It’s not often a game surprises me in a really compelling way right off the bat. Thanks to Ashgar, I got ahold of Tales of Zestiria, the latest in the Tales series, and I’ve been giving it a whirl. Two things I want to point out, as my frustration compels me to: the game is VERY BAD at letting you know where you need to go if your goal isn’t in whatever area you happen to be in (I spent about an hour wandering around trying to figure out where I was supposed to go), and the game has no autosave (I lost about three hours of progress when I died to something I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to fight).
Okay, frustrations out of the way, here’s why this game is interesting to me. I grew up playing JRPGs, which I define as the particular type of game, generally coming from Japan (hence the J), that are heavily story-based, usually involve turn-based combat, often have a transition between “overworld” and “combat” gameplay, and so on. They’re a particular style, and one that’s frustrated me for a long time. As mentioned, I grew up on them, but as time went on, they didn’t change or evolve much. Still rows of characters lined up, still selecting from a menu, still random encounters. Some people love that. I got extremely frustrated with it, and for me, MMOs felt like the natural evolution of the JRPG– big, expansive worlds to explore and get more powerful in, and hey, I get to play with my friends too! I got into Everquest and pretty much dropped JRPGs entirely.
One exception comes to mind. At one point, after I burned out hard on Star Wars Galaxies, I picked up a game over winter break from college: Tales of Symphonia. It’d been recommended to me as “a JRPG I might like”, as I’d previously ranted about how annoyed I’d gotten with the genre, particularly the random encounters that I’d frequently fall asleep during while playing late at night. Tales of Symphonia replaced the menu-driven combat with something that felt more like a fighting game, and I was instantly hooked. It was the right game at the right time, and it renewed my faith that I could have fun playing a JRPG.
I beat it, loved it, looked around for more games like it and found out there pretty much weren’t any. Nothing so interesting, lots of menus, lots of me falling asleep. I replayed Xenogears that year, then fell deeply into World of Warcraft. I’d dabble in JRPGs periodically but never put much time into one until Persona 4, much later.
So. Tales of Zestiria. I’m at a point where my major limiter on video games is money, not time, so games I can drop hours and hours into are really appealing. I would never have liked Tales of Zestiria while I was working in games; it would have taken too long to get to “the good stuff”, and in fact, its predecessor, Tales of Vesperia, I played while working and moved on because it didn’t move quickly enough. It’s a potent reminder of how my enjoyment of games has changed now that I’m not making them and don’t feel the need to play EVERYTHING notable that comes out, just to stay sharp.
The game has also gotten my attention pretty quickly. It introduces me to two characters almost immediately, and does a trope-y setup that Ash and I both joked about as we started the game together. Obviously, this character is the protagonist and this other character is his best friend / rival who becomes a villain and yeah we’ve seen this all before. It’s still fun, it’s still charming, but we kind of know how this story is going to go. The first thirty minutes or so of the game proceeds like this, then takes a sudden, sharp turn. I won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say it’s a cleverly executed but very simple hook that’s driven a ton of the story for the first several hours of the game I’ve played. I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on in the world, but I have some pretty clear goals and I’m moving forward and dealing with new stuff as it comes.
It reminds me of why I liked JRPGs in the first place. A lot of games– most of your action games and even some action-RPGs– are like an album track. They get their hook in early, wow you with the chorus, provide a bit of variety with the bridge, keep you smiling as the now-familiar chorus comes around again, then finish before you have time to get tired of the beat. A JRPG is like an orchestral piece, which starts a lot slower and builds over time, often changing in sound entirely as it runs its course. You rarely find yourself humming them afterwards, but they stick with you in their own ways.
Tales of Zestiria is still building, but what I’ve seen and heard thus far hints at a really big world, and it’s already managed to surprise me in ways that a lot of other games don’t manage to without employing some serious deus ex machina. I’ve talked on occasion about the difference between storytelling and worldbuilding– the storytelling in Tales of Zestiria isn’t terribly complex, but the world in which the story is told is, and is (thus far) extremely consistent. It’s quickly and cleverly set up a world that I want to know more about. I’m interested when characters talk about history, and I’m curious about the broader scope of what I’ve seen so far. I don’t have the bug that some do to explore for the sake of exploration; I want to feel like I’m finding something interesting or getting a greater understanding of the world when I do, not just another vista or map unlock.
Tales of Zestiria is a world I want to explore, that I want to know the structure of, and probably most importantly, that I’m going to go back and play more of despite losing an entire night’s worth of playtime to what felt like an unfair encounter. I’ve abandoned games for frustrations FAR less severe than that.