The Tales series is one of the most long-running and storied franchises in the JRPG world, debuting back in 1995 with Tales of Phantasia on the Super Famicom. That particular game, based on an unpublished novel by one of the game’s programmers Gotanda Yoshiharu, was a marvel in many ways, fitting full voice acting for attacks and spells and an entire theme song (on a Famicom cartridge, mind you), with room to spare for Motoi Sakuraba’s lush score, as well as gorgeous visuals and character designs by Oh My Goddess! creator Kosuke Fujishima.
But it also pushed the envelope for another reason: it was the first JRPG to take a typical trope of the genre, and through the act of deconstruction turn the entire game’s story on its head, giving the game’s villain a completely understandable reason for his actions that could only be accomplished by the method undertaken. By modern standards, it’s not terribly revolutionary, but for the time it was earth-shattering.
The series would continue this theme of deconstruction all the way to present day, and now with Tales of Arise, the series has managed to up the ante by a considerable margin.
What Is It?
Tales of Arise is the seventeenth mainline title in the long-running Tales franchise, developed and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. This entry is an intentionally major departure from previous titles in a number of ways, not the least being that it’s the first game to use the Unreal 4 Engine rather than the in-house engine used for previous entries. Story-wise, it’s also noticeably grimmer than previous entries (even compared to Tales of Berseria, itself notably darker than entries preceding that title). Although it keeps it’s Action-RPG gameplay, it adds a number of improvements and some fundamental alterations that make it stand out from previous games.
In the universe of Tales of Arise (hence forth known as TOA), there are two planets that orbit each other, Rena and Dahna. Roughly three hundred years before the game begins, the Renans invaded and conquered the planet of Dahna, enslaving its populace and placing it under a harsh colonial regime. It was divided up into five semi-autonomous fiefdoms, each ruled by a Renan lord. Dahnans have jewels forcibly embedded into their hands to collect Astral Energy (the source of Astral Artes, the Tales series’ version of magic), and are forced to labor under harsh conditions in order to produce Astral Energy, which in turn is used to fuel each fiefdom’s Astral Core. Every few years, the Crown Contest is conducted in which whatever lord has collected the most Astral Energy is declared Sovereign of Rena. Renans are (supposedly) the only ones who can practice Astral Artes, and are called ‘Bright Eyes’ by Dahnans due to their eyes glowing when doing so. Renans, in turn, call the enslaved Dahnans ‘Embeddeds’ due to the jewels.
At the beginning of the game, we are introduced to a gentleman known only as ‘Iron Mask’. He has no recollection of his name, what he looks like, or his past. All he knows is that he woke up in the harsh fiefdom of Calaglia, which is continually burning and swirling with ask due to the Renan lord’s love of the aesthetic, and that he cannot feel pain of any kind. Through a chance meeting with a rifle-toting Renan woman named Shionne, he gets involved with the Crimson Crows, the local resistance group led by the veteran rebel Zephyr. Shionne has the opposite issue of Iron Mask: she is cursed with ghostly thorns that severely hurt anyone who try to touch her, essentially starving her of basic human touch from her birth. She also looks remarkably similar to a woman that Iron Mask keeps seeing in his dreams…
Why Should I Care?
The first and most obvious thing you will notice about TOA is that it’s awfully prettier than your average Tales game thanks to the power of the Unreal 4 Engine, and the results speak for themselves. Even in the very beginning, when the environment is mostly just fire and ash-covered deserts, the graphics are simply gorgeous; dusty cliffs are ringed with scaffolding, odd cacti and plants sprout from rock outcroppings, and even a distant volcano can be seen. Further excursions will reveal frosty mountain tops, lush jungles, and misty rain forests. A Tales game has never looked this good before. Character models, though still of the 3d anime variety, are much less moe in appearance then in previous entries, giving them more of an air of dignity and panache than previous games could provide.
Gameplay-wise, TOA provides something that is both an extension of, and departure from, previous games. The over-world traversal is still largely the same, with you and your party exploring towns, fields, and of course the enormous boss dungeons… but there are also some significant additions this time around: for one thing, there is the new campfire mechanic, where your party can rest for the night, have one-on-one discussions with each other, and cook recipes with particular effects for the entire party. Merchants and inns are still a thing, but the Turtlez Merchants are a thing of the past, replaced with hooded traveling merchants who often offer words of warning as often as they provide wares. Skits are also still a thing, but now are conveyed through a motion-comic style rather than the static graphics of games past. There’s also a new fishing mechanic (which you’ll need to do if you want to get money, as cash is scarce in this world).
But it’s the combat that really shines. Again, as with past Tales games, we have an Action-RPG combat system where you and your party attack a monster or group of monsters when encountered in the field. All characters fight at once, rather than in turns, and each character is armed with both standard attacks and special Artes. Combat uses a regenerating Arte Gauge (starting at three points and increasing with each leveling up) that is exhausted with each Arte used (and some Artes use more points than others, so plan accordingly). There are also Cure Points, which are used when using Healing Artes and decrease with use. What is different this time around is two-fold: combat is heavily focused on evasions and counters (which, if successfully pulled off, can increase damage), and multi-player combat is replaced with ‘boost attacks’ that allow multiple party members to collaborate on incredibly damaging (and visually spectacular) group attacks.
But the real draw here, among everything else, is the story and world-building. This game really goes deep into the nature of colonialism, totalitarianism and revolution, showing how a cruel despotic regime like the Renan system operates (often inefficiently), and even goes so far as to show how moderate liberal reforms will sometimes treat the symptoms rather than the disease (no spoilers, but it’s a major plot point). It also doesn’t just end with the revolution, and shows that people have to actually build something after the struggle is won.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Being that this game is such a drastic departure from previous entries, it’s obvious that fans of those previous games may not be as happy with the end-product. The game’s story, world, and character design is noticeably more mature and grimmer than previous games. The humor is still there, but the seriousness has been ratcheted up ten-fold. Some other fan favorites, like the end poses and quips after a fight, no longer exist for the sake of efficiency.
On top of this, there are also some graphical issues, along with the normal issues that come with JRPG localization. I occasionally had to deal with characters taking their time to materialize in the environment before I could speak with them (a common issue with modern PS4 games, so other systems may not have this issue), as well as some graphical tearing and glitching. I also encountered the occasional spelling and grammatical error in the dialogue text, though rarely to the point that it was intrusive.
But ultimately, what stuck out to me above everything else (including the fantastic graphics and combat) was the writing. The game really does go into great detail on the nature slavery, oppression, revolution, and reform in ways that no other JRPG (or very few other games, for that matter) has the courage to do, even to the point of actively showing the contradictions of liberal reform. It shows how revolutions can go wrong, how totalitarian societies are governed, and how the ethos of might-makes-right is an incredibly stupid way to rule a society.
It’s material that is far too relevant, no matter how flashy the anime imagery may be.