Tales of Arise Review – Fellowship of the Blazing Sword

Tales (or Tales of, we do not judge) is a special series of games. A series that has always had its own character and the corresponding cult following that it deserves. With more than seventeen titles in the main body of the series, Tales games are one of the crown jewels of the Action RPG genre. The stories told by Tales games are independent; thank the gods, because we’d never find the time to catch up with so many 60+ hour RPGs . Tales of Arise is the long-awaited comeback after five years of inactivity and its purpose is to modernize Action RPGs while staying true to the classic Tales recipe. After many trailers, demos, and very positive first impressions (like our own, for example), we were struggling to contain our excitement.

However, if you’ve never played a game in the series before, you need to temper your expectations. Tales of Arise is no ordinary JRPG. If you’re expecting to experience something like Scarlet Nexus or Final Fantasy, this is not what you’re looking for. Tales is a heavily tailored experience. The story is told in a very specific way and the gameplay follows specific guidelines with each game bringing in small changes to stand out from the rest. All things considered, Tales of Arise is probably your best opportunity to get acquainted with the series.

Thanks to Bandai Namco we had the opportunity to play Tales of Arise earlier than most. The game is very story-heavy. To avoid spoilers, this review will be referring to plot points and using screenshots only from the first acts of the story.

The leading pair

TL;DR

You’ll love it if:Not for you if:
– You’re looking for a light-hearted story with serious themes
– You want a game that’ll keep you entertained for lots of hours– Anime corniness is where you draw the line
– You like easy to take up but challenging to master combat– Owls creep you out
– You’re looking for an entry point to the Tales universe

Visuals

We’re entering weeb territory

Like most Japanese RPGs, Tales of Arise takes after the classic anime style. Huge eyes, over-the-top expressions, intricate clothing, and imaginary worlds, as if out of the pages of a fairy tale. In short, it’s not for everyone. You either love this art style or you hate it. I, for one, am completely neutral. I’m not a big fan of anything overly anime. I used to snob JRGPs due to them always looking like this. After giving a chance to some of the heavy-hitters in the genre, I realized that they actually have some really cool stories to tell.

The blazing sword

Let’s just say that if you’re an avid reader of our seasonal BWeeb pieces, Tales of Arise will hit the spot for you.

Rena is a charming setting

The anime style gives virtually unlimited artistic freedom and this is very evident in the game world. Rena looks exactly as you’d imagine the ideal medieval world. It’s divided into five separate kingdoms, each completely different from the others in appearance, but also in terms of the role they play in the story. One moment you’re in green meadows and the next you’re in permanently snowy villages or underground water caves. The great variety of scenery helps you feel that you really are in the middle of a long journey. There are times when you will leave your character motionless to explore what is on your screen.

According to Bandai Namco, the design of the world is heavily influenced by watercolor painting. That honestly sounds like a reach to me. What’s true is that each scene looks like it came out of the pages of an art book. The imposing concept art that you see in the accompanying booklets of collector’s editions, this time weren’t cut from the final product.

It’s not only the outdoors that is interesting though. During your adventure, you will need to wander through imposing castles, maze-like caves, and even abandoned prisons. There are many things to see here and for an RPG that is designed to keep you busy for tens of hours, that’s a blessing.

Fellowship of the blazing sword

I don’t know if I’m the only one noticing the pattern in JRPGs, where the characters are always the highlight. The only thing that changes is whether it has to do with their design or just how they’re written. In Tales of Arise, the characters are as cool as you can have them. And just like everything you see around you in this game, they’re very different from one another. Colorful hair, different attitudes, unique dressing style. There is a character for every taste, so you always have the party leader that suits you best. Although, Law is low-key the best one.

Enemies also have awesome designs. They’re not the strange, distorted perhaps, designs we saw on Scarlet Nexus. Here, the enemies are most akin to the medieval fantasy. Knights with shiny armor, huge wolves, even larger lobsters, flying lamps, you’ll clash swords (or whatnot) with all of these during your adventure. Bosses boast the imposing designs you’d expect. It’s like a evil version of the Elite Four from every Pokemon game.

‘Anime’ like animated or animated like ‘anime’?

The animations can be very hit or miss, in my opinion. During the gameplay, they’re simply spectacular, especially considering the stormy combat with the beautiful over-the-top effects. And they’re smooth too, especially if you’re playing on a PS5 or a Series console.

Tales of Arise is structured like an anime. It even has an opening, made by ufotable, the studio behind some of the most visually impressive anime in recent memory (Fate, Demon Slayer). Weeb deets; ufotable has made the opening animation for each Tales game, since 2011’s Tales of Xillia, while the previous ones were produced by Production I.G.

Most cutscenes are fully animated, except for the skits, which are narrated through talking-head style visuals of the characters. Apart from the art style, however, the animation can not get away from the usual anime quirks. The excessive animey reactions can make it difficult to take the plot seriously, even if behind the light-hearted story, there’s some very serious points being made. At the same time, characters seem to be slow to react to the dialogue lines that are playing. Characters seem like they’re getting their animation cues one after another, and not at the same time. Rarely will characters react to a dialogue line together, it’s usually one at a time. Also, and this is especially evident in the female characters, they all stand idle in the same way, in a T-Pose-like posture with their arms slightly open.

Skit screenshot
Screenshot from a skit

Plot

The story of Rena and Dahna

The story of Tales of Arise is set in two worlds very different from each other, Rena and Dahna. Rena has achieved tremendous technological development while Dahna is still in the Middle Ages. Thus, the Renans have invaded Dahna and enslaved its inhabitants by planting some magic crystals in their bodies to harvest their energy (weebs rejoice). The way the Renans and Dahnans live together is one of the main themes of Tales of Arise. All Tales games address issues of coexistence and diversity. But here, we have a story that deals with revolution, the struggle for liberation, and comradeship.

The leading pair

Continuing on the path of symbolism, the two protagonists, Alphen and Shionne, follow the same mentality. Alphen is a slave from Dahna, who remembers nothing about his past. He appears to be wearing an iron mask on his head through which, for some bizarre reason, he can see and speak, although there are no holes for his eyes nor mouth. That’s some peak anime logic for you. He also cannot feel pain. He tends to put himself in danger to save the weaker and somehow has become an urban legend amongst Caraglia’s slaves.

Alphen close-up

Shionne is the exact opposite. She is as cool as beautiful, and her personal desires are always in the driver’s seat. From an early age, it was difficult for her to form bonds with others due to her hidden power. Every time she touched someone, thorns like an electric shock stung whoever she touched. This might have given her great strength, but at what cost? Due to her great power, Shionne was captured by Dahna’s Renan guards, who intended to weaponize her ability.

Shionne close-up

The ends justify the means

After an uprising on the mines where Alphen was enslaved in, our masked miner finds the beautiful Shionne chained inside a derailed train. He frees her, and then they are attacked by a bunch of guards who were looking for the girl. After discovering that Shionne’s Thorns don’t affect Alphen since he can not feel pain (what a coincidence), the girl reveals the reason why she came to Rena.

The king of Dahna is decided through a contest between five Renan lords, one from each kingdom. For 300 years, the Renans have used the Dahnans as slaves to collect Astral energy, a form of energy produced by human labor. The five Renan lords clash using their slaves. Essentially, King is crowned the one whose slaves have managed to accumulate the largest sum of astral energy.

The first Renan lord

Shionne made her way to Rena in order to kill the five lords and stop the competition because reasons. Alphen decides to help her kill the lord of Caraglia because he is a huge simp and because he wants to free his compatriots. But mainly because it is a huge simp. During the battle, Shionne pulls out from within her a flaming sword made of accumulated stellar energy. She, herself, can’t use it because it burns her every time she grips it. But Alphen can wield it because he can’t feel pain (what a coincidence). See what they did there? Now they need each other.

STRIKE!

And so, they decide to travel together, freeing Dahnans who have been enslaved by the Renans. Their goals may be different, but they can help one another. Alphen is looking to liberate his people and Shionne wants revenge on the Renans.

It’s full of bruh moments, but it’s hella fun

Don’t try to take the plot more seriously than it takes itself. It is full of convenient ass-pulls and anime logic moments that bring the story where it needs to go. Tales of Arise may be story-heavy, but the story is very light-hearted. Serious issues are highlighted in a worry-free way and that’s the best part. What the plot really wants to say is never too in your face, but it’s always there.

Shionne talking

The cast is very colorful (literally)

I’m not kidding, they all sport a different hair color. They also differ in character, abilities and all that. As with any RPG, characters are one of the major make-or-break things. And here they’re really good, although sometimes quite corny. In the beginning, when only Alphen and Shionne is available, things might get a bit boring, but everything starts to come together after the other characters are introduced. The most interesting one, by far, is Law.

Alphen and Law

All characters are playable and interactions between them take place both during gameplay and on skits. Skits are a major feature in every Tales game. They’re essentially short talking-head cutscenes in which the characters simply talk to each other. Not all skits are made alike. In some of them are very interesting and reveal important details, both for the characters and for the world. In others, they are just gossiping around.

Gameplay

I really hope you have something edible in hand, because oh boy, do we have a lot to talk about.

The combat is very intricate

Let’s start with the hot stuff. The combat is great. It might come across as simple at first glance, but thanks to all the under-the-hood mechanics that you will read about in the countless tutorial windows (though you’ll probably forget most of them after a bit), there’s some incredible depth here (that’s what she said). Okay, if you can’t be bothered and are simply playing to see the story unfold, Tales of Arise can be a button masher, especially in the lower difficulties. However, get ready for a good whooping if your strategy is pressing random buttons in Medium and Hard.

Snowy landscape in Tales of Arise

Tales of Arise uses a real-time arena combat system. You can have up to four of your characters participate in a battle. You can control them all and switch between them on the fly, although the game never really explains how you can do that. Each character has at his disposal plain attacks and three Artes, when you control them. Artes are character-specific abilities, which are either combos or powerful channeling attacks. The battle system in Tales of Arise is largely based on blocks and dodges, with emphasis given more on the latter. Each character has a certain number of attacks (AG) they can do before they need to recharge.

Now, this is where it gets interesting

Plain attacks cost only 1 AG. The cost of Artes, however, varies depending on how powerful the Arte is. Each Arte locks as soon as you press the button, and can’t be canceled unless you get hit, leaving you open to attacks. At the same time, you can’t recharge your AG while dodging or attacking. You must break your combo to recharge.

Each character has two special attacks, regardless of which character you control during battle. The lighter of the two charges during battle and is essentially a very strong attack, which usually staggers opponents. ‘STRIKE!’ however, is an all-out attack that does not consume AG, but is based on your combo. When you break your combo to recharge AG, the STRIKE bar is also reset! If you’re not good at resource management, you will need to git gud for Tales of Arise.

The game, instead of bombarding you with hordes of enemies, throws only a few at you at a time, but they’re all damage sponges. Especially in boss fights, you can easily be skewing away for a good ten minutes, just for the boss to wipe your party during your final moments. Not my cup of tea, but at least you can stack your all-out attacks and make every battle look like a fireworks show.

Skill tree, but it’s not a skill tree

Those who have played a Tales game before know how the skill tree works here, but I will do my best to explain it regardless. While there is a leveling system, Tales of Arise it does not give you a skill point per level. On the contrary, you collect skill points (SP) from each battle with which you can unlock skills from the title tree. The cost of each ability scales accordingly. Skills are divided into small constellations of six abilities, which are called Titles. It doesn’t make much sense as a naming scheme, but bear with me. The skills you unlock can be either passive or Artes that you can then equip your characters with. Each character has their own skill tree.

Chilling outside of battle

While not in combat, you can roam the world freely. Tales of Arise is not an open-world game, but consists of successive semi-open areas joined together by the occasional loading screen. In the outside world, you can interact with NPCs, accept and complete side-quests and find collectibles. You’ll collect many of said collectibles by finding owls that are scattered around the world. Hootle is the mascot of Tales of Arise and will help you find his friends. Weirdly enough, owls don’t have sound effects from normal owls, but there’s an acutal actor doing the hoot, hoots in front of a microphone. I cannot fathom who (and why) thought this was cool, but I digress. Owls reward you with cosmetics that you can use to dress up your characters.

Shionne in a DLC outfit

The outfits worn by the characters are separate from the armor with which you have equipped them. This way, you can always have both your strongest armor on and all of the sauce. You can get armor and weapons from in-game vendors, while the game also features a very barebones crafting system. You get cosmetics either in specific points in the game, or they can be in-game collectibles or just DLC.

Camp screen
Camp screen

There are dungeon areas that you need to make your way through. If you want to avoid an enemy, you can just step aside, it’s not necessary to fight them all. Outside of battle, you can regain your strength in the very conveniently located camps that are scattered throughout the wildlands. There, your characters will bond over the fire, and if you feel like doing a bit of the Gordon Ramsey shenanigans, you can even cook to get some buffs, which vary depending on what you make. Remember, toasties are for the weak.

Audio and Music

This soundtrack don’t miss

It’s true, all JRPGs couldn’t have been as fun without the incredible music. Tales of Arise is no exception. Responsible for the soundtrack is Motoi Sakuraba, one of the most notorious names in the industry, having worked on the likes of Dark Souls and Golden Sun. The soundtrack consists of both instrumentals and regular songs, which play at key points in the story or during boss battles. Worth mentioning is Hibana, the theme song of Tales of Arise, which plays during the opening.

Shionne while healing

Audio effects / Voice Acting

The sound effects during battle are, of course, on-point. All elements have distinct sounds and they’re all boomy, despite the fact that the soundscape of Tales of Arise tries to avoid sounds on the lower end of the spectrum. Many in-game sounds are presented in a cartoony character – the game not only looks like an anime, it also sounds like one. Some system sounds, especially in menus, are slightly higher-pitched than needed, so they can be a bit annoying to the ear.

Not all dialogues in Tale of Arise are voiced. Some, especially in side quests are based only on text dialogue. Let’s say about 80% of the game is voiced. Playing the game in English – because it’s hard reading subtitles while playing – voice acting is exactly what you expect. Pretty good in general, with all the usual anime dub quirks. Constant grunting, awkward pauses, incredibly corny dialogues, and the characters can’t stop thinking out loud: all the ingredients of your typical anime dub.

Dialogue in Tales of Arise

Let’s not be unfair to the voice actors, they do a very good job of transferring the dialogue from paper to your headset. This is because the voice cast in Tales of Arise is not made of experienced game voice actors but major names in the field of anime voice-overs. They’re used to the anime corniness. Ray Chase (JoJo’s Bizzare Adventure, Demon Slayer, My Hero Academia) lends his voice to Alphen, and Erica Lidbeck (Barbie, Mob Psycho 100, Your Lie in April) portrays Shionne. The rest of the cast is just as good, but these two have the most screen-time, so their voices stand out more easily.

Verdict

Tales of Arise is a game that does not disappoint, but neither does it surprise. On the contrary, Bandai Namco delivers exactly what was promised. And this seems particularly hard to accomplish lately. Tales of Arise has an engaging story, which at times deals with serious issues, but the way these are presented does not make it tedious. No matter how serious the characters take everything, what you should pay attention to is always in the background. That’s kind of brilliant. Yes, it has the typical anime bs and yes, the dialogues can be extremely corny at times, but that’s part of the deal. You know what you’re getting into from the get-go.

Visually, Tales of Arise is impressive, especially if you are playing on a new-gen console. Dahna’s five kingdoms, the dungeons, the characters, the enemies, and the battle effects; they’re all presented exactly how you would imagine them. Its medieval aesthetics are up to par with the most esteemed classics. Sure, there are some visual bugs, but these can be easily corrected in future patches (this review is based on a pre-release version). The gameplay manages to find the perfect sweet spot: it’s easy to take up but challenging to master. There is a huge degree of complexity, without having to mess around with the classic micromanagement systems that exist in every JRPG.

This is probably the best entry point in the Tales series. It does not take many risks and that is why it’s probably the most polished Tales experience. There’s countless of gameplay hours to enjoy, and especially if you plan on getting all collectibles or maxing out your characters; you’re going to be hitting triple digits rather soon.