With even its most diehard fans growing bored, Tales of Arise has a lot riding on its shoulders. It was developed with the purpose of breathing new life into the long-running series, and given the track record of recent games, I was skeptical that Tales could actually update its formula successfully. After finishing Arise, I no longer have doubts. It’s a big step in the right direction that proves Tales still has lasting potential in the modern RPG space.
For the last 26 years, Tales has been a beloved staple of the JRPG genre. While other series like Final Fantasy usually attempt something different with each entry, Tales rarely deviates from its well-known formula: a grand story, meaningful character interactions, and action-based combat. You go into a Tales game knowing exactly what to expect; in many ways, Tales is classic JRPG comfort food. But the familiarity of each game has begun to show its age, with a paint-by-numbers approach that includes poor dungeon design and a frustrating reliance on backtracking. The series stagnated as a result — making Arise a sorely needed and welcome change of pace.
Arise follows the growing, interplanetary conflict between the twin worlds of Dahna and Rena. For over 300 years, Rena has enslaved the people of Dahna to harvest their resources. Rena’s futuristic and advanced technology is a threat to Dahna, which hasn’t progressed past its medieval era. A brewing rebellion has reached its boiling point and put Alphen, an amnesiac Dahnan slave unable to feel pain, right in the center of it all. Joining his quest to overthrow the oppressive Renan government is Shionne, a mysterious Renan looking to cure her curse of thorns that cause pain to anyone who touches her.
From addressing the importance of class consciousness to showing the dehumanizing reality of those living under an oppressive government, Arise doesn’t shy away from putting its political themes front and center. While it does try to give some contextual nuance to the Renans, it largely avoids “both sides”-ing moral issues by never justifying their actions or attempting to stir up sympathy for the villains. Arise also makes it clear that these situations can’t be wrapped up neatly with a bow and that centuries of inequality and hurt can’t be magically swept under the rug, which helps to ground the story.
While the rebellion is the catalyst for the journey, the emotional crux is the growing bond between Alphen and Shionne. Both are handled with a level of care that makes their dynamic compelling. They bring out the best in each other, helping the other come to terms with the trauma they’ve been carrying alone.
Alphen falls into the typical JRPG trope of a hero with a heart of gold, but his desire to help people doesn’t feel cartoonishly optimistic. The horrors he’s witnessed and endured as a slave have filled him with an anger that fuels his drive to not only lead the Dahnan rebellion but also fight injustice wherever he sees it. His motivation is deeply personal and helps his character feel more realized than other JRPG protagonists.
But it was Shionne who I connected with in particular, as I related to her struggles as someone with a terminal illness. Her personal arc explores how her curse has othered her and prevented her from ever being able to achieve the normality she wants. She’s bitter and icy because she’s stuck grieving for a life she’s never had. There are so many small things others take for granted that she’d love to experience, and it’s a pain that I’m all too familiar with.
Shionne’s story never veers into being sappy or emotionally exploitive. Rather than trying to downplay or pacify her anger and sadness, Alphen’s supportive and validating of her feelings. Both of them have been dealt a shitty hand, and it’s that shared sense of loss and pain that bonds them. It’s a genuinely beautiful relationship that I’m not used to seeing in media, bringing me to tears several times as the game progressed. As far as Tales protagonists are concerned, these two are definitely my favorites.
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The companions that join Alphen and Shionne are fantastic, too. Every party member has their own reason for wanting to liberate Dahna and put an end to Rena’s oppression, though not all of them are fueled by a simple desire for equality. As their journey unfolds, everyone is put into situations that challenge their beliefs and preconceived notions of how the world works. Their motivations evolve over time, and their moments of personal growth and revelations are when they get to shine the brightest. Rinwell, for example, has to confront how her black-and-white sense of morality doesn’t align with reality. Tales’ signature skits, which function as optional cutscenes between party members, help flesh them out further beyond the main Alphen/Shionne-heavy narrative.
Like any Tales game, what really makes Arise so much fun to play is its battle system. It’s snappy and fast, with attacks filling the screen in an incredible display of fireworks that make Dragon Ball fights seem tame. Abilities called Artes are mapped to the face buttons, while normal attacks and dodging are assigned to the triggers. Stringing your normal attacks together with Artes and well-timed dodges is the key to maximizing your damage. The simplicity of the controls makes fighting feel intuitive, and pulling off long-chained combos eventually becomes effortless.
Combat becomes especially exciting as the party grows. Each character has a unique skill known as a Boost Break that staggers an enemy when activated at the right time: Rinwell can stagger enemies by absorbing the artes they cast, while Kisara can guard against a charging beast to stop it in its tracks. Boost Breaks keeps everyone involved in the action despite your active party only consisting of four members at once. When you’re able to pull off consecutive Boost Breaks to stagger multiple enemies at once, it feels like conducting a chaotic orchestra. Unleashing Boost Breaks also fills up a gauge that leads to Boost Strikes, which are cinematic team attacks that are always a treat to watch. Characters can also go into Over Limit, which momentarily allows for unlimited artes and culminates in a special Mystic Arte.
It sounds overwhelming, but each mechanic is introduced at a pace that feels manageable. Boost Breaks, along with a new emphasis on perfectly timed dodges, really freshen up the Tales battle system. Having a variety of enemies to counter adds a nice layer of strategy that prevents mindless button spamming. I defeated most bosses by the skin of my teeth, and being kept on my toes stopped encounters from ever feeling boring.
There are more subtle changes to the formula that aren’t as game-changing but are still improvements. Switching from an in-house engine to Unreal 4 has made for the best-looking Tales game yet, its beauty accentuated by the downright gorgeous watercolor aesthetic. Dungeons feel less cramped and no longer consist solely of corridors with right angles. While they still task you with finding keys and pressing switches to advance, optional areas that reward exploration help break up the monotony. The overworld is also more fun to wander around in, with well-hidden owls that unlock new costumes to find and a new fishing minigame that consumed way too much of my time.
Tales of Arise manages to be a more emotionally mature and serious game than its predecessors while leaving the wholesome trademark of Tales’ charm intact. It’s still a character-driven adventure with a strong cast, but a more modernized open world and drastic tweaks to its combat system make Arise stand out from the games before it. After getting more of the same for so long, Tales feels new and exciting again. It’s just the right type of shakeup the series needed. Arise is the best entry in recent memory — and one of the best JRPGs I’ve played in years.