There’s something about late summer/early fall and JRPGs that seem to go together. Throughout my life, I’ve played some of the best JRPGs around this time every year, and have grown to expect to play an engrossing fantasy-sci-fi epic as the days get shorter and cooler. Luckily, Bandai Namco has released Tales of Arise this year to sate my hunger for a good JRPG, and I can say with all authority that I am satisfied.
Tales of Arise is the newest in the long-standing Tales series, one that dates back 25 years. To put that into perspective, Final Fantasy just celebrated its 30th anniversary, so Tales is not that far behind. Like most Tales games, this one is a new story, borrowing gameplay elements from its predecessors and contemporaries. It keeps the series fresh and makes it easy for newbies to jump into a game without worrying about what has come before.
Tales of Arise is set on the world of Dahna, a planet that was invaded 300 years ago by neighboring planet Rena. The Renans are a brutal race who enslaved the Dahnans and forced them to work to death in order to supply their overlords with Astral energy. Geographically, Dahna is carved up into five realms, each controlled by a vile Lord.
When we come into the story, we take control of Iron Mask, a slave with no past who wears an iron mask over his face that he cannot remove. Worse yet, he also can’t feel pain. While toiling away one day, he comes across a resistance group assaulting a Renan transport, and in a train car, Iron Mask discovers a mysterious woman in chains named Shionne — a Renan with the power to create “thorns” all over her body, meaning no one can get close to her and touch her — save for the one man who feels no pain. How convenient.
Together, the two unlikely heroes go on a quest to rid Dahna’s five realms of their Renan lords and along the way pick up four new friends to aid them, each with their own skillset (mage, monk/fighter, etc.) that is beneficial to the team as a whole. We eventually learn Iron Mask is named Alphen, and he’s an important key to the story because, well, this is a JRPG after all. There are secrets to discover about the invasion 300 years before, where all that Astral energy goes, and what it’s used for, and we also get to delve into the lives of the six main characters throughout the game’s lengthy run time.
Unsurprisingly, the story in Tales of Arise takes many twists and turns and piles on as the game progresses. The player also gets to know the characters through conversations, called skits, that come up from time to time, or through conversations around campfires. I really feel like I’ve gotten to know these characters, most touched by some kind of tragedy that has set them on the path they are on, and just when you think you have a character figured out, Arise throws out a new wrinkle. The unique character stories are enough to satisfy even the most seasoned JRPG veteran, but where Tales of Arise really shines is in the exquisite combat.
Tales of Arise is classified as an action RPG, mostly because the linear motion battle system combat is fast, fluid, and addictive. After about three hours of hand-holding, the game sets the player free to really dig deep into the intricacies of how battles play out. With the linear motion battle system, characters can attack with weapons — Alphen with his sword, Shionne with her rifle, Rinwell with her grimoire of spells, etc. — and they also have Astral Artes they can use, both offensive and defensive.
Battles are fought in real-time on a designated battle arena, and the player is free to move around while attacking, dodging, and jumping. Moves can be combined with other characters for bigger, stronger attacks, and pulling these moves off is fun and a joy to watch. Your damage output begins with simple attacks, but once you start breaking an enemy’s defense and staggering them, then things really get rolling. As with most JRPGs, the player is constantly in combat, earning XP and item drops, so it’s important for the battles to be fun — thankfully, Tales of Arise delivers in every way imaginable.
Littered throughout the world are super-powered enemies, which are usually well ahead of the party in terms of level and power, and have to be dealt with at a later time. Boss battles are as epic as they should be, with amazingly satisfying endings that made me laugh more often than not. There’s plenty to experience, but combat is definitely the bread and butter of Tales of Arise, and the series as a whole.
Bandai Namco held the release of Arise for the new generation of consoles, though I’m not really seeing the power of newer hardware on display. Graphics look decidedly last-gen. In fact, Tales of Arise could pass for a Nintendo Switch game as opposed to a PlayStation 5 title. Luckily, this isn’t a deal-breaker because the anime-styled characters still look good no matter what system you play on. The only real issues come from low-quality shadows on the ground during the day and other small quibbles about the flora and fauna.
The voice acting — available both in English and in Japanese — is well done, and the painfully underwritten characters are brought to life by the actors playing them. This is a huge component of any RPG, as you’ll spend 50 to 70 (or even 100) hours with these characters, so liking them is kinda important. Shionne is an enigma for most of the game, and Alphen’s optimism is often misplaced. The nuts and bolts of the story hinge on the NPCs and their stories, and Tales of Arise shines brightest when world-building, creating motivations for the actions of the characters in each realm and with each story beat.
Bandai Namco builds upon character customization with various outfits, skins for weapons, and more. Pre-order bonuses and DLC drops offer so many costume/weapon options that it’s easy to find an aesthetic you enjoy. Multiple skill trees give the player autonomy on how the characters grow and which titles, skills, Artes, and powers they acquire, and when to unlock them.
When not in combat or chasing down a Lord for extinction, players can gather components to craft new weapons, armor, accessories, and more. You also have the option of cooking meals with recipes you’ll acquire as the game progresses, with dishes offering buffs when you eat before resting, as well as a fishing mini-game that’s a fun distraction. I’ll admit, I always enjoy cooking elements in RPGs, and finding new ingredients and recipes, for me, becomes a game in and of itself.
The sweeping musical score helps set the mood as well, borrowing elements from other types of games. In all, Tales of Arise checks all the major boxes for a good JRPG, and as it excels in most of the categories, it sets itself apart from other games in the genre.
Tales of Arise is remarkable for many reasons, but the amazing combat and gorgeous character designs make this a must-play game for JRPG fans. I was quickly sucked into the story and began to care for the colorful cast of characters after only a few hours. The thrill of obliterating a tough enemy or the epically satisfying endings to the Lord fights are some of my favorite gaming moments this year, and I can’t wait to go back to previously explored areas on the world map to take out super-powered monsters. There’s so much to do with story quests, side missions, and material gathering, that Tales of Arise will be taking up residence on my PlayStation 5 hard drive for the foreseeable future. As the summer ends and fall begins, I’m enjoying the heck out of a neo-classic JRPG and it just feels like old times again. Finally.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Bandai Namco Entertainment.
Tales of Arise offers fast and fluid combat and an epic story, paving the way for the first great JRPG of a new console generation.