Tales of Arise is about many things. On the surface you’ll see intense thematic elements such as slavery, trauma and suicide. Get further in and you’ll start to see more of a thesis statement, in which Tales of Arise’s cast seeks to find first a source of blame for their struggles, discovering over time that oppression goes far beyond a single management group. As our heroes learn more and more about the conflict between the “Twin Planets,” they come to question their own perception, motivations and ultimately, reshape their goals.

Slavery isn’t an easy topic for a videogame to tackle. And it hits especially hard in America, since “slavery” has such a specific meaning here. Oftentimes when it comes up in spaces like JRPGs it looks more like media portrayals of Ancient Egypt, with slaves wearing rags while yelled at by baddies as they labor over mysterious and functionally dubious construction projects. Dragon Quest V is perhaps the biggest example, when the hero is captured by evil forces and spends a decade moving rocks around to garner sympathy but not really say anything.

Tales of Arise Review

That form of slavery feels like an easy way to use an edgy topic in a safe environment, especially in today’s moment in which the scars of American slavery are constantly ripped open. And at first it seems like Tales of Arise is headed down that path, as we’re introduced to the enslavement of Dahna by Rena via a similar setup. But as clumsy as this very anime-flavored story can be at times, I was surprised by how much further the story took its theme. Please note that this is coming from the perspective of a straight white dude, so I'm pulling back a bit from assigning a pass/fail on this narrative framework. I'm sure a lot went over my head and I look forward to reading declarative takes from more equipped voices.

Renans, a self-proclaimed superior race, rule over Dahnans from afar. Like, two planets apart far. While the ostensible leadership structure of Rena stays on its home planet, Dahna is governed by “Lords” installed at various “Realms,” each of which turn out to be significantly distinct. In a Dragon Quest-like “each town has its own story” way, every Realm the heroes encounter shows the audience a different form of oppression from the Egypt-like construction labor to much more insidious kinds, and of course the more cartoony extremes. And all of that is set up to teach the player that oppression isn’t as simple as bad people doing bad things to other people. It’s systemic and multifaceted, and no one solution can be applied to solve every problem. There are layers to it, often going up a ladder of sorts that includes the people we first see as villains from the protagonist’s point of view.

Sometimes, especially in one scene, Tales of Arise teeters on the edge of “both sidesism,” as it starts to unravel its thesis by pointing to individual actors within groups. But as the story gets even more complex, ridiculous and Extremely Tales, so too does the way the story points its finger upwards to power structures built over generations that keep systemic oppression alive. And those individual actors become the different ways in which people can benefit from those systems at the expense of others.

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It’s fascinating how much of the fucked up weave of societal structures Tales of Arise’s creative team seems to be aware of and interested in. And even when the game does its typical Tales Of late game bonkers twistathon, all the zany escalation and other spoilery events still build on top of that foundation. It’s far from perfect, but its endeavor to show us how racism and oppression is much more embedded and systemic than loud proclamations of hate is a lot more than I would have ever expected from a franchise JRPG.

This is, of course, the first new Tales Of game under new leadership. Perhaps it’s that infusion of God Eater DNA combined with a current trajectory towards JRPGs getting a bit darker overall that got us here. We’re a generation beyond games like Shin Megami Tensei becoming a branding powerhouse with Persona, but more importantly one influence among many for current creators. It’s also an era that is rewarding experimentation more than ever, leading to even Dragon Quest exploring new thematic territory (we don’t know what that looks like yet, but still).

Tales of Phantasia came out back on the Super Famicom, and the series has endured to today if not grown. The series survived the dark years of Japanese AAA games, and Tales of Arise is proudly and loudly on the other side. It’s also another example of Japan’s embracing of the Unreal Engine, making top shelf visuals and presentation easier and more affordable than ever.

Tales of Arise is a hell of an example of all the above. Not only is its storytelling and visual style distinct from its siblings, it’s also a huge change in gameplay that still retains the Tales Of identity. You’re still taking a party of four into real-time encounters, where everyone is running around and screaming Arte attack names out like a bunch of hyped up and heavily armed Naruto cosplayers. But instead of the traditional 2D fighter-like perspective of previous titles, Tales of Arise is fully free-form movement with a much more loose lock-on mechanism and a huge interest in big combos. The game feels like a character action game in that way, as various moves are designed to cancel into each other and maintain things like juggle states. Not only does your controlled character plenty capable of landing a dozen or more hits, you can call in your party members (even the ones on the bench) for big hits that restore or reset your own allotment for violence.

It’s all so smooth and easy, with plenty of forgiving room for error that holds back just enough to make it feel like you still have to work for those big numbers. And your reward for figuring that all out is the ability to keep enemies in stun or juggle states long enough to build up a bespoke meter for over the top finishing moves that almost always guarantee that enemy is done for.

Of course, you can’t juggle bosses to death. When it comes time for a big fight, the combat shifts to a more frantic and reactive scramble. As your enemy rarely slows down and never hits that stun state, the way you’re paying attention to animations and timing significantly changes. That keeps the action fresh, ensuring you’re never able to just latch onto one effective sequence to carry you through the whole game. And as you fill in each character’s skill list, your options change and grow quite a bit.

There are a few things I didn’t like. For example you have a CP pool that’s separate from the action points controlling your Artes. CP is depleted when a character uses a healing spell, and restoring it can be limited and expensive. That’s a weird speed bump on a game that otherwise doesn’t care too much about depleting numbers, but to be fair it does make you use your items at times instead of sitting on them. 

CP does feed into Tales of Arise’s fast travel mechanic, which is awesome. Most maps have a point you can pop over to at any time, barring specific plot restrictions. This makes it easy to scoot out of a dungeon back to an inn for healing or crafting, without making you do too much backtracking. Later on in the game though, some of the big dungeons take those points away, while still feeding you materials and resources encouraging you to leave. That isn’t consistent either, giving a weird vibe of contradiction to certain areas.   

Other areas that feel a little half-baked unfortunately betray Arise’s big budget vibe, such as stilted facial animations during skits, no battle victory fanfare whatsoever and an accessory crafting gimmick that feels dropped in at the last minute and more of a nuisance than a boon. You can also throw resources at a farm to build up different kinds of meat, which seems like it might be fun before it just turns into a menu of cooldowns. Fishing, though, is super good. It’s fumbly at first but turns into an intense battle between man versus nature once you figure it out. Some of the overall awkwardness can stick out at times, but is often overshadowed by Tales of Arise’s charm and chemistry between the characters.

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Tons of skits and other flavorful dialogue are handed to you, and every single one of them feels important to the story. That’s the power of friendship, baby! From a silly Final Fantasy XV-like camping and cooking setup to random side chatting and even banter during boss fights, the cast here is brimming with charisma, well-acted and fueled by just enough baggage and corny proclamations of Big Feelings to nail nearly all of the different character angles. None of these people feel like walking tropes, each of them learning, growing and changing as their arcs unwind and resolve.

Like Scarlet Nexus earlier this year, Bandai Namco has really hit the ground running with this latest generation of games. Embracing unreal engine has brought new life and energy to its in-house anime aesthetics and only opened up bigger and more nuanced environments to play around in. It also seems like the series’ change in leadership has impacted what a Tales Of game can be, without feeling like a massive departure. And considering the runtime here can easily go over 50 hours, thank goodness for that!

Tales of Arise is full of heart and energy, and isn’t afraid to stumble along with its characters as it explores complicated subjects. It’s messy in a way that feels realistic, despite all the monsters, magic powers and ridiculous outfits. Tales Of often has had a hard time getting over itself, but Tales of Arise feels like a fresh step forward. If this is what this team can produce during a pandemic-rattled hardware transition, I can’t wait to see what comes next. 


Pros:

  • Fun combat, easy to build combos
  • Compelling cast of characters; great English VO
  • Nice-lookin' videogame!

Cons:

  • CP thing is annoying
  • Weird snags in various areas (no fanfare, some animations etc)
  • Extra gimmicks (crafting, etc) aren't interesting

Score: 8.5

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.