Tales of Arise – Review

Tales of Arise is the latest game in the Tales series, which, much like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, tells completely disconnected stories set in unrelated locations with each new entry. While the Tales series may never have reached the critical or commercial acclaim of the aforementioned RPG juggernauts, it has managed to carve out its own niche and maintains a loyal fanbase always willing to give the next entry a chance. The first game in the series to launch on Xbox Series X and PS5, Tales of Arise marks a new era and an attempt to bring the IP further into the spotlight than ever before.

Tales of Arise is a linear RPG with combat more akin to a brawler than your standard turn-based combat system. Set three hundred years after the Renans (fictional people 1) conquered and enslaved the Dahnans (fictional people 2), you play as a Dahnan slave who cannot feel pain, has amnesia, and whose head is fully enclosed in an iron mask. This hero goes by the name… Iron Mask… and comes to the aid of a Renan fugitive called Shionne who causes great pain to anyone who touches her (can you see where this is going) and together they form an uneasy alliance, join the resistance and take the fight to their oppressors.

Despite the sheer amount of cliches here already (amnesiac hero, evil empire, underdog rebels, chosen one, etc) the story manages to be compelling for at least half of Tales of Arise’s 35-40 hour runtime, and the main characters are surprisingly distinct and well-rounded. They may all still fit snugly within familiar archetypes, but their voice performances, dialogue, and animations go a long way to endearing you towards them. I was frequently surprised by the maturity of some of the writing, it certainly helps that the average age of the main party is significantly higher than most games of its ilk.

Structurally at least, Tales of Arise proceeds exactly how you would expect. You travel from kingdom to kingdom, learn about the struggles of the people in each land, identify and then defeat the baddie, and move on to the next region. The thing is, this all happens at a blistering pace, leading to a somewhat immersion-breaking sense that you’re traveling between nations and overthrowing despots a little too quickly. In some ways, this momentum is welcome as it means you’re always seeing new sights and meeting new characters. The downside however is that a lot of clearly significant plot or character developments lack weight. It’s hard to care about a particular betrayal or identity revelation when you only met the character in question twenty minutes ago.

Unfortunately, despite its relative maturity when it comes to the bulk of the main narrative, Tales of Arise has not risen above the tired and dated anime tropes that so often plague Japanese RPGs. Shionne is a no-nonsense, woman-on-a-mission type and yet is also obsessed with eating and is embarrassed (more than once) when her stomach rumbles audibly. Another tidbit I was able to glean from a sub-quest is that she wants to learn to cook to impress the main character. Kisara is a tank with cool armour and an enormous shield, but she also mothers the group and wants to do their laundry and patch their clothes.

It’s such a shame because there are the foundations of interesting characters here, and yet the best they could come up with to flesh them out is “she likes to cook or do laundry”. For the most part, this stuff may be tucked away in the dialogue of sub-quests or optional narrative skits, but it’s still there and it’s still disappointing. These tropes are stale at best, blatantly sexist at worst.

Tales of Arise has a crisp, painterly art style that works exceptionally well, especially when running at 60fps on PS5. It may not have the realistic, state of the art graphics of FFVII: Remake or the super distinct, established style of Dragon Quest XI, but Arise manages to impress regardless. Character’s faces are particularly well-done, with a beautiful, almost hand-drawn look to the eyes. The animation is similarly delightful, with cutscenes and flashy in-combat vignettes all sporting an absurdly high level of polish. The watercolour filter applied to assets in the far distance (trees, cliffs, mountains, etc) can look a little odd sometimes, almost like artefacting is involved, but this is only something I really noticed when I stopped to look.

The environments run the gamut of RPG classics: grassy fields, lava-filled caverns, swamplands, jungles, beaches. These areas are linear but still remain vaguely entertaining to traverse in an “I wonder what’s next” kind of way. There are various nooks and crannies to go down where you’ll find resource nodes, treasure chests, or the occasional tough enemy. As the Tales of Arise drags on and the difficulty increases alongside the linearity, the tedium begins to set in. What once felt like a mystical land ripe for exploring ends up feeling like an absolute slog through an endless tunnel of combat encounters.

The designs of the main cast and villains are pretty decent, with them all having distinct, aesthetically pleasing looks that aren’t overly busy or exploitative. Some weapon skins and outfits are tied directly to moments in the story, which can give a great sense of progression. The default female character outfits aren’t as shameless as some other games in this genre tend to be however the DLC outfits are straight-up sexist. These come in themed packages like beachwear or school uniform, as you might imagine, the women get skimpy bikinis and the boys get rash vests and full-length wetsuit pants. The school set of outfits is similarly unsubtle, with Kisara’s outfit literally being called “fiery teacher”. It’s a shame that this sort of thing continues unchallenged in this day and age, they should at the very least balance things out with some scantily clad himbo outfits.

The score overall is painfully generic and not at all memorable, to the point where it’s a struggle to even know what to write about it. There were several instances where the tone was far too epic for what was happening on screen. I’m just exploring this cute riverside ruin there’s no need for the horn section to be going all-out right now. Tales of Arise could definitely have used more chill, ambient tracks.

Combat takes place in arenas that you transition to when coming into contact with an enemy in the environment. You can have four party members in a fight at one time, while also being able to call in those on the bench for special moves. You have a regular attack, a dodge, and combat arts assigned to each face button. These arts use AG, which gradually builds up by using your regular attack. Each party member has a special move with its own utility, Shionne’s is good for grounding flying enemies, Rinwell can interrupt spellcasters, and so on. I ended up, for the most part, solely controlling the main character and using the rest of the party like pokemon. When there was a specific enemy ability I needed to counter then I would bring them in but otherwise, I didn’t feel much need to directly control the other party members.

After 35 hours the combat is… fine. It does the job. It can also feel like you’re throwing lumps of wet paper at a brick wall. Tales of Arise is clearly trying to meld old school with new school like FFVII: Remake, while maintaining the brawler style combat the series is known for, but the end result is just not all that fun. It’s a mish-mash that’s flashy, colourful and loud, but quickly becomes frustrating as time goes on and the difficulty ramps up. Dying abruptly without really being able to tell what killed you, not being able to dodge for arbitrary reasons, taking damage when you’re downed, that sort of thing. I relied heavily on this game’s equivalent of HP and MP potions in many fights, which made the more arduous boss fights feel more like battles of attrition rather than anything involving strategy or skill. Perhaps I was approaching this element of the game from the wrong angle, but for me, this combat system is just not precise or wieldy enough to be something I wanted to master.

As I mentioned earlier, I was enjoying the story and characters until a little over halfway through the game. There is a very specific point in the narrative where things began to fall apart. All the momentum that had been building up dissipates as the story abruptly changes direction, and from that point on it just failed to grab me in the same way. The latter third of Tales of Arise was a complete slog as everything that had kept me interested (seeing new environments, watching the character’s individual journeys unfold as they grew together, the charismatic if one-dimensional villains) fell away into endless, repetitive combat encounters and slight variations of the same interpersonal drama I’d already seen for 20+ hours. By the time Arise reaches its climax, the stakes have been raised so far beyond what they were at the beginning of the game that it was hard to find a foothold as you’re hit with underwhelming revelation after revelation. This person is really who? That element of our culture is actually what?

There’s a way to handle weighty narrative dumps so that they’re engaging but here it just feels like an arbitrary insight into the writer’s world-building notes. The party members will theorise amongst themselves about the various mysteries the plot offers up and will “discover” things by just kinda guessing. They’ll say things like “I’m not sure, but I think it might be X!”, And then of course we find out in around 30 minutes that they’re 100% correct, it is definitely X. There’s nowhere near enough in-world reasons that this character would make that assumption other than the fact the writers needed this particular character to reveal this particular piece of information at this particular moment.

A handful of other minor annoyances drag the experience down further. There’s a limit to how much of a particular item you can have in your inventory and no storage option so if you’re full and you collect another one it just disappears into the void. Spelling and grammatical errors were consistent in the subtitles throughout the whole game, it’s not every single line or anything, but enough to be noticeable. Sub-quests don’t indicate what level you should be before attempting them, nor can you tell what level a boss is until you’re actually in the fight, which is just needlessly frustrating. The vast majority of the bosses in Tales of Arise are Zeugles (monsters) and they are often just reskinned versions of the same handful of regular enemy archetypes (wolf, boar, mantis, giant lizard, etc) that you’ve fought a million times already. This isn’t uncommon in games of this kind, but we’re talking about the majority of the main narrative boss fights here.

Tales of Arise is a game that leaves a good first impression. I was excited to set out on this adventure with likable characters, aesthetically pleasing environments, and fast-paced combat. But by the time the credits rolled I wasn’t sad it was over, I was relieved. There’s a decent game somewhere here, but it’s bogged down by tiresome tropes, top-heavy pacing, and a collection of gameplay systems that do not hold up when stretched across the 35-40 hour runtime. The latter half of the Arise throws away everything that had me invested in the first half, which is somehow worse than if I was bored from the very beginning. There’s a reason the Tales series isn’t as much of a household name as its contemporaries, and unfortunately, Tales of Arise is a perfect example of why that is.

Rating: 6/10

Tales of Arise was reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by Bandai Namco Australia.