LOS ANGELES – When a series is almost 20 years old, sticking to the same formula will only take you so far. Tales of Zestiria is the latest entry in the long-running Tales series of Japanese role-playing games, and while many of the core elements look familiar, the battle system is unlike anything the series has presented before. Whether this works to its advantage, or to its detriment, will take some time to evaluate.
I played through part of Tales of Zestiria at E3 2015, and as a longtime Tales fan, it threw me for a bit of a loop. Many of the traditional Tales elements are in place – a whimsical story, a diverse cast of charming characters, a big, interconnected world to explore – but the combat is something quite new.
The plot appears to be well-worn fantasy territory, although whether that makes it feel comfortable or hackneyed will depend on how it's presented. Sorey, a young man living in a remote mountain village, encounters a traveler named Alisha, who discovers that he is a Seraph – an elusive supernatural spirit. The two of them team up, and after Sorey pulls an enchanted sword from a stone (ever heard that one before?), they set off on a quest to save the world from an encroaching evil.
The demo I tried out took place in a large open field where Sorey was in the midst of traveling between plot objectives. Sorey and his four-person party encountered enemies on their path frequently, and I had a chance to participate in the battle system.
The Tales series has always defined itself by real-time battles that rely just as much on reflexes as they do on strategy and tactical thinking. Sorey could travel freely around the battlefield while his companions, controlled by competent AI algorithms, backed him up. Simply mashing the attack button over and over barely got me anywhere, however; the battle system this time around rewards careful timing and conservative use of abilities.
Sorey and his friends can use two different types of attacks: Martial Artes (physical skills) and Hidden Artes (magical skills). Hidden Artes are generally the stronger of the two, but Sorey can only use so many at a time before his gauge depletes.
Martial Artes have fewer limitations on them, and in fact, timing out your Martial Artes can help replenish your Hidden Artes faster. However, Martial Artes have their own gauge associated with them; use them unwisely, and you'll find yourself with no way to attack at all until both gauges refill slowly on their own.
This delicate balancing act between Martial Artes, Hidden Artes, blocking, dodging and moving around the battlefield makes for a dynamic battle system, but also potentially a slower one than fans are used to. Mashing the attack button in previous games was enough to get through most battles, yet that doesn't seem to be the case here. The new battle system has the potential to be extremely smart and satisfying, but only if it doesn't prove exhausting over the course of a game that takes dozens of hours.
Tales of Zestiria will come out in fall 2015 for the PS3, PS4 and PC, and will cost $60. The last few Tales games have been excellent, and with any luck, the latest entry in the series should follow suit.
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