Tales of Arise is the series' most revolutionary addition yet, introducing a group of outcasts that band together to liberate the people of Dahna from the Renan oppressors that rule over them. It’s got everything: fast-paced combat, a bunch of well-rounded characters (including even those outside of the main cast), and more importantly: it does an excellent job at refreshing and evolving the Tales of series that first came into fans' lives back in 1995.
Despite being amongst the most loved JRPG series', Tales of has struggled with presenting itself in a way that appealed to Western audiences, similar to Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Some argue repetitive, convoluted combat holds it back, where others feel like the game’s preference for anime over realism marred it so much that Western audiences just can't take seriously. Then there are those that argue it’s a bit of both.
The last Tales game, Tales of Berseria, released back in 2016 and received mostly positive reviews for its story and characters, but faced one huge criticism: it didn’t try hard enough to do something new. It used the same engine first introduced with 2011's Tales of Xillia, albeit a tad more refined, and there simply wasn't much of a difference between Berseria and its prequel, Zestiria - which had a reputation for misusing its female heroine, and being overly boring in comparison to previous Tales games.
If people are concerned about Tales of Arise following this same, stagnant pattern set up by the last two Tales of games, then they have nothing to worry about. Tales of Arise not only looks phenomenal on the Unreal Engine 4, but introduces a new, action-packed combat system, beautiful environments, and - most importantly - six incredible, charming characters that have the potential to be among fan-favourites like Lloyd Irving, Velvet Crowe, and Yuri Lowell.
Now! Rise! Arise!
For some people, the myth of an ‘Apolitical Japan’ runs deep - a Japan that isn’t at all interested in politics’, that just wants everyone to ‘get along’ and ‘live their own lives’ without shoving ‘political agendas down everyone’s throat.’
Tales of Arise kicks that myth right out of the damn window from the get-go by putting you in the shoes of Alphen, a Dahnan slave who wants nothing more but to free his people from the Renans. He's joined by Shionne, a Renan woman who causes thorns to shoot out and hurt the people around her if they even touch her.
Despite being Renan, she wishes to rid Dahna of the five Renan lords that rule over the world. Along the way, the two meet up with characters Law, Rinwell, Dohalim and Kisara - who all have their own reasons for joining up with Alphen and Shionne.
As the story progresses, Tales of Arise doesn’t shy away from showing players scenes that are downright uncomfortable in how familiar they are to world events throughout history. Indeed, Rena, Renans and the Lords that rule over Dahna are often portrayed as maniacal, yet intelligent individuals who resort to human experimentations, violence, and murder.
One of the most disturbing things that players encounter is a secret police force that encourages Dahnans to snitch on one another to gain rewards from the dictatorial state they live under. This could be something simple like food, or the possibility of seeing their loved ones again. It’s moments like these that communicate the very real effects of cruelty and discrimination, and it's also what spurs both the player and Alphen's party on their quest to save the Dahnans from their oppressors.
From the beginning, this adventure looks like it’ll go the typical hero’s journey of liberation through the use of ‘hitting/killing the problem’ until it goes away. However, without spoiling too much, Alphen and co move away from the tired old trope of simply overthrowing their oppressors through violence. Despite the heroes being, well, heroes, they're also incredibly aware that they are mere cogs in a huge, societal machine of oppression that keeps the circle of violence spinning generation after generation.
They know they can't change everything just by fighting with their swords and using magic. It isn't a war that they're after. It's the upheaval of the status quo as a whole, something which they acknowledge can only be done with patience, understanding, determination, and a willingness for real, meaningful change.
More importantly, it needs to be the will of everyone, and not just the powerful few. Though, don't get me wrong, Alphen and the others are very much okay with smacking a fascist up if needed and I, for one, am here for it. Whether they’ve managed to convey the intricacies of social reform is up for debate, but I certainly feel as though Tales of Arise at least having the guts to try is something that deserves to be celebrated.
If this sounds a little too ‘serious’ for you, then don’t fret too much. Tales of Arise isn’t exactly an outlier for focusing on mature, political subjects like this - just look at Tales of Symphonia - but there are still plenty of wacky, ridiculous moments that work just as well as the serious and emotionally devastating scenes. It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s laughter, friendship and love - Just be aware that Tales of Arise isn’t holding any punches either.
One of the best things about the Tales series getting a much-needed refresh is that combat actually feels fun now. Instead of simply mashing buttons and hoping for the best - which in all fairness, is how I usually play Tales games - Tales of Arise players will instead have to actively think about their next move as the battle unfolds, especially because each character has their own, unique way to do combat.
For example: Dohalim’s combat prowess is enhanced each time he dodges at the last second, whereas Rinwell is able to hold onto her astral artes (this game’s fancy way of saying magic) and keep them ready to use in a combo, making her more deadly than your average magic-user.
Other additions to combat include a separate system for healing and using astral artes. In previous Tales games you’d need a certain amount of magic juice to use spells, meaning you’d often need to refresh with Orange and Pineapple gels, to both keep your magic usable and to heal other party members.
In Tales of Arise however, healing is separated via Cure Points (CP) whereas other magic is linked to how much energy you have in your AG gauge - which gets replenished via not using astral artes for a while, as well as dodging/blocking at the right time. That means Orange and Pineapple gels don't refill your MP anymore, but just your CP. I quite like it, and it doesn’t feel as though it makes combat unbalanced either.
Action is very much the bread and butter of this new combat system and players won’t have to constantly keep an eye on gauge’s to see if they’ve got enough juice to use an ability. The way it works is that, no matter who you’re playing, a combo will enhance your power until you’ve got enough to perform a Boost Attack.
These attacks are earned by chipping away at enemies until a blue, diamond meter is filled and you can press the D-Pad to initiate one of these special attacks. Each character has their own special ability that can be performed with another character, giving you a good selection of Boost Attacks to witness with each battle.
In my previous preview of the game, I mentioned that I found the constant Boost Attacks to be somewhat repetitive. That hasn’t changed all that much during my 50+ hours with the full game, but I can’t deny that they at least look stylish and it’s fun to see the characters interact even in the throes of combat.
And yes, just because I know someone’s wondering about it and I’m nothing if not helpful: bosses do stagger and you’ll be able to see it quite clearly during your fights.
Friends like Family
Ask a JRPG fan about a trope they’ll love and I can guarantee you that half of them will say ‘found family.’ Without getting too much into spoiler territory here, I’m happy to say that the Tales of Arise cast fits this trope like a glove and it’s only made sweeter by their complex, cultural differences.
In comparison to graphics and combat, the Tales of series didn’t really have too much to ‘refresh’ when it came to their characters. They’ve always had strong groups of characters, with only the occasional unfortunate stereotype here and there with some of their female cast. Overall though? Incredible characters that I love a lot.
So it’s no surprise that Tales of Arise has a solid cast of characters for you to fall in love with. You’ve got Alphen, a man who wishes desperately to fight against injustice; Shionne, a Renan woman who is determined to fight until the bitter end to get what she wants; Rinwell, a naive, but hopeful mage; Law, a young man whose past brings him grief; Kisara, a woman caught between her struggles and her desire for a better world and last but not least, Dohalim, an elegant and soft-spoken man who holds himself to an impossible standard.
Even narrowing them down to a single sentence was hard, and there’s a lot more to this cast than meets the eye, something which the narrative of side quests, skits, and the main story weaves together expertly.
More importantly, they feel like real people with real - if a little fantastical at times - problems that you can’t help but root for. Even though some are quite literally war criminals in the eyes of their Dahnan counterparts, the cast of Tales of Arise are endearing and complex. And when has that ever stopped us from loving characters?
What’s more, it felt nice to have a cast of women who could be both vulnerable and kickass, whilst allowing the men of the group to express themselves without being shoehorned into a typical, masculine-to-the-point-of-hilarity role. Despite being from two different cultures, there was an equal level of respect among the cast. It was honestly a real breath of fresh air and showed just how mature the writing for Tales has become over the years.
My one and only complaint about the character is that I wish there had been more chances for certain characters to interact with one another. While it’s no spoiler that Shionne and Alphen definitely have some romantic tension going on, I often longed for the game to give Shionne and Alphen both something more to do with the others earlier on in the game.
I don’t mind a good romantic storyline if done well, but I found that it grated on my nerves far too often. Tales has done romance before and has done it well, but I’m always going to want a close-knit group of friends over a love story, but again, that’s just a personal preference.
Tales of Arise is a revitalizing step in the right direction for the Tales of series, offering new players a chance to play Tales at its very best, and old fans an incredible journey that feels familiar. It’s hard not to love what Tales of Arise has to offer and while there are some small issues, it doesn’t take away from my opinion that this is the Tales game that will breathe new life into the series.
Review copy was provided by the publisher and played on PS5