Japanese-style role-playing games can be an acquired taste, typified by their long runtimes and complex mechanical sub-systems. Some ask so much of you to stay engaged, with meandering plots and repetitive enemy encounters being common pitfalls. Not Tales of Arise.
Tales of Arise refreshingly trims much of the excess the genre is so often weighed down by, making for an exciting, streamlined experience. Led by a rousing story about rebelling against an oppressive colonial rule, it’s filled with likable characters and stylish combat crackling with kinetic energy. Despite being the latest in a long-running franchise, Tales of Arise is a superb entry point.
Technically the seventeenth game in the Tales series, Tales of Arise stands alone, requiring no assumed knowledge. It takes place in the fantastical setting of Dahna, whose inhabitants have lived as slaves for 300 years, following its colonisation at the hands of Rena. As the masked man known as Alphen, you encounter Shionne, a Renan woman with strange mystical powers, fleeing from authorities.
Together, the duo forms an uneasy alliance, united by the common goal of overthrowing the Renan lords enforcing Dahna’s oppression. Every ten years, the lords participate in a Crown Contest to determine the sovereign for the next decade; the winner is whoever extracts the most Astral Energy from their region’s slaves, which leaves the victims hollowed and unable to fight back. Alphen, wanting to break the cycle of slavery, and Shionne, driven by revenge, aim to permanently end the barbaric contest.
Tales of Arise‘s opening hours are guilty of swamping you with information, as you acquaint yourself with the setting-specific terminology and fast-paced combat. But past the copious exposition and cascades of mechanical intricacies to learn, Tales of Arise quickly becomes a briskly-paced adventure worth sticking with.
From a narrative perspective, there’s a satisfyingly meaty exploration of themes. Tales of Arise paints the complex nature of colonialism without straying into the hand-wringing of both sides-ism. Shionne struggles to reconcile her path of rebellion alongside the violent history of her people. ‘You can’t ignore the past when speaking of the present’ she’s told at one point.
Each chapter generally covers the party’s struggle against a particular lord, but Tales of Arise‘s story is cleverly paced as to avoid settling into a monotonous rhythm. There are deeply intriguing and surprising sagas that develop into subversive narrative arcs, revealing characters to be more complex than first thought.
Some characters outside the core cast are sometimes underdeveloped with limited screen time, which leads to some plot points landing lightly. On other occasions, the adherence to archetypes for some characters is a little wearisome, but many who are guilty of this at first often develop into multi-faceted companions who actively add to Tales of Arise in meaningful ways. For instance, Shionne, the distant type who rebuffs acts of kindness, alongside the idealistic and occasionally verbose Alphen initially play to fairly rigid archetypes, eventually grow into compelling protagonists whose differing worldviews offer an interesting dynamic.
Tales of Arise‘s frenetic combat is a daunting prospect at first. From the outset, you’re bombarded with acronyms and battle-specific jargon such as Artes Gauge (AG) and Cure Points (CP) along with various button inputs to parse. Beyond the early fumbling around though, the zippy real-time system becomes a thrilling endeavour as you juggle foes in the air to chain together flashy combos.
There’s a fluidity to battles that feels great. It nails a tantalising combination of weightiness and agility; attacks land with genuine power, and you’re swift enough to pinball from one target to another at high speed. Not to mention the variety of visually impressive abilities enticing you to seek out further encounters.
Sometimes it goes overboard, though. Deeper into Tales of Arise‘s adventure, and as battle complexity increases, it’s occasionally difficult to tell targets and attacks apart. Many of the more powerful magic Artes conjure distracting light displays which are sometimes tricky to determine if the source is friendly or not when there’s more than one caster at a time. Similarly, once multiple party members join your team, the amount of crosstalk during battles is irritating, especially as each character barks voice lines ad nauseam as if trying to be heard across a dingy nightclub.
The collaboration between characters isn’t all tiresome, fortunately. While you can swap between party members during battle to enact granular control over each move, Tales of Arise’s companion AI is intelligent to the point where you can comfortably focus on controlling one character and leave the others to duke it out. You still have a strong element of tactical control, whereby you can quickly alter the party’s focus between attack, defence, healing, and anything in between, which allows you to enjoy the punchy combat and avoid getting bogged in menus.
Despite the occasional visual noise in some battles, Tales of Arise presents beautifully. Adorned with sharp, vibrant locations to explore, strong character design, and a grand soundtrack uplifted by dramatic orchestral and choral flourishes, it’s a gorgeous game to take in. Additionally, as a clear result of taking the right lessons from the other titles in the genre, Tales of Arise makes relatively minor things like inventory management a breeze, which make a huge difference in a several-dozen-hour experience.
A slow opening isn’t enough to detract from what Tales of Arise eventually becomes and what it ultimately does so well. Characters develop in fascinating ways, the story has resonance and is emphatically told, and the stylish, substantial combat make it a fantastic Japanese RPG that is free of the genre’s many trappings.
4 Stars: ★★★★
TALES OF ARISE
Platforms: PC, PlayStation, Xbox
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release Date: 9 September 2021
The PlayStation 5 version of Tales of Arise was provided and played for the purposes of this review.