Tales of Arise is meant to be an evolution of the Tales series. Gone is the in-house engine used in previous games, replaced with Unreal Engine 4. The combat system has been revamped, with a focus on evasion and countering. And the story is meant to be darker than previous entries, with themes and topics like slavery and revolution being core to the plot. The first mainline entry in the series in five years aimed to revitalize the franchise with these changes.
That is not what Bandai Namco accomplished. Tales of Arise certainly boasts better graphical design and interesting battles, but it’s all in the service of an experience that is bland and soulless.
Set in a star system composed of two planets, Dahna and Rena, Tales of Arise follows the journey of a Dahnan slave named Alphen as he seeks to free his people from the oppression of their Renan overlords. Entombed in an iron mask with no memory of his past and unable to feel pain, he is soon joined by Shionne, a Renan who suffers from a curse that causes thorns to shock anyone who touches her.
“…nice, but unremarkable.”
Together, they travel through Dahna to overthrow the Renan lords who rule each land. Along the way they are joined by several others, including Law, a Dahnan who works for the Renan secret police; Rinwell, one of the last Dahnan mages; Dohalim, a Renan lord; and Kisara, a guards woman who serves under Dohalim.
The heroes are pleasant in the same way that walking through a park on a warm spring afternoon is; nice, but unremarkable. There is nothing striking about them, except perhaps for Shionne and Dohalim’s sense of fashion. Each is afforded a few traits—Law struggles to rectify his relationship with his father and is a dolt, while Rinwell slowly overcomes her hatred of Renan’s and also has a pet owl—but these are not complex characters. They are likeable, and that is enough at times.
Much more grating is the quality of Arise’s writing. The main themes of the game are freedom and forgiveness, which I know because both are repeatedly emphasized in dialogue over and over again. There is no subtlety to be found here, as exposition and over explanation are the name of the game. When the story’s not taking its time to emphasize that, once again, it is important to forgive others, you get lines of dialogue like:
“Your heart… is nothing but darkness!”
“You can’t die before your death.”
Each said without an ounce of self-awareness. The story and dialogue are filled with clichés, which wouldn’t be bad if it was in service of anything. But even though I spent over 40 hours going on a journey with Alphen and his companions, the story is perfunctory. The pacing, particularly in the second half of Arise, feels rushed.
The lack of decent antagonists may be one such reason. The villains are either comically evil, with little personality beyond a desire to commit atrocities for the sake of power, or lack presence. Often, it’s both. I would be willing to bet that one of the major adversaries the party faces speaks no more than 100 lines in the entire game, and I would not be surprised if they spoke even half of that. The lack of interesting opposition means that, though the stakes within the story are high, it’s difficult to get invested in it. The end result is a story that is by and large forgettable outside a handful of scenes.
The same cannot be said for the combat, which is enjoyable from beginning to end. Like other Tales games, Arise is an action-RPG where you manoeuvre a character around a battlefield and attack while dodging and using a wide variety of skills and magical attacks. While each character has their own list of abilities and weapons, they are further separated by unique skills that affect how they play.
“…the actual combat itself is quite fun.”
For example, Rinwell is a mage who can bank a spell in order to either cast a more powerful version of the same spell or to unleash two spells back to back. Kisara, meanwhile, is the only character in the game who can guard, and timing the guard correctly results in stronger attacks. And Alphen, our hero, can wield a blazing sword that deals immense damage at the cost of steady health drain.
I spent a lot of time swapping between characters in order to uncover new ways to best make use of their fighting styles, and the actual combat itself is quite fun. Yet the big addition to Tales of Arise’s combat comes in the form of Boost Strikes and Boost Attacks. Boost Strikes are powerful combo abilities that can be activated once both enough damage and enough consecutive attacks hit an enemy, allowing you to deal a lot of damage and possibly eliminate weaker enemies altogether.
Boost Attacks, on the other hand, are unique abilities that each character has that can stun enemies instantly, setting up combos and other powerful attacks. Each character’s Boost Attack can stun different enemies, such as Shionne shooting down flying enemies, whereas Law breaks through armoured targets. Since you can use the Boost Attacks of character’s who are not currently in the active party, they ensure that every party composition is viable.
However, there is one major flaw with Arise’s battles: Alphen is easily better than every other character from a gameplay perspective. His Boost Attack is unique in that, for the price of a small percentage of his health, Alphen can stun nearly every enemy in the game, including bosses. That would be fine on its own, but coupled with his flaming attacks that can deal thousands of points of extra damage to downed enemies, he becomes the most important character in battle.
“The other major change to Tales of Arise is the use of Unreal Engine 4, and it’s a change that has been a long time coming.”
Even the health drain on those attacks is not enough to offset this utility, as healing is trivial and there are no penalties for death besides the need to use an item or cast a revival spell. There was a boss fight in the last dungeon that got locked into a stun loop due to this ability, and though the game isn’t that challenging to begin with, it could stand to be better balanced.
The other major change to Tales of Arise is the use of Unreal Engine 4, and it’s a change that has been a long time coming. Here the environments are, for the most part, vibrant and beautiful to look at, which is made possible due to strong art direction. The character’s, on the other hand, look good from a technical point of view but stylistically are uninspiring visually.
Much like the story, Arise’s aesthetic is bland, using both science fiction and fantasy design in order to achieve a look that can best be described as generic. Even the move to 3D skits for party conversations ends with mixed results; while it does look good, it feels stilted at times due to the lack of character movement.
If I had to define Tales of Arise with only one word, it would be this: Awkward. For a game that is trying to evolve the franchise, it clings so much to tried and true clichés that the story falls flat. Though the battle system is undoubtedly the strongest part of the game, it still has a major flaw that prevents it from becoming something truly great.
With Arise, it feels as though the Tales series is going through growing pains, struggling to adapt to the new direction it so clearly wants to go. Maybe Bandai Namco will adjust better with the next entry, because Tales of Arise isn’t so much an evolution as it is an awkward middle ground between the series past and its possible future.