by Samuel Corey
reviewed on PC
The Spark of Revolution
The naming convention of the Tales series has produced some odd titles in the past. It’s hard to keep a straight face when you tell someone you’re playing Tales of Legendia. Still, at least they were all grammatically correct. The same can’t be said for the latest installment: Tales of Arise. Silly name or no, Tales of Arise is a damn good JRPG and may even represent a high-water mark for the whole series.
The game takes place on two planets that seem to be orbiting each other. There’s the advanced sci-fi world with nearly-ubiquitous magic, Rena, and the backward medieval world where magic is rare, Dahna. Three hundred years before the events of the game, Rena invaded Dahna with spaceships, hordes of monsters, and an army of magic wielders. The space-faring civilization easily crushed all opposition from their iron age rivals and enslaved the entire native population. The Renans divided up the world into five regions and appointed a lord to rule over each.
You start the game in control of Black Mask (later you’ll learn his real name is Alphen), a Dahnan slave with no memory, no ability to feel pain, and no face since his head is permanently stuck in an iron mask. A chance encounter one day brings him into contact with Shionne, a Renan renegade who has stolen a powerful artifact, called a Master Core, from the local lord. Despite being a Renan herself, Shionne has an axe to grind with the lords and plans to use this Master Core to kill them all. It’s not a bad plan, as she can use the Master Core to create a powerful weapon: a burning sword, but in a rare concession to realism in fantasy armaments, the burning sword burns the wielder just as badly as anyone else. Lucky for her, Alphen is immune to pain and once they join up they reluctantly agree to work together to defeat the Renan lords and free Dahna.
The focus here, like most Tales games, is on the characters. I’ll admit that Alphen, the amnestic protagonist with a generic desire to do good and fight for freedom is a bit boring. Fortunately, his deuteragonist, Shionne, is more than able to pick up the slack. Her motives are mysterious but it’s obvious from the word go that’s she has her own selfish reasons for everything she does. She doesn’t give a damn about the Dahnans or their plight. She’s arrogant, even cruel at times but it’s obvious that this is a persona she’s had to adopt as a means of survival. Underneath all that she’s vulnerable and lonely. All told, she’s a fascinating character who’s a breath of fresh air in a cultural landscape that’s singularly focused on crafting “strong” female characters. The supporting cast is no slouch either, with a variety of different personalities eventually joining your party that often clash with one another dramatically.
It helps that the voice acting is also of a very high caliber, with Shino Shimoji, the voice actress for Shionne being the obvious standout. The actress does a wonderful job giving the impression of the character’s surface-level coldness/arrogance as well as her hidden vulnerability even in casual dialog. It’s a really great performance that is essential to the game’s emotional weight, as Shionne has to do the heavy lifting for our central couple.
Obviously, I played with the Japanese language and English subtitles, because I’m a sensible person and sensible people always pick dubs over subs. For the sake of this review though, I took a look at the English language dialog as well to see if it measured up, and while I’d never recommend playing an anime game in English, even I’ll admit that the voice actors do a serviceable job.
Ironically for a game about fomenting a revolution, the core of Tales of Arise conforms to the established pattern of the series. Sure, there’s a bit of spit and polish applied to older systems and a couple of unique new ideas implemented here and there, but for the most part Tales of Arise will be immediately familiar to any fan of the series. It’s still a JRPG with real-time combat. The story focuses on the characters and setting while allowing the plot to meander about at a glacial pace. The story segments are supplemented by visual novel style skits, though now they’ve gotten an upgrade into semi-animated sequences where the characters appear inside manga panels. And of course, there’s a weirdly intricate cooking system that integrates poorly with the rest of the game; it just wouldn’t be a Tales game without that. As a long-time fan of the series, playing Tales of Arise is the equivalent of a warm fire and a cup of tea: familiar, comfy, and pleasant.
Naturally, it also imports a fair number of problems from its predecessors. The most troubling of these is the fact that the dungeons and world maps are little more than corridors. You’ll be lucky to get one or two forks in the road per map and when you hit the odd open plain you might just succumb to an attack of agoraphobia. It’s not quite Final Fantasy XIII levels of linearity, but it’s far closer than is comfortable. Likewise, the game’s combat suffers from the familiar issue of being too cluttered with special attacks making it difficult to read enemies and dodge their counters.
About the biggest innovation that Tales of Arise has to offer is the way it handles healing. Instead of using traditional spells and items to recover HP in-between combat, the entire party has a common pool of healing points dubbed CP. Every healing spell you use decreases the amount of CP until you rest at an inn or a campfire to reset it. This has the effect of making healing a more limited resource and consequently adds tension and pressure to each combat, especially when playing on a higher difficulty.
You can still use the odd healing items you find lying around but truth be told they aren’t very good, the basic healing potion only cures 400 HP, which will seem pitifully small by the time you reach 10th level. Besides, money is surprisingly scarce in this game as random encounters don’t drop any cash, so you’re not want to waste any resources on healing items unless it’s a real emergency.
The Final Word
Tales of Arise is a solid entry into the series, yet I would be wary about recommending it to new players. Sure, you get some nice gameplay refinements and flashy graphics (indeed, it’s probably the best-looking game in the series hands down) but it hardly seems worth the $60 price tag, at least not when previous entries regularly go on sale $8 - $15. As I mentioned above, not that much has changed with the Tales series over the years, so there’s no reason to start with the newest and most expensive entry. However, if you’ve played and enjoyed previous entries in past, Tales of Arise becomes an easy recommendation as it showcases much of what makes the franchise so charming.
Strong writing & characters, top-notch VA, beautiful visuals, novel healing system
Linear maps, combat occassionally becomes cluttered and confusing