Tales of Arise will charm new fans to the series with a mix of multi-layered storytelling, beautiful aesthetics, and thrilling action - something established fans will be well-acquainted with. For long-time fans, though, some changes may take getting used to.
Reinvention and change are tricky things to do in a franchise as steeped in history as Tales. Just ask anyone who worked on Final Fantasy, or Pokemon. On one hand, fresh ideas can sometimes alienate long-standing fans by changing, or completely removing, aspects that are beloved. On the other, sticking to the formula could mean not reaching out to a new audience, or worst - coming across as stale and unimaginative.
It is therefore no small achievement that Tales of Arise seems to have found some balance between "out with the old" and "in with the new". While we cannot claim to speak from experience with previous Tales games, we can offer our perspective of what it is like to be a newcomer to the franchise, and perhaps shine light on why Tales of Arise is the turning-point for the franchise in terms of gaining even more mainstream appeal.
Story & Narrative
To begin, the narrative is centered upon the checkered history of the Renans, who have enslaved the Dhanans for 300 years through the use of their superior technology and ability to use Astral Artes, a type of magic which draws upon Astral Energy.
The Dhanans, otherwise remarked upon as “embedded” due to having a core embedded in their arms, are cruelly exploited to mine for resources while the Renans, referred to as “bright eyes” due to the glow their eyes emit while casting Astral Artes, rule them through fear and violence.
There is a generally somber and oppressive atmosphere which reveals deeper themes surrounding racism, class, and slavery or exploitation - notions that no doubt draw from many of our current societal concerns.
It is a lot to take in, but thankfully you play as Alphen - initially known only as "Iron Mask" - who is unable to remember his past. As a result, Alphen, and by extension the player, gets their fair share of being filled in regarding the intricacies of the story. Though it is a common trope in many RPGs, the device functions well enough to power the mystery behind the mask.
It also allows the selfless Alphen to interact meaningfully with the supporting cast members, such as the cool but guarded Shionne, and the passionate leader of the rebellious Crimson Crows, Zephyr.
Without a doubt, there is a sense that each character’s backstory will play heavily into the overall plot development. As is the modus operandi for many JRPGs, notions of fate and destiny loom heavily over the plot, increasing the stakes for the eventual delayed revelations regarding our hero's origins.
The catalyst for Alphen's desire to break free of the daily cycles of slavery is none other than a chance meeting with Shionne, whose status as a fugitive from the Renans, despite being one herself, is not even the most mysterious aspect of her character.
Eventually, Alphen and Shionne team up with more characters, each with their own unique backstory and motivations, and each with their own strengths and weaknesses in and out of combat. Often, they do fall into anime trope territory, such as a particular character's penchant for starchy foods. Though, to be fair, that is what most of us sign up for when playing a JRPG.
With such a colourful (and we don't just mean their hair) cast of characters, there's a lot of room to become immersed in the inner lives of the party while also living through an epic tale which spans across planets and vastly different landscapes.
Art & Graphics
To help in the storytelling, Bandai Namco have once again enlisted the skills of animation studio Ufotable, known best for their work on the Fate and Demon Slayer series, including the highest-grossing movie of 2020: Mugen Train. The end results are absolutely stunning cutscenes which are capable of presenting both emotional and high-octane moments equally well.
The playable world itself is no slouch, either. During our forays into different zones, we found the full force of Unreal Engine 4 and Bandai Namco’s “Atmospheric Shader” (inspired by anime and watercolour paintings) working in tandem.
Together, they vividly depict both beautiful and harsh landscapes to wondrous effect; a couple of times during our playthrough, we found ourselves speechlessly taking in the sights. The game also offers players on the PS5 and Xbox Series X a choice between Performance (prioritizes 60fps) and Graphics (prioritizes 4k) modes.
In a masterful stroke which offers players control over the pacing of their exploration in the game, Tales of Arise also uses a “Skit” system for optional dialogue, which may, um, arise when arriving at particular landmarks or fulfilling certain conditions.
These Skits showcases the characters’ interactions on a more intimate level. Through them, you get to see more of each character’s quirks, as well as understand a little bit more about them as people.
Using animated manga panels, these conversations feel leaner and more compact than they typically do in other games, and are triggered only optionally during exploration. If you missed any of them because you were too busy fighting baddies, you can always catch up on them later.
An interesting thing we noticed about these panels is that they were not completely pre-rendered (unlike in games like NEO: The World Ends With You). As a result, any changes to your character’s appearance through the “outfit” function show up in these skits, too. So, rest assured that you will get the most out of those cat ears you earned by finding the Hootles hidden across the various maps.
The game also features an "Outfit" system that allows you to dress glamorously (or, shoddily) while reaping the benefits of equipping better gear "underneath".
Ultimately, though, the best way to look good in this game is by nailing its combo-reliant combat system in order to release special moves.
On top of basic attacks, each character has its own Artes, which can be used by spending the constantly replenishing Artes Gauge, or AG. In contrast to Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s ATB system, AG replenishes while a character is not attacking, so chaining normal attacks with Artes attacks becomes a game of strategy.
Getting it right, though, is extremely rewarding, as it allows you to call in your allies to use Boost Attacks, prolonging the combo. Hold the combo even longer and you get the visual privilege of using Boost Strikes, the equivalent of an All-Out-Attack, which calls in the party to attack in spectacular fashion.
Fans of action games like Bayonetta and NieR: Automata will be pleased to know that there is, indeed, a perfect evasion and perfect guard mechanism called Counter Edge, which is incredibly satisfying to pull off. As in those titles, successfully triggering a Counter Edge opportunity causes the action to slow down, and offers the opportunity to add to a growing combo counter.
Each character also has a wide range of Artes from which to choose from and “equip”. Over time, more Artes become available, allowing players to create exciting synergies across the four active party members.
In the absence of a mana system, healing is done through Healing Artes which make use of Cure Points (CP), a resource that is shared across the party. This limits the amount of Healing Artes that can be used in-between rest zones (CP only replenishes when resting or through consumables). Players may also find other uses of CP which would discourage them from allowing their CP to run low.
In addition, players can choose to control all party members manually, or leave it up to the AI in varying degrees. Though the game’s combat is complex, it carefully scaffolds the player’s learning of these different aspects by progressively releasing new mechanics over the course of the story, making it feel like you are "leveling up" with the characters.
Because of these little touches, the combat in Tales of Arise is a lot more accessible while also offering veterans the opportunity to take full control of combat and boss enemies around if they so choose.
With such exhilarating and enjoyable combat, we were guilty of running into enemy encounters for the sole purpose of getting to see more pretty effects and Boost Strikes, even though some of them were completely avoidable. As fans of solo JRPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, and Persona, being able to cycle through characters felt familiar and enjoyable.
However, the game has done away with multiplayer or co-operative combat gameplay, which has been a staple of the series’ main line games like Symphonia and Vesperia. Such an exclusion may leave loyal fans, who have come to love the ability to play with a friend or family member, disappointed.
Ultimately, the team at Bandai Namco have captured lightning in a bottle with their combination of beautiful visuals and layered gameplay.
With its commercial success at launch, it is clear that Tales of Arise has found mainstream appeal - but some older fans will wonder: at what cost?
While we won’t be able to compare Tales of Arise with previous games in this series more deeply, we can say for sure that thus far, it is a game which houses excellent combat within a world that is pleasing to the eye, and that it promises to tug at our heartstrings. If you are a fan of anime or JRPGs, this one is not to be missed.
Check out our Tales of Arise First Impressions video:
Have you played previous Tales of games before? Or is this your first Tales of game? Let us know what you think about the game because we’d really love to know!