Tales of Arise is the first entry in the series since 2016 and brings the franchise into a new technical realm with the leap to Unreal Engine 4. Skepticism told me that the change of game engine and lengthy delays of the game spelled trouble, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Tales of Arise is a fresh and groundbreaking reinvention of the franchise that was well worth the five-year wait.
Tales of Arise is less of a high-fantasy adventure and more of a sprawling sci-fi epic. Set in a world in which the technologically advanced space empire of planet Rena has conquered and subjugated the weaker medieval realm of the planet Dahna, it carries an aesthetic similar to Star Ocean or Xenoblade Chronicles in how it melds typical fantasy elements with sleek neon sci-fi bits. Our protagonist is Alphen, who starts the story with a nasty case of anime amnesia. He’s a Dahna slave who can’t feel pain and has a mysterious iron mask stuck to his face. He isn’t sure why either of those things are the vase,, but he does know he’s meant to do greater things than waste away in servitude – so when he encounters the mysterious Rena-born fugitive Shionne and a crew of freedom fighters tracking her down, he immediately gets mixed up with them on a quest to destroy the shackles that have imprisoned the planet of Dahna for over 300 years.
What follows is a sprawling story full of the sort of twists, turns and moral ambiguity you’d expect of a Tales game, but it’s all done with a pretty astonishing level of finesse. A lot of elements of the writing in Tales of Arise pleasantly surprised me, but the time and space that characters are given to grow and develop really blew me away. Tales characters can sometimes feel like paper-thin anime archetypes. The Tales of Arise crew have familiar JRPG elements in their personalities – the amnesiac hero of justice, the temperamental princess – but where they start and where they end up is so refreshingly different. They have realistic layers to their personalities, and as the crew grows and interacts with one another, those layers come together and create, for lack of a less hunger-inducing analogy, a lasagna of rich character development.
In Tales of Arise, your special attack Artes no longer pull from an MP meter – they instead rely on a constantly recharging artes gauge. Similarly, the new Boost Attacks, which let you call in any of your recruited characters for a support attack, slowly charge up over time. Your various special and standard attacks can be smartly strung together in massive combos, and when you wrap your head around the optimal way to string all of these abilities together, the possibilities in combat are nearly limitless. Combat isn’t without faults – it takes a while for dodging to really click, and a few bigger enemies can be a bit too damage spongey – but battles are still fun and fresh from beginning to end.
Another pillar of the familiar Tales of experience would be the consistent aesthetic of the franchise, and the changes that Tales of Arise has made in that department genuinely blow me away. The game is such a big visual upgrade over prior games – and over many modern JRPGs in general. I always feel like the thing JRPGs lack most is detailed environment art, but the worlds and locales you explore in Tales of Arise game are jaw-droppingly beautiful.
With gripping storytelling, revamped gameplay, and massively upgraded visuals, Tales of Arise is the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the series. Where long-running video game series often reinvent themselves in a way that feels relatively bare-bones or lacking, leaning on the promise of future improvement, Tales of Arise is not a mere promise. It fully delivers on everything you would expect from a massive sequel over five years in the making. It’s a huge and engrossing game, but it’s also an incredibly refreshing step-up for the series that will hopefully lead to even bigger and better things in the future.