The past 26 years have seen many new games in Bandai Namco’s Tales of franchise, and, after the longest gap (five years) between two entries, the team behind Tales of Arise promises something special: a reinvention for the series. After playing through the entire game, I don’t think they exaggerate in saying so. Tales of Arise certainly shares a lot of DNA with past titles, and in many ways, borrows and expands upon their ideas, but it has a lot of exciting surprises in store too.
Tales of Arise begins in a straightforward manner. You, as Alphen, an amnesiac swordsman, get swept up in a growing rebel movement. For three centuries, the people of the nearby planet Rena have oppressed Alphen’s people, the Dahnans. Both adults and children are enslaved to gather resources and astral energy for their technologically advanced masters, the Renan Lords. However, after Alphen obtains the power of the Blazing Sword from a Renan woman named Shionne, a clear goal forms; use the blade’s power to overthrow the Renan Lords who rule Dahna. To that end, Alphen, Shionne, and the friends they make along the way must travel to each of the world’s five regions.
Each story arc of Tales of Arise finds you exploring one of Dahna’s aforementioned regions, which each have an elemental theme. Before battling a region’s Lord, you learn about its people and culture, lending context to that fateful confrontation. This focus on story arcs is reminiscent of the vignette-style storytelling in a Dragon Quest game, but on a grander scale. Fighting your way through a series of dangerous dungeons and powerful bosses of a specific elemental persuasion is old hat for the Tales of series, but Tales of Arise adds immense flair to the concept.
Visually, Tales of Arise is a treat. Superbly animated characters, wonderfully crafted settings, some killer views, and striking versions of familiar artes all make it a contender for one of the most aesthetically pleasing games I have played. While there are some technical issues like texture pop-in and slow down when you get too wild with the large-scale artes, it is easy to be awed by Tales of Arise‘s sheer beauty. In addition, I find it a nice touch that the menu art of your party changes as you progress.
Not to be outdone by the graphics, series composer Motoi Sakuraba seems revitalized: Tales of Arise is one of his best soundtracks in years. The music always enhances the mood of a scene or gameplay segment. The quality of the voice acting meets the quality of the music for a strong sound design all around. I usually use the Japanese voiceover when playing JRPGs, but the amount of banter during gameplay led me to play Tales of Arise in English instead, and I am glad I did. The voice performances are generally stellar. In particular, the actor for the knightly party member Kisara gave a downright amazing performance.
Wandering through Dahna’s gorgeous environments is a considerable step up from the past several Tales of games. Areas are large (but not too large) and make great use of verticality, caves, and bodies of water. There is much to be found, from cooking ingredients and crafting materials to deadly monsters and treasure chests—not to mention fishing holes and campsites. At campsites, you can cook stat-boosting meals, rest up, and watch adorable and heartwarming team-bonding scenes. There are also loads of towns and dungeons to traverse. Towns are wonderfully atmospheric and often quite cozy, though unfortunately, you can’t enter many of their buildings. Dungeons are largely straightforward but contain enough branching paths, simple puzzles, and rewards to make them interesting. Obstacles can be cleared with your characters’ abilities—such as smashing through boulders or absorbing flames—by spending Cure Points (CP). CP acts as a party-wide resource that is also used to cast healing and support spells.
Tales of has always been known for its action RPG combat, initially inspired by fighting games. However, some of the historical baggage has been dropped in Tales of Arise. No longer are characters tied to linear motion (towards the enemy and away from the enemy), as you can freely roam the battlefield destroying your enemies with artes. These artes represent the actions you have access to in combat, and you can equip six at the beginning of the game, eventually expanding up to twelve. Artes expend your finite Artes Gauge (AG), but it quickly regenerates when you aren’t attacking, and you can always make basic attacks for free.
On the other hand, AI party members have access to their full range of artes, which helps make up for their lack of human decision-making. Further, you can customize their combat behaviour with simple if-then statements in a manner much like Final Fantasy XII. The preset strategies are fine for most fights, but bosses and enemies from quests may require more thoughtful setups, especially on higher difficulty levels. Aside from artes and basic attacks, you can also dodge (or guard in the case of Kisara) and jump (mostly to use aerial artes). Perfectly executing a dodge opens the enemy up to a powerful counterattack. Of course, there is more to combat than dodging and spamming artes. After doling out enough punishment, you can activate a boost strike, a tag-team move that instantly kills regular enemies and stun or knocks down large enemies and bosses.
In Tales of Arise, your party is comprised of six characters, each with a distinct combination of artes, skills, and titles. Every party member also has a unique ability, like Alphen’s ability to follow up regular artes with self-damaging but powerful blazing sword artes, or Rinwell’s ability to charge and store spells. Each character also has a boost attack that charges up through dealing and taking damage. Boost attacks are often the key to victory against specific enemies, such as breaking their armour with the brawler, Law, or slowing their movements with the magic-user, Dohalim. Finally, characters who take enough damage can enter “Over-limit.” In this state, you can use artes freely for a limited time and unleash your most powerful attacks—mystic artes. Oddly, these mystic artes are unskippable cutscenes that cancel any currently charging spells or in-use artes. I sometimes turned off the mystic artes for my AI companions to avoid this.
In the early hours of the game, Alphen’s variety of artes and ease of use make him an obvious go-to. Fortunately, the other characters really come into their own as you unlock more artes, the ability to use a second set of artes, and helpful passive abilities. Rinwell is easily my favourite combat character (eventually, she can cast spells nearly instantly and endlessly), but every character is worth playing and is sure to be someone’s favourite. There is something deeply satisfying about standing your ground as Kisara and wreaking vengeance on your enemies for daring to attack you, or taking on the immense versatility of Shionne or Dohalim, who both have healing and combat magic capabilities alongside their more direct combat artes. I am still undecided if Tales of Arise has my favourite combat in the series, but it does have my favourite-to-play version of many of the character gameplay archetypes. Rinwell is more enjoyable to play than any other mage in the series, Kisara is the best tank, and Shionne is my favourite healer.
Tales of Arise is filled with so many nifty little ideas and systems that keep coming until the credits roll, it is nearly impossible to mention them all in a single review. You can scour the world for owls who give you fashion accessories, take on battles in an arena-like setting, search for strange passive bonus-granting artifacts from other Bandai Namco games, utilize skill transfer to try to create the ultimate accessory, set out to catch all the “boss” fish on Dahna, tackle optional bosses and dungeons, even raise animals for cooking ingredients at your ranch. No matter the activity you choose, it is sure to offer you rewards and a good time. There is also a plethora of side quests to undertake, and their variety is a selling point. While many quests involve fighting monsters or finding items, you can also reunite star-crossed lovers, give fashion advice, and follow riddles.
Alongside all the great side content, Bandai Namco has made numerous touches to improve your quality of life while playing Tales of Arise. Talking to an NPC places a checkmark above them until they have something new to say, and you can offer quest givers the required items immediately upon accepting their quest. When you choose to sell items at a merchant, they ask if you want to sell all your useless items at once. Your map shows previously found gathering points and even marks when they are available for harvesting again. Button layout during combat is completely customizable. You can even set up notifications to tell you when you have obtained enough SP to buy a specific skill. I would like to see some extensions of these features in the future, like setting a notification for when you obtain enough materials to forge a weapon or enough ingredients to cook a meal, or allowing customization of button layout outside of battle. But at the same time, Tales of Arise already features many wonderful details I would like other games to poach.
The primary source of character progression in Tales of Arise is titles. In most Tales of games, titles are just silly or neat labels granted to characters for their accomplishments. However, in Tales of Arise, each title acts as a mini skill tree, offering five new skills for you to spend your hard-earned points on. Skills range from granting new artes to allowing air dodges to decreasing the casting time of magic artes. Titles are obtained through almost everything you do, including story moments, side quests, cooking specific meals, and using certain abilities, so you always have lots of skills to choose from. Buying every skill in a title also grants you a permanent stat buff, so you have the option to either focus on completing titles at the expense of skill choice, or focusing on your skill choices at the expense of your stats.
Finding and crafting new equipment supplements your growing array of titles and skills. Most new weapons are obtained through forging, but it doesn’t feel much different than buying them in practice. If you fight every monster on your way to a new area, you will usually have all the materials you need to forge better weapons for every character. Accessories, on the other hand, are much more interesting. You can find crystals to mine throughout the world, and each type of crystal can be turned into a different accessory. The level of the crystal determines the number of randomly assigned skills that the accessory will have. You can eventually transfer these skills between accessories, allowing you to create your own set of bonuses for each character.
Tales of Arise never pretends you are solving all the world’s problems by defeating the Renan Lords, and characters constantly grapple with this fact. The game has a lot to say about racial and class disparity, hate, environmental issues, and even the pursuit of endless growth and consumption. The cast is utilized well to get these messages across, with the characters having their own ideologies and realizations. Tales of Arise doesn’t always have the best tools to speak to its subject matter, and sometimes it arrives at conclusions that are a bit naïve, but I am impressed by the attempt, and found myself further tied to the characters as their plight aligned with the real world. It feels like you are saving the world in a way that few other RPGs can match.
Tales of Arise is exactly what I want in a Tales of game, but also a JRPG in general. It fulfills the promise of a modern-day Tales of title in a way no other game in the series has managed in over a decade. While Tales of Arise is clearly influenced by previous games in the series, it also takes cues from other long-running series like Xenoblade Chronicles and Star Ocean. However, Tales of Arise is its own beast—a refreshing, smartly designed, and just plain fun monument to its genre. I cannot recommend it highly enough.