For years, the Tales series from Bandai Namco has been the absolute champion of JRPG comfort food. It’s the kind of video game series that carries so many recognizable elements and such a familiar framework through each game that you always know what to expect from them. Despite new casts of characters and minor quality of life changes in each entry, the Tales series had been using the same foundation and development engine for over a decade.
Tales of Arise is the first entry in the series since 2016 and brings the franchise into a new technical realm with the leap to Unreal Engine 4. Skepticism told me that the change of game engine and lengthy delays of the game spelled trouble, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Tales of Arise is a fresh and groundbreaking reinvention of the franchise that was well worth the five-year wait.
Tales of Arise is less of a high-fantasy adventure and more of a sprawling sci-fi epic. Set in a world in which the technologically advanced space empire of planet Rena has conquered and subjugated the weaker medieval realm of the planet Dahna, it carries an aesthetic similar to Star Ocean or Xenoblade Chronicles in how it melds typical fantasy elements with sleek neon sci-fi bits. Our protagonist is Alphen, who starts the story with a nasty case of anime amnesia. He’s a Dahna slave who can’t feel pain and has a mysterious iron mask stuck to his face. He isn’t sure why either of those things are the case, but he does know he’s meant to do greater things than waste away in servitude – so when he encounters the mysterious Rena-born fugitive Shionne and a crew of freedom fighters tracking her down, he immediately gets mixed up with them on a quest to destroy the shackles that have imprisoned the planet of Dahna for over 300 years.
What follows is a sprawling story full of the sort of twists, turns and moral ambiguity you’d expect of a Tales game, but it’s all done with a pretty astonishing level of finesse. A lot of elements of the writing in Tales of Arise pleasantly surprised me, but the time and space that characters are given to grow and develop really blew me away. Tales characters can sometimes feel like paper-thin anime archetypes. The Tales of Arise crew have familiar JRPG elements in their personalities – the amnesiac hero of justice, the temperamental princess – but where they start and where they end up is so refreshingly different. They have realistic layers to their personalities, and as the crew grows and interacts with one another, those layers come together and create, for lack of a less hunger-inducing analogy, a lasagna of rich character development. I didn’t have strong first impressions on the Arise crew from trailers for the game, but after going on this journey with them, they’re easily some of my favorites in the franchise now.
There are just as many layers and moving parts at play in the revamped combat system for Tales of Arise. Combat works similarly to how it did in prior games, tossing your party of 4 chosen combatants into an enclosed 3D arena to duke it out whenever you bump into enemies in the 3D overworld. The actual battles, though, are so much faster and more frenetic in Arise. One big change is the new focus on dodging, and while the timing can be tough to learn, evading enemy attacks is key to avoiding damage. Plus, it rewards you with counterattack opportunities and huge boosts to the energy bars your special attacks run on. Once I got a handle on it, I was addicted to luring out enemy attacks and triggering counterattacks, or experimenting with unlockable artes and finding the most efficient combos. In all my hours of playing, combat never got repetitive – only more enjoyable.
In Tales of Arise, your special attack Artes no longer pull from an MP meter – they instead rely on a constantly recharging artes gauge. Similarly, the new Boost Attacks, which let you call in any of your recruited characters for a support attack, slowly charge up over time. Your various special and standard attacks can be smartly strung together in massive combos, and when you wrap your head around the optimal way to string all of these abilities together, the possibilities in combat are nearly limitless. Combat isn’t without faults – it takes a while for dodging to really click, and a few bigger enemies can be a bit too damage spongey – but battles are still fun and fresh from beginning to end. As you progress in the game, your party grows, your artes options increase, and I always felt like I had something new to bust out in battle or grind out SP to unlock. I loved it.
A lot of the auxiliary gameplay systems have also seen significant changes that result in a much more interesting experience. For one, Tales of Arise introduces a new Cure Points meter. Any healing spells or items you use on your party drain the meter, and it can only be replenished by consuming special items or resting at places like inns and campfires. It’s a strange system to wrap your head around at first, but it adds a welcome challenge to boss fights and lengthy dungeons. On top of that, it entices you to regularly visit campfires, which is where you’ll cook meals to boost your party’s stats and view a lot of the whimsical party interaction ‘skits’ that the series is known for.
Gone are the 2D skit portraits and post-battle party animations, but don’t mourn those too much – the new in-engine skit presentations add a huge amount of personality to these interactions. It’s a bummer to lose those crisp hand-drawn portraits, but the fun and gut-busting writing in the skits is just as good as it’s been in any other game. Plus, skit visuals rendering in-engine means you get to see your customized costumes in every scene as well. There are also so many other instances of minor dialogue and animations as you explore the world that add a wealth of extra depth and personality to your crew.
Another pillar of the familiar Tales of experience would be the consistent aesthetic of the franchise, and the changes that Tales of Arise has made in that department genuinely blow me away. The game is such a big visual upgrade over prior games – and over many modern JRPGs in general. I always feel like the thing JRPGs lack most is detailed environment art, but the worlds and locales you explore in Tales of Arise game are jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Your surroundings and the characters that inhabit them are all rendered in a sharp and polished new art style that blends classic anime visuals with modern high-detail rendering and lighting that I haven’t seen since Dragon Quest XI. Minor touches help make the whole experience feel even more special – cinematic scenes where your camera intimately falls closer to the back of your protagonist as you walk around, or moments where you stand near a cliff and your character peaks over and comments on how high you’re standing. You aren’t just running through big basic fields and bare-bones JRPG cities to get to your next mission – the world is alive in a way that has rarely been seen in the Tales series.
With gripping storytelling, revamped gameplay, and massively upgraded visuals, Tales of Arise is the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the series. Where long-running video game series often reinvent themselves in a way that feels relatively bare-bones or lacking, leaning on the promise of future improvement, Tales of Arise is not a mere promise. It fully delivers on everything you would expect from a massive sequel over five years in the making. It’s a huge and engrossing game, but it’s also an incredibly refreshing step-up for the series that will hopefully lead to even bigger and better things in the future.