(Tales of Arise is on the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series S, and Series X, as well as PC. The distributor provided a review copy.)
Back in my teens, I devoured every JRPG that made its way into the Nordics. Unfortunately, that didn’t amount to much at that time, and most of what we got were the big hitters: Final Fantasy, Suikoden, and Breath of Fire. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the markets finally opened up. But, by then, I didn’t have the kind of time I once did, and my JRPG days looked numbered.
So it was with some trepidation I entered the 17th(!) game in the Tales of Arise series. Not because I didn’t want to — I drooled over the impressive trailer for months — but because I feared I couldn’t give it the attention it deserved.
Luckily, I shouldn’t have worried. Tales of Arise is not just a welcoming and returning newbie-friendly addition to the long-running saga but also a smartly written and captivating adventure I thoroughly enjoyed. Even if it took a month to complete.
Misery loves company
Set in a world blending sci-fi with high fantasy, Tales of Arise tells the story of Alphen, an enslaved adventurer belonging to the race of people called the Dahnans. For over three hundred years, they’ve been under the iron rule of the Renan's, who spread misery across the planet. As the story unfolds, Alphen must travel across the globe recruiting new members to his ragtag party, righting wrongs along the way.
Much of the first five hours are spent on a tight leash. There’s a whole lot of foundation to cover, and Tales of Arise takes its time setting the stage for the adventure. It’s not any different from how other JRPGs handle the material, but I did find myself rolling my eyes more often with this one. Every character has a monologue to deliver, and, by god, they will deliver one. There’s dramatic dialog coupled with very dramatic dialog at every turn. On top of that, each day caps off with an around-the-fire chat to reminisce about the times everyone talked about that one dramatic thing.
It’s very anime all the time, and if that’s your thing, you’re going to love it.
For me, it’s a mixed bag. The characters of Tales of Arise are wonderfully quirky, soulfully written, and genuinely likable. But, good lord, did I ever want them to shut up most of the time.
Open world, open combat
The world of Tales of Arise is massive, even though much of it is open only superficially. Traversal takes mostly place in cavernous but limited areas, which are still accessible even way down the line. In fact, much of the early settings require a secondary pass at things. In addition, enemies don’t level up with the player, which means that grinding is also a necessity from the beginning.
Luckily, those combat mechanics are fast-paced and fun. Enemies don’t appear at random but are visible on the world map where players can engage or avoid them as they wish.
Going into battle transports the characters into a round, enclosed arena where they can move freely. Combat is fast-paced and built around elaborate combos, which increase in complexity and damage as the game progresses. Once you get a hang of how everything works – which took me ages – even the most high-level enemies pose little threat. Combos between physical, magical, and elemental attacks string together with immense satisfaction, and it’s wild to see how elaborate they become down the line.
But that brings with it another problem; even with the fun additions, much of the combat feels dated by modern standards. Most of the fights end up as clicking matches to whittle down colossal health bars, and there isn’t the same kind of exhilaration as with the revamped mechanics found in Final Fantasy VII Remake. After all, a lot of these elements are familiar from over thirty years ago in games like Legends of Legaia.
Fans of the series will naturally be in heaven. This is, after all, something that isn’t broken. So it’s not likely that it’ll ever get “fixed.” But newcomers like myself should prepare for not just long fights, but grinding, which remains a staple for the franchise.
A long and winding road
Let’s get the obvious bits out of the way. Tales of Arise is long. Really, really long. There’s an opening credits sequence around the five-hour mark! This isn’t a game to start lightheartedly or for quick jump-in-and-out sessions. There are subplots to subplots, repetition occurs regularly, and fetch quests are more the norm than a diversion.
This isn’t to say that it’s bad, specifically. These are all tried and tested tropes of JRPGs, and, for fans, that’s exactly what they want. These are my expectations that need adjusting, and over the course of the previous month, that’s exactly what they did.
And when you get into Tales of Arise, the whole experience soars.
By the time the final boss rears its ugly head, every character feels like an old friend. The writing, while over-the-top and sometimes nonsensical, is often very witty, nuanced, and genuinely compelling. There are a few culturally odd moments toward the end, which require way more knowledge of Japanese sociopolitics to comment on, but they’re quick asides that don’t detract from the whole too much.
For fans, by fans
I’m glad I got to play Tales of Arise, even if it’s probably something I won’t return to again. Until the next part rolls around, that is. It’s a throwback to a much simpler time, and there’s much to love in its, arguably dated, mechanics.
For those who’ve stuck with the franchise all this time, I can only imagine it’s a genuine treat. But, even more importantly, Tales of Arise deserves acclaim for how it welcomes newcomers. This is a smartly crafted entry into what could have been an obtuse saga gatekeeper armed with decades of lore. Instead, it’s intimate and compelling; sweeping and grand.
It’s the kind of story you can recommend to nearly anyone.