“We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it.” – Che Guevara.
I’ve not been the world’s biggest fan of Bandai Namco’s Tails series. I enjoy them enough, but even the best of them doesn’t wind up on my list of favourite JRPGs. Tales of Arise is different, though. It’s a game about one of my favourite topics and areas of thought – revolution – and it does it with almost surprising nuance.
Revolution isn’t an easy topic to deal with. By its very nature it’s politically loaded, inspires people towards polarised thinking, and involves wide-ranging social and cultural change. Revolutions are always motivated by a good cause – the rising up of the oppressed and downtrodden – but what comes after the revolution isn’t always a positive outcome (and whether it is a positive outcome or not depends on your worldview across a whole lot of things). In most cases, when popular entertainment deals with revolution as a subject, it simply focuses on the fight for freedom. It will barely touch on the personal, cultural and political tensions that lead to it, and it rarely deals with the subsequent consequences that come from a successful revolution. That simplistic and naïve understanding of revolution does people no favours, and when I first realised that this would be the dominant theme of Tales of Arise, I was more than a little concerned.
I need not have been, because Tails of Arise handles it magnificently. Arguably as well as I’ve ever seen in popular entertainment. The game casts you in the role of a group of heroes working to liberate communities from a colonial power, and while its not certainly not relativist in its treatment of the subject (liberating an oppressed people from a colonial power is a righteous cause), the game does a remarkable job of highlighting the internal conflict of the characters and some of the things they need to do in chasing the objective, and – most critically – actually asking the question “what’s next?” After you expel the imperialists, life doesn’t immediately revert to a utopic freedom. What you do with your freedom and the society you form around it matters and Tales of Arise recognises this. There are twists and turns through the narrative, as you would expect (and it would be unfair of me to delve into spoilers here, so I won’t), but the game never loses sight of these thematic foundations, and continues to work hard to do them justice throughout.
The game scales so incredibly well, too. The very first boss in Tales of Arise is a shatteringly, massive confrontation that could easily have been the final boss of any other game. It just continues to escalate from there, with every key point somehow building and adding to the whole. It’s not that it always goes big, and Arise has plenty of quieter and less outwardly dramatic moments, but where a lesser JRPG might struggle to maintain build on its foundations or lose focus, Arise really is an incredible example of how to structure, sustain, and build an extended narrative to a satisfying conclusion.
Part of this success is the way the game takes JRPG tropes and makes them fundamental to the experience. Everyone knows that in the typical JRPG you’re expected to visit regions that are modelled after a particular element or theme – there’s a snowy region, a firey region, and so on. Arise ties each narrative arc into this theme too. In the firey region you’re fighting to save people that are given backbreaking work for slave’s rations. The entire place looks like a combination of rock and furnace and represents the rugged hardiness of the survivors and the extreme strain their bodies go through daily. Meanwhile, in the snowy region the oppression is created through secrets and lies. People are forced to turn informant on one another just to collect the bounties that will allow them to live, and the world around them is as frigid and icy as this has made the culture.
Because setting and narrative are so carefully woven together, the journey never feels arbitrary or superficial. From top to bottom everything that you see and do in Arise feels like it’s there for a genuine reason and that it’s building on the overall vision. This might explain why there are fewer side quests and distractions than you’ll be used to in most modern games. There are some, of course, but what there is almost never feels like content in there purely to get the time clock ticking higher. The rare exception, when the game drops the storytelling and simply asks players to go collect X resource or kill Y enemy, generally feels like it’s there more as a joke than anything else (and you’ll usually have the resources to complete the fetch quests immediately).
In the end Tales of Arise manages a rare feat: it does feel like a JRPG that has been built for traditional JRPG fans, but it also feels modern and not beholden to tradition – either the JRPG or its own series. It’s not trying to do anything wildly innovative with its narrative like NieR did, nor is it trying to redefine action JRPGs like Scarlet Nexus from earlier this year. Tales of Arise is identifiably an action JRPG in the truest sense of the term. At the same time the depth and detail of the narrative, and the way that it has been woven into the game from its very foundations is deeply modern. Only a lot of experience in building JRPGs and understanding of modern storytelling could result in the kind of narrative woven into Arise.
The moment-to-moment writing is excellent, too. With many previous Tales games I’ve felt like the writing can often come across as forced and laboured. The heroes were a dash too earnest in their heroism, and the frequent jokes were only funny because they were so obviously jokes that you felt like you were obligated to laugh. Tales of Arise is a different beast, and comes across as very genuine. As serious as the overarching subject matter is, there are plenty of jokes that are thrown in as relief or character-building exercises, and they are genuinely funny. While the characters all belong to broad JRPG types that we’ve seen before, they’re written in a way that they bounce beautifully off one another, and the growing bond between them comes across as genuine.
When it’s not telling an excellent story, Tales of Arise plays like a dream. I don’t know how this game’s combat system will go down with series veterans, because they can be clannishly committed to the Tales combat system, and Arise does make changes, but as someone who struggled with the series’ mechanics in the past, I found myself connecting with this one’s better than I would have ever hoped for with this series. Every character feels different to control, and there seems to be something for everyone. So the brawler feels like an action game fan’s dream, while I personally found the tactical and methodical approach enabled by the spellcaster to be appealing. The range of skills (sorry, artes) available for each character is staggering, and the balance is exceptional. If you’re the kind of person that likes spending hours on end carefully fine-tuning your party for maximal efficiency, the Tales of Arise has your back.
Meanwhile, if you’re new to the series (or action JRPGs), then you’ve got plenty of assists. Your party has more than competent AI, and they’re quite capable of preserving their own health while whittling away at their opponents. Indeed, on the lower difficulty settings, you can leave the fighting to them and they’ll get by without you. Enemies, meanwhile, are smart enough not to spend all their time attacking your characters, while boss battles are invigorating without ever being frustrating. You can, of course, dial the difficulty up further, at which point you’ll need to have mastery over the combat system, and there are plenty of optional battles that are designed to really test your skills. Bandai Namco hasn’t forgotten that the fanbase for this series likes to be challenged. It’s just that there’s also a clear intent here that Tales of Arise be a game to introduce people to JRPGs.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how beautiful this game is. From the soaring vistas, right through to the massive creatures and structures, Tales of Arise offers one memorable location after another. When the world goes big, with more open spaces, it is a joy to wander around and find all the little hidden delights. The more narrow dungeons, meanwhile, have a sense of flow to them. Every corner that you turn around has some different quality to it, such that, at no stage, will you think that these spaces become “repetitive.” The creative energy involved in making sure that happened will go uncelebrated by most, as it’s subtle, but it’s not less impressive than the amount of work that went into the biggest moments. The characters themselves are perhaps the aesthetic low point. Technically they’re great, but they’re just a little “standard anime fantasy heroes,” and that makes them relatively plain when compared with some of the other heroes we’ve had in our JRPGs over the years. Then again, there’s already swimwear DLC and… well, Rinwell sure looks great in her boyshorts.
Tales of Arise is magnificent. The writing is rich and evocative, and the developers took on a major creative challenge with the themes that they decided to tackle… and did a superb job. The combat system is sharp and offers plenty of complexity, while being accessible to Tales newcomers or people just looking to experience the story. The art and aesthetics are breathtaking, and about the only issue there is a lack of a photo mode so that I could make the most of it (what the hell, Bandai Namco?). I may not have been the world’s biggest fan of the Tales series previously, but this game has immediately become one of my favourite JRPGs of all time.
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