Tales of Arise review: Is this the best Tales game yet? | Technobubble Gaming – Reno Gazette Journal

The best stories are like good standup comedy. They always garner a reaction while also making you feel a bit uncomfortable.
It’s an approach that Tales of Arise employs to great effect. Yes, the game certainly has its moments of levity. What the Japanese role-playing game truly excels at, however, is picking at the scabs that typically cover up humanity’s ugliest scars. 
Violence. Mistrust. Cruelty. Prejudice. 
All are fair game and used unapologetically to paint a disturbing picture about humans at their worst. In fact, the plot for Tales of Arise plays out like a record of humanity’s worst hits. Whether it be the horrific aftermath of war or the disturbing imagery of centuries of slavery, Tales of Arise’s story hits you early and hits you hard.
Amid all the despair and destruction, however, is hope. Hope that people will listen to their better angels. Hope that once-bitter enemies can turn into beloved brethren. Hope that each new day will be just a little bit better than the last.
War and subjugation can be complicated. Oftentimes, however, simple things such as empathy and little acts of kindness form the cracks that eventually send the thickest of walls crashing down.
Despite its brighter, more colorful palette, Tales of Arise is about as dark a Tales game as I’ve ever seen — at least right off the bat. Does it rise to the top of the franchise’s best games? Let’s just say it certainly makes a good case for it.
Tales of Arise’s story is born from the conflict between the Twin Worlds of Dahna and Rena, rival planets that engaged in an epic clash 300 years ago.
The invasion by the technologically superior Rena ended up with the subjugation of Dahna and its residents, a once-proud people who were reduced to slavery while their rich culture was erased from the annals of history. Three centuries after their defeat, the Dahnan remnants find themselves a pitiful and fully subjugated lot. A typical day finds Dahnan laborers shackled in chains while they are often beaten by guards for the littlest of reasons. To make things worse, each Dahnan man, woman and child is implanted with a device that gradually siphons their life force in order to provide immense power to each region’s lord as part of the “Crown Contest.” Whichever lord amasses the most power ends up being chosen as the next Renan sovereign and sits atop everyone else.
It is under this backdrop that we meet Alphen, a masked Dahnan slave who has lost his memories of the past. Admittedly, amnesia is an oft-abused trope in JRPGs. It’s one of the less original aspects of Tales of Arise’s storytelling, though it adds an extra layer of mystery about Alphen’s origins. What’s especially intriguing is Alphen’s unique trait: the inability to feel anything. 
The Tales of Arise protagonist still has full possession of his emotions, mind you. In fact, the overly caring Alphen can be a bit of an emotional sponge who’s susceptible to passionate outbursts from time to time. Physically, however, the man is unable to feel anything, including his own injuries.
Things take an even more interesting turn after Alphen finds himself caught up in a sabotage attempt by Dahnan rebels against their Renan overseers. It is under these circumstances that Alphen meets the game’s other protagonist, the haughty Renan runaway Shionne. Interestingly, Shionne is like a mirror image of Alphen. Unlike Alphen, Shionne is essentially an emotional sieve who tries not to show any affection. It’s a trait that arises from a powerful curse that hurts anyone who touches Shionne. The proud Renan is also the owner of a very powerful flame sword, one that she can’t use herself because it burns and puts anyone who touches it under immense, searing pain. 
In that sense, Alphen and Shionne are an odd yet perfect pair who complement each other well. They even share a deep-seated desire to overthrow the Renan lords who oversee Dahnan’s various domains, even though their exact reasons may differ. Their unlikely partnership kicks off a far-reaching adventure across Rena as they target the various lords one by one. Along the way both meet new allies, each with their own tragic personal story that drives them to action. Tales of Arise’s characters are an interesting bunch — orphans, warriors and even Renan nobility — who initially start out with misgivings and even doubts against one another. While the partnerships start more out of convenience, however, everyone slowly but surely changes to deeply care about one another. 
Admittedly, some of that development can feel rushed at times. This is especially true when rushing through the game’s main story, which condenses the timeline to an extent. If you take your time to savor the experience and pick and prod through Tales of Arise’s world, though, those gaps get filled up by skits that show special conversations between the characters. The skits — a Tales series tradition that gets a visual boost in Arise — provide much-needed interaction and character development for the game’s cast in between major plot points, further fleshing out the game’s various relationships. Granted, they can interrupt the flow of the game when they pop up at inopportune moments. Overall, however, they are a positive part of the Arise experience.
The skits are also a good source of lightheartedness in a story that can be an emotional grind at times. The constant barrage of woe and suffering from the main plot can add up over time and it’s easy to get emotionally spent when playing extended sessions. Many of the Renan lords you face are bonafide psychopaths, after all, and their horrific actions can get tiring after a while.
At the same time, the emotional rollercoaster is also what makes Tales of Arise’s story a good one. Japanese RPGs are susceptible to cliches and tropes and Tales of Arise is certainly no exception in that regard. Nevertheless, its willingness to touch uncomfortable and taboo topics and really delve into them sets it apart from the average JRPG plot. 
Little nuances also help players better digest the story. One simple feature I really like from a storytelling standpoint is how the game changes the color of speech bubble indicators to blue once you’ve talked to a non-playable character in the game’s various locales. As someone who likes to actually take my time in towns and talk to NPCs, this is a great quality-of-life change that encourages me to strike conversations with minor characters. It makes it feel like I’m actually traveling to places instead of just passing through them.
Although Tales of Arise’s place within the pantheon of best games in the Tales series can be debated, its position in terms of visuals is unassailable. The game is a visual treat to behold and is undoubtedly the best looking one out of the whole franchise to date.
Characters boast incredible attention to detail, featuring artful touches such as artistic strokes that mimic watercolor brushes as well as intricate hairstyles and clothing. There used to be a time when anime-style cutscenes were the visual highlight of a Tales game. In Tales of Arise, the in-game models far outshine their animated counterparts in the game’s cartoon-like special movies. Monsters also look great and animate quite nicely, with the game’s larger beasts looking especially impressive. Their appearance and the way they move make the monsters look like actual living, breathing creatures.
Then again, modern Tales games typically do an excellent job with character models. What they usually skimped on from a visual standpoint are the backgrounds, which showed less detail and paled in comparison to the characters.
Tales of Arise changes this by paying extra attention to its surroundings. Leaves and grass dance subtly in response to gentle breezes while falling snow flies in violent fashion onscreen amid erratic, powerful gusts of wind. Dungeon floors and walls, which looked more like drab placeholders in older games, now have extra textures instead of looking like sparse afterthoughts. 
Dark areas are especially improved, not just through greater attention to detail but solid lighting work. The various gradations from bright to dark areas add extra depth to scenes and improve immersion, especially when playing on a large quality display. Lighting also plays a big role in the game’s day and night cycles, which can completely change the character of an area. Seeing the skies switch from bright blue in broad daylight to a more somber purple-orange during sunset and finally a quiet midnight blue in the evening give you a sense of time and place as well as an almost melancholic perspective as you make your way through the various locales.
Add the excellent music arrangement by Japanese composer Motoi Sakuraba and Tales of Arise ends up as a visual and sonic tour de force for fans of JRPGs. From grand-sounding choruses with a full orchestral ensemble to more bare whimsical ditties with flutes, the game’s soundtrack does a great job in setting the mood for Tales of Arise’s diverse settings. 
Gameplay, meanwhile, builds on the hybrid action and turn-based combat that has been the trademark of the series for decades. Before Final Fantasy VII Remake’s well-received combat system, Tales games have actually been pushing the envelope for real-time action-based battling and Arise does not disappoint in that regard.
Like every Tales game, things start out slowly at first. Once you level up and expand your skills and number of attacks, however, you will be able to pull off an impressive array of moves, with combos easily hitting triple digits. Combat in Tales of Arise especially rewards players who can multitask. If you can string different moves while also switching characters at the same time — the video equivalent of walking and chewing gum AND also juggling multiple balls in mid-air — you will be in for a treat. It’s just a lot of fun when you pull off a crazy chain that hits your enemies 100-plus times in one go.
Characters also play quite differently, which helps stave off boredom in the midst of grinding for experience or skills. Alphen features fast-hitting swordplay that’s easy to use, for example, while Shionne employs a more deliberate ranged style that uses a mix of shots and bombs. Magic caster Rinwell, on the other hand, uses a fun magical move set from long distance that can charge and stock magic spells to enhance the effect of her attacks. Character’s unique special attacks also add extra strategy options in battle. These moves can be used to slow down fast enemies that love to dodge or stop charging foes in the middle of a damaging rush. Special character titles, which used to boost stats in older games, now come with skill trees that provide new skills and extra buffs as well.
That being said, the gameplay is not perfect. The ability to easily focus your party on one target has been taken away, for example, and you now need to do that manually. It just doesn’t make sense to take out a popular strategy option used by many players in past games, especially given how much of a grind Tales games can be. And yes, Tales of Arise does require you to fight and re-fight through its stages to farm materials and level up your characters and their skills. The grind is something I actually loved as a younger player when I had much more free time. As a busy adult with a lot of responsibilities, however, it can be a bit of a slog. You can unlock perks or artifacts later in the game to speed up progression or get them right off the bat by paying for DLC. While the latter might sound like a reasonable option for folks with money to burn, it can be controversial for people who dislike in-game monetizations.
Also, while the game’s artificial intelligence performs adequately for the most part, ally characters controlled by AI require a good amount of babysitting during tough fights. Otherwise, you will burn through a large amount of items for healing, resurrecting and refilling your cure point gauge. It’s one aspect where Final Fantasy VII Remake seems to do a better job as I don’t have to worry as much about characters dying on me so frequently.
Some gameplay elements also feel like afterthoughts. The fishing mechanic, for example, is done really well and can get quite addicting once you get hooked on its little nuances, pun so totally intended. Raising animals, on the other hand, feels like busy work as opposed to an activity that’s actually engaging. Most of the time, it just feels like I’m checking stuff off a list.
Then again, Tales of Arise remains a great game even with those faults. It just does a really good job on a lot of things, such as its diverse combat, its beautifully rendered world and its rich soundtrack. Add its treatise on the human condition as well as the joy and sadness of human relationships and you have a game that provides a full gaming experience.
If there’s one thing that Tales of Arise teaches its players, it’s that a little empathy goes a long way. It’s a lesson that would serve all of us well in today’s deeply divided and highly politicized landscape as well.
Of course, one of the questions for any fan of the series is how Tales of Arise stacks up against the franchise’s best.
As someone who has played almost every Tales game, I can say that Tales of Arise felt special right off the bat. Only two other Tales games made me feel this way when I started playing them: Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Vesperia. By the way, those also happen to be my two all-time favorite Tales games.
Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. Tales of Zestiria also felt special in the beginning. The main difference is that the feeling did not remain for the entirety of the game as it did with Vesperia and especially Symphonia. Tales of the Abyss was the opposite. That one felt miserable at the start but ended up doing a 180 toward the end as it saved the best for last.
Tales of Arise, on the other hand, felt like a real contender. It just hooked me at the start and kept on doing so the further I went in. 
As a modern title with the benefit of new technologies, it certainly beats my all-time favorite, Symphonia, in a lot of aspects. But just based on how I felt at the time when I first played through each game, Tales of Arise just falls a bit short of the heights that Symphonia gave me. Then again, Tales of Arise got pretty close. Let’s just say that it’s now my second-favorite game in the series.
Jason Hidalgo covers business and technology for the Reno Gazette Journal, and also reviews the latest video games. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo. Like this content? Support local journalism with an RGJ digital subscription.

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