What’s the difference between a Wal-Mart apple pie and Mom’s? The first is factory-produced with no love or care. The latter is unique and individual. So it is with JRPG characters. You can pump out easy tropes from a formula, or you can handcraft something special.
Recently, I tried Tales of Zestiria, and the longer I played it, the more I thought, “Man, I wish I was playing Skies of Arcadia.” The two leads, Sorey and Vyse, have near-identical designs, but comparing the two just made me sad. In the end, I only finished a couple hours of Zestiria, whereas I’ve played Skies over and over.
And it only took a couple hours with each lead character for each game to repel and attract me.
Vyse swings from the crow’s nest of an air pirate ship and raids the evil empire ship as part of a crew led by his dad, but while he pillages, he has a code of honor. When he sees a woman held captive, he rescues her. When the enemy captain tries to save his skin at the expense of his men, Vyse gets angry and challenges him to combat. He then takes the homeless captive back to his village. This is all just the first 30 minutes or so.
Sorey starts by exploring empty ruins and finding a picture of the mythical Shephard. He also finds a girl he’s not supposed to rescue and rescues her without even getting her name. Like Vyse, he brings the girl back to his home village.
Similar openings, similar character designs, similar wide-eyed adventurism, but with one critical difference. I already know who Vyse is, what he wants, and why he wants it. Sorey? I have no idea why he did any of those things.
Why is Vyse a sky pirate? Because his dad is. Why does he want to be a sky pirate captain? Because he loves this life. Why rescue the girl, challenge the coward, and release his own prisoners? His Blue Rogue code of honor. In the first mission, we at least have Vyse’s skeleton. Familiar, yes, but individualized.
Why is Sorey interested in ruins about the Shepard? I dunno. Why save the girl? Generic niceness. Why defy your elders and bring her to your village? The script says so? Why draw the magic sword and become the mythical Shepard? Because. This leaves us with only the vaguest idea of his character.
Vyse does things because that’s the type of person he is. Sorey does things because that’s the type he is.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
In fairness, Vyse is not some character-building paragon. Far from it. He has no development throughout the whole game, and you can still see strong traces of his trope. And in equal fairness, I only played a few hours of Zestiria, so I should play the rest for a fair analysis, right?
No. I shouldn’t.
First of all, Zestiria had more problems than just Sorey in those mere couple of hours. Second, JRPGs are famous for taking hours and hours out of your life. If you’re going to spend that much time in game with massive emphasis on story and character interaction like Zestiria and Skies, you’d better show off a likable cast; especially the protagonist.
I liked Vyse in seconds. A cool design, upbeat without being too naïve, an honorable scallywag. I understood his dreams and wanted to help him achieve them because it sounded like fun.
Sorey? In 2-3 hours, I got nothing from this guy. I kept asking, “Who are you? Why are you this way? What do you believe?” The only answers I got were rote JRPG protagonist motifs. Every action, every line of dialogue felt recycled from a light novel anime. Sorey is this way because he’s the main character and that’s what main characters do. He’s not a character, he’s a label.
If you liked Tales of Zestiria, I’m not trying to insult you. Like what you like, but the longer I looked at Sorey, the more I wanted to play Skies of Arcadia instead. Frankly, I saw no indications that it would get any better.
Do Zestiria’s characters get better over time? Anyone else remember Skies of Arcadia? Sound off in the comments and let us know.