Tales of Arise Review: A flashy and enjoyable JRPG that's gloriously rewarding to play
You'll have a great time
For the first time in a while, I've decided not to start a game review with a witty one-liner or fancy editorial jargon, because Tales of Arise simply doesn't need one. As the seventeenth entry in the beloved Tales franchise, it certainly goes without saying that the game has a lot to live up to, but on that note, I'm happy to report that it hasn't just cleared the bar - Bandai Namco Entertainment has set a new standard for JRPG excellence entirely.
And we haven't even factored in the style points yet. I'll be frank - ToA is unquestionably one of the best-looking games that I've had the privilege of enjoying this year, though perhaps what I found most impressive was that its flashy combat and animations didn't overwhelm or contest with the other aspects of the game. Rather, it accentuates and elevates them, allowing an already-flawless gameplay formula and narrative to shine even brighter than they have any right to.
Once upon an amnesic protagonist
When it comes to narrative, ToA's story is set in the once-prosperous medieval realm of Dahna, which has been suffering under the tyrannical rule of the futuristic Rena civilisation for the past three hundred years. With most of its people born and forced into slavery, and any rebels dealt with quickly and brutally by the Renans, things don't look good for Dahna at all. Enter our first of two protagonists - Alphen, an amnesic but passionate young man who has spent most of his life with a grey shell obscuring his face, a feature which has earned him the moniker Iron Mask by his fellow Dahnans. Interestingly, we're also told that Alphen has a strange ability that renders him immune to any form of pain, though of course his body will still suffer physical injuries as normal.
As he bemoans the lack of "fight" in the Dahnans against their oppressors, the wheels of fate begin to turn. One day, he comes across a young woman hiding out from the Renans - our second protagonist, Shionne Vymer Imeris Daymore, who possesses a curse of "Thorns" that harms anyone who touches her. Following a heated battle in the mines against a squad of Renan soldiers looking to recapture Shionne, who is Renan herself, the duo is recruited into the Crimson Crows - a Dahnan rebel group who aims to liberate their people. With no memory of his past or his actual identity, Alphen (as Iron Mask, at that point) resolves to do his part to free Dahna alongside Shionne, who also seeks to take down the five Renan Lords, albeit for her own mysterious reasons.
At this point, I really won't blame you for thinking that ToA follows a rather textbook narrative with the amnesic protagonist and "evil overlords" trope, but at the same time, I'd also like to highlight that not many games are capable of making such a well-worn concept so engaging and exciting. Despite the rather cliche foundations, the presentation and pacing is absolutely on point, and the contrasts between the Dahnans and Renans with regard to their way of life and worldview do a solid job of establishing the divide between both peoples, which is what I feel sets ToA apart from your usual zero-to-hero narrative. In short, it's hard enough for a game to balance out the metaphorical screentime for two opposing factions, and as such Bandai Namco deserves all the praise for going one step further - allowing both of these factions to "meld" as the characters come to understand each other's motivations.
In fact, we can even see instances of this right from the get-go in the way Alphen and Shionne interact, and as more characters come on board over the course of the game and their bond deepens, the myriad of different viewpoints ebbing and flowing isn't just marvellous to behold - it also makes for an emotionally compelling and memorable story.
And of course, in typical JRPG fashion there's lots of friendly bantering in between all of that, because why not?
Raising the aesthetics bar
With the context established, let's take a look at the game itself, and boy is there a lot of ground to cover. As a matter of fact, you've got five different realms to explore on Dahna, and each of them definitely possesses its own unique charms. From the arid deserts and volcanic cliffs of Calaglia to the bustling markets of Viscint in Elde Menancia, there's really no shortage of variety to be had, and that stunningly impressive level of quality and attention to detail is the same across the board, making Alphen and Shionne's journey a true feast for the eyes.
Although I've played through my fair share of JRPGs before, I'd have to say that this is probably one of, if not the best that I've laid eyes on to date, and the audio pairs flawlessly too. It's so pleasing, so detailed and so entrancing that I'd straight-up wager the Final Fantasy VII Remake as its only legitimate JRPG competitor. Even then, the appeal comes through in different ways despite both narratives dealing with similar concepts - the vibe of ToA's setting is one of hope and positivity amidst oppression, while the FF7 Remake displays the darker sides of corporate tyranny. Don't get me wrong, though - both games are amazing at portraying the ideas they want to, and quite frankly, trying to put one over the other would probably take an entire article to address.
Now, I won't deny that having your anime sequences done by Ufotable (the same studio that brought us the Demon Slayer anime series) already earns you a couple of points in my favour, but it's also impossible to deny the added aesthetic edge that these provide visually and emotionally to the ToA experience. The fact that the game also features manga-like interactions further puts the "Japanese" in JRPG and as an anime fan, it's like I'm getting an all-in-one package: a visual novel, a manga and a game - one that's really well done to boot. Personally, the absurdly loaded cast of voice actors is also a major selling point for me, and it's really hard not to be impressed when a single game can afford to have all of the following talents and then some.
- Alphen: Takuya Sato (Caesar Anthonio Zeppelin - Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Battle Tendency)
- Shionne: Shino Shimoji (Akiha Tohno - Tsukihime (2021))
- Law: Yoshitsugu Matsuoka (Kirito - Sword Art Online)
- Naori: Ayako Kawasumi (Artoria Pendragon/Saber - Fate franchise)
- Almeidrei Kaineris: Atsuko Tanaka (Lisa Lisa - Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Battle Tendency)
- Vholran Igniseri: Sho Hayami (Sosuke Aizen - Bleach)
- Chronos: Junichi Suwabe (Shirou Emiya/Archer - Fate franchise)
The combat is gloriously fun
Now that my one moment of fanboying is over, let's move on to gameplay, and frankly, I'm just as amazed by how seamless the formula feels as I am for the other parts of the game. For some added context, this is the first time I'm actually playing a Tales game (don't shoot me) - my last brush with the franchise was the Tales of the Abyss anime a number of years back, so this is an entirely different ball game for me.
Nevertheless, I'm enjoying it, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. For those who might not know, ToA's combat is both similar and different from its predecessors. Most of the key elements, such as exploration, questing and adventuring in general are pretty much the same as before, but the combat is where things really take a different turn.
For one, there's no multiplayer anymore, and depending on how you look at it, it can be either a boon or a bane, though for me it was the former since I'm generally a solo player. According to explanations from the developers, they did away with the multiplayer combat aspect in favour of streamlining character combos, and this change presents itself in the form of the Boost Strike ability. After a character uses a bunch of skills, or Artes as they're called, they'll be able to charge the Boost gauge, allowing them to activate a powerful Boost Strike which can get you out of a tight spot or further your advantage. For example, Shionne's Boost Strike allows her to knock down flying enemies for a period of time, following which the player (as Alphen) can proceed to attack them with his repertoire of ground-based moves.
Speaking of which, I think what really has me sold on ToA's combat isn't so much the flashiness of the Artes nor the Boost Strikes - it's actually how satisfying the basic fighting formula is to play and master throughout the game. Putting aside your Artes for the moment, players will have to learn how to chain combos together while evading enemies, as this will be your bread and butter when your Artes and support skills aren't available. Of course, all of this gets exponentially better as Alphen and his allies level up and acquire more skills and Artes.
Yeah, I get that it's starting to sound a bit like a Soulslike, but don't worry - it's nowhere near as punishing, and this is coming from someone who can't get past that apparently-basic horseback lancer boss in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (yes, I'm real bad at it). Furthermore, I'm a complete newbie to the Tales battle formula in the first place, so when I say that the game won't bully you out of your mind if you mess up, you know it's true. Heck, if you 're having that much trouble, just tweak the AI settings accordingly in the strategy menu - it's surprisingly detailed.
At the same time, it also feels gloriously, even hilariously good when you manage to time your evades and blocks respectively. In fact, the game knows it feels so good that it even allows you to counter attack in slow-motion! This occasional brief moment of, for lack of a better term, "sheer perceived godliness" really helps to solidify the combat package as a whole, and it also makes you want to master the timing, if only so you can constantly re-experience the euphoria of being a one-Dahnan army.
As for the other gameplay aspects, like gathering resources, forging equipment and exploring the world of Dahna, it's pretty standard fare as far as JRPGs go in general, though the good thing is that you don't really have to grind for anything. Most of the resources will make themselves available by simply playing the game, so you don't have to set up camp and grind armadillos and other monsters for hours on end.
The game is pretty simple in this regard - you walk around, scale cliffs and do a little platforming here and there, and you can even change your party leader if you'd like to see someone other than Alphen hogging the spotlight. Unfortunately, this only extends to the overworld bit, and you can't use anyone but him in combat sequences, which I find a little tilting. Although I do like the fluidity of his swordplay as a whole, I can't help but feel a little shortchanged that we aren't able to at least try out Shionne's gun-based fighting style.
And that there, ladies and gentlemen is my one disappointment about the game - you can only use Alphen to fight. Now, it isn't a bad thing per se since the variety of skills and Artes permutations he has to choose from is rather impressive, not to mention that you can always swap out your team members to try out a different approach whenever you want. In that sense, it's less of a disappointment and more of a pebble-in-your-shoe kind of problem - it's only as significant an issue as you allow it to be. Apart from that, I really have no qualms giving Tales of Arise the perfect, solid 10/10 it deserves, so go ahead and take my money, Bandai Namco - you've earned this one.
Update: It has been highlighted to us that players are actually able to switch between different characters by adjusting certain battle settings, and we apologise for the oversight. Furthermore, we would also like to clarify that Tales of Arise remains a completely singleplayer experience, in the sense that there is no online co-op or multiplayer aspect.