Tales of Arise has a lot to say in very little time. An interplanetary invasion by technologically advanced magic users sets the stage. Though we quickly leap several centuries past that, to a time when the world of Dahna has already been ruled by its techno-mystical overlords for longer than living memory. The planet (though it’s more like a moon as we can see the invaders’ homeworld in the night sky) is falling apart. Its people are slaves. There’s a tournament being held to determine which new evil ruler will be the ruliest. Unfortunately, it involves sucking human suffering out of their slaves through supernatural gems. Of course there’s a resistance movement setting out to fight it, a mysterious man in an iron mask, and a girl who electrocutes anyone that touches her.
Most of that is addressed in the opening 15 minutes of the JRPG. I’m also obviously glossing over the finer details (and proper nouns). Tales of Arise wants to cover a tremendous amount of ground in very little time. Unfortunately, the brisk take on such a dense history threatens to make the adventure feel small — too abbreviated.
You start out in a slave camp as the appropriately named “Iron Mask” (revealed to be named Alphen in the game’s trailers). Then you’re on a train. Then you’re at a resistance base. Then you’re in a semi-secure village before walking back to the camp and eventually setting out to take down the murderous lords.
There’s a strange disconnect between the amount of stuff that happens and how long things actually take. Alphen and his eventual deuteragonist travel by train, camp out in the wilderness, and trek to a faraway fortress we’re told neither of them has ever been close enough to see before. Except… When the carriage slows down a bit and you finally get the reins — free to run side quests for citizens in classic fashion — it’s about a 30 second trek through one canyon road back to where you started. It’s meant to look like a journey, but only barely feels like one.
The lightspeed pace works much more to the combat’s favor. Tales of Arise is an action-RPG. And its battles require some real attention to overcome. You see your foes in the world before touching them and being dragged into a combat arena, à la Persona. Though the arenas themselves feel almost more out of Devil May Cry.
You knock enemies into the air and back down again to connect attack strings that keep them from swiping back. That’s key because foes have hefty health pools and Tales of Arise is really a battle of attrition. Your only real resources are hit points and healing energy. You can attack enemies more-or-less freely, with special team-up moves that charge up over time. But healing spells only recharge when you rest. Getting too whacked up by beefy enemies is a serious danger best avoided. And the best defense, in this case, is a good offense.
The combat feels like it has room to grow with its cast. Said characters look pretty good, as our own Imran Khan pointed out that it’s “more akin to a particle-heavy Mushishi than Oh! My Goddess.” I’m not sure I see the Mushishi comparison as much as him, but there is a “calmness” to the color palette that I don’t usually associate with Tales games. Sadly the NPCs move more stiffly than their fluid edges would imply — which is especially obvious when listening to dialogue while accepting side quests.
Tales of Arise is rough around the edges right now, to be absolutely frank. But there’s a ton of promise here. How couldn’t there be? The game is playing with so many pieces right out of the gate that some of them are bound to hit. I’m at least curious to see if it gives itself the breathing room to fit them all in comfortably.