The Summer 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Tales of Zestiria the X
How would you rate episode 1 of
Tales of Zestiria the X ?
What is this?
A dark fog has been growing on the horizon. Princess Alisha, worried about what this fog might portend, sends two of her trusted subjects to investigate - but when neither of them return, she is forced to take matters into her own hands. Tracing the fog back across her kingdom, she runs across a land steeped in fatigue and decay. When she finally makes contact with her friends, the darkness erupts into violence, as the earth cracks beneath her on the dawn of a dark new era. Tales of Zestiria the X is based on a video game and can be found streaming on Funimation, Sundays at 10:30 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Well, dang. I'm not sure what just happened, but it certainly looked cool. While it may be based on a JRPG, the first episode of Tales of Zestiria the X reminds me more of the first levels of countless Call of Duty-esque first person shooters. There's a lot of yelling, a big action sequence that kills of off a bunch of expendable characters, and an implied promise that whatever's going on is just the beginning of something even bigger and more intense. Even though it all seems a bit over-dramatic, one can't help but feel at least a little excited.
The premise has all the trappings of a grand fantasy epic: a well-intentioned princess surrounding by scheming nobles, signs of a looming disaster brought about by human meddling, and mysterious magic-users tossing hurling fireballs back and forth. This episode succeeds in emphasizing that things are looking hopeless and the world needs some elaborately costumed heroes, but that's about as far as it gets. Even with a full episode dedicated to setting the stage for the rest of the series, the narrative seems choppy and rushed thus far. The hasty exposition isn't the worst thing in the world on its own, but the show's tendency to skip back and forth on its own timeline is needlessly annoying.
As one of the few named characters who doesn't immediately bite the bullet, Alisha is too busy watching things go to heck around her to get a proper introduction. The audience is effectively watching a character's tragic backstory straight out of the gate instead of seeing it as a flashback later on in the series. It's a novel way of doing things, though I'm not convinced it's any better than a more ordinary introduction. It does at least make me want to see Alisha dust herself off and find some longer-lived allies, so I guess it's still an effective hook.
No matter what direction the story ultimately goes in, it's a safe bet that it'll deliver plenty of impressive visuals along the way. From sweeping wide shots to fast and fluid swordfights, this episode has a surplus of top-tier animation on hand for the audience to marvel at. Throw in some appropriately cinematic music and suddenly the shaky storytelling doesn't seem like all that big of a deal. It looks like we haven't even met most of the main characters yet, so it may take a few weeks to get a real sense for how compelling Tales of Zestiria the X will be. In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with sitting back and enjoying the show.
Tales of Zestiria the X is a little trickier than other titles this season to evaluate because of where it's coming from. It is an adaptation of the game Tales of Zestiria, but not the first one done in anime; a 44 minute movie to promote the game was released in December 2014. While being familiar with the game or the movie does not seem to be strictly necessary in order to follow the first episode of the TV series, it would give a better sense of where the story is going – and, most importantly, it would help the viewer to realize that we have yet to be introduced to the story's actual main protagonist.
That being said, the princess being featured here – who I don't believe is ever named in the episode but is, in fact, Alisha Diphda – does have a prominent role in both the movie and (as I understand it) the early stages of the game. In fact, this episode, which is listed as episode 1 by Funimation but episode 0 in some other places online, seems to be the prologue to what happens in the movie, which is itself an animation of the early stages of the game. It explains in part why the humanoid Hellion seemed to be after Alisha in the movie, though it does not give even a faint clue as to how Alicia ended up where she's found in the movie based on what's happening at the end of the episode. Some other details are also slightly at odds with the movie, which gives me the impression that the series is meant to be a revamping of what was previously animated. Still, the episode shows the chaos that Alisha told Sorey (the eventual protagonist, unless a total reworking is in order) about in the movie. I am very curious to see how that gets integrated into the movie's content, which is presumably what the next couple of episodes will cover.
Evaluated independently, the first episode feels a little haphazard in construction, as if it's severely cutting itself down so it can cover a lot of ground in a single episode. Scene transitions are abrupt, and viewers aren't given any visual clue that one scene is a flashback. However, the episode lays out the ominous nature of the situation quite well, an endeavor helped by a heavy, brooding, and sometimes a bit overwrought musical score. The visual effort by ufotable (the studio which also animated the movie) is a sharp one, featuring attractive character designs, some gorgeous background shots, and several fully-animated – and sometimes very flashy! – action scenes, especially featuring the very likable Alisha; the movie never had a chance to show that she's no pushover in a fight. As with their production of Fate/Zero and the Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works TV series, the animation does depend heavily on CG elements, but that aspect didn't particularly bother me.
Despite the flaws mentioned above, I have to give this positive marks because it looks so good in what it does and successfully throws out plenty of interesting hooks. There are whispers here of a generic fantasy story feel, but in the realm of high fantasy this makes a nice contrast and complement to the continuing Re: Zero. Can we call Sundays “Fantasy Sunday” this season?
It feels like Tales of Zestiria the X starts at the ending. That could simply be because the story opens with what appears to be the end of the world as the characters know it – Princess Alisha has heard of a troubling meteorological phenomenon and sent her friend Clem out to investigate with a professor. It turns out to be weather on the order of what sent Dorothy to Oz, and basically Alisha sees her friends die horribly before a fire dragon appears out of the clouds, with the implication that Bad Things are happening as the episode ends. While it would be really interesting if this was like that one Vita Sackville-West novel that has the chapters going backwards, so that we literally start at the end of the story and work back to the beginning, I doubt that this is the case – more likely we're just giving Alisha backstory before she meets the actual main cast. How effective this will be in the whole of the series is difficult to say right now, but it makes for one heck of a depressing first episode.
My experience with the Tales franchise is limited to the anime versions and watching my sister play through parts of a couple of games, but I'm still fairly positive that Alisha is about to be cast as the “tragic heroine” of the piece to be surrounded by helpful and generally less emotionally damaged fantasy characters. What I'm more interested to see is what the impact of the disaster is on the rest of the world – we know that a nearby town had some kind of epidemic that had counselors trying to get Alisha to agree to conscription, so that implies something a little more than a plain old illness. Then there are the creepy elves who seem to have instigated the whole thing – although whether Alisha can see the female, or their true forms, feels uncertain. I hope that this episode will form more than the basis for Alisha's tragic past and that the elements of it will be developed further, unless of course this is the actual end and we're picking back up long before Alisha's time. (Or after – that would work too.)
The main issue I have here is that it often feels like the episode is hopping around inside its own timeline – like we're jumping back and forth between Alisha sending Clemm off and when she's going to find her. Admittedly it's almost pretty enough that it doesn't matter, with the usual attractive character designs of the Tales franchise and the detailed world, although in this case it's mostly acres of blasted lands. This can't quite make up for the fact that it's hard to follow, even if the plot here isn't terribly complex.
I'm torn on this episode. I want to like it, partly because Alisha seems like a promising character and because I'm enjoying the visuals. On the other hand, I generally like to be able to follow the plot of something I'm watching easily, and that really didn't happen here for me. This may not be hugely promising yet, but it does merit giving a few more episodes to see where things are going and if it is going to get any clearer. If nothing else, the people will be nice to look at.
The best way to describe Tales of Zestiria the X is that it's doing its best. It is very clear we're adapting a JRPG here - in fact, the progression of this first episode felt a lot more like a Let's Play than an actual narrative. The camera tramps around behind Princess Alisha as she talks with politicians, discusses a mysterious dark fog, fights a potential frenemy, and then gets caught up in a whole bunch of explosive business regarding dragons and leylines and all that fantasy jazz. There's a fair amount of exposition, but it's all exposition you've heard before - nothing in this first episode is likely to surprise you, outside of possibly the finale's entertainingly misguided tragic peak.
That peak was probably my favorite moment of the episode, though likely not for reasons the creators intended. The final third of this episode is just bad times all around for Alisha - her guards get swooped up by an evil tornado, her friend falls into a giant crack in the ground, and her horse is pursued by an overdesigned ghost-girl shooting pillars of flame. After all that, Alisha returns to the town she'd hoped to protect, only to see it destroyed… but then a little girl emerges from the rubble, a sign of hope in the darkness. Alisha smiles briefly, until she sees the tornado sneaking up behind the girl, snatching her into the sky, and then promptly catching fire. I don't think that moment was supposed to parse as comedy, but it was certainly pretty funny to me.
In short, I wouldn't expect much from Zestiria's storytelling. Fortunately, storytelling isn't the only the feature on display here - Zestiria is an ufotable production, and so you can be assured there's also some sweet animation and effects work on hand. Alisha's early duel with a mysterious bandit is elevated by beautifully polished animation, and the final battle between two spellcasters features some impressive digital effects. There's also some extremely poor CG background work at times, but overall, Zestiria's aesthetics are quite strong.
That said, animation and effects highlights can only do so much in a dramatic vacuum. So far, nothing about Zestiria's narrative or dialogue have given me any reason to care about Alisha's story, and fight scenes generally only work for me if I have some dramatic stakes to hold on to. Tales of Zestiria is looking like a skip for me.
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