When developer Gust revealed Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, it marked the start of a new storyline for the Atelier series. It also, at least initially, seemed like it might be a new start in other ways as well. Main character Ayesha was noticeably older than all of the heroines of the previous arc, and Gust was working to improve the visual quality of the game’s characters and landscapes. As someone who was increasingly (and frustratingly) outgrowing the franchise, I held out hope that Atelier Ayesha might be that reworking it’d desperately needed. In some ways, the game was indeed evolution—but it fell far short of revolution.
A few years later, I’d find myself in a similar situation with the unveiling of the latest chapter of another Japanese RPG franchise: Tales of Arise. “Now is the time for change,” the announcement trailer promised, and it looked as if the dev team might be skewing the characters older and putting more work into modernizing the game’s graphics. I knew I’d been there before, and yet I once again let myself get excited at the idea of what might be possible.
Now that the end credits have rolled and I’ve cleared out all of the side content I felt necessary for doing a review, I can tell you that Tales of Arise still falls into some of the trappings that JRPGs have either struggled to escape, or fully embraced to the detriment of gaining a wider audience. Its story at times is incredibly silly and overly convoluted. Its main characters never fully push beyond standard tropes, while minor ones often have little depth to them. Conversations can be repetitive and lacking in substance, while more emotional moments aren’t always given the weight or time to breathe that they deserve.
And yet, in so many ways, Tales of Arise filled me with a joy that I haven’t felt from more traditional JRPGs in years. It’s impossible to not come off as hyperbolic in talking about just how enamored I became with this game, and how it single-handedly renewed some of the faith I used to have in a genre I once dearly loved. As a player, not as a reviewer, I have so much to say about the game, so much excitement to share with others when I’m allowed to just indulge in the positive side of video games while glossing over the flaws.
As a reviewer, there’s a lot I could tell you about Tales of Arise, but I want to focus specifically on four major aspects that I thought the game did really well—and one that it did not.
One can’t discuss Tales of Arise without talking about its visual style, and the team really did a fantastic job here. Plenty of games have done the “interactive Japanese animation” look well at this point, but saying that this game “looks like anime” really does it a disservice. Could I name various TV shows or movies that Tales of Arise resembles on some level? Sure. But instead of simply trying to emulate a particular style, I think the team’s artists were instead working to craft something of their own, with smaller details and artistic decisions that give the game more of a unique look. This ain’t your granddaddy’s Tales games, and fan of manga artist (and Tales character designer) Kousuke Fujishima that I am, boy am I glad for that.
While certain aspects don’t completely sell the look—third-tier characters clearly didn’t get the attention that more important NPCs and our heroes did, for example—the visuals really help set the stage for the more mature shift the narrative takes. Yes, everything from the cast to the world itself still looks more colorful and cartoony than many more serious games, but it’s a style that’s capable of supporting its own serious moments without feeling off.
This leads us to what may be the strongest element of Tales of Arise for me, which is its cast of characters. I’m just going to be honest: Characters have been the specific reason why I’ve avoided playing so many previous Tales games. When I see a 14-year-old girl who looks like a 10-year-old girl, and who is supposedly a pirate and a melee fighter, you’ve lost me. Going into Tales of Arise, my biggest concern was a relatively minor one: how silly protagonist Alphen looks with a half-destroyed helmet stuck to his face. And yet, when we find out how he came to look like that, it’s a genuinely awesome—and earned—moment.
I came to love every other main cast member as well, without ever feeling like the game was desperately trying to convince me that I should. There’s Shionne, the sniper/healer whose curse has driven her to a life fueled by revenge; Law, the young traitor to his people who must escape his father’s shadow; Kisara, the royal guardswoman who has forgotten what she’s fighting for; Dohalim, the ruler whose utopia sits upon a base of lies; and Rinwell, the token young female magic user whose hatred for her oppressors burns hotter than her fire spells.
I think Rinwell provides the best example of the quality of the game’s main cast. Young JRPG teammates always make me nervous, because they’re such an easy thing to get wrong—or worse, creepy—but for the most part, Rinwell is a shockingly good character. Like the above-mentioned pirate Patty, she too is 14, but unlike Patty, she actually looks it. She doesn’t act unnaturally cutesy or child-like, yet she does have the type of immaturity when looking at larger life issues that a girl her age would have. Once she finally comes face-to-face with the cause of her tragic past, she’s incapable of dealing with the situation either emotionally or mentally—because of course she wouldn’t be able to. However, through that event, and everything else that happens over the course of the story, Rinwell grows as a person, and ends up transcending the “token young female magic user” trope she seems to initially represent.
For all of its six main characters, Tales of Arise is a journey of growth, one that leads them far from the places they were when we first met them. Again, I’m compelled to point out that, if you break the game’s story down to its core elements, we’ve seen all of this before. Hero guy with amnesia, female companion with mysterious powers, world that needs saving where nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems. It’s what Tales of Arise does with those ideas from moment to moment that makes the experience engrossing.
The setting for what unfolds is Dahna, a planet enslaved by the inhabitants of its sister world Rena for over 300 years. The Renan lords that rule over the land treat the planet, its people, and their enslavement as one big game, where the lord who can harvest the most spiritual energy from their territory’s slaves gets promoted to rule over both planets. After all those years of oppression, the Dahnan people have given up hope of ever being free. However, a chance meeting between Alphen and Shionne, and the immense power they’re mysteriously able to draw out of one another, finally sets things in motion.
Tales of Arise’s story works as well as it does thanks to interesting yet down-to-earth characters, a more restrained (well, mostly) manner of storytelling, and an atmosphere that can be surprisingly dark at times. It’s hard not to root for both Alphen and Shionne as the spark for a revolution, even if their reasons for lighting that fire come from very different places. Dahna’s five main kingdoms stand apart not only in style, but also substance, letting the game keep the adventure fresh without ever getting bogged down in one place for too long. There’s some amount of buying into the narrative you’ll have to do, and if you’re unable to do so, this will likely be a story that’s hard to appreciate. For me, I became fully invested from the opening hour, and was always eager to find out what would happen next.
The final piece of the Tales of Arise puzzle that I really want to highlight is its combat—but let me warn you, things are going to get a little complicated.
Like most previous Tales games, when you encounter a monster out on the field, the game switches to a contained arena where the fight plays out. Combat is fully real time, so all basic attacks, Artes (the game’s name for skills and spells), dodges, blocks, or jumps come out at the press of a button. You can have up to four characters on the field with two in reserve, and at any time, you can both swap out active teammates for reserve ones, or switch to control a different character. Any roster members you aren’t controlling or who aren’t in reserve fight via AI, and you can not only select between a variety of preset tactics types for the AI to follow, but even dig into those choices to further tailor the AI conditions to your liking. I’ve long been a fan of AI-controlled teammates in RPGs, because I like the sense of fighting together with my teammates instead of them just being puppets for me to control. While I know not everybody shares my opinion, I think Tales of Arise’s team AI is pretty darn good. I had numerous fights where the character I was controlling died, and instead of just switching to someone else, I waited to see if my team could still pull off a win. Most of the time, they did.
From there, Tales of Arise stacks on combat system after combat system. First off, every character has their own Artes Gauge, from which you spend points to use Artes. (The gauge refills automatically, so it’s there mostly to keep you from spamming attacks over and over.) However, if the Artes you want to use are healing or support skills, they also require Cure Points, which come from a pool shared by the entire team. Cure Points don’t refill automatically, so you’ll need to use items, stay at an inn, or find other methods for replenishing them. Every character then also has a Boost Gauge, which fills while fighting. When someone’s Boost Gauge is full, you can command them to use their personal special skill known as a Boost Attack via the D-pad. Shionne, for example, can knock flying enemies out of the air, while Law can break through a shielded enemy’s defenses.
Then we add into the mix Boost Strikes, Counter Edges, Over Limits, Mystic Artes, combo counters (together with diminishing returns for combos), Critical Hits, Weak Points, Battle Chain Bonuses, and cooking buffs—all of which come into play in combat by opening up additional special techniques, team-up attacks, bonuses both in and outside battles, and more. Oh, and that’s not to mention that every one of the six characters on your team has their own unique gameplay twist when you’re controlling them, and their own special Map Actions that cost Cure Points when out exploring the world.
It’s a lot to take in, and I don’t blame anyone who finds Tales of Arise’s combat to be intimidating. The thing is, if you look at the game as you would something like Street Fighter V or Guilty Gear Strive, your perspective can shift a bit. Fighting games are notorious for their complexity, but they’re also still totally playable without learning all of a character’s abilities. Tales of Arise features a whole lot of technique in its combat, but it’s okay to just focus on those options that best fit your personal tastes. If you do dig into the full battle system and use it to your advantage, then combat is both incredibly enjoyable and hugely empowering. This is one of those RPGs where I never—well, mostly never—tired of squaring off against foes, and stringing regular attacks into Artes into Counter Edges while using Boost Strikes and the temporary unlimited Artes Gauge that Over Limits offer was endlessly satisfying.
For much of my time with Tales of Arise, I was sure of the score I’d be giving it. It was an ambitious, well-crafted masterpiece of a JRPG that maybe didn’t get everything right, but sure did its best to try. And then, I hit the last 1/6th of the game, and things started to fall apart. I’ll need to be vague due to massive spoilers, but a certain location was set up as incredibly important only to have the payoff botched. The expansive, detailed areas I’d once explored gave way to meager setpieces. Dungeons became long slogs of identical-looking hallways and rooms, where previous ones had displayed far better design and creativity. Enemy encounters grew so numerous that I was finally getting tired of fighting. And, worst of all, a lot of the emotional power and smart direction of previous story moments seemed to fall to the wayside. I kept pressing on because I wanted to see what awaited at the end of my journey, but I was no longer enjoying getting there like I once had.
The failure of the game’s final act also emphasized the one way in which Tales of Arise remains shackled to the past: relying on a constant rotation of exploring a new location, talking to people, finding out what’s going on, entering a dungeon, and fighting a boss. Yeah, I know—that’s a lot of RPGs, Japanese or otherwise. But does it have to be? Break up the cycle. Don’t have every boss await at the end of a dungeon, and let some dungeons have no fighting period. The final section of the game would have held far more meaning had there not been a single enemy, and instead focused on letting us fully take in what had happened there.
Tales of Arise is incredibly ambitious, daring, and perhaps even risky for a franchise that has 26 years of fandom behind it. Even with its faults, this is a fantastic gaming experience that I would easily recommend to even those who are only casual JRPG fans. I’m thankful I took a chance on it, and cannot believe how excited I am for where Tales may now go from here.
As a wise man once said, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” You had the decrepit, decaying manifestation of Japanese RPGs of old almost killed, Tales of Arise—if only you could have finished the job and stabbed the blazing sword deep into the monster’s heart.
Bandai Namco promised that “now is the time for change,” and Tales of Arise legitimately feels like a game that’s trying to bring change to Japanese RPGs. It’s strong characters, epic story, engrossing battle system, and lush visuals are only marred by a disappointing final act, and those areas of the game where the team refused to let go of outdated ideas and conventions. If the Tales team can find it in themselves to push things just a little further, then this might truly be the spark that sets off a revolution in a genre that’s needed a regime change for so long now.
T - Teen
|Tales of Arise is available on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC. Primary version played was for PS5. Product was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI.