agree that Tales should be made to appeal to a larger audience. This is why Xillia 2 and Zestiria almost seem like they were both made with the western fans in mind. Like Mass Effect, the player is given choices that seemly impact the final result; like The Elder Scrolls or Assassin’s Creed, Zestiria feels like a sandbox game where you travel around a vast world. However, the execution of these ideas does not feel natural, but forced. People attribute Zestiria‘s criticisms as the rage of Alisha or Ai Kayano fans. I will not disagree that this is a factor, but it is merely a small part of the bigger issue. The game is simply unpolished and half heartedly made. I cannot dismiss the fact that the western audience only recently recovered from a Tales drought, but it does not give a free pass to Namco Bandai to make bad games. I criticize because I want to play a good game; I criticize because I care. A few years back, it was satisfying to be able to throw money at Namco, knowing that we will get a quality product. Presently, I do not feel like it is the case. I am not telling anyone not to buy this game, but in fact the opposite. I implore people to play this game, but do not blindly applaude the game by dismissing its glaring flaws. Tales of Zestiria has already raised the skepticism of Namco Bandai’s stockholders, and it has only furthered my own doubts. So what will it be next, Namco? The ball’s in your court.