From the outside the Tales series doesn’t have the look of a saga that’s easy to get into – after all, it’s played host to a long series of games, some connected and others entirely standalone, going right back to the 1990s.
Yet, in 2021, Tales of Arise arrives as the perfect place to jump in. It’s a modern Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) that’s ditched much of the genre’s inconveniences, preferring to tell a lengthy story in sprightly fashion, all the while looking superb on next-gen hardware such as the PlayStation 5.
A tale of two worlds
Tales of Arise begins by establishing its world – or, rather, its twin worlds. Dahna is the main setting, a planet held in bondage by slavemasters from neighbouring Rena, with a series of ‘Lords’ holding down different regions and exploiting their populations and natural resources.
Our main protagonist is the amnesiac Iron Mask, faceless and initially nameless, who is toiling in a prison camp before the intrusion of furious Renan Shionne. She’s on a quest to destroy all the Renan Lords for ambiguous reasons, and you’ll soon be swept up in her wake.
This odd couple forms the heart of Tales of Arise’s story, but after a dozen hours or so you’ll have expanded your party out to welcome the feisty brawler Law, timid witch Rinwell, stately knight Kisara, and another regal Renan, Dohalim.
Iron Mask’s memory (not least that he’s called Alphen) comes back in fits and bursts, as they trek around Dahna chasing down Lords and putting an end to their tyranny, with twists and gut-punches coming impressively thick and fast.
While cliche is never too far away, there’s enough invention here to keep things interesting, and the game is mature enough to face up to at least some of the dark realities of the situations it summons up. Still, slavery and imperialism is a subject matter that’s beyond its sophistication a little too often – a little more introspection would have been welcome.
There’s plenty of dialogue and exposition to enjoy, but also the Tales series’ speciality – ‘skits’. These optional dialogues are not-quite-cutscenes where party members will have chats with each other. Some are short, others longer, but they’re a great way to make for a laid-back time if you’re interested in hearing more, while you can skip them to watch later at campsites if you’re in a rush.
This is a long story, too, lasting well over 30 hours – even if you’re moving briskly and skipping side quests – and we found ourselves really relaxing into the world and enjoying exploring the various maps’ nooks and crannies.
You’ll spend that time in basically two different modes of play: either watching and listening to story beats unfold, discovering more about a region or the world at large, and figuring out your party’s next move; or actually doing some fighting.
That combat is a small evolution over the already streamlined system that Tales of Berseria presented a few years ago. This is an RPG, sure, but when you’re in a good fight it doesn’t feel that far from a character action game like Bayonetta.
You’ll be manually dodging and running around, stringing together moves and combos, and able to swap between control of your four chosen characters at will. It’s smooth and visually bombastic stuff, with special moves called Strikes coming thick and fast when you earn them, accompanied by booming audio and spectacular effects.
When you deliver enough consecutive damage to an enemy you can then graduate to a Boost Strike, with two party members teaming up to deal massive damage. These short but sweet scenes never really get tiresome.
There is resource management, though, in the form of Cure Points that limit how much healing you can do after you’ve fought a bunch, while each character has to wait for their attack gauge to refill before certain moves can be unleashed.
Even after dozens of hours, we were still having fun with battles against foes we’d faced plenty of times before – and that’s not something that every JRPG has managed. By stripping away some of the surface complexity – although there’s still plenty under the hood to explore – Tales of Arise succeeds in ensuring its core gameplay shines through.
A vision of beauty
If the combat is excellent, then, it’s partly because it looks so great in motion, with punishing attacks and strikes adding some real flair. That’s echoed by the rest of the game, which is a real step up for the series in presentation terms.
Character models are detailed and stylised in just the right ways, standing out from each other and sticking in the memory, regardless of which of the many available outfits you prefer for them.
The different landscapes you’ll visit are similarly outstanding, albeit coming straight out of a relatively typical playbook. From arid areas to frozen wastes and hidden forests, but also encompassing thriving towns and quaint villages, it all looks brilliant.
The world blends medieval aesthetics with advanced technology, letting it basically do whatever it wants, and while that’s a balance that some Final Fantasy games struggle with on occasion, here it’s all done naturally enough to work.
Playing on PS5, we’re also enthused by the fairly well-kept 60 frames-per-second gameplay, and high resolutions to ensure everything looks crisp and sharp, further accentuating how spry some of that design work really is.
It may not be ripping up the rulebook and presenting the sort of environments we’ve never seen before, but when the outcome is this consistently excellent, we’re far from complaining about relative shortages of originality.