You should play Tales of Zestiria: Kind of a review but not really
Let it be known before I start this article that I have some inherent bias towards Tales of Zestiria. Its release comes as a career milestone for me, being the first title I have ever worked on for a major games studio. Yay me! Now that that's out of the way, I can let you know that I've tried to be as objective as possible when evaluating this game, and you shouldn't discount my opinion right away.
I'm tired of western RPG's. I appreciate their advancements to RPG gameplay over the past few years, such as open-world exploration, player-driven plot choices, and improved variety of gameplay styles. I've played and enjoyed the best, your Skyrims, Witchers, and Mass Effects. And I'm tired of them. Gameplay enhancements that once were innovative are now stale. Stories that were once interesting because of newly acquired player agency are now boring and full of dull characters (or have endings that ignore player agency, aka Mass Effect 3). Inclusion of multiple playstyles now makes me wish developers would spend more time crafting one good battle system rather than creating many mediocre ones. I've already written a whole article on the mess that is open world games.
Unfortunately, the flagbearing franchise for Japanese RPGs has been, for the west, Final Fantasy. This franchise, for better or worse, has become increasingly westernized in the latest installments. Open world-style gameplay in Final Fantasy XII, real-time combat in FFXIII, and the most dull characters you can imagine in both franchises.
Enter Tales. If you've played a Tales game before, you can probably skip what I'm going to say because you already know what to expect. Tales of Zestiria is no different from any other entry in the franchise, but if like me, you've grown tired of playing largely similar RPGs, Tales of Zestiria can offer you both a breath of fresh air and nostalgia at the same time. It's a game that is larger than the sum of its parts; overcoming its modest production budget to charm you with the lovely beating heart at its core.
Zestiria puts you in control of a ragtag group of magic users that must save the world from an evil force. The overall plot is mostly predictable, familiar stuff, but Zestiria's strength does not lie in the plot. The characters in the game are amongst the liveliest and most well-rounded of any game I've played. Discovering the pasts and personality quirks of the cast was absolutely the best part of Tales of Zestiria. In the game, there are hundreds of "skits" that you can watch, where characters converse about literally anything. In most games, these skits would be fluff content, but in Zestiria, they're extremely entertaining and well written. Watching the zany personalities of these characters bounce off of each other connected me to these characters and made me care more about them and their generic quest.
Another strength of Tales of Zestiria is its capacity to let loose and not take itself so damn seriously. The game essentially acknowledges that the characters are silly at times and it's a game people play for fun, so it enables the player to do so. You can dress your character up in ridiculous outfits, there are internet memes everywhere, and the level of punnery in this game is off the charts. Too many western RPGs have their gruff, emotionless main character surrounded by a cast of equally gruff, emotionless compatriots in an attempt to buy the player into the "realistic fantasy" of the game. I say fuck the realism! I'm playing a game and I know it! I know it's a fantasy game and I want my characters to be as fantastical as the setting!
There are some rough edges to Zestiria to be sure, and I'll briefly touch on these so as to not paint this game as completely perfect - it ain't. Most noticeably, the game is not going to hold a graphical candle to the latest Final Fantasy title, or really any big-budget western RPG. There are rough, simplistic textures everywhere and the animations can be stiff. The battle system also lacks a certain amount of depth in skill, at least on the surface. It actually has a pretty cool skill system underneath the hood, but the actual battles themselves can become routine fairly quickly. Still, I'll take stiff animations over stiff characters any day, and Zestiria's faults do not outweigh the overall enjoyment I took from playing the game.
At times, you sometimes need a reminder of the past. Without dwelling or relying on nostalgia, Tales of Zestiria successfully keeps much of the things I loved about the JRPGs I played while growing up - the colorful characters, the "gaminess", and an irresistible warmth emanating from the game. While the Tales series seems resistant to changes, I think many Japanese studios are creating RPGs that are worth playing through these days. From Software's Dark Souls series is not afraid to do away with popular conventions of difficulty and storytelling. The Persona series, developed by Atlus, is a better version of the Tales series. In general, I feel like the stagnation within Japanese studios may finally be coming to an end. Looking past the Final Fantasy series and trying out other Japanese RPGs could reward your adventurous spirit!