Although, in this part of the world, we got to enjoy two entries in the franchise last year (Tales of Xillia 2 and Tales of Hearts R), the Japanese audience had to wait for three years after Xillia 2 to get their hands on Tales of Zestiria. During this long development process the team tried to stay true to the foundations of the franchise all the while innovating as they made the generational leap onto PlayStation 4.
Tales of Zestiria certainly feels at home on Sony's newest console, and there's also no mistaking that this is a 'Tales of' game: that is, we have dozens of hours of action to play through, all the time accompanied by characters that grow and develop throughout. As with other entries in the series, both the main character and their friends go through drastic changes depending on how the events they have to face affects them. This is especially noticeable in Sorey, the main character, whose evolution is so marked that the person he is at the beginning of the game is a far cry from the great hero he turns into by the end (it's a change as radical as the one Luke went through in Tales of the Abyss). That being said, the events they experience don't have the same impact as the adventures we've played through in previous games. The central plot lacks the same impact; it tells a hackneyed story of religious factions and regional conflict.
Perhaps the most striking part of the story is the concept of the Seraphim, a race of beings that only a chosen few can see. However, the needs of the plot end up overshadowing this interesting premise, and some really basic situations and explanations are used by the end, pandering to the spectacular nature of the gameplay. It seems like a missed opportunity to take risks and go a lot further with the narrative, but even if it feels a little underwhelming, the story works and the characters are charismatic enough to push us to the end of the game.
That's mainly because, once again, we were delighted to battle through one of the most enjoyable combat systems in the genre. The beginning feels a little rushed, this due to the enormous amount of information that the player has to take in. However, the overall experience, all the way through to the final bosses, made us experiment with every single possibility the combat system offered. The need to string several combos together to take advantage of our enemies' flaws uncovered a deep system that's executed in real-time, which made it even more enjoyable. It's probably one of the most appealing systems in the franchise, largely thanks to its duality system that allows the Seraphim to fuse together with humans to give them new powers and skills. There are multiple combinations and we had to analyse each situation very carefully so that we could adapt our equipment in the best possible way. That said, we have to admit that the fusion system is maybe too much of a Japanese concept and it takes away some credibility from the story. Although the game was designed to make an impression in the West, it fell short because it draws from ideas taken from Japanese anime.
Another strong element in this entry is the sandbox approach to world design. This is possibly most remarkable because it indicates a return to the first titles in the series and the traditional 16-bit RPG games of yesteryear. Even though in the more recent games in the series the players were often confined to enclosed areas and forced to explore the world through really inflexible paths, Tales of Zestiria goes back to huge maps that will have to be fully explored in order to find the next destination. This is a really appealing concept in a sandbox game like this, as it offers a new level of complexity and doesn't restrict us to simply following a designated route.
It's true, on the other hand, that the sandbox is a lot emptier than it should be. The world stretches out before us, waiting to be explored, but there actually isn't all that much to discover. There are some skills (from a complex god system assigned to each region) that can spice the exploration up a bit, for instance, we can use them so that treasure chests reappear, but it's not a huge change when it comes to livening up the game's universe.
In short, Tales of Zestiria is worthy of the franchise it belongs to. Fans will know what to expect at all times, and newbies will get to know the basic elements of the Tales of series and enjoy really solid and enjoyable gameplay along the way. It might not be the best title in the series (which has so many good entries, opting for one or another is purely a matter of personal opinion) because the plot falls flat at times, and the world seems too empty, but in other areas it delivers the quality that you'd expect. It's a funny, intense and engaging, and it encourages you to see it through to the end. All that, along with its spectacular soundtrack and its dual voice acting (in English and Japanese), ensures that Tales of Zestiria is a very good new RPG for PS3 and PC, and possibly the best Japanese RPG available on PlayStation 4 at this moment in time.