Review – Tales of Arise is welcoming to new players, but at what cost?
September 10, 2021
Bandai Namco Studios
Bandai Namco Entertainment
Bandai Namco’s Tales series of JRPGs is known for its massive worlds, action-based combat, colorful casts of characters, and numerous systems and mini-games. At the height of its popularity, we were seeing a new Tales entry every year. However, things have slowed in recent days, especially with the five-year gap between the last game, Tales of Berseria, and the recently released Tales of Arise. This is the longest development gap the franchise has ever seen, During that time, the things that made the Tales series stand out became commonplace. Most RPGs now have action-based combat. Large open worlds are still the mechanic du jour. Fishing and crafting are in every game these days. It’s also hard to think of any game getting a favorable review without vibrant likable characters.
So, what’s left? Bandai Namco set out to find the answer. They put the franchise in the hands of God Eater producer Yosuke Tomizawa and tasked him with modernizing this 25-year-old JRPG franchise. Decisions were made, many of them good, some of them questionable. The result? Well, it’s hard to argue that Tales of Arise is not a game for the modern era. However, it may have lost some of the magic that drew fans to the franchise in the first place.
A Tale of Two Worlds
Tales of Arise takes place in the worlds of Dahna and Rena. Rena is a technologically advanced civilization with the ability to use “astral energy” to cast magic. Dahna, on the other hand, has a tech level closer to medieval times. Seeing all the astral energy of Dahna go to waste, Rena decides to invade the planet, take all its residents as slaves, and harvest its resources. They split the land up into five territories, each ruled by their own noble Renan lord. Every so often they hold a contest to see which lord can harvest the most astral energy from its land and subjects, and that lord will become the next ruler of Rena.
You take control of two peculiar characters. Alphen is a Dahnan slave with no memories, a face concealed behind an iron mask, and an inability to feel pain. He’s mortal, vulnerable like anyone else. He just doesn’t feel anything.
Shionne is a Renan outcast cursed with astral thorns that shock anyone who touches her. She can also manifest a “blazing sword” made of fire and magma that terribly burns anyone who wields it.
It’s a match made in heaven. Alphen can touch Shionne without feeling her curse of thorns and can wield her blazing sword without feeling the pain of the flames. Meanwhile, Shionne can act all tsundere toward Alphen…
Some JRPG stereotypes die hard.
Our two heroes team up with other unlikely misfits to form a resistance force against the Renan occupation. Their goal? Defeat the five lords and bring freedom to the land of Dahna. As you can imagine, standard JRPG twists and turns worm their way into the plot eventually catapulting our heroes into a fight for the fate of both worlds.
But What Does it Mean?
Tales of Arise is a game primarily about oppression. Each territory in Dahna showcases a different form that oppression takes: domination through military force, information control, and paranoia, or even just the subtle racism that creeps into an otherwise functioning society. Every lord that our heroes topple falls prey to the same hubris that fuels their territory’s unique oppression. It’s not especially deep, but it is tackling some heavy issues head-on.
Unfortunately, the pacing is a little off. The early portions of the game fly by, with only a few hours spent in every territory. This leaves little time to set up characters and conflicts and makes their resolution feel a bit flat. Liberating these territories should feel like you are changing the world, but it kind of just feels like you are knocking chores off a checklist.
10:00 AM – Go to the grocery store 11:00 AM – Do the laundry
12:ooPM – Liberate an oppressed people from 300 years of slavery
1:00 PM – Lunch
By the time the game is willing to let you sit down and really think about the plot, it’s already moved on from an allegory about fascism and oppression to standard JRPG shenanigans. Granted these are some of the most epic shenanigans the Tales series has ever produced. The latter half of the game certainly keeps your adrenaline running. It just doesn’t make you think in the way that, say, Tales of Abyss made you think of personal identity, Tales of Vesperia, made you think about extrajudicial justice, or Tales of Berseria made you think about living an emotional truth.
A Spotty Cast
Instead, the game tends to spend most of its time focusing on interpersonal relationships. These too can come off as shallow at times. For example, we learn early on that the party’s mage, Rinwell, has an intense hatred of Renans, but this is true for most of the Dahnan population. Nothing really sets her apart until we see deeper into her backstory and character motivations much later on in the plot.
Most of the characters are hit or miss. The relationship between Renan Lord Dohalim and his Dahnan guard Kisara is deep, complex, and has much to say about class struggles and how they affect interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, Law, the party’s martial artist, loses the depth of his character early on and quickly becomes a “no thoughts head empty” punchy man played for comedic relief. The mystery behind Alphan’s identity is actually quite compelling and really pushes the plot forward when it takes center stage. However, every single time Shionne breaks out an “I didn’t do it because I like you b-baka” line straight out of a slice of life romance anime, it makes you want to groan.
In a way, it feels like Tales of Arise doesn’t really know what it wants to do with its best characters past their greatest moments. When a character is the focus of the plot, the writing is some of the best we have ever seen from the Tales franchise. Otherwise, they are all stereotypes with the personality of cardboard. In fact, the game does a better job fleshing out these characters in skits and map banter. You can miss some of the most emotional lines of dialogue because they play as idle sounds.
A New System for a New Tales
Tales is no stranger to switching up its systems and battle mechanics from game to game, but Tales of Arise is the biggest departure yet. Past Tales games felt a lot like fighting games, but Arise is like a fast-paced anime Dark Souls. You probably hear that and think “oh the game is hard.” It isn’t. It’s a lot like Dark Souls with the difficulty turned way down.
Enemies only enter hit-stun sometimes based on your “penetration” attribute. Instead of stringing together flashy combos, you mostly hack away at big motionless targets and evade them when they take a swing. Your primary method of evasion is the dodge roll. You’ll spam it like crazy, just waiting for a gap in an enemy attack pattern.
There is an emphasis on simplicity here. In past Tales games, characters could equip eight arts (16 with an arte expansion). In Arise, they can equip just three (six with an arte expansion). A bit of extra complexity is added with a separate set of aerial artes, but it’s nothing compared to previous games. Also, your AG, the stat that determines how many artes you can use in a combo, starts depressingly low. In Berseria the protagonist, Velvet, could combo infinitely a few hours into the game. In Arise, you’ll be spamming dodge roll and short combos well into the 30-hour mark.
Later on in the game, when your penetration is high, the combat feel does change. You gain access to special skills and hit states which make Arise feel a bit more technical. However, this ties your strength in battle entirely to numbers. Past Tales games rewarded sharp reflexes and smart builds. Arise is only concerned with progression. This makes Arise less interesting to longtime fans but more welcoming to a general audience.
The Price of Progression
Arise’s character progression systems are also simplified. You can learn passive skills and artes through titles, which are skill trees that unlock as you accomplish various achievements. You also learn artes simply by using the artes you already have. Other than that, there’s a crafting system that lets you forge new weapons and customize accessories, and that’s about it. There’s little you can do to customize how characters play in any meaningful way.
Even worse, Bandai Namco has made the abhorrent decision to lock some progression behind DLC. They locked whole skill trees behind costumes you have to purchase with real-world money. There are simply artes and skills you will never see unless you shell out the absurd extra $50 for the Ultimate Edition. You don’t need these skills to beat the game, but there’s never been a Tales game that actually locks gameplay elements behind real-world dollars. Heck, there aren’t many RPGs in existence who would dare do that! It feels awful, especially since Bandai Namco reminds you of all the DLC you don’t own every time you enter the menu.
This throws game balance way off. The DLC grants massive XP boosts. You can also find passive “artifacts” which provide further game-breaking boosts. You can raise the difficulty if you are blowing through battles, but doing so gives you further boosts! Arise isn’t a difficult game, to begin with. It was easy to cruise through the game on the hardest difficulty with no boosts. Enabling any makes it a cakewalk.
In short, Arise puts its players in a position of choosing between paying the standard price for an incomplete but challenging game or an exorbitant price for a complete but easy game. It’s a bad position to be in.
Two Whole Worlds to Explore
While battle left something to be desired, exploration in Tales of Arise was a treat. The lands of Dahna and Rena were beautiful sweeping expanses with incredible fantastical elements. Whether it’s the giant firewalls of Calaglia, the eternal night of Cysloden, or the verdant pastures of Elde Menancia, this is the sort of game that makes you want to chill and just take in the scenery.
There are plenty of side quests to keep you exploring as well. You can mine ores for better accessory crafting. You’ll find fruits and vegetables which can be used for cooking. Want more meat in your diet? Eventually, you can raise livestock on a ranch. Hidden owls grant you costumes and gameplay bonuses if you can find them. Towns rebuild and flourish as you complete special tasks. There’s even a complex fishing mini-game, and you already know if you are the type of person who will lose hours to a rod and lure.
Tales of Arise effectively gives you loads to do without ever overwhelming you. It opens up just enough side activities to give you a break from the plot, and then seamlessly guides you to your next main destination when you get bored faffing about. It is probably the best mechanically paced game in Tales history, which is weird since story pacing and battle pacing are all over the place. In short, Tales of Arise engrosses you and keeps you playing for hours at a time, despite its flaws, and that is an undeniable positive.
Major Quality of Life Improvements
As part of Bandai Namco’s attempt to bring new players into the franchise, Tales of Arise streamlines almost every other aspect of its gameplay. For example, fast travel is unlocked very early on. The map clearly marks side quests and collectibles, minimizing pixel hunting. Few quests or items are missable due to plot progression and the game warns you when you are about to reach a point of no return. Almost every previous Tales game is best played with a walkthrough. Not Tales of Arise. It’s good enough to just boot up the game and go. You probably won’t miss anything.
It’s also hard to lose progress. The game auto-saves constantly and you can save anywhere, not just at save points. You can also restart battles with no penalty. This allows Arise to scatter some challenging optional enemies around the map. Maybe you’ll accidentally run into one and party wipe, but who cares? You’ll just get up and move on, except now you have a new optional goal to strive for.
It’s also worth noting that Arise has native controller support for the PS4 and PS5 controllers, even on PC. This includes integration of Playstation only features, like the touchpad. It’s so refreshing to not have to wrangle my controllers into working for once. It’s also refreshing to see the buttons of my actual controller represented in-game, instead of the Xinput default Xbox buttons.
The Death of Multiplayer
Finally, we come to one of the most controversial design choices: multiplayer. There isn’t any.
Many fans know Tales as being one of the only JRPGs with a robust couch co-op. It’s a joy to bring friends along on these massive hundred-hour JRPG journeys.
Tales of Arise is the first mainline Tales to not include co-op since the very first Tales of Phantasia, and it’s a disappointment. Again, this is all part of Bandai Namco’s attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Few people have three friends who can meet regularly enough to complete a hundred-hour JRPG as a party.
They focused everything on making the game more fun to play solo. For example, they made it easier for one player to control the whole party instead of just one character. They made A.I.-controlled characters smarter, both on offense and defense. The dodge and counterattack style of gameplay only works because they pulled in the battle camera, something multiplayer would have prevented them from doing.
And while it is true that this is one of the most fun Tales games to play alone, playing alone sucks! Many players come to Tales as a social event. They have fond memories of playing with their friends and family members. They have hilarious stories of healers shouting at the party to “get in the healing circle” or that one time that everyone managed to use their special Mystic Arte on the final boss once after another. If you are one of these longtime fans, you’ll encounter some of the highest points of Arise and turn to your side only to find no one there.
Just Another Member of the Pack
While this might sound melodramatic, it’s worth noting that this review started by asking “What makes Tales unique?” when all other RPGs have adopted its most unique elements. The answer is and always has been: multiplayer. Without it, Tales of Arise feels pretty much like any other JRPG. It’s fun enough, but it’s not unique anymore. It has lost its identity.
This holds true for every other element of the game as well. Its lack of fighting game mechanics and focus on more standard action mechanics makes its combat less unique. Its conversion to semi-open worlds makes exploration less unique. So the question remains, what does Tales of Arise give you that you can’t get from any other JRPG on the market?
Not much. Tales of Arise was enjoyable, but it was enjoyable simply because it was “the next big JRPG.” It wasn’t enjoyable for the unique charm the series is known for.
Was it worth it?
Tales of Arise is a good game, a better game than most past Tales entries. But it’s not a better Tales game. It’s not what a lot of longtime fans come to the series for. At the end of the 100+ hours of gameplay, something just feels like it’s missing.
But, hopefully, this can be used as a stepping stone for the future of the series. There is a timeline where sometime in the future Bandai Namco makes a game that includes all the major improvements of Tales of Arise alongside all the unique features of entries past, and that game would be a contender for Game of the Year.
- Tons of quality of life improvements
- The best graphics of the Tales series yet
- Enjoyable characters and plot
- Lots of side-quests and minigames
- Horrendously exploitative DLC
- Shallow and simple battle mechanics
- No multiplayer
- Technical issues on the PS4 and Xbox One versions