This is a spoiler-free Tales of Arise review, with the exception of some very minor early-game plot points.
Tales of Arise is the first mothership Tales title for five years, marking the longest ever spell without a major release in the series. After Tales of Berseria departed from the norm with a cast of antiheroes on a revenge mission, Tales of Arise reverts to type in some ways whilst taking different risks elsewhere. These don’t always quite pay off, but at its best Tales of Arise is a triumphant return that reminds me why I fell in love with this genre in the first place.
Its story starts among a group of slaves in the fiery depths of Calaglia. This is one of five main regions within the world of Dahna, each with a lord attempting to harvest as much life energy as possible from their subjects. The lord who gathers the most energy over a seven-year period will be deemed the winner of the Crown Contest, and declared ruler of the nearby twin planet of Rena.
Unlike the inhabitants of Dahna, people from Rena are blessed with abilities known as astral artes, making them far more powerful than their Dahnan counterparts. As such, Dahnans generally fear and detest Renans, whose magic has led to a world filled with oppression, prejudice and subjugation. Each region finds a lord employing different methods of exploiting their citizens in name of the Crown Contest.
Among the slaves, the only spark of defiance comes from a mysterious man in an iron mask who cannot feel pain and remembers nothing of his past – not even his own name. This is our protagonist, later identified as Alphen. Before long, he gets caught up with a resistance group in an excellent, action-packed cutscene atop a moving train. The choreography here is better than anything I’ve seen before in a Tales game, making it clear early on that Tales of Arise really means business.
Captive aboard the train is the pink-haired female lead, Shionne. She comes from the twin world of Rena, and is plagued by a curse called the Thorns, which causes excruciating pain to anyone who touches her. After being rescued, Shionne reveals her goal – despite being a Renan herself, she means to kill all of the Renan lords ruling Dahna. Within her lies the power to do just that, as she can summon the mighty blazing sword, a flame-drenched weapon that scalds anyone holding it.
The amnesiac male protagonist and female with unique powers may already sound like a bit of an RPG cliché, but Shionne in particular is not your typical mage character. Rather than a rod or staff, Shionne’s weapon of choice is a large rifle. Her inability to feel a human touch has also led to a spiky personality with an instinct to push everyone away.
Alphen and Shionne don’t exactly hit it off instantly, but travel together as their interests align – defeating the lords will allow Alphen to liberate the people of Dahna, and his lack of pain makes him the only person capable of wielding Shionne’s blazing sword. Within a few hours of play, Tales of Arise has already posed numerous gripping mysteries about the characters and their backstories, which drive the plot forwards and keep us guessing.
The modern Tales games have dispensed with the world map, and Tales of Arise continues this trend. I always love a good old-fashioned world map, but I can honestly say this is the first time in the series I haven’t missed one. The gorgeous, vibrant environments of Dahna are packed with character and detail, making them a pleasure to explore whilst searching for numerous collectibles like chests, ingredients and ores.
Improved, polished map design is accompanied by plenty of the traditional Tales charm, with the trademark amusing skits getting spruced up into improved 3D panels, and plenty of tasty recipes to find and cook. Cute little owls are dotted around the globe, with hints given by the adorable mascot Hootle and costume accessories given as a reward for each one rescued.
On the other hand, the end-of-battle dialogue is removed, and I have to say I really missed this. In fact, battle spoils are displayed on the side of the screen after a battle concludes, which are actually easy to skip over completely. Chaining battles together quickly increases the item drop rate, so I was instantly more concerned with the next enemy on the field rather than checking my EXP and skill points.
The battle system itself is packed with the classic action of the series alongside a variety of new twists and elements, not least the remapping of the controls. The attack button is given the somewhat unconventional selection of R1, whilst the ability to block is omitted altogether (except for one character). Dodging rather than guarding keeps battles flowing nicely, but I still think the ability to block should have been included.
Nonetheless, a perfect dodge negates all damage and leads to a chance to counter-attack, which is satisfying to pull off. Artes are also assigned individual buttons, rather than using directional controls of previous games. On the whole, these changes work well, as do most of the other alterations.
Characters use their artes with action points, denoted by a counter underneath them along the lines of Tales of Berseria’s soul gauge. These replenish after a few seconds, meaning you can rail on enemies with your best offensive moves safe in the knowledge you aren’t going to run out of juice and require an item.
This is with the exception of healing artes, which pull from a shared pool of cure points (CP). These cure points are also occasionally used on the field, where certain obstacles can be overcome by expending them, usually leading to valuable items. In a roundabout way, this is Tales of Arise rewarding players for getting through battles without needing to heal excessively.
As the story advances, further aspects of combat are unlocked at a nice pace that spices things up just as you’ve got used to the latest element. One such addition comes in the form of character-specific Boost attacks, which are activated with the D-pad after charging passively. Each character has a distinct use for their move – Alphen can temporarily disable enemies, best used to interrupt powerful attacks, whilst Shionne can shoot flying enemies out of the air. Others include breaking armour, absorbing enemy magic attacks and halting charging enemies in their tracks.
This is an excellent inclusion, as the characters outside your playable party retain the ability to Boost attack, keeping everyone involved and ensuring each character is still important – even if you never use them directly.
Along with Boost attacks comes a Boost Strike gauge for each individual enemy, which can fill up and open up a one-hit finishing move if you chain enough attacks. The benefit here is that keeping a long combo going against the same enemy can grant the opportunity to finish them off when they still have significant health remaining – with the added bonus of damaging other foes in the process. These finishers look awesome, combining two characters together in a brief cut-scene that unleashes a devastating attack.
Last but not least, the classic over-limit gauge reappears, where characters briefly power up to string together attacks without interruption, followed by an all-powerful mystic arte. Strangely, the over-limit state is triggered randomly when enough damage is taken, rather than a gradual increase for landing hits.
In the end, the battle screen can look utterly chaotic, but despite sometimes finding it hard to see how much HP my controlled character had, I still generally felt like I was in control. It’s helped by a fairly complex tactics system where specific AI instructions can be pre-programmed into your party members for individual situations. This is far better than the generic instructions of previous games, leading to an improved AI performance and fewer needless deaths if tweaked correctly. Shionne is handy at staying out of trouble and is quick to heal or resurrect when the circumstances start to look grim.
For the most part I loved the battle system, but it’s still not perfect. Once all elements are unlocked, battles start to become grindy. Many typical enemies have a huge amount of HP, requiring the full force of your powers to dispatch them within a reasonable timeframe. Worse, the EXP scaling feels really off – long, hard battles may reward you handsomely, or with virtually nothing at all despite similar difficulties. I don’t mind it that Tales of Arise discourages grinding, but even the simplistic approach of fighting every enemy in your path without fleeing is pointless. After you’ve reached the appropriate level for the dungeon in question, the EXP rewards are simply not worth the effort.
Moreover, the exact same enemy designs are recycled numerous times, where identical tactics are required. Since your party’s strength has usually improved at the same rate as the enemies, the battles are carbon-copies that become repetitive. A new dungeon often just means a new colour palette for the same few enemies with a different elemental weakness. This means spamming the same couple of artes in nearly every battle, over and over again against a handful of foes. Even some of the bosses suffer from this issue.
The blazing sword itself is a bit of mixed bag. Alphen can utilise this powerful weapon by holding down the button of an arte for extra fire damage, but this costs health. The more health you sacrifice, the more deadly the attack. Generally, I don’t like expending health to attack (see also: the Persona series) but the sheer length of battles eventually had me turning to the blazing sword nearly every time. Sacrificing your health down to 1 HP in order to win a battle quickly before healing afterwards felt a bit cheap and desperate, but the alternative was hacking away and dodging for several minutes at a time for a paltry amount of EXP.
These issues become more pronounced over time, which is a problem with Tales of Arise as a whole. The first 25 hours had me completely addicted. I was playing for hours on end, finding it more fun than anything I’d played in recent years. But as the game goes on, the cracks start to show. The rich, detailed maps become forgettable and bland. The gripping, interesting story becomes overly reliant on exposition dumps. The fun, action-packed battles start to drag.
My total playtime ended around 50 hours, and I can’t help feeling Tales of Arise rather ran out of steam. Without spoiling anything, the plot becomes too grandiose and convoluted, and I found myself distinctly uninterested in some of the latter twists and revelations. The worst part is that Tales of Arise really didn’t need them, as the more grounded character-driven plot points were easily strong enough to carry the game.
The more matters escalated, the more I missed the earlier, simpler moments of the adventure, exploring the world and uncovering more of each character’s secrets. Incidentally, I had the excact same issue with Scarlet Nexus, another recent release from Bandai Namco which overindulged on its exposition (for the record, I still really enjoyed it).
This concern is best summed up with the opening cinematic, which changes around half-way through the game. I watched the original intro every single time I booted up the game without fail, humming along to the awesome theme “Hibana” and revelling in watching the scenes I had just played out. Once Tales of Arise switched to its different introduction, I watched it only a handful of times. Like the second half of the game itself, it’s not particularly bad – just nowhere near as good.
To its credit, Tales of Arise doesn’t falter completely, and does a great job of keeping every party member involved. It’s all too common in the genre to see new characters fall into the background after completing their individual story arc and joining the party. Instead, everyone gets plenty of screen time and focus, resulting in a well-developed band of characters who work well together.
Tales of Arise also does better than most RPGs with its sidequests, which are an admittedly bloated mixture of typical fetch quests and monster hunts. However, my excessive exploration meant I usually had the fetch-quest items already, and I was always more than happy to take on challenging foes, which provide an additional reward of boosting your party’s maximum CP once defeated. As such, only a handful of the 70 (!) quests in the game actually felt like a chore to me. This includes a solid amount of post-game content that naturally adds a few more hours without needing to start a new playthrough.
Among sidequests and owl hunts, there is a basic farming sim to earn some extra meat ingredients and a far superior fishing mini-game that combines some tactical baiting mechanics with intense button timings whilst reeling in. Fishing is almost obligatory in the JRPG genre these days, and this is one of the best variations of the mini-game in recent years.
These escapades break up a plot that may get a bit too elaborate for its own good, but still hits some strong notes throughout. As well as the significance of freedom and choice, Tales of Arise particularly examines the importance of individual content of character trumping group identity. Despite the atrocities committed by powerful Renans, characters are forced to confront the notion that tarring everyone with the same brush is an overly simplistic view that only leads to more hatred and injustice. This extends into the relationships between the characters themselves, which grow organically throughout a long journey.
Though my lasting impression is tinged with a little disappointment, this is actually a testament to just how good Tales of Arise is for well over 20 hours. In this period, it truly exemplifies everything great about classic JRPGs – fun combat, interesting characters, a rich world, and plenty of tantalising mysteries that kept me hooked.
After coming out of the blocks at record pace, Tales of Arise stumbles before reaching the finishing line. Whilst it falls short of the greatness it promised, it is still undoubtedly victorious and one of the strongest entries of modern times. It’s good to have Tales back in my life, and I really hope we don’t have to wait another half-decade for the next one.