Tales of Arise Review: The Best Tales In Years
Most of the best RPGs live and die by their stories. Don’t get me wrong: when you’re playing a forty-hour game, you want it to play well, too. Ultimately, though, few RPG mechanics are so engaging that you want to spend that much time on a story that isn’t interesting or a cast you don’t like. This hasn’t always been a strength of the Tales series. While long known for their excellent combat systems, they’ve often provided stories that don’t do much to grab the player. Thankfully, this is an area where Tales of Arise largely succeeds.
Tales of Arise puts you in the role of a slave stuck in an iron mask. Unable to remember anything more than a year ago, he knows he can’t stand by and watch others be beaten like most other slaves do. This decision gets him into trouble and soon gets him caught in a fight between the Lord of his realm and some rebels fighting back against him. Soon he’s fighting back himself, joining the resistance and helping a mysterious girl from another world, eager to fight back against her own people for mysterious reasons. Along the way, you’ll work to remember your name, your history, and why you’re fighting.
We Come From Different Worlds
Your journey begins on Dahna, a world invaded by the people of nearby planet Rena 300 years ago. The Renans had far superior technology and used it to subjugate the Dahnans. Now they rule over them cruelly, wasting their lives. After so many years of slavery, few even have the spirit to fight back, but a few manage to find the strength to resist.
The story told here is quite dark for a game with such a colorful palate. It deals with subjects like slavery, betrayal, loss, but also with hope. I appreciate how it never shies away from the darker side of these subjects but also doesn’t wallow in misery at the same time. While there are genuinely horrifying moments, there are also moments of beauty, love, and humor. Arise can be very funny at times.
Still, there are times when Arise steps on its own feet. A few subjects come up that the game handles rather insensitively, and others where characters try to draw comparisons between their situations that don’t quite work. The villains also rarely feel nearly as interesting as the characters in your party, so while I found myself invested in their journey, it was mostly in their personal stakes.
A Wonderful Cast of Characters
The party in Tales of Arise really is pretty fantastic, though. You’ll eventually have a group of six characters, each of whom has their own journey. I liked how the game doesn’t take too long to get the whole gang together, letting their chemistry start to grow and for you to start exploring the depths of strategy they can combine for. Your main character becomes a source of strength, someone to lean on. A pair of Renans provide an outsider’s perspective, both having to search themselves and find why they’re fighting against their own people. A young woman has to examine her own motivations and what her quest for vengeance may turn her into. They end up forming a family of sorts, and their chemistry is outstanding.
The English voice acting is largely excellent, really selling this group, and the Japanese voices are strong as well. My only complaint with those is that your characters love to shout out the move they’re doing during combat. This is fine at first, but after you’ve heard the name of some skills hundreds of times, it gets old.
Highly Engaging, Deep Combat
Combat has long been a strength of the Tales series, and the revamped system in Arise is no different. Your main character fights with a sword and gets up close and personal, but you’ll also have characters who use magic, who fight with a gun, who wield a giant shield and a staff, and one who fights with his fist. You only control one character at a time, but you can switch between any of the four in your active party at any time. In addition, a variety of options let you customize how the rest of your team will react in battle.
While you have a basic attack, most of the time, you’ll want to be using your team’s artes. These are special moves that can be used with a special gauge. You’ll start with three slots, and each move uses a certain amount. While you’ll quickly run out, these recharge quickly, so you’ll never be out for long. Chaining together different moves allows you to build toward even more powerful attacks and massive amounts of damage. As the game goes on, your gauge grows longer, letting you use even more artes without taking a break.
Each of your characters has a meter building up to use a powerful ability you can call on any time. Some of these are just great attacks, while others are more of a skill that’s useful in certain situations in battle. One, for example, slows foes down while another stops a charging enemy. You can even call on your teammates not in your active party for these, so there’s no worry about going into battle with the wrong group. Bring the characters you enjoy using.
Enemies have a separate stagger meter which builds over time. Chain enough attacks together to fill the meter, and you can perform a powerful combo attack, finishing them off in one blow most of the time, even if they still have significant health left. It adds an extensive layer of strategy.
Strong Pacing Early On
If all this sounds like a lot, it can be, but Tales of Arise does an excellent job of feeding it to you slowly, so it never feels overwhelming. It also keeps many other aspects of the game simple, letting you focus on combat. For example, your only equipment is a single weapon, a single piece of armor, and a single accessory. While weapons and armor raise multiple statistics, rarely do you have any sort of strategic choice to make about which to use. A few later in the game may be better in one stat but worse in another, but most of the time, new armor and weapons you find are just better. Your accessory choice provides some room for experimentation, though, and I rarely myself looking for more from it. A wide-ranging skill system allows you to build your characters’ skills as you see fit as well.
Exploring Dahna is a delight in the early hours of Arise. While essentially linear outside of a side path to grab an item now and then, it provides a vast variety in locations as you travel through the planet’s different realms. Each has not only its own look, but also a unique feel that sets it apart. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this is a beautiful game with fantastic art direction, strong character designs, and a ton of color. Most areas are well-paced and don’t wear out their welcome. You even get an excellent fast travel system before long, which lets you easily go back to finish any side quests you may have left behind.
Eventually Wears Out Its Welcome, At Least A Bit
Tales of Arise eventually does drag a bit, though. It isn’t that the game is terribly long. I clocked in under forty hours, having done a solid amount of the game’s side quests though not completing all of them. Side quests, however, never really get interesting or give you much to think about. There is a very solid fishing mini-game, a plus for many I know, but most side quests are repetitive and uninteresting. Bring me these items. Kill a few types of monsters. Too often, the quests repeat themselves only with a new kind of enemy. It’s even fairly common for the item-based quests to already have the items you need. I was appreciative of the rewards, but this meant the quests practically didn’t exist.
A bigger problem becomes that the game keeps building towards a conclusion only to throw another twist at you. Characters asking if things are over yet practically becomes a cliché. Twists without any prior setup left me feeling a bit burned at times. Later dungeons also become more punishing, but not in an interesting way. The well-paced dungeons of the early game are replaced with ones that seem to go on forever, though with no more variety than earlier dungeons. In the later part of the game, many enemies are just reskins of older ones with a few new abilities or a new elemental affiliation.
Several areas even remove your fast travel option at the end of a dungeon, forcing you to trudge back to the start with little reward. Enemies appear on-screen, and most can be avoided, so this isn’t too bad. It just ends up feeling like padding.
While it doesn’t end as well as it begins, Tales of Arise told a story I wanted to see through. Even when the plot dipped a bit in the back half, the wonderful cast of characters kept me engaged. Its combat never stopped being a blast either. This is the strongest Tales game in years and definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a new adventure.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One; Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment; Developer: Bandai Namco Studios; Players: 1; Released: September 10th, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: A Tales of Arise review copy was provided by the publisher.