REVIEW: Tales of Zestiria

Tales of Zestiria | テイルズ オブ ゼスティリア

Bandai/Namco’s Tales series has always been quite the collection. Lovely little anime games that bounce between cute and silly and darkly epic – though most of it will waiver in the awkward in-between. They are solid games without quite ascending to masterpieces, but usually embedded with little gems of plot conceptualization and character dynamics that raise them overhead simply mediocre.

At any rate, I had been a few years away from the series, but the siren’s call of alleged gayness in a more recent installment drew me back.

A Steam sale later, and I finally got my hands on Tales of Zestiria. I met Sorey, our upbeat protagonist, and Mikleo, his closest friend. Perfect, they’ll do. I’m youthful, optimistic. Ambitious. Ready for yaoi.

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IS IT GAY? 7/10

Who am I kidding? Of course a mainstream Japanese video game isn’t going to have a canon gay relationship outside of the noble genre of pornographic BL/yaoi visual novels (which technically count as games, fuck you. It’s possible to lose, it’s happened to me before.) Canon homosexuality is sparse in Japanese games, let alone when it affects the protagonist. Zestiria has no explicit confirmation of homosexuality. No kiss, no romantic declarations of love.

That being said, Zestiria is decidedly not not gay, either. Sorey and Mikleo transgress just being close buddies. Their relationship is too intimate to be sidelined, and teases just enough at romance to be accidental. In fact – this is the Tales series we are talking about, so this is important – their relationship is just as intimate as the male/female pairings of the other games, who also never kiss, or otherwise explicitly confirm their romance, but are assumed to be romantic by audiences anyway.

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Nothing is explicitly canon. We will have to get over that. The question is whether or not the story can be read as homosexual between the lines, and more importantly, if there’s enough evidence stacked to imply that the creators may have deliberately intended Sorey and Mikleo’s relationship to be read as intimate.

SO, WHAT IS THE TALE OF ZESTIRIA?

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Tales of Zestiria stars Sorey, a human who was raised by the seraphim – that is, mystical beings who, though they appear human, are usually invisible to normal humans. Due to his unusual upbringing, Sorey has developed outstanding “resonance”, a spiritual knack for sensing the supernatural. He was raised along with Mikleo, a seraph boy who appears to be about his age. The pair are amateur historians who enjoying nerding out over ancient ruins, and it is in one such ruin that they stumble across a young woman named Alisha. The coolest thing about Alisha to Sorey is that she’s another human, just like him – and he’s never met one of those before, which is neat, even if she thinks he’s fucking bonkers because he talks to himself and lives alone in a seemingly empty village (she can’t see the seraphim). Of secondary importance is that Alisha is a princess, knight, and heir to the throne of Hyland who is trying her gosh-darn best to mitigate violent conflict between her kingdom and the neighboring Rolance, all while the seedy political sphere of her own country plots to assassinate her. (#princessproblems)

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The real conflict emerges when we learn that an evil force called malevolence exists in the world, and has the power to corrupt both humans and seraphim. The infected are called hellions, and cannot be defeated by normal means. Only the Shepherd, your run-of-the-mill Chosen One, can purify the infected. Lucky for us, and the plot of this story, the upcoming Shepherd happens to be Sorey.

The Shepherd has a pretty nifty power: he can contractually bind and command a team of seraphim whose magical powers imbue his own abilities. Sorey thus goes around acquiring a colorful collection of seraphim friends – who conveniently end up corresponding neatly with the usual magical elements of fire, water, earth, and wind – and must both assist Alisha in stopping intercontinental war, and ultimately defeat the Lord of Calamity, the anti-Shepherd and purveyor of malevolence.

WHATEVER, WHERE’S THE YAOI?

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Tales of Zestiria plays a lot with dichotomy leading to conflict: the kingdoms of Hyland and Rolance, the Shepherd and the Lord of Calamity, humans and the seraphim. The latter conflict is the most present throughout the 50+ hour game, as your party consists of seraphim who are constantly bitching about shit humans do. Though the visual exile of the seraphim paired with the fact that most humans don’t believe seraphim exists means this isn’t an actively bloody affair, it’s implied that the humans’ very lack of faith in their spiritual cousins that is breeding malevolence in the first place.

The two real leads of the game, Sorey and Mikleo, both introduce the dichotomy (when we confront Alisha in the tutorial ruins and first realize that she can see Sorey but cannot see Mikleo) and then repudiate it, by not being personally affected by it at all. Holding an inseparable friendship in a village far removed from worldly conflict, they share a near-naive dream of humans and seraphim living in harmony.

Besides being spirits who can command an array of magical powers and thousand-year lifespans, the seraphim aren’t much different from humans. The experience Sorey and Mikleo shared as childhood friends made the similarities overwhelm the differences: they are both history nerds whose varied hobbies include archaeology, manuscripts, artifacts, and premodern linguistics. They have a penchant for mischief and breaking rules (to the exasperation of the Seraph village’s overseer, Zenrus, known more fondly as “Gramps”), and more than that, a shared playful and competitive dynamic that occasionally veers toward rivalry – at least on the side of Mikleo, who is a bit sensitive toward Sorey’s superior physical capabilities (apparently being able to do fucking magic isn’t enough to make up lost confidence points for a few lacking inches of height).

Invisible to most humans or not, Mikleo isn’t some untouchable divine spirit, in either a figurative or literal sense. Just to clarify, and this is important, Sorey can touch him. And Mikleo is ticklish. We know this, because they have a tickle-fight early in the game.

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Just a post-dungeon tickle-fight between two men

DICHOTOMY: ALMOST

Sorey and Mikleo do have conflict, but it has nothing to do with their opposing races.

When Sorey is chosen as the Shepherd, he is tasked with finding seraphim to serve him on his quest under the initial guidance of Lailah, a fire seraph who serves as his “Prime Lord”. Mikleo, expecting to accompany Sorey to whatever end adventure brings, wants to make this pact of service, and is infuriated when Sorey denies him point blank. Of course, it isn’t that Sorey doubts Mikleo’s capabilities or is too self-obsessed to accept help. It’s simply that Sorey refuses to burden Mikleo, the person most important to him, with the arduous destiny of the Shepherd.

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After a brief separation, a rogue Mikleo saves the party in an infested dungeon with his water elemental abilities. Sorey acknowledges that Mikleo wants to risk himself, just as Sorey is doing. As an aside, I love a good protagonist bitch-slap. The story doesn’t belong to Sorey, and he isn’t the only one who wants to change the world for the better. Sorey acquiesces that this is not his dream, but their dream.

But it isn’t that Sorey is being self-centered, either. He’s not mad for power the moment he gets assigned his protagonist card. He rejects Mikleo not because he is trying to make the story about himself, but because he cares for him so deeply. Self-sacrifice at the expense of others is a standard trait for a JRPG “Chosen One”, but Sorey doesn’t have the same hangups about anyone else joining him and endangering themselves on his behalf. This concern is limited to Mikleo.

FRIENDSHIP (BUT NOT BROTHERS)

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Sorey and Mikleo’s friendship is highlighted repeatedly throughout the series. Whether Sorey is trying to spare Mikleo the danger of being a Sub-Lord, or Mikleo habitually refusing to leave Sorey’s side when he is comatose, we know they care madly about one another. That might be natural for childhood friends. But since they grew up together, are their feelings in fact fraternal?

Unlike many of the other seraphim who are hundreds or even thousands of years old, we discover that Mikleo truly is the same age as Sorey. The twist sharpens when it is revealed that Mikleo was born a human in the same village as Sorey, but when disaster strikes, baby Mikleo’s uncle murders him as a sacrifice to a god-like seraph. The powerful seraph Zenrus receives Mikleo’s corpse and rebirths him as a seraph, and takes both him and Sorey in as wards. Though taking in humans was unconventional, Zenrus believed the friendship between the two children would precipitate the wider relationship between humans and seraphim.

So, the yaoi-deniers protest. They are basically brothers, which explains their intimacy away in a neat platonic package. Yet Sorey and Mikleo never describe their own relationship in familial terms. It’s not a matter of seraphim having no concept of brotherhood – after all, earth seraphim Edna’s subplot revolves around her relationship with her corrupted brother Eizan. Nor did Sorey and Mikleo grow up in the same household. Sorey has his own house in Elysia, and Zenrus is “Gramps”, not “Dad”.

Mikleo’s battle titles frequently reflect their shared relationship as well. These titles can be selected to format a characters’ stats for an given battle – for example, one title might increase Magic attack but sap Defense. The titles are narcissistic battle honorifics. For instance, Sorey has titles such as “Wielder of the Mystic Sword” and “Grand Shepherd”.  Alisha has titles like “Guardian Princess”, Lailah has “Sorceress of the Eternal Flame.” But interestingly, while Mikleo does have self-promoting Titles like this, such as “Water Guardian” and “Sorcerer of the Roiling Torrent”, he has an entire series of Titles related to his relationship with Sorey.

 

These Titles include “Peas in a Pod”, “Kindred Soul”, “One of a Kind”, and “The Answerer”: each referring explicitly to Mikleo and Sorey’s closeness. But again, none of them use fraternal language. Instead of suggesting brotherhood, the language builds the notion of soulmates.

SOREY DOESN’T LIKE GIRLS

 

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Sorey having zero interest in the opposite sex is a running gag throughout the game. Sorey laughs off any suggestion that girls have a special interest in him, and is naive to their advances. Other characters, especially the female-obsessed Zaveid, will often try to initiate conversations about girls with Sorey, only for Sorey to respond with comical indifference.

Alisha, the first female character introduced in the game, ostensibly should take the role of love interest. She ticks all the boxes for JRPG heroine: princess, pure-hearted, beautiful, adventurer. When Sorey and Mikleo find her in the ruins of a tutorial dungeon, we first learn that Sorey and Mikleo are different: Mikleo, a seraph, is invisible to Alisha’s eyes, which demotes him to a support role rather than Sorey’s prime companion while Alisha takes center stage. Sorey, who has never met another human like himself before, is so fascinated with her, he immediately commits to helping her on her journey. By the divine laws of JRPG tropes, a romance between Sorey and Alisha is practically compulsory.

But here’s the really interesting thing: it doesn’t work out.

Alisha ends up joining the party as Sorey’s Squire, a subservient role to the Shepherd that gives her the ability to see the seraphim. But pure-hearted or not, her resonance ability is too weak to maintain her role as the Squire, and the stress of compensating for her ends up sapping Sorey’s own strength to the point of threatening blindness. Sensing that she has reached her limit and will only hold Sorey back, Alisha abruptly leaves the party early on in the game to focus on her royal duties and does not return. She pops up here and there again in side quests, but though Sorey continues to care deeply about supporting her, his lack of romantic interest is so obvious, it becomes the butt of jokes from his companions.

Alisha is replaced by Rose, a plucky assassin who is comical instead of serious, morally gray instead of pure. If Alisha had the potential to be a romantic interest for Sorey, and failed at achieving that status, Rose has no interest in trying. Their relationship is so platonic, its riffed as a hilarious never-going-to-happen at several points in the game when they have to pretend to be husband and wife. When anyone suggests that their relationship could take a romantic dimension, they both laugh it off, sans blushing or stuttering or other tell-tale signs of interest.

So is Sorey simply too pure and naive for romance? Though he is completely unaffected by the female characters, the game doesn’t necessarily suggest he’s naive to all romance. It alludes to Sorey and Mikleo’s mutual interest in one another on a number of occasions – sometimes as jokes, other times as subtle remarks.

Whether its Sorey thinking of Mikleo when Zaveid suggests they go hunting for “babes” in the sauna…

 

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…or when Mikleo says he would never stray from the path of virtue because Sorey would “never allow it”, to the snickers of Rose and Zaveid…

 

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…or when Zaveid prods the pair about pursuing love, and Sorey admits he does occasionally feel romantic feelings and Mikleo tells Zaveid to stop prying in “our” affairs.

 

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What is canon is that Sorey consistency rejects women, and the fact that the writers deliberately allude to romantic interaction between Sorey and Mikleo is nearly undeniable.

ON TRUE NAMES

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When Lailah begins the ceremony to contract Mikleo as a Sub-Lord of Sorey, she asks Mikleo to divulge to Sorey his True Name.

“He already knows,” says Mikleo.

“You bet I do!” says Sorey.

“Oh my!” says Lailah.

There’s a certain intimacy implied in the fact that Mikleo has revealed to Sorey his True Name, Luzrov Rulay, before it was ever necessitated by the events of the plot. The concept of spiritual beings having True Names isn’t unique to Tales of Zestiria. There are folkloric, philosophic, and even religious origins to the supposition that humans who know the True Names of spirits gain the power to control them. From the popular German fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, where a girl can only free herself from a troublesome spirit only by gaining access to its name, to the esoteric Names of God in Judaic religious traditions that are too sacred to utter, Zestiria plays off a long tradition of the intrinsic power of names.

In Zestiria, the True Name not only serves as Mikleo’s vow to serve Sorey. It allows Mikleo to transfer his spirit to reside inside of Sorey’s mind rather than in a physical body, it also allows the two to armatize: a spiritual and physical transmutation of their souls and bodies that transforms the pair into one single powerful entity in battle.

Within the context of the game, a seraph sharing this name with a human must be intensely intimate, even taboo. But Sorey and Mikleo share everything. The idea that Sorey knows Mikleo’s True Name is akin to saying that Sorey knows Mikleo on a deeply profound level; a level that Mikleo has freely invited him into. And in turn, Sorey invites Mikleo into himself – literally.

THE ENDING

Sorey discloses his plan privately to Mikleo before the final battle: in a final strike of self-sacrifice, Sorey intends to merge with the godlike seraph Maotelus in order to purge the world of malevolence and beckon a new world where humans and seraphim live in harmony. Mikleo is gutted – after all, what about their plans to explore ruins around the world together? – but finds his resolve in supporting Sorey in working toward their shared dream.

The effort causes Sorey to disappear for hundreds of years.

The epilogue credits show a scatter of scenes demonstrating the passage of time. First, celebration at the defeat of the Lord of Calamity. Then, an elderly Rose’s funeral. New children, a new Shepherd.

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Finally, we see an older Mikleo – taller, with longer hair – walking alone through an ancient ruin. As he navigates the halls, he suddenly falls down a broken passageway. A hand reaches out to catch him, and Mikleo sees the silhouette of Sorey, mirroring the introductory scene where Sorey caught a falling Mikleo.

End game.

The fact that the final scene celebrates Sorey and Mikleo – a Mikleo who seemingly waited for Sorey for countless years, and a Sorey who returned to save him – has a poignancy usually reserved for love stories.

Appropriate, because this is one.

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OTHER SOURCES

The game has also been adapted into an anime and a manga, and the Internet claims a number of official quotes by series’ producer Hideo Baba and other official sources that allegedly imply or confirm Sorey’s lack of heterosexuality, his possible homosexuality, and his intimate connection with Mikleo (as Sorey’s “one and only”). Since I don’t have firsthand experience with any of these sources and am more interested in what is present in the game itself rather than Word of God and spinoffs, I’ll leave it to others to build the case.

NON-GAY REMARKS

Tales of Zestiria isn’t a masterpiece in terms of plot, but what it does successfully is create an imaginative concept and beautiful imagery supported by a cast of compelling and unique characters that ultimately get you cheering for their success (even if you aren’t really worried they will fail).

It toys with plot points that have immense potential for dramatic development, but never quite takes the leap. The more serious parts of the game fell a little flat for me – Dezel’s death, Alisha’s departure, the friendship scene in Pendrago before the final battle all felt somewhat corny or underdeveloped. I wished the stakes were a little higher. Sorey never really had to grow or make tough choices like Heldalf. What would happen to him if someone closest to him – like Mikleo – were corrupted in the same way that Edna’s brother was corrupted? Would Sorey retain his purity? Likewise, the player is never engaged in the ramifications of decisions. In Tales of Symphonia, one of two characters will die, so the player had to make a fatal choice between the pair. There was no such heavy choice in Zestiria (and it would have been plausible in the case of Dezel and Zaveid).

That being said, the characters were delightful and masterfully jumped between heart-wrenching melancholy and puns for days. On an aesthetic and narrative level, the seraphim and the Shepherd were amazing. Nothing beat the cutscenes of Sorey and Rose armatizing with the seraphim and toggling between them to take down the biggest baddies. The aesthetic was brilliant.

The game’s music was top-notch. The opening sequence is totally badass, and several background themes in particular stood out – particularly the Water, Earth, and Wind temple themes.

The gameplay felt a little dull at first, but becomes more fun the more seraphim you acquire and moves you unlock. True to the Tales series, there are various difficulty levels you can unlock, as well as a couple secret optional bosses to fight if you haven’t gotten enough.

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Fun fact: you can play this game for educational purposes

Overall, it’s a positive recommendation for JRPG fans, and if you’re both a JRPG fan and the sort of person who is actually reading this blog – that is, a gay anime fan – you will probably enjoy it even more.

WHERE TO PLAY IT (LEGALLY): Steam

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