Tales of Arise Review: Artorias and the Gang Defeat Racism
After more or less shredding FF7 Remake in my previous review, I figured I needed a break from JRPG’s until one of my friends told me that the newest Tales game had released, and also happened to highly recommend it. Tales of Arise is the latest game in the Tales franchise by Bandai Namco, a franchise of JRPG’s that include titles like Tales of Vesperia, which had its definitive edition ported to Steam back in 2019. Now Tales of Vesperia is the only other Tales game I have played, so that makes Tales of Arise the second game of the franchise I have experienced. Considering I have not played the other games, and the fact that I beat Tales of Vesperia over two years ago, I am going to review Tales of Arise as a standalone title as opposed to a comparison with other games in the franchise. After beating the game and more or less unlocking all the achievements, I think Tales of Arise is an amazing game, albeit with clear flaws that would prevent me from praising it to high heavens, though even with its flaws at the very least I think it’s a better game than FF7 Remake.
The game takes place on the fictional world of Dahna, where most of its residents (known as Dahnans) live under oppression from the Renans, people who have the ability to cast magic, or known in-game as “astral artes.” The game’s central plot follows two characters, Alphen, a Dahnan who does not initially remember his name and past, and Shionne, a Renan with a curse and a vendetta of some sort, and their quest to overthrow the tyrants lording over the realm. As the story progresses the core cast of characters eventually expands to six different playable characters.
A big part of why Tales of Arise was so enjoyable to me is definitely its gameplay, specifically its combat system. The combat system consists of building up damage and hits via normal attacks and what are known as “artes,” or special attacks that use part of each character’s “AG Bar,” a resource that replenishes as the fight goes on. Enemies aren’t just killed when their health reaches zero however, there is a meter that can be filled up as they take damage from continuous attacks (which looks like a diamond), and once that meter fills up they can be instant-killed via a “Boost Strike” which is basically a flashy killing animation. A lot of times that meter can be filled up even before an enemy’s health depletes, so mastery of the combat system involves being able to chain together sequences of attacks and artes to finish off foes in spectacular fashion, while avoiding attacks to continue the onslaught and prevent the meter from emptying, which happens if there is too long of a delay between attacks/combos. Initially, combat starts out fairly simple, but as the game progresses it gets more in-depth as party members learn more artes and enemies become stronger and have more complicated move-sets. Overall the combat is addicting due to the constant build-up of numbers and the generally fast pace, especially come late-game where it is not uncommon to see chains of boost strikes, reflecting the skill and power progression of the player and party members respectively.
Despite greatly enjoying the combat, there are a few problems with Tales of Arise’s combat that noticeably became very prevalent with a lot of super late-game encounters. One is the inability to fine-tune the AI for specific party members; I can only adjust strategies for the party as a whole. While the overall party strategy customization got the job done in most cases, I would have appreciated the ability to specifically adjust party member actions (specifically for characters like Shionne and Dohalim who can cast healing spells). Also, a lot of the stronger enemies often take a long time to kill because they have a ton of health, and the Boost Strike mechanic does not apply to them the same way they apply to normal mobs. For bosses, boost strike opportunities only show up at half health and at zero health, but they are more akin to stages rather than outright finishers (basically get the boss’s health to half, boost strike, then deplete the remaining half, then boost strike to finish). Mini-bosses are the same but with only one boost strike when their health is completely depleted. As a result, a lot of the stronger monsters in the game often feel super tanky, and sometimes I resorted to just spamming my highest damaging arte as opposed to trying to chain fancy combos. This problem is compounded by the fact they also tend to hit really hard, so committing to any attack with a lengthy animation is often a death sentence unless they’re staggered. The other big problem I have with the gameplay is the enemy variety, or lack thereof. Most of the new enemies encountered are often reskins of other enemies, and usually have the same move-sets as well (with the only difference usually being their elemental strengths and weaknesses). That being said a lot of the enemies do have rather unique move-sets, so it is not like I am fighting a bunch of super simplistic and boring enemies, and the combat system does a lot of heavy-lifting to keep me interested.
Tales of Arise’s writing is pretty interesting, in that there are aspects of it that I think are utterly incredible and some aspects that are downright awful. To get started with the good stuff, I think the game’s writing is at its best when it is focused on the core characters and their interactions. While the game only starts off with Alphen and Shionne being the only party members, eventually that party grows to accommodate four more characters (Rinwell the mage, Law the brawler, Kisara the shield-maiden, and Dohalim as another mage). The protagonists are all fleshed out and come from various backgrounds, and I was a big fan of how the story treated their growth and character arcs as the narrative progressed. Due to their various differences in background and personality, it made for a lot of interesting interactions as each party member learns to overcome their own initial prejudices to form lasting friendships. I also enjoyed the more lighthearted stuff, and found a lot of the joke interactions between them to be pretty funny and natural without feeling super cringeworthy. To write six different characters competently while creating genuine chemistry between them is not an easy feat, so props to the writing team for doing so.
On that tangent, Tales of Arise’s central theme seems to be of “breaking down walls,” and I think that theme is generally handled well and surprisingly with maturity. While there are certainly corny events in the game, which is likely a given due to how long the game actually is (the entire main story took roughly 60 hours or so to clear including side quests), Tales of Arise generally takes a grounded approach to the concepts of prejudice/racism, as those feelings do not simply disappear once the big villain is vanquished. I appreciated how the protagonists acknowledge these realities, that simply overthrowing a lord is not going to abolish years of bad blood between Dahnans and Renans, or that the world is a lot more complex than “Renans bad, Dahnans good.” The gameplay is also somewhat accurately reflected by this, as most realms usually offer a bunch of new side quests after beating their respective lords, indicating that there is still work to be done, which is also cool because it gives incentive to revisit areas that were once previously cleared.
Regarding the writing’s flaws, the first, and biggest problem is the pacing. The main story’s pacing is a mess, and is generally too quick. While the party is off exploring each realm and trying to liberate the Dahnans, I feel like the time spent in each realm could have been longer to allow me to form a better connection with the various characters. This is especially true of the various lords, where I think some of them had the potential to become truly intriguing villains but were not given the opportunity to really develop as they were offed too quickly. The pacing only gets worse in the last portion of the game, where it becomes somewhat apparent that the game might have been rushed as it basically turns into an exposition dump. Now I am normally not a hater of exposition; I enjoy reading juicy story details if the writing is good, but when I am spending more time reading subtitles (I played the game in the Japanese dub) than actually playing the game, that is indeed a problem.
The other big problem I have is the ending, which I think is absolutely god-awful. I actually like the outcome, and I believe the ending for the world and characters is sweet and fitting, but the execution and how it was carried out is inexcusably bad. Deus ex machina in general should never be used as a plot device, but the Tales of Arise’s ending is more or less is determined by complete asspulls. The worst part is that it did not even need to happen, but it happened because the writers felt obligated to shoehorn in certain characters that did not need to be there at all. I cannot elaborate more without going into spoiler territory, but that more or less sums up the ending, and a terrible ending will always leave the player feeling unsatisfied at the end regardless of how great the journey may have been.
Overall, Tales of Arise is a very flawed game, but a game I enjoyed heavily despite those flaws, because I think the core of the game is done well. The combat is a ton of fun and rarely gets dull, and while the plot’s overall execution leaves something to be desired perhaps due to lofty ambitions and shortened deadlines and budget issues (rumors I’ve heard at least, but believable due to pandemic circumstances), the characters are competently written and a joy to interact with, which I would personally argue is the most important part to the story as far as JRPG’s are generally concerned. It is also certainly worth its retail price as far as content/value goes; in my quest to complete the game’s achievements (which is another strong indicator of how much I liked the game), I clocked roughly 70 hours or so, which is a ton of value. There may be problems with Tales of Arise, but lack of fun content is not one of them. If JRPG’s are your cup of tea I would totally recommend it.
Rating: Honestly the amount of content alone justifies the retail price tag, but for people who prefer quality over quantity it will definitely be worth on a sale.