Tales of Arise is the 17th entry in the long-standing and very successful “Tales of” series, which started way back in 1995, with Namco’s initial entry, Tales of Phantasia (the company would only later be known as Bandai Namco). In Tales of Arise, two races of people live on separate planets, Dahna and Rena. The Dahnan’s are a more primitive people with inferior technology. The Renans, on the other hand, possess technology that most Dahnan’s would likely mistake for wizardry. Since the Renan’s consider themselves superior to the Dahnan’s in every way, they eventually invade their planet, conquering and subjugating the Danhan people. Three hundred years have passed since that time. Many Dahnans have tried to rebel against their captors, but they did not have the means to do so. Every rebellion has failed, with many Dahnan lives lost in the process.
All of that changes one fateful day when the main character, Alphen, meets a young woman, Shionne. Puzzlingly, Shionne somehow possesses a Master Core, an artifact only given to the Renan lords. This Master Core is able to store massive amounts of Astral Energy (energy produced by all living things). With her Master Core, she is able to manifest a flaming sword. This sword is so powerful that it burns anyone who tries to wield it. Alphen is just as mysterious as Shionne. He was found one day by a group of Dahnan’s, with no logical explanation as to where he came from. He was found with an iron mask, fastened firmly on his head, which he has never been able to remove. He has no memories, and he feels no pain. This is both a blessing and a curse. Since he feels no pain, he is the only being alive who can use the flaming sword that Shionne possesses. With this newfound hope, the two set off on their impossible quest to defeat the Renan lords that occupy Dahna and finally free the Dahnan people from their captivity.
These two, of course, only make up a fraction of your party, consisting of a wide variety of persons of all shapes, sizes, personalities, and backstories. Throughout the game, your party grows as you trek through all five regions of Dahna, defeating lord after lord with your mighty flaming sword.
In Tales of Arise, enemies are shown in the overworld as you traverse through dangerous areas. If you run into one, the screen will quickly shift into a battle arena, and the battle will commence. During combat, you control one of four characters. The game does a decent job of slowly teaching you how the combat system works. At the start of the game, you will mainly perform a series of basic attacks, executed with the R1 button (on the PS4). The game soon teaches you about your Arte Gauge (AG). When full, you can use a number of special attacks called Artes (this world's term for magic). New Artes will become available for purchase through the game's upgrade system, the Skill Panel. Both Active and Passive Skills are available. The game does not have any prerequisites on which Skills can be chosen from the panel, as long as you have enough SP (Skill Points) to purchase it.
You will start to learn how to use your basic attacks and Artes to string together moves for uninterrupted attacks. If you can keep this going for long enough, then when the enemy's health is low, you will be able to perform a Boost Strike, a “final blow” dealt against that foe. During a Boost Strike, two of your members will team up and defeat the enemy with a unique, powerful, flashy attack.
In addition to the Active Skills you learn along the way, everyone in your party has a unique ability called a Boost Attack that can be used after a certain period of time. For instance, Alphen can swing his deadly flaming sword for massive damage, the mage can steal spells, the fighter can punch through and disorient heavily armored monsters, and so on.
On paper, this sounds all well and good. But in reality, after several hundred battles, combat does become pretty repetitive. Each fight is likely to last over thirty seconds, and even up to two minutes for a bigger (non-boss) enemy, and each one is relatively the same. As I mentioned earlier, new Skills will become available, but I always resorted back to the same two or three moves, which I repeated over and over (and over and over) again until the enemy was dead. Overall, I did not employ much strategy during combat. As long as I was roughly at the same level as the average enemy in that area, I had no need to switch to a different strategy. I suppose there is a possibility that you would need to play more actively and carefully if you were under-leveled, but then I think you would be dealing with your party getting KO’d after just a few hits with their low HP and defense. I actually found myself intentionally avoiding enemies near the end of the game, just because I was sick of fighting. I should note that the game does offer several different difficulty settings where enemies have more HP and deal more damage. It’s possible that my strategies would need to be adjusted if I had played on one of those.
The combat also suffers from several other factors. The characters themselves are pretty stupid. If they get to 25% health, they are perfectly happy to continue punching the enemy, inches in front of their gigantic, razor-sharp teeth. It wasn’t until pretty late in the game that I learned you could customize the tactics of your party. When I initially heard of this, I thought back to my fond memories of Final Fantasy 12 (one of my favorite combat systems ever), where you could practically write your own code on what each member of the party should do in combat. Sadly, the system in Tales of Arise isn’t nearly as sophisticated. Be warned, your party will die a lot, and it will not be your fault.
It also seemed that I was never attacking the same enemy as the other members of my party. It seems to me that my team should be using, um, teamwork, to win a fight. But I generally had to switch targets if I wanted to be fighting the same enemy as the rest of my team. Switching targets isn’t that smooth either. You’re supposed to tap the L1 button (on PS4) to focus the enemy nearest to you, but it almost never seemed to choose the right target. All told, it took me several tries to target the enemy I wanted. By the time I did, I probably would have spent that time better just damaging my original target. You can also hold down L1 (on PS4) and cycle through the enemies with the left analog stick. This worked fine, but doing this every fight in order to optimize your coordination was not worth it for me.
The combat ended up being a very weird kind of difficult (no, that’s not a compliment). I was never actually worried about dying in a fight (I don’t think I lost even once). I was more worried about spending too many items to get through a battle. The items in the game are very expensive. Restoring your CP (Cure Points, the resource that you need in order to heal your party) requires a specific kind of item, and in the early game, they are hard to come by. Therefore, if you have to spend more than a few to get past a tough enemy, you should start sweating. If you run out of CP, it will take a lot of grinding to buy more.
I found myself really enjoying the art style of the game. It’s some kind of cross between a cel-shaded and a hand-drawn style, and I found it to be both unique, eye-catching, and at times, breathtaking. Certainly, if someone wanted to walk around the world, taking and posting screenshots, I would not insult their decision. I also appreciated that each region you visit has a distinctly different feel to it. The first region, Calaglia, is host to fire, lava, and craggy mountains. The second region is the complete opposite, with snow blanketing every field and building. I think this was a wonderful (and perhaps necessary) decision by the developers. Tales of Arise is nothing if not epic.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the game is something that I’d like to see in more games. Cut scenes that offer a completely different art style. In Tales of Arise, we are given fairly long “anime” cutscenes. These sections of the game let us see our characters in a different way, and it was always a welcome experience when one started playing on the screen.
In addition to these cutscenes, the game very often delivers dialogue through the use of motion comics. It will cut to comic-like tiles where snapshots of each character are shown. They shift around on the screen as each character speaks. I’m sure somebody thought that this was a clever way to change up the gameplay and offer a look at the characters from a different perspective. Unfortunately, I just didn’t care for it. It took me out of the immersion and seemed disjointed. You're going to spend a lot of time looking at these comic-like tiles. Get ready to become a comic fan (or a comic hater, I guess, depending on how you feel about them).
Unfortunately, I found most characters pretty one-dimensional. There was little to no character growth at all. The person with the biggest arc is certainly Shionne, but she is so cold and harsh that I hardly cared when her demeanor started to thaw. The game expected me to care about Alphen and Shionne’s relationship. Personally, I generally was shouting that Alphen was making a fool of himself by falling for Shionne just because of that fancy dress and long hair. In the early sections of the game, Alphen and Shionne are immediately extremely harsh to each other, but it just never quite feels genuine. I always felt that the game was forcing this behavior to bring some tension into the story, all so it can be resolved later on when the characters had grown and matured. I didn’t fall in love with any of these characters, and that’s a big problem when you're spending dozens of hours with them.
As far as morality is concerned, there isn’t anything earth-shattering that you won’t find in most other modern JRPGs. There are girls that are impractically beautiful wearing outfits that accentuate their features. Kisari, a woman in your party, is an armor-clad warrior who likes to use a shield. However, underneath the armor, she wears black tights with her back exposed. She says that every soldier embellishes their clothing, and it’s a sign of a mature warrior. Okay, Kisari, if you say so. Also expect typical fantasy magic and spells that you would find in most other RPGs.
I was pretty irritated by the number of times I heard cursing in the game, even if it is pretty mild cursing. To me, the worst thing for me was Alphen’s battle phrase. He would often shout, “Burn in h*ll”, while executing his Boost Attack. Since you are bound to fight hundreds of enemies, you will be hearing this phrase a lot. I don’t know about you, but I winced every time I heard it. I initially tried playing the game with my 8-year-old son, but after seeing how often cursing was used, I had to put on my headphones and play the game solo. The cursing also felt disjointed from the rest of the game, where the teenage melodrama was cranked up to eleven, and the environments remained cheery throughout the story.
On a moral high note, the idea of slavery is very clearly condemned. It is the sole reason why most of the party has united for the common cause of defeating the lords of the realm. The idea of intrinsic human value is often at the front and center of the very best of stories, whether it be secular or religious. If our atheistic friends are right, then "every man for himself" should be the reigning theory and the social norm. The Renans should be applauded for climbing to the top of the power ladder. Of course, nobody would agree with that. And thus, we are ignited with justice, wanting to free the slaves of Dahna.
As a longtime JRPG fan, there wasn’t much in Tales of Arise that I hadn’t seen before. The game's graphical style and varied landscapes are pretty much the things it did best. The music fit very nicely with each setting, but I also didn't find myself humming any of it when I wasn't playing the game. If you do decide to give it a go, you will likely be surprised by the genuinely interesting twists and turns the game takes near its end. If you don’t mind some slightly artificial characters and a slightly nonsensical story, I’m sure you will enjoy dozens of hours wandering around the gorgeous worlds in Tales of Arise.