Tales of Arise Review – Keeping the Flame Alive
Tales of AriseSeptember 10th, 2021
The Tales series has been around for quite some time, but for years it failed to make a significant splash in the West. Despite how the series has been handled in North America and Europe, with Bandai Namco skipping over some excellent titles like Tales of Rebirth and Tales of Destiny Remake, however, the Tales games have started getting a considerable following in the West, which made Tales of Berseria and Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition, rather successful.
Still, this wasn't enough, as the series still doesn't reach, in terms of popularity, the heights of Final Fantasy in North America and Europe. Something had to be changed, and some off time was needed for the series to evolve and push into a slightly different direction. The end result of this process is Tales of Arise, an amazing JRPG that attempts, and succeeds, at moving the series forward without doing away with what fans love about the franchise.
Right from the very start, it's evident how Bandai Namco tried to do something different with Tales of Arise. The anime roots of the series are still evident, as highlighted by the fully animated intro movie by Ufotable, but things generally feel darker and more grounded, with even the most absurd of character interaction feeling way more believable and less over-the-top than before.
The story told by Tales of Arise is a dark story of two worlds, the medieval world of Dahna and the advanced world of Rena. Three centuries before the events of the game, Rena invaded the world of Dahna and managed to conquer it fully thanks to its superior technology and control of Magic, known as Astral Artes. The conquest brought upon the Dahnans all sorts of misery: indigenous culture has been erased, and the population has been enslaved and forced to work for the Renans under the supervision of five different Lords who control the realms Dahnan is divided into. Dahna has also become the main setting of a perverse contest called the Crown Contest that aims to crown the ruler of Rena among the Lords ruling Dahna who manage to gather the most Astral Energy, something that worsened the living conditions of the Dahnans even further.
While most of the people of Dahna have submitted to the rule of the Renans, resistance groups have risen in all of the five realms, fighting the Lords and attempting to free the enslaved masses. Among these slaves is a very peculiar amnesiac individual named Alphen who wears an iron mask that cannot be removed in any way. A fateful encounter with a traitorous Renan named Shionne will bring him to become the hero of Dahna, saving first the realm of Calaglia, then all the others as he takes on the different Lords with the help of companions from both planets and ultimately discover the truth about the two planets' complicated balance.
Many of the themes seen in Tales of Arise, such as the war between two different realms, one more advanced than the other, have been seen in the series other times, but never before they have been developed in such a dark, oppressive way. Even the typical banter between characters, which usually happens during the visually revamped Skits, feels a little less lighthearted than usual. There are still some hilarious moments, which often involve Rinwell, her pet owl Hootle and Law, but they are way more subdued, which works quite well in the dark world the characters live in. Too often, JRPGs seem to forget what's at the stake for the main characters, but thankfully Tales of Arise doesn't make the same mistake, making the story and character interactions feel more cohesive. At the end of the day, the story may not move too far from the series' typical boundaries, but the way it is told, and the darker atmosphere, make it quite enjoyable.
Character development is one of the features the Tales series has been built upon, and Tales of Arise definitely does not disappoint in this regard. While Alphen and Shionne are the best-developed characters, the rest of the main cast, Rinwell, Law, Kisara, and Dohalim are all nicely developed and contribute to making the story so enjoyable. The relatively small main cast, which may be a little disappointing for some, allowed the developer to create much better interactions, and no character gets sidelined after their story arc has been completed, something that did happen often in previous entries in the series.
It isn't just the story that has more than a few elements inspired by previous entries in the series, as Tales of Arise takes quite a few gameplay mechanics from older games while updating them with some welcome twists, including the battle system.
While the Tales of Arise battle system is still another variation of the signature Linear Motion Battle System, not a whole lot has remained linear. Tales of Berseria already went past the combat movement limitations seen in games like Tales of Graces F and Tales of Zestiria, but Tales of Arise goes the extra mile to make combat feel a touch more modern, with a dedicated evade button and the ability to jump at will, which was missing from games using similar combat systems. Regular weapon attacks also make a comeback, and they are considerably more useful than they were in previous games, due to the enemy and combat design of the new entry in the franchise.
Unlike Tales of Berseria, where it was easy for fights to turn into a complete button-mashing fest at low difficulty levels, Tales of Arise requires players to actually think about which attack to use, as all enemies in the game come with what is commonly known as Super Armor. This state prevents them from being staggered by any attack, and thus players need to break this state first by attacking enemies repeatedly or by performing a Dodge Counter, a fast counterattack that is performed after doing a Perfect Dodge. As enemies are not staggered if not broken, players need to go with fast attacks like regular so as to not get caught by the opponent's attacks, as Artes are committal this time around and cannot be canceled into the dodge maneuver. Another big change that requires players to be careful in their offense is the introduction of Cure Points that power healing. Once depleted, Healing Artes cannot be used, forcing players to restore them using Gels or to resort to other items for healing.
To be completely honest, I wasn't completely sold on some of these changes at the beginning. What I love about the Tales series' combat is the ability to combo enemies to death, and this system makes it difficult to go all out straight from the beginning of battles, making combat feel slightly more restrictive than it should have been. A few hours in, however, I realized that this change was indeed for the best, as I started using the full range of my currently available abilities to achieve what other entries in the series handed players on the plate almost from the very beginning. It feels more rewarding than I expected.
With combat built around the need to break the enemies' super armor, all characters do play rather differently from the typical Tales series archetypes. Alphen is the most balanced of the bunch, featuring a nice selection of ground and aerial Artes and the powerful Blazing Sword that lets him unleash wide area of effect attacks that can instantly break the enemies' super armor; Shionne is the main healer, but she also comes equipped with an energy gun for devastating long-range attacks, offensive spells and elemental bombs with different effects; Rinwell is a mage that can hold her own with a variety of offensive Artes and the Spell Charge ability, a special ability that lets her store a spell to unleash it automatically at the end of a combo; Law is the fast martial artist with great air combo potential and the Awakening ability that makes him stronger as long as he continues to pummel enemies without being hit; Kisara is the tank that can guard with her shield, and can hit enemies hard with her special attacks; Dohalim is a nimble rod master that can combine rod Artes with offensive Astral Artes for some great crowd control. All characters can also perform a powerful Boost Attack that can not only down specific enemy types, but that also restores the Artes Gauge to let the controlled character continue its combo. After damaging an enemy enough, it is also possible to unleash Boost Strikes as well, an updated version of the Fatal Strikes introduces in Tales of Vesperia, that destroy regular enemies in a single strike and deal high damage to bosses. All of the characters feel incredibly versatile with all of their abilities, making all of them a joy to play this time around. It's a shame that multiplayer options have been removed, as Tales of Arise would have been the best entry in the series for playing with other human players, given the excellent character roster.
While regular enemy encounters play out as they always have in recent entries in the series, Tales of Arise introduces some interesting changes for fights against bigger enemies, Gigants, and bosses. Bigger enemies like golems and Gigants now not only come with a massive HP pool, even on lower difficulties, but also with weak points that can be attacked to deal additional damage and down the enemy temporarily, making fights way more strategic than those against regular enemies. Boss battles have also been revamped to become even more epic, especially those against the Lords of Dahna, as they all come with some unique quirks that must be exploited to win. The fight against Balseph, the Lord of Calaglia, for example, requires players to use Shionne's Boost Attack while the enemy is in the air to down him and deal damage safely, something that is very difficult to do given the huge range and high power of the boss' attacks.
Outside of combat, Tales of Arise feels a little more traditional. The character progression system is powered by a tweaked version of that seen in Tales of Graces F, as skills and Artes can be learned only after unlocking Titles and spending SP. Once learned, skills are always active, so customization does feel a little limited. The only way to further customize a character's abilities is via accessories, which can be crafted by using different ores with different qualities. By using additional materials, it's possible to add some additional abilities to the base accessory, abilities that must be unlocked by enhancing the accessory itself. These additional abilities are rather straightforward, ranging from stat boosts to increased Arte Gauge recovery speed, so don't expect anything major.
While not fighting enemies and improving characters' abilities, you will be exploring a variety of different locations that are connected to one another by field maps that replace the classic overworld map. The field maps are much better designed than those seen in the series since Tales of Graces F, with a few more items to find, side activities to take part in like fishing, optional areas to open up using characters' Field Skills, and Artifacts, special landmarks that further develop Dahna's forgotten history and also tie into the game's Grade System, but sadly they still do not manage to make the world feel as grand as a regular overworld map does. Towns and dungeons are also much better designed, with dungeons featuring a few simple puzzles that often involve finding keys and flipping switches. Despite the improved location design, the game still feels a tad too linear, which does impact the experience a bit.
The somewhat darker atmosphere of Tales of Arise is highlighted by the game's visual style and, which is markedly different from anything we have seen so far in JRPGs. By using the Atmospheric Filter, Bandai Namco gave the whole game a distinct watercolor feel that works great with the typical Japanese anime design of characters and locations. The game also performs well enough on PlayStation 5, where it is possible to pick between two different display modes that favor resolution or framerate. Graphics Mode outputs the game at 4K resolution while Performance mode outputs at a lower resolution but with 60 FPS gameplay. The latter is the ideal display mode due to the game's fast-paced action combat that simply feels better at a higher frame rate. Performance is steady most of the time, although the game struggles to maintain solid 60 FPS during combat.
Together with the two display modes, the PlayStation 5 version also supports haptics via the Dual Sense controller. Haptics are used both during cutscenes and gameplay and their implementation is far from the best we have seen so far on PS5. It does help to make players feel what is happening during certain sequences, so they are still welcome.
The soundtrack also contributes quite a bit to the game's excellent atmosphere. Composed by long-time series' composer Motoi Sakuraba, the Tales of Arise soundtrack features tons of orchestral and atmospheric pieces, with the composer mostly doing away with the prog-rock influenced sound that has characterized the series' soundtrack for a while now. The addition of dynamic tracks in select dungeons also makes the whole sound production feel more coherent. Tales of Arise does also feature both English and Japanese dub, and both are of very high quality.
Being faithful while managing to innovate some of the series' staples is Tales of Arise's greatest achievement. Although it's only the combat mechanics that do feel different, Bandai Namco has done a terrific job addressing some of the criticism of previous entries in the series, laying a solid groundwork for future innovations. At the end of the day, Tales of Arise may not be the best entry in the series, but it gets quite close to it.
PlayStation 5 version tested. Review code provided by the publisher.
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With its engaging story, dark atmosphere, charming characters, and excellent combat, Tales of Arise provides an experience that feels both new and familiar at the same time, making for a game that both long-time fans and newcomers will enjoy. While the excessive linearity and the removal of multiplayer will disappoint some, the pros far outweigh the cons, making Tales of Arise one of the best entries in the series to date.
- Engaging story
- Great atmosphere
- Charming characters
- Excellent combat
- Field maps fail to capture a proper sense of scale
- Excessive linearity
- Lack of multiplayer