Whenever something that's significantly different - either in looks, themes, or features - is shown to the world, it is almost inevitable that there will be some out there that feel like the medium they loved before has changed into something completely unrecognizable. Currently, Tales of Arise is looking just like that: it has a new and (in my opinion) improved look, no more 2D cut-ins for Mystic Artes, a changed combat system, and now there’s 3D skits that adopt a more manga style to portray conversations between party members.
Yet, in spite of all of this change, Tales of Arise is still a game that’s not only recognizable, but feels as familiar as slipping the googly-eyed cosmetic onto your favourite Tales protagonist of choice.
If you haven’t already guessed it, I got the chance to play around 5 hours of Tales of Arise from the game’s first chapter. We start with a quick introduction of the general background: the oppression of Dahna from Rena, and how Rena quickly overthrew Dahna and its people due to having two things the Dahnans did not: advanced technology and magic called astral artes. This has led to centuries of slavery and persecution of the Dahnan people, spread across 5 different realms held by Renan Lords.
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After some more background, we’re introduced to the setting of Orbus Caliglia. It's a humid realm which looks like the depths of hell with its rocky landscape, lava-filled lakes and the dead and dying everywhere you look. It is a place ruled with an iron fist by Lord Balseph, a feral, bulky man that looks as fiendish as his nickname suggests. It is in this realm that we first meet Alphen.
It’s clear from the get-go that Alphen, while being naive and easily led by the people he encounters, is also just a genuinely nice person. He sticks up for his fellow slaves despite his own hardships, taking their punishment and drawing the ire of their Renan captors to shield others from pain. He does this a lot, and eventually - after a certain incident that leads him to Shionne - it causes him to break free from the Renans and join up with a resistance group called the Crimson Cows. Even during his short introduction to them, Alphen is eager to stand up for people. The major reason for this is because he hates injustice with a passion as fiery as his environment, but there’s also something else that makes him eager to take the brunt of everything thrown at his fellow Dahnans: he cannot feel pain.
I won’t go into too much detail about Alphen’s lack of pain in order to make this preview as spoilerless as possible, but it’s something that gets brought up once Alphen meets Shionne about 10-20 minutes into the game in a major way. It’s later mentioned again in a funny, easter egg-esque way by Shionne, who also asks if Alphen can’t taste anything too. This made me laugh considering Shionne’s English voice actor sounds suspiciously like Erica Lindbeck, who previously voiced Magilou in Tales of Berseria, a game where the protagonist can’t taste anything BUT blood and is often teased over it.
As I explored the first realm with Alphen and Shionne, there were more fun callbacks to previous Tales games, such the cores embedded in the Dahnan’s hands faintly resembling Tales of Symphonia’s Exspheres. Considering that I played what feels like the first chapter, it was genuinely touching to have so many in such a short space of time. These familiar features and themes are not something that’s unique to Arise, previous Tales games have done the same, but it has a particular poignancy to this being perhaps a throwback to the legacy of what makes Tales games so great in the first place: their characters and their stories.
Tales of Arise may look different, but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be tripping up on those aspects. While I only spent a short time with the preview, revelations like Shionne’s decision to turn against her own people, Alphen’s lack of memory, the real reason why Dahnans have cores embedded into their hands, and the reality of what a ‘master core’ is were all eye-popping, stomach-twisting moments that left me wanting more. While the basic premise of ‘rebels vs the tyrannical, imperialist regime oppressing them’ is not at all unique, the way the story and its main players are presented promises a tale with more twists and turns than a rollercoaster.
Even my time with Alphen and Shionne showed me that these characters aren’t what you expect. While Shionne does give off plenty of regality and even ‘tsundere’ vibes, she’s also more of a tragic figure than you’d first recognize considering her disdain for the Dahnans she’s surrounded by. She’s complex and not as black and white as tropes paint her out to be. She does not like the Dahnans all that much, but she knows that they’re her only chance at battling against the Lords of Rena and so, ultimately puts up with them, Alphen included. Alphen on the other hand could easily be mistaken as a happy, cheerful man, but his hatred of prejudice runs so deep that he disregards his own life in favour of others' freedom. It’s both beautiful and sad to see these two opposites come together to stand up against a regime, despite coming from two different backgrounds and having two very divisive ideals.
Outside of the clash of Alphen and Shionne vs the world, something that will ring true and familiar to many Tales of fans, I also got the chance to look at titles, the new combat and one of the most controversial changes for Arise: the 3D skits.
As someone who was very much against the 3D skits when I first saw them, I have been truly converted. There was a lot of dynamism with the original 2D skits from previous Tales games, but the 3D skits only add to it. While there are some odd moments where the characters speaking (or sitting because yes indeed, you can have skits while cooking and camping with your companions) look rigid, most of the time this is offset by the style and crop of the manga-esque panels. A jagged corner here, or a straight edge of a panel doesn’t just make the scenes come alive, but ultimately helps set the tone of the conversation between characters, making the panels themselves into a language of their own.
As for titles, a feature that not only lets you have some insight on your characters, but helps grant you new skills in combat, haven’t changed too much in Tales of Arise. With each new title unlock, you earn a skill panel associated with that title. There are artes (astral and otherwise depending on the character) and skills to learn. If you don't have enough skill points yet for a certain ability, you can ask the game to keep track and remind you when you do. These can be unlocked through combat with enemies and earning EXP, but new titles need to be unlocked via completing specific requirements and/or progressing throughout the main story. For example, one of Shionne’s first titles given to me was in relation to cooking, another mechanic that was unlocked throughout my time with the game’s first chapter.
Speaking of cooking, it feels a little different than the cooking of Tales of Berseria. For example, the duration of a meal and the effects it gives is a lot longer than just a single battle. Cooking also doesn’t mean that your party gets automatically healed after every meal, regardless of the effects you use. Instead, the party is given a pool of healing points that lessen each time you use healing magic, or you choose to heal your party after a battle. The only way to get these points back is through finding a safe area to rest, or through using items like elixirs and gels. But don’t worry, you still can use gels to heal yourself without it being taken away from your pool, so combat isn’t too unforgiving. It’s just that you will actually need to start relying on food to gift you the extra edge you need in combat, and so that you won’t need to constantly be trekking back, or using fast travel, to the same safe area to heal up. I do appreciate that Tales of Arise is switching things up and doing something different, though!
As you can tell, there’s a lot of new and exciting things to discover in Tales of Arise with changes that may challenge older fans' perspective of the series, but in truth...I think Tales of Arise is going to be a welcoming, hearty meal that fans will be eager to sink their teeth into the moment it arrives at their door.