Can you... Arise... to save the world?
If you are a fan of JRPGs then surely you have heard of the Tales series before. If you aren't a fan, or if you have only recently jumped on the JRPG train, then perhaps you haven't - and shame on you. If you don't like JRPGs, then I'm not sure that we can be friends... though I will happily have a lengthy discussion with you in an attempt to change your mind.
The Tales series has for a long time lived in the shadow of the big two JRPG franchises of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Similar to those series, the majority of Tales games are independent stories set on different worlds with new casts of characters (though there are a couple of exceptions to this rule). Starting way back in 1995 with Tales of Phantasia on the Super Famicom in Japan (though this was not actually released in English until a Gameboy Advance port in 2006), the Tales series has 17 entries across many platforms including the GameCube, Xbox360 and the entire PlayStation family including the PSP and Vita.
The last game in the series was Tales of Berseria, which released back in 2016/2017 (depending on your region) as a cross gen title on PS3 and PS4. Since then, Tales fans have been clamouring for the next entry. The wait of almost five years is by far the longest gap between releases over the franchise. The question is of course: was Tales of Arise worth the wait?
The story of Tales of Arise throws us into the conflict between the twin worlds of Dahna and Rena. Over the past 300 years, the people of Rena have used their advanced technology and magical Astral Artes to rule over the non-magical Dahnan people. The Renans use their might to raze the Dahnan world of its natural resources, using the slave labour of the Dahnans to destroy their own world.
The beginning of the game sees us take the role of 'Iron Mask'. A young Dahnan slave who seems somehow different from the rest of his people. Maybe it is the fact that he has amnesia and can remember nothing of his past. Maybe it is the fact that he is unable to feel physical pain. Or maybe it is the strange Iron Mask that covers his whole face...
Yes, the early parts of Tales of Arise rely on the 'lazy' story element of amnesia. But the way this is entwined with the developing story, even near the very end of the game, does make sense. It allows the team to have some shocking twists and turns, and by the end of the game I no longer felt that the use of amnesia was in any way a 'lazy' choice.
Iron Mask makes a decision to fight against his captors by helping the rebel Renan girl Shionne. She openly fights against the ruling Renan class on Dahna, but like other Renans the people of Dahna still seem to mean nothing to her - initially her goal is unclear. Shionne is also afflicted with a curse of 'thorns' that cause any person touching her to feel intense pain. Of course, the strange man in the Iron Mask that can feel no pain might be able to help her achieve her goals.
The game intelligently introduces the cast of characters, both good and evil, as the game progresses. Whilst any JRPG or anime fan will be able to foresee some of the early events of the game due to the way that these characters are established into the story (e.g. who is going to die, who is going to turn from bad to good), the second half of the game introduces some elements that are for lack of a better term 'batshit crazy'...in a good way. There are twists and turns that that smartly discuss topics such as slavery and racism. This is easily the most emotionally mature game in the Tales series and there are very few, if any, story elements that are not neatly wrapped up by the end of the game.
As is typical of a Tales game, the cast of characters don't always get along and see eye-to-eye on everything. This allows for hilarious interactions between your heroes, and the writers clearly enjoyed creating a vivid backstory and individual motivations for each of the main characters.
At its heart Tales of Arise does boil down to somewhat of a 'save the world' story. But this game is not about the destination, but about the journey and the people you meet along the way. It is difficult to go into detail about the plot without spoilers, however I can say with confidence that this is certainly a story worth experiencing for yourself.
So the plot is good, but is it worth the effort of actually playing the game to experience the story?
If there is one thing that the Tales series is best known for, it is the action-oriented Tales RPG battle system. Tales of Arise continues to build on elements from previous games in the series and has created what is hands-down the best battle system I have ever experienced in a JRPG.
Attempting to jump straight into the deep end of the battle system with everything unlocked would confuse even the most experienced gamer - basic attacks, evades, jumping, artes, boost attacks, boost strikes, overdrive mode, mystic artes and flaming edge... there is a lot to take in here. Fortunately, the game intelligently introduces each new skill just as you feel you need something 'more' in battles. Battle tutorials are short but effective practical battles that teach you exactly what you need to know to progress.
During battle you will control only your main character for the purposes of basic attacks, jumping evades and artes (skills). Initially you will have the ability to string together up to 3 basic attacks on the ground, 3 more basic attacks in the air, and any number of artes for which you have the available SP (or Soul Gauge points). At the start of the game you have only 3 SP available, but you will have 10 by the end-game battles. SP recharge quite quickly over time in battle, and you will be relying on your artes to deal the majority of your damage (and attack weak points with elemental attacks). A perfectly timed dodge will completely negate an enemy attack and provides you with a window to complete a counter strike for bonus damage.
There are 6 characters in the game, and after recruiting them you can control whomever you want in battle, including changing your controlled character on the fly mid-battle. Four characters can participate in battle at once, but you can switch the two benched characters in if needed - including for a character that has had HP reduced to zero. Each of the six characters controls quite differently in battle and there really is something for every play style here. The main character is a physical close-range character balanced on offense and defence, whilst other characters can be any combination of magical attacks, long distance physical attacks or even the defensively focussed Kisara who has no 'dodge' mechanic but instead can absorb attacks into her shield to buff up her next arte attack.
As you battle, each character (even the two not in your active party) will build up 'Boost gauge'. Once this is filled, the character can be called upon to do a 'Boost Attack' against the targeted enemy. Each character's boost attack can stun a particular enemy type, such as Shionne's gun being great for knocking flying enemies out of the sky.
By building up the combo meter attacking an enemy and whittling down their HP, you will be able to call on a character to complete a two-person 'Boost Strike' which is basically a fancy move that will finish off an enemy (or more than one enemy if they are caught in the blast zone). Each two-character combination across the team of six have a unique boost strike and these are some of the best looking battle animations in the game, complete with a satisfying end screen if you finish the battle with one.
Boost strikes aren't the best battle animations though. That title is reserved for each characters 'Mystic Arte', the Tales of Arise version of a 'limit break'. If your character takes enough hits they will enter 'Overdrive move' where arte use will not drain SP for a short period of time - and overdrive mode can be ended with a Mystic Arte. These look great and as expected deal out a ton of damage.
One of the biggest changes here, and something that makes Tales of Arise different from many RPGs out there, is that it virtually does away with the idea of 'MP' (or magic points) for the purposes of casting spells. Magic is treated the same as the physical skills/artes with the only exception being healing spells which draw from a party-wide pool of 'CP' to be cast. Your CP pool starts quite limited, but increases in size over the game as you beat bosses and other major enemies. CP can only be refilled with the use of items, or when 'resting' at an Inn or Campfire.
As I said... this is a lot to process. But by the end of the game you'll be flying around the battlefield comboing off across the various different attack types to absolutely decimate enemies. Battles are fun. Unlike some other RPGs where a player may want to avoid battles entirely, I found myself actively approaching enemies (who are visible on the overworld/in dungeons) to just get more combat time in.
There are four different battle difficulty settings available, and you can change these back and forth at any time. As a Tales series veteran I was able to complete the majority of the game at 'Hard' difficulty without the need to stop and grind levels at any point. Losing a normal battle will have your team immediately re-spawn at the same location with no 'CP' remaining, meaning you need to retreat to the nearest camp/inn to recover before venturing out again. I did have a few boss battles where 'Hard' difficulty was literally that. Fortunately, boss battles allow you to immediately re-try the fight any number of times, including with the ability to change the difficulty level if needed. I felt the need to drop down to Moderate or Normal difficulty a couple of times for my own sanity (to ensure I could continue to progress through the game in a timely manner), but no boss battles felt 'cheap' or unwinnable even at the harder difficulties. The easiest setting of 'Story' difficulty removes the majority of challenge from battles altogether and allows the player to focus on the plot itself.
Outside of battles there are various other RPG elements, side quests and minigames to enjoy. The vast majority of weapons in the game are crafted from enemy item drops rather than found (though some are received as rewards for completing side quests). There are friendly owls to find and collect throughout the world of Dahna, with the king of owls rewarding you with new costumes for your team once you hit certain milestones in your owl collection. Being a JRPG, of course there is a fishing mini-game, which is a well-executed quick-time-event style minigame that is a good little time sink (even if it is rather simple in nature). There is also the ability to run your own farm to raise animals, and a cooking system where you can provide various buffs to your team for a limited time after cooking.
There are also a number of great 'quality of life' elements to Tales of Arise which I feel the need to call out.
Firstly, there is an awesome Fast Travel system. Outside of some select points in the story (where fast travel would not make any sense) you can quickly travel to almost any section of the map at any time with the press of a button (actually it is more like three button presses). This makes it easy to jump around and complete various side-quests, including the normally frustrating 'fetch' type quests. You can also save your game anywhere and anytime (other than mid-battle or in the middle of a cut scene).
Any items that can be picked up in the overworld map such as treasures or cooking ingredients are clearly highlighted with an obvious sparkle, so you won't feel that you missed anything important (if you are keeping your eyes open). The collection owls can be a little more hidden but can be heard for those listening intently.
Keeping track of your main story events and the various side-quests is also super easy. Each point of interest for all quests will be highlighted on your map with an obvious star, and even the start points for quests you haven't received yet can be easily seen.
Furthermore, if you are the type of person that needs to talk to literally every NPC in the game to see what they say - fear not because each person you can actually speak to has a speech bubble above their head, and this will change colour once you have spoken to them. If they later have something new to say then the colour will change back again until you have spoken to them.
Finally, if you miss an important detail in one of the game's cut-scenes or one-off skits that played out (including the fully animated ones)? Never fear - you can re-watch these as many times as you like at any Inn or campfire.
I never felt frustrated or annoyed at any point in the game as my path forward was always clear. Battles, overworld travel, minigames, collections... I never felt that my time was being wasted, or that the game was unnecessarily padding itself out. Tales of Arise, put simply, is just pure joy to play from start to finish.
Other than a cracking action battle system, the other thing the Tales series is known for is its presentation. Bandai Namco Entertainment are well known for their presence in the anime/video-game scene, being the developer behind the majority of games released based on worldwide anime hits including Dragonball, One Piece, Naruto, Sailor Moon, Digimon, Gundam and most recently, Scarlet Nexus. Basically - they know what they are doing.
I knew I was in for an audio-visual treat before even booting up Tales of Arise. After the game completed downloading and installing, hovering over the PS5 menu icon for Tales of Arise brought up the beautiful anime style backdrop and blasted what I would later learn is the awesome backing track that plays during non-boss battles. On loading up the game I was then presented with a fully animated introductory video from legends and series veterans Ufotable backed by a bopping JPop tune by Kankaku Piero. This stuff definitely gets your gaming juices flowing.
The graphics within the gameplay itself can be broken up into three distinct styles, though always heavily leaning on the typical Japanese anime style. The overworld map, towns, dungeons and battles present the characters animated in a crisp cel-shaded style over gorgeous backdrops. Some of the dungeon areas, particular those near the end of the game, are simply jaw dropping in both design and beauty. I don't want to spoil those with pictures here, you really need to experience them for yourself.
The only part of the overworld graphical presentation that was a negative for me was the bad pop-in that occurs in the overworld map. Battles in Tales of Arise are not random, but occasionally the enemy sprite on the overworld map might pop-in so late that it is hard to avoid the fight. It certainly isn't a game-breaker, but for a game that clearly prides itself on presentation it seems strange that this wasn't picked up in quality testing and fixed.
In battle I basically have one word for you - particle physics. The high-octane battles are punctuated with insane battle animations, particularly for the 'Boost Strikes' and 'Mystic Artes'. Near the end of the game the relatively small battlefield can occasionally become so crazy it is difficult to see what is going on, but by that stage of the game you should be well versed enough to be able to manage even if you can't quite see exactly where you character or the enemy is through fireballs, ice shards and tornadoes.
Tales series staple the 'skit' is back again. Skits are short interactions between two or more of your team members in response to some in game event. In previous games these were presented only as text boxes with a number of different still pictures of your characters' faces for various emotions that would show as the text flows by. Tales of Arise completely revamps the skit and these are now presented in a manga-style storyboard with actual character animations. It is obvious that the team put in a lot of effort here as they look great and really add to the anime feel of the game. There are over 300 skits in this game, and some of them can last minutes at a time (though all are skippable if you are in a rush).
Finally, it isn't just the introduction movie that is fully animated by Ufotable. There are a number of points in the game where additional fully animated scenes will unfold, including a massive one near the end that must have run for at least 10 minutes!
Music in the Tales series has always been great, and Arise continues the trend. Battle fanfares, town music and dungeon soundtracks help build and maintain the right atmosphere without ever becoming old or repetitive to the point of frustration.
Sound quality throughout the game is also excellent. I played various parts of the game with both the Japanese and English audio tracks. Both sets of voice talent are great and fit the characters well. As usual for me, I did personally prefer the Japanese voice team over the English. However, on this occasion I played more of the game in English. There are three main reasons for this choice:
The amount of voicework here is massive. There is more than just the standard interactions between your characters and NPCs. There are the 300+ skits in the game. Plus small talk between characters while simply walking through the overworld map... I just didn't feel like reading that much.
The visual presentation of this game is so breath-taking that I really didn't want to miss anything by reading the subtitle text at the bottom of the screen.
Throughout the game characters will say things that are actually relevant to gameplay. Your meal that was giving you a buff in battle just ran out - its time to cook another meal. Even in battles themselves characters can shout things to help you out, like pointing out a particular Boost Attack weakness, or that a character needs urgent healing.
Tales of Arise requires a massive time commitment if you want to see this excellent story through its various twists and turns to its satisfying conclusion. If you want to watch all of the awesome 'skits' and complete all available side quests, you are looking at spending a minimum of 60 hours with Tales of Arise. That being said, I never felt bored while playing the game. I always wanted to keep pushing on to complete one more side quest, find one more owl, catch one more fish, or uncover one more secret in this twisting Tale. After finally accepting that it was time to get some sleep and turn off the game I continued to think about the well fleshed-out characters, their individual motivations, and their overall quest. I counted down the hours until I could jump back in and continue from where I left off.
Previous entries in the Tales series have, at times, focused on more juvenile humour. It is clear that the development team have grown along with their franchise and have produced what is surely the most confident and mature entry in the series. Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty of humour here. But it is smartly implemented in a way that does not detract from the deep story that focuses on weighty topics like slavery, racism, suicide and loss. Sure, the game starts with the old 'amnesia' trope and there are some insane twists in the story particularly near the end of the game that might rub some people the wrong way. Overall though this is a well written story presented impeccably that is just a blast to play.
If you enjoy JRPGs, or anime, or games with an easy-to-learn/hard-to-master action battle system then I urge you to give this game a try - even more-so if you have never played a Tales game before. I have no hesitation in making bold statements that this is:
The best game in the Tales series
The best JRPG since Persona 5
My game of the year (so far) for 2021
So, why should you play it?
If you have even a passing appreciation for anime and/or JRPGs this is simply a must-play title
Deep action combat flows effortlessly and provides options for all play styles at all difficulty levels
Enjoy some bang for your buck? This is a long game, but one that respects your time with awesome quality of life mechanics
But, why shouldn't you play it?
If you are short on time or prefer the type of game you can put down for long periods of time before coming back, this might not be the game for you
Insane anime-style storyline twists and turns annoy you
A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided for the purpose of this review.
Leigh 'SirLemsip' Zemski
Leigh is a game reviewer and columnist from Melbourne. His favourite genres are JRPGs, rhythm games, third person action games and old-school shoot 'em ups. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com