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Simply Mechanics: Zestiria in a Sea of Tales

Welcome to Simply Mechanics. It’s a new column I’m starting here on IrrationalPassions.com. It’s a column where I discuss, in knitty-gritty detail, the mechanics of video games. Whether it be a specific game, or a compare/contrast to a game in its own franchise to its siblings in that same franchise, I really wanted to have an outlet to get really finite in my detail of actual mechanics, from button presses to response time to complexity.

I hope you like it! It may end up being monthly, or maybe just every now and again, but if it’s up your alley, I hope your enjoy!

Where we are with Tales is odd. I mean, there was that big shift with Tales of Graces, away from the traditional Tales format to a kind of, western-style open world-esque approach. Tales of Graces was ambitious, but really flubbed it. The combat felt overly-tight and restrictive. The world felt wide, but sparse. The story was heartfelt, but misplaced, ultimately only stepping up into engaging in its final acts. The game had myriad opportunities to shine, and missed just about all of them by alienating characters left and right, giving you almost no one to cheer for, and repeating itself far too much.

Then there was the duology of Tales of Xillia. The two games returned to the sideways combat style, regrounding itself in that more traditional gameplay, and nearly perfected it. Each character had their own style and abilities, they could link together with other characters for great, fast-paced, blow-up-the-screen moves that felt wonderful to execute on, and after doing five over the course of a fight you could do an infinite-chain combo of them. It was that kind of combat that Tales had been building up to really knocked out of the park. The world was still that more western style open world, this time changing the camera perspective for the first time in Tales history to behind the back, and really felt like a modern JRPG, for better and for worse.

It was a really solid balance of all things, with a better, if not somewhat familiar, story. Played great. Looked great. Felt great.

Xillia 2 was a bit more of a mess, but hey we won’t worry about that.

Now with Zestiria, we just lose our focus, chasing after that open world dream like always.

Zestiria in a lot of ways was a “return to our roots” for Tales. It has a lot of Symphonia vibes, what with it’s happy-go-lucky protagonist, it’s more fantastical world, and a core relationship between two friends representing the heart of the story they’re trying to tell. Sorey and Mikleo are a great pair, and are instantly memorable and recognizable as a foil-ish dynamic duo that play off each other and make one another stronger. Out of the gate, Zestiria has a powerful start.

On top of that, the story of Zestiria feels like a departure. Sure, it’s similar to the first overarching plot of Symphonia, a chosen one that must travel the land to save the world, but Zestiria leans way more into the philosophical side of things. It’s very much a look at human nature, where the world is poisoned by a concept, malevolence, that turns people into these spiritual beasts, that only those tuned to the ancient way of seeing the world can even detect. It’s this very quasi-religious, almost Harry Potter way of going about the typical “two-world” separation of a Tales game. In this case, the two worlds are that of the human realm, and that of the seraphim that quietly occupy the same space, separated only by the lacking resolve and belief of humans.

In short: Tales of Zestiria has a pretty excellent premise.

Where it takes some missteps is the mechanics. Tales of Zestiria decided to take another crack at the combat system that Graces tried to define itself in. Graces was painfully the worst of the series, and retreading that territory had me hesitant at first.

The crux of Tales of Graces f’s combat was the “CC Gauge”. Essentially, instead of the typical “Attack” button which would change depending on what direction you leaned into each attack with, with your special moves being mapped to a specific “Arte” button, you had two types of “artes”. Again, special moves. Your attack button would do regular combat artes, which would change depending on what step you are in a combo, and what direction you lean on the analogue stick for. So holding forward, attacking once, switching to holding left, attacking again, would result in a sort of special-move combo, and using your special ability button would completely shift stances into those moves.

It’s a cool concept, right? Well that’s when the cost came into it.

The progression of your standard attacks in Graces.

In order to perform any of your moves, down to your basic combos, you’d need to spend CC. Chain Capacity, or CC, was from your CC gauge, something dependent on your current weapon, that typically held anywhere between 10 and 20+ CC. Your first basic attack would only cost you one CC, then the next would cost you two, and so on and so forth, so a standard four-hit combo would take 10 CC. That’s all well and good, but after your combo, you’d have to sit and wait as your CC gauge slowly refilled itself before you could lean into your next combo. The stance switch was more all over the place, but you couldn’t rely on those stances all the time because they were easy for enemies to interrupt.

Xillia found a great balance of this, incorporating the classic “TP Gauge” system (a glorified magic bar) for special moves, and have a CC gauge in addition to that. Only in those two titles, the CC gauge would immediately go to max after a full second of pause, just meaning that it’d refill when you exited the combo window, which made perfect sense, and let you continue your string of attacks at a metered, fun pace.

Zestiria unfortunately treads further back into old ground.

On a combat level, it’s very reminiscent of Tales of Graces f. It attempts again, after reverting back to more traditional Tales style, the “forward facing” idea, where you move forward into enemies, instead of left to right. With this alternative style, it brings back the combo artes of Tales of Graces f, as well as traditional special moves of standard Tales games, letting go of that stance-change system of Graces that didn’t work quite that well.

The CC guage is back here, rebranded as SC, or spirit capacity; but, it’s a bit different than both Xillia and Graces. The SC gauge maxes out, and stays, at 100, meaning you have plenty of points to spend to build up combos and keep a string of attacks going. There is even an action, holding the right trigger after finishing a string of attacks, to cancel into a new first attack, and gain 50SC back instantly.

Overall, this is a kind of best of both worlds. It works, it flows back and forth and for the most part you feel like you can just keep building and attacking to topple your enemies. But the key phrase there is “for the most part”, which means there is still plenty of downtime. Those moments where you are standing back and guarding, watching the enemy, but also just watching your gauge refill so you can attack again, are low points that still happen a bit too much.

It got me thinking of a system that is dramatically similar. Playing the Nioh demo recently, I noticed the mechanic of Ki in that game, which is essentially stamina from any Souls game, and really started thinking of that Souls-style combat, how it relies on stamina, and how it relates to this same SC/CC system.

On the surface level, they’re trying to do the same thing. To limit your actions so you can’t simply be attacking or defending or dodging constantly. Now, dodging in Tales of Zestiria does consume a little bit of SC, but more importantly it does prevent your SC from regenerating, meaning any time you spam your dodge around enemies, is time you could be rallying more of that precious SC away from the enemy.

There are layers here in the Zestiria system that enhance it. Exploiting an enemy’s weakness can instantly get you back eight, or 12, or 16 SC, and doing this multiple times means you’re rallying SC on a near-constant basis. If you guard at the right time or dodge through an enemy’s attack you’ll rally in the same way, and it’s advantageous to pay attention to weaknesses and be looking to hit them with their polar opposite on a near-constant basis. The elemental weapons in Tales games can sometimes get in the way of this, but the additional layers gives you way more to think about in combat.

Overall, I think it’s still a bit of a regression. I appreciate what they’re going for, mechanically, but it’s either too much or doesn’t mesh well enough to work, especially when directly contrasted with Tales of Xillia 2, the previous entry, which has some of the best combat in any Tales game ever released. In addition to the link and combo system of the first, Xillia 2’s protagonist was able to alternate between three different weapons: swords, a polearm hammer, and guns. Each had their own artes and specials, each had their own special links, and switching between them felt like switching characters entirely. It was a first for the series and it made it essentially a dream to play.

I find myself a little bias though. Tales of Vesperia is my favorite of the franchise, and it boasts the most simple, yet complex-at-the-same-time battle system of the franchise to date.

Vesperia is fun because, much like Xillia, Xillia 2 and even Graces to an extent, it continues to introduce new battle mechanics very deep into the game. I don’t think you get the final major shift of combat abilities until 15-20 hours into Vesperia, and by that point you’ve gone past the first major act of the story, so it feels almost like an entirely new game.

Vesperia is the same basic left-to-right mechanics, with full-on limited three-hit combos, and special moves on top of that that could either come at the beginning or end of a three hit combo. The difference was the use of skills. Now, all Tales games have skills, but each game interprets them differently. Vesperia did it best, by far.

Backstep is the first weapon skill in Vesperia.

In Tales of Vesperia, you have something called weapon skills, which are skills or attributes mapped to weapons. If you use those weapons enough, eventually you’ll permanently learn the skill, and you get experience toward gaining that skill permanently after each fight.

Weapon skills could add an additional hit to your combo, to your air combo, allow you to cancel from one kind of special to another where you couldn’t before, let you learn new artes, and so on. Skills completely overhauled the combat, in-system, and allowed you to feel like new options were coming every time you’d hit a new area and find a new shop stocked with brand new weapons for each of your characters. Tons of character-specific skills made it so new styles and stance changes would come late in the game, again, making combat far more evolutionary.

There was this weird level of grinding out weapon skills so you can move onto bigger and better weapons, but it would behoove you to learn every weapon skill, because sometimes they could change artes or unlock new abilities, allowing you to just gain more and more abilities in your already-massive repertoire. Having more skills, even if they ended up being useless rollover options you’d never equip, would still rack up more points to equip more total skills. Plus, while you used the weapon in question, you had access to its skills for no charge, so those certain weapons you could use to create ‘altered-artes’, which transform already known abilities into new, completely different ones, could be worked on as you crept your way up to gaining that skill.

It was this great balance of offloading certain aspects of the net total abilities you earn onto your equipment, in a non-gross way that worked super well, and it made synthesizing items way more fun because you could create different versions of different weapons with different weapon skills.

Zestiria’s weapon skill chart is confusing and obnoxious.

Zestiria’s overly complex weapon skill system includes a 5 x 10 chart of skills, and a short list of duplicates of tons and tons of equipment in the game. Each has different skills, and the goal is to fuse and fuse and fuse equipment with the same name to get more adjacent skill in the chart, while also stacking skills on top of one another. It’s a goddamn mess, and even though you can get massive skill boons and benefits from stacking and lining up skills, it’s way too confusing to even want to engage with, and on top of that, when you commit to it, it’s pretty much zero fun.

With Tales of Berseria at it’s arrival, it brings a slew of new and reimagined mechanics to the Tales franchise, going down almost a completely new rabbit hole of mechanics. Whether or not that can revitalize the franchise back to its greater days is, unfortunately, something to be left for another day.

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Alex O'Neill
Author: Alex O'Neill View all posts by
Alex is the Editor-in-Chief, overlord, and overall master of Irrational Passions. He loves Zelda, Persona 4 Golden is his favorite game ever, and he is going to write for IGN.com some day.