It’s a common thought that when you think of the Japanese RPG genre, your mind immediately turns to a slow, turn-based affair that’s slowly gone out of style over the past two decades. Hell, even the Final Fantasy series has abandoned the turn-based battles of old, and are now embracing the new normal of third-person action combat systems, as seen in Final Fantasy VIII: Remake and the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI. However, there’s always been a single outlier. Bandai Namco’s Tales series has always done things a little bit differently, ever since its first entry, Tales of Phantasia.
Unfortunately for Bandai Namco’s flagship Tales series, they’ve been stuck in a rut. They’ve never really broken out of the confines of niche interest, unlike more recent successes such as Atlus’ well-known Persona franchise. This past decade, the series has never really managed to break itself out of a hyper-anime stylization, forgettable characters, and all-around dated game design. With the recently released Tales of Arise, they’ve gone back to the drawing board. The question is, have all their efforts managed to wake this dormant franchise?
Bandai Namco wants to tell you a tale
After numerous delays due to COVID-19, Tales of Arise sets you up as Iron Mask, a slave to a race of humans known as the Rhenans after his planet was conquered 300 years ago. After some preamble and a fair amount of proper nouns, you learn that things aren’t looking great for old Iron Mask and his race of Dhanans on the planet, with almost every region in the world having an underclass of natives, enslaved by their Rhenan masters. Naturally, you pull a flaming sword out of our pink-haired heroine Shionne, a Rhenan who is looking to topple the ruling class in every region of the planet.
The plot takes you to various lush locales and frozen wastes, as you trudge through the world, looking to emancipate the race of enslaved native Dhanans. You’ll pick up new party members along the way, and be able to chat with them through a comic-book style “Skit” system as you run through the overworld, where their musings can range from the menial, all the way over to sudden personal crises.
There are hundreds of these skits peppered throughout your journey in Tales of Arise, and they all add to a more cohesive feeling for your party, who are each to their own an excellent cast of names and faces such as Kisara, a guard who obsesses over her love of fishing, or Dohalim; whose idealistic nature has also been his folly. Once all six cast members are in your party, they all mesh and work together with some realistic banter from skits, in addition to having their own personalities clash throughout the course of the main story. Whereas at first, it was difficult to get invested in the world of Tales of Arise, no thanks to some fairly large exposition dumpage near the start, you begin to become invested in both the stakes of the characters and story in earnest.
Bolstered by an extremely pulpy tone and style, don’t expect deep dives into the nature of the human condition. Instead, think of it like episodes of a well-produced Shonen Anime or Manga. For those looking for something a little more serious and mature, you might have to look elsewhere. Thankfully, Tales of Arise doesn’t like to fall into the same fanservice trap a lot of Anime JRPGs fall into by leering at their female cast, which makes it much more appealing to stick with.
The game will take you to countless beautifully crafted areas and wide-open zones that you’re free to explore, with progression to new areas locked to your progress in the main story in a semi-open world format. These areas can range from being fairly expansive in the first half of the game, to becoming a lot more linear towards the latter half. This is fairly unfortunate, as the slate of wider areas is a genuine joy to explore and traverse through. Finding new items, unlocking new cosmetics, and peeking around the corner to see if you accidentally run into one of the game’s many superbosses is always a joy.
The maps also have camping spots dotted around, too- which allow you to get equipped at a shop, take a rest, cook food for buffs, and get to know your party a little bit better. There is a basic “relationship” system in the game, where you select the party member you wish to chat with, and after a certain number of times, you will unlock a new powerful skill for them to perform in combat.
Hack and slash and sometimes you dash
One of the Tales series’ greatest strong suits has been its fantastic combat system, which breaks into fast-paced action as soon as you run into an enemy on the overworld. You have artes, which are unlockable from Skill Panels, which unlock at certain points during the story, or by completing side content. With these skills in hand, you are able to equip up to 12 during combat and assign whatever you like to each of the face buttons.
Usage of skills is not unlimited, however. Each one takes up either one or two uses of your Action Gauge, which is built up over time during battle. Artes that have one use of the Action Gauge will freely flow into the higher, more powerful artes that take up two portions of the gauge. This allows you to flow between these two tiers of skill, creating your own unique, free-flowing combos that can take you up to the skies, and right back down again.
You can even play as any of the characters in your party, who each have their own distinct fighting styles and artes. Law is quick, spry, and heavily combo focussed, while Kisara is much more tank-like, with slower, heavier damaging moves instead. Though, when playing as Iron Mask, you gain the ability to use the blazing sword at the end of certain skills, sacrificing some health to dish out even more damage. With an additional elemental system in place to exploit enemy weaknesses, this unholy mashup of Devil May Cry and God Hand feels fantastic and satisfying at every turn.
Against certain mobs, you are able to exploit their defenses by getting your party members to lend a hand. Dohalim is able to bind moving enemies in place, for example. Despite this, Tales of Arise, unfortunately, makes liberal use of enemy reskins, to the detriment of the game.
After 50 hours, fighting a stronger version of the same mobs you were tackling 20 hours ago begins to feel like old hat. If it were not for the sheer complexity in the feeling and customization of the combat itself, seeing this game through to its end would have felt like a slog.
A common thread throughout playing Tales of Arise is just how much has been done when in comparison to older titles such as Tales of Berseria and Zestiria before it. The franchise has never undergone such a significant change since 2003’s Tales of Symphonia, where the series finally moved to 3D.
Through these changes and the strength of Motoi Sakuraba’s excellent score, Tales of Arise represents a beloved franchise, reborn. Though it begins to falter in its closing hours, it represents a new life and much like the game’s plot would inspire hope for Bandai Namco’s flagship JRPG series.