Bandai Namco’s Tales franchise has unwaveringly upheld timeworn visuals and mechanics throughout its storied 25-year history. Anime-inspired art, high fantasy settings, linear motion battle iterations, and character-focused interactions are all synonymous with past entries, but these qualities are both a gift and a curse, establishing the JRPG series as a unique, albeit less successful, alternative to mainstream hits like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Tales of Arise is a significant evolutionary step. Smart gameplay changes, Unreal Engine 4 augmentations, and a mature narrative with an engaging roster of playable characters revitalize the series in ways that can’t be ignored. The latest adventure in the Tales saga more than rises to the occasion.
From candid conversations beside a crackling fire to heady encounters with tentacled monstrosities, Tales of Arise juggles several enjoyable peripherals and rarely misses a beat. When I wasn’t raising livestock for stat-boosting meal ingredients or bringing rare ore to local blacksmiths, I was fishing in some secluded paradise or interacting with stray owls in exchange for goofy cosmetics. A bevy of engaging side activities is a welcome reprieve because Tales of Arise is anything but a low-stakes journey. I spent dozens of hours wading through intense sociopolitical issues like racism, authoritarianism, and mental illness (specifically, PTSD). These central motifs thoughtfully catalyze character motivations and never felt like shallow gimmicks.
Protagonists Alphen and Shionne might be traveling companions, but they are, allegorically, worlds apart. A centuries-long race war between the technologically adept Renans and the naturalistic Dahnans has culminated in labor camps, surveillance states, and rampant hate crimes. Furthermore, Renan-made creatures called zeugles patrol the far reaches of Dahna, indiscriminately claiming the lives of unwary travelers and asylum seekers. Regardless of their ethnic differences and unpredictable feelings toward one another, Alphen and Shionne are peas in a pod; the amnesiac warrior literally can’t feel pain, and the gun-toting fashionista inflicts nothing but pain. Watching the two grow closer – through trivial arguments and earnest revelations – over the course of their arduous mission to enact positive change was a narrative highlight.
The remarkable level of sophistication present in Arise’s story is also expressed visually. Dahna’s realms house magnificent geographical structures like sizzling canyons overlooking lava lakes and winter wonderlands with sparkling sheets of snow. Elde Menancia, a verdant expanse, boasts my favorite postcard-worthy vista: a flourishing kingdom seated comfortably atop an ancient forest. I traversed linear microcosms of these locales, narrow passages giving way to hubs smattered with mineable crags, edible foliage, and rabid wildlife. I appreciated not having to stray too far off the beaten path to find chests or secret awe-inspiring views. Still, dungeon segments like age-old sewer systems, abandoned ruins, and multi-floor castles that relied on dry puzzle designs were obvious rough patches – finding keys to remove obstructions or acquire other dull, progression items got old quickly.
Combat, of course, is the crux of the experience and makes up for some of Tales of Arise’s mundane environments. If there were enemies to contest, I was satisfied. Even sub quests, which often amounted to negligible fetch objectives, were tolerable as long as I got to slay zeugles to my heart’s content. Don’t let the minimalistic battle UI fool you; effectively chaining combos for optimal damage numbers is harder than it seems. Even together, Alphen and Shionne’s fighting prowess is limited. Throw in the various other heroes that you’ll meet along the way, and things start to get interesting.
Victories stem from elemental weaknesses, astral arte (or magic) usage, well-timed “boost attacks” that call on party members to incapacitate foes single-handedly, and team-finishers called “boost strikes.” Simple button inputs and a free camera streamline the action so you can focus on what matters most: the multicolored explosions and stylish cinematics that come with pummeling your opponents to bits. Aerial attacks and last-second dodges provide bonus flair and, more importantly, temporary damage boosts. Swapping to another party member who can capitalize on staggered enemies is satisfying because each character comes equipped with their own perks and playstyle. For instance, nothing beats juggling a wild boar in midair then having the party’s resident martial artist, Law, swoop in with a flying kick or your unparalleled arte caster, Rinwell, batter multiple adversaries with beams of fire.
Boss fights forced me to change tactics as simply activating abilities without forethought often lead to swift and sudden K.O.s. Tales of Arise offers a plethora of avenues to prepare for its toughest engagements – eating meals at rest points for bonus attribute points, customizing party behaviors to prioritize healing artes, and traditional grinding, which, when coupled with “battle chain” effects, meant that the more zeugles I’d encounter in a row, the higher chance I’d have of netting better rewards or encountering high-tier challengers. Having a varied assortment of options to progress was always empowering, even when I cleared these harrowing battles by the skin of my teeth.
Other incentives like “titles” carry over from older Tales games and come with new artes and permanent stat increases. Unlocking different nodes for each title with my accumulated skill points was a fun way to fine-tune the roles of my favorite party members. I loved investing in “arte gauge” modifiers across the board so I could spam as many devastating attacks as I wanted without worrying about troublesome ability cooldowns. Micromanagement is key to progressing in Tales of Arise. However, user-friendly accessibility options like auto and semi-auto battle control could be useful for players that get overwhelmed with split-second decision-making.
Tales of Arise harmoniously balances beloved systems like visual novel-inspired skits and upgradable titles with new-and-improved gameplay tweaks. Intricate world-building in sub-quests and even mundane discussions help with pacing and narrative cohesion. Campy JRPG-centric themes like the power of friendship and slow-burn romantic tension are prevalent throughout. Nevertheless, I found myself completely invested in the tragedies and achievements the cast faced, even when awkward pauses and stiff cutscene animations threatened to break immersion. Tales of Arise is a fantastic reinvention of Bandai Namco’s tried and true formula. It might even be the best installment in the franchise to date.