Depending on how you came up in gaming, the JRPG may or may not have crossed your path. That’s a fairly obvious statement, but its place as the opener to this review is significant. Because like so many conspiracy theorist groups and mantras out there, when it comes to the JRPG: if you know, you know. And if you don’t, well, then you *really* don’t.
Know, that is.
Jokes aside, the obscurity of that opener is meant to wholly represent the tried and true genre, which has remained largely unchanged, barring visuals and presentation, since its inception back in the 80s. Pillared design means rarely does a JRPG alter course in terms of content and cadence. Hell, even the genre’s fonts are similar (or the same), and that’s across rival publishers and developers over major titles designed to clash against one another at retail. But this familiarity has kept the genre on top in its home base of Japan, and evergreen as far as pop-culture relevance goes in the West.
"Worlds and universes aren’t linked at all, rather what ties these games together under the one Tales of moniker is real-time combat...”
So when you proactively come into a JRPG, you know what you’re in for. We’ve established that. But that doesn’t mean the games don’t stray, or expand, within the aforementioned pillars. In fact, it’s what keeps the hardcore base coming back: the JRPG is the Malibu Stacy’s new hat of the gaming world, and unashamedly so. Still, in the Triple-A space, often these changes, or expansion or whatever you want to call them, are significant and in the game that brings us here today, Tales of Arise, they form what is more collectively understood to be a restumping of older foundations in favour of a brave new direction for the larger Tales of series, on the whole.
So, Tales of Arise -- what’s all that about then? The series is longstanding in the genre with 17 official releases in all. And like its Final Fantasy ilk, is represented in each iteration as a standalone story. Worlds and universes aren’t linked at all, rather what ties these games together under the one Tales of moniker is real-time combat.
Yep, it really is that simple. But more on that shortly.
"Where Tales of instantly stands tallest over its many previous incarnations is in its early game accessibility and in setting things up for you as simply as it can...”
We’re a bit late on this review because, well, Tales of games aren’t small. And Tales of Arise might very well be one of the longest in the series yet. I made a joke in requesting code early for review that the series’ tutorials tend to be in the 10+ hour play-time camp, and in games past, that’s not an exaggerated number. Tales of Arise, however, shortens (and loosens) the learning shackles quite a bit and has you playing the game proper, after its clunky narrative and systems introduction, inside the first few hours. You’ll continue to learn more as you progress and level up, as is the nature of most JRPGs, but where Tales of instantly stands tallest over its many previous incarnations is in its early game accessibility and in setting things up for you as simply as it can. This is done so movement through the game-world quickly becomes a natural reflex, and not a constant fight with restriction (as is the case in many JRPGs) -- a welcome and somewhat new shift in delivery of proceedings.
The lite-on story setup in Arise has you playing as “Iron Mask” -- a Dahnan slave who inexplicably wears an iron mask he can somehow navigate food through and is, naturally, an amnesiac. Iron Mask also can’t feel pain and is *painfully* naive and caring; a truly tropeable piece of Japanese main lead writing when it comes to stories of this nature, yet he and the game are all the more endearing for it.
Once you’ve carried out a series of tasks in an effort to help free your fellow Dahnans from the clutches of the invasive Renan (who’ve had a 300-year-long stranglehold on your planet and its resources), you’ll start to build a party, gain skills to use in combat (more on this in a minute), work out what resources you need from those in limited supply in the world, and set out on a course to spread your quest for freedom, all the while learning more about who you are, and what your place is in this world. Oh, and just for added measure, one of those Renan -- a ‘Bright Eyes’ turncoat who happens to be somewhat princess-ey... yeah, for tropes and giggles she joins your party as the game’s co-lead.
"This powerful magic she seemingly has no control over hurts anyone else, and so she naturally brushes people off in a meta form of emotional self-preservation...”
Her name is Shionne, and as if my mentions of tropes weren’t already rife enough, her place in the game is to help build permeant tension, of the sexual kind. You see, Iron Mask -- who you’ll early on learn is actually handsome buccaneer, Alphen -- is kind of dumb. And through his adorable (read: sickening) puppy-dog and child-like ways, is oblivious to the idea he’s the only one who can touch Shionne who is surrounded by a protective energy called “Thorns”. This powerful magic she seemingly has no control over hurts anyone else, and so she naturally brushes people off in a meta form of emotional self-preservation. And pun absolutely intended, this makes her a prickly character to deal with.
Shionne and Alphen are also roughly the same age, powerful in equal measure and are both single. Presumably. Shionne clearly admires Alphen, though she won’t admit it, choosing instead to butt heads with him at every conceivable juncture while Alphen, bless him, wants only to understand Shionne and her bristly ways more. Unknowingly acting upon his attraction towards her (which he blissfully doesn’t realise is attraction at all).
I mean, this is manga, anime and JRPG writing 101, folks.
"Daily debriefs peppered with bitching and moaning, gas-bagging and prodding...”
What comes with the above is a huge dose of characterisation, across the board. It’s arguably the game’s strongest component, with some 300-plus vignettes available to play, or revisit. While inter-mission moments where you can manage your party and cook meals for the road ahead fast become daily debriefs peppered with bitching and moaning, gas-bagging and prodding as well as boasts and reminders of the goal ahead. But mostly bitching, moaning and gas-bagging.
The game also has a key focus on aesthetics, which are amplified by Shionne’s relentless pursuit of beauty and dress. It’s archaic, stereotypical and definitely uncomfortable. Shionne’s infatuation, that is. (Though it’s culturally on-point for a Japanese-developed game.) Putting aside the blatant sexism, though, this cosmetic aspect of the game will still fill the eyeconical goals of many a so-called weeb or otaku. Cosplay enthusiasts, too. Even those of us who just enjoy painting their avatars a different shade of green, and maybe donning an owl-found monical or two (heh), can find use of this shallow makeup. Whether sissying a walk, rocking a magnum or just trying to look badass, Tales of Arise’s baked-in dress accentuer quickly asserts itself as required. Necessary even. Regardless of your stance on its antiquated place in a modern(ish) game.
Sure, dress-ups might not be what you play games for, and with that in mind the system automates, to a degree, meaning you can ignore it (but why would you?). But, if you’re willing to bend your thinking around so much of the game’s early setups, like that old Iron Mask himself somehow ate food functionally through his namesaked headgear, you can put aside negative thinking when applying cats ears and a shiba dog tail to your characters.
"The rarer the material used, the better the bonuses. So mining is also important...”
A Metal Engraver, for example, exists alongside all-important blacksmiths and Innkeepers. You can craft accessories for your action figures and dress-up dolls (because that's what they are), but these can be strengthened and imbued with skills, and those skills are transferable to other accessories. The rarer the material used, the better the bonuses. So mining is also important. And what all of this means is despite the shallow nature of the game’s aesthetics and collectibles, some parts of it are tied to strengthening your characters, and not just making them look as ridiculous or as cool as you can. It’s also mildly meta in its delivery of micro-management, which is another tried and tested factor of the traditional JRPG makeup. So it’s not unique in its existence, but in Tales of Arise it’s handled different enough to feel new and warranted all at once.
Moving past hems and hats, I’ve teased the game’s combat a bit, and in Tales of Arise it doesn’t disappoint. It’s the series’ hallmark as mentioned earlier, in that its real-time nature -- more akin to a Soul Calibur-like experience than of any of the other turn-based JRPGs or strategy titles out there -- is a significant edge over the competition. You’ll make encounters with enemies as a party, sometimes with NPC support, and other times entirely alone. In this way, the game’s combat always remains fresh, while the urge to farm the overworld respawns for cheesed leveling will quickly dissipate thanks to the game being less-than-rewarding upon repeat encounters. You’ll be trouncing parts of the world multiple times, so it’s not a system designed to starve any forced encounters, but it’s been carefully balanced to ensure your best level-up foot forward is in progressing the game and its narrative.
"The ability to switch characters on-the-fly, which can allow savant multi-taskers a chance to have a hand in every successfully dealt blow, or every stylish evade...”
Much has already been made of the idea that Tales of Arise’s combat is the most accessible yet, but that shouldn’t be confused with it being easy. Rather, navigating options for strategies such as going all out versus fighting conservatively, gets you into sword-swinging and trigger-pulling with confidence much more quickly than any previous entries. You can control more than just Alphen, and in combat you have the ability to switch characters on-the-fly, which can allow savant multi-taskers a chance to have a hand in every successfully dealt blow, or every stylish evade. The Soul Calibur reference above isn’t without merit as you move in the same plane and can perform launch and juggle combos, or full aerial assaults to your heart’s desire.
And in performing combos and stringing together successful attacks, evades and parries, it should also be noted the system is designed to buck spamming with just a limited number of inputs allowed before your character requires a cooldown. This doesn’t wholly affect a combo metre though, as your AI buddies can still be dishing out the goods while you wait for your reset, meaning that counter can still go up even when you’re taking a required breather. Moreover, attacks are split between a regular attack and Artes, which is essentially your special. And tied to these, and the cooldown, is animations. The game requires a full animation completion before another can begin, so you can’t interrupt or negate an input choice. You also can’t stack attacks, meaning how you time all of this is key to success and another highlight in the anti-spamming campaign the devs have baked into Tales of Arise.
"Over-the-top effects and stunning animations combine to display some of the most visceral combat I’ve ever experienced...”
In addition to all of the above (which is still a lot more in-depth than relayed here), in battles you can also build towards a team combo move -- that is, an option displays on-screen for you to choose to team up with one of your companions for a New Day-level double-team on the enemy. Certain parameters need to be met, but these can be devastating and should definitely be put to practise once you learn how to trigger the option.
It should also be noted that all of the above oozes fucking cool. Over-the-top effects and stunning animations combine to display some of the most visceral combat I’ve ever experienced in a JRPG, which quickly becomes a massive reason to push on in the game, despite its many silly tropes, narrative choices and uninspired worlds.
These games, and JRPGs in general, are more often than not bite-sized explorations of relationships and building trust; coming-of-age tales baked into grand adventures that trope with fate, oppression, acceptance and growth, all at once. Everyone in these exercises, and in Tales of Arise specifically, is beyond capable. Instead the real broadening in the game is in managing and overcoming each character’s flaws and personality traits. They might gain the most powerful Artes, but that’s no substitute to accepting a compliment for a decently-cooked meal. Tales of Arise is one big outing; an adventure that hides the “camp” in camping behind something very much on-the-nose, as I explored in my review notes:
“I hate camping outdoors,” complains Shionne. Which is kind of funny, because ultimately Tales of Arise is one big glamping exercise.
And it’s true.
The real test of whether or not Tales of Arise is for you will be in your desired level of investment, because the requirement for here, is nothing shy of massive. But what you get is a charming game built from tentpole JRPG, anime and manga tropes, glammed up the wazoo, and pegged down with a solid fighting and combat system, stunning animations, a unique art-style and maybe the best presentation in the series yet. I for one loved my time with the game, even at its cringiest, because the payoff for growth in power and the game’s pure characterisation is worth watching the handful of Alphen skits being a big dumb idiot.
What we liked
Stunning art style
Layered systems to play with with various meta games
Combat is visceral and deep, but super accessible
You'll get your money's worth with the game's length
A lot of characterisation baked into the game that you can choose to explore, or somewhat ignore
Cooking and fishing
What we didn't like
Very silly story and story setup
Antiquated representations of archetypes and genders
Levels and worlds aren't overly expressive or deep in design