Getting its start in 1995 with Tales of Phantasia on the Super Famicom, the Tales franchise has seen spurts of growth and regression in the west. Tales of Arise is positioned as the series’ 25th-anniversary celebration much like Tales of Zestiria was its 20th-anniversary game. This milestone coincides with the IP’s most successful worldwide launch, selling one million units in a week; an insane milestone for a previously niche JRPG series. With that said, is Tales of Arise worthy of these lofty metrics?
New Technology for a New Audience
That depends on one’s definition of worthy. The studio’s expected audience reach likely motivated the radical technical overhaul. As late as 2017’s Tales of Berseria, Bandai Namco was still considering the ancient PlayStation 3 in their development cycle. It’s only now after the new wave of consoles that the studio finally left the PS3 behind to make the PS4 and Xbox One the lowest common denominators. Better late than never, right?
Furthermore, Tales of Arise drops prior in-house engines in favor of Unreal Engine 4. This radical shift is a tale of two swords. On one hand, it’s a generational leap over previous Tales offerings, still beholden to 2006 technology until only a few years ago. Lighting, textures, character models, and geometry are worlds apart from Tales of Zestiria and Berseria. On the other hand, the team’s limited resources show in the actual rendering set-up, especially on next-gen consoles.
The fact that there’s either a fixed 1620p resolution at a stable 60fps or native 4K with an unlocked framerate on PS5 and Series X that gets surprisingly close to 60 frames per second shows how behind the times Bandai Namco are. Dynamic resolution scaling has become a standard part of most engines and games this past generation. In fact, many games now combine DRS with reconstruction to further boost image quality while saving on performance, which makes these fixed resolutions feel like a bygone era from when Tales of Zestiria launched.
A dynamic 1620p to 1800p, possibly with reconstruction to 4K, would have probably been fine given how stable the game is in its current performance mode. With the game’s aggressive use of the engine’s temporal anti-aliasing, image quality is softer than you’d expect. This residual softness hurts a game with such a striking visual style that would only benefit from sharper image quality.
More concerning is the level of detail setting. Not having played Tales of Arise on a last-gen console, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next-gen iterations are just resolution and framerate bumps given how egregious it is. Sprint for four seconds and watch as a rock formation in the near-distance morphs three times. NPC’s in towns even pop in relatively close to the player model. Despite being next-gen optimized, the level of detail settings and degree of pop-in are far worse than most last-gen titles.
It’s a shame that such a radical overhaul in technology is hamstrung by developers that aren’t capable of utilizing that technology to the extent most developers have for the better part of the last generation. This presentation doesn’t feel befitting of a 25th-anniversary celebration.
This theme of mixed execution extends to combat. Much like the visuals, it’s pretty on the surface with deeper dives showcasing the rough edges. If nothing else, Tale of Arise has the series’ most intuitive combat system. It eschews the linear motion battle systems of old in favor of more traditional 3D movement. No longer needing to hold a modifying trigger to traverse around an enemy in a 3D space makes general movement feel more natural.
This intuitiveness carries into the core combat mechanics. Basic attacks are mapped to a shoulder button with artes assigned to three face buttons–two sets of artes for the ground and air for a total of six artes, extending to twelve later on, in the midst of a fight. This delineation makes it easier to find combos that fit. Whereas previous Tales entries required some degree of trial and error to allocate artes to various functions, Tales of Arise streamlines the process, making it next to impossible to mix and match artes that don’t mix well together.
Pulling off visually exciting and personalized combos has never been easier. Remember watching insane Tales combo videos on YouTube and wondering how someone managed to pull that off? That spectacle is more or less what Tales of Arise attempts to capture with its streamlining. This would be a noble effort were it not for the lack of depth. Every Tales game has its own combat quirks to take advantage of.
Tales of Vesperia, for example, has free-run and manual cancels which can be used to cancel out of locked animations states and extend combos. Tales of Arise doesn’t seem to have tech like this, however, partially because Vesperia‘s tech relied on the old linear motion battle system which doesn’t exist in Arise. There is a quick swap function that can be used to switch characters on the fly in the midst of a boost attack. This rests more firmly in spectacle, though, lacking the same execution barrier as prior Tales‘ games advanced tech.
Tales of Arise‘s story is where its appeal to the west is felt most significantly. The main plot involves the Iron Mask and Shionne racing to defeat the lords of the Dhanan homeworld’s different rulers. Iron Mask is incapable of feeling pain whereas Shionne’s body inflicts an immediate shock to anyone that touches her. This creates an interesting dynamic, especially as they are from different races.
This universe’s inhabitants are separated by their Dhanan or Renan descent. Renans rule over the Dhanans, who live out their entire lives in slavery. Dhanans aren’t even afforded the luxury of having last names. Going only by first names, the Dhanans are treated as sub-human, denied their birthright and heritage through a lack of any familial lineage that can be traced. They exist as cogs in the Renans’ well-oiled machine.
As your party grows and travels the world, this racial inequality becomes the thematic focal point. The rulers of the planet’s different realms harvest energy from their Dhanan slaves in a bid to win the crown contest and become the new sovereign. Renans and Dhanans are constantly butting heads. Even when they’re working together on a common goal. There’s a constant tension between the races because of the 300 years of systematic oppression whereby Dhanans no longer have a cultural footprint even within Dhana. Rather, their entire homeworld is inhabited by Renan technology and structures.
It’s a noble message; one which anybody can identify with. Unfortunately, it’s handled with about as much subtlety as you’d expect. That is to say, Tales of Arise constantly beats players over the head with the strife between the races and the unfair nature of this futile systematic oppression. The constant reminders of this plainly obvious oppression dilute its meaning. We’re adults. We know oppression is bad and we can see the extent of it in the state of the world as we visit the different realms. We can see the economic disparities, tension, and speak to the Dhanans and Renans. Give your audience a little credit, Bandai Namco.
Luckily, the core cast salvages an otherwise unremarkable narrative. With six-party members from varying backgrounds with different personalities, Tales of Arise features solid banter. Whether it’s Hootle’s cute ass attitude when Law makes a disparaging remark about Rinwell or Kisara’s obsessively motherly instincts, there are a lot of entertaining conversations. Sure, most of them border on tried and true anime stereotypes, but it’s the way these personalities mix and clash that makes them so endearing.
The Elephants in the Room
Tales of Arise can’t be discussed without addressing its level scaling and DLC practices. Modern JRPG’s regularly offer paid content that gives players better weapons, provides experience boosts, or even bonus dungeons that act as extra grinding opportunities.
This is the direction the genre has been in for a while. Etrian Odyssey has done it. Even the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games have taken this route. Hell, Tales began this practice with Tales of Vesperia in 2008. This isn’t an inherently poor decision as in most cases, this DLC feels redundant. They’re often boosts for JRPG newcomers that need the help or players with little patience for the genre’s associated grind. The core games have typically felt balanced properly for the base game with the DLC essentially taking the place of cheats.
This isn’t the case with Tales of Arise, though, which feels so precisely tuned to tempt even veterans into potentially considering paying extra. The issue is two-fold: level scaling and the rate of XP acquisition. Players will find themselves over-levelled for the standard mobs filling each dungeon only to come across a boss many levels above them. In some cases, defeating a boss is as simple as equipping everyone with the right accessory. In other cases, it requires levelling up a few times to sustain the damage they’re dishing out.
This wouldn’t be worth mentioning were it not for how slowly XP accrues. It takes roughly 30 hours to get access to a system called the chain bonus. Battle mobs in quick succession to increase the chain gauge’s level and increase combat points. These combat points modify the number of skill points and experience points doled out after each battle. Even with a maxed chain bonus gauge, running around grinding on the highest level mobs available to you rarely pays meaningful dividends.
Tales of Arise isn’t absurdly difficult by any means even on moderate, which rests between normal and hard. Rather, its balancing feels engineered to bloat the playtime. Aside from the bosses, many new areas will feature enemies many levels above the player’s current level and while these encounters are rarely difficult, they drag on because of the RPG numbers game. Creatures end up taking too long to dispatch even with the most powerful weapons available at that point in time. Combat pacing is an element of action RPG’s that’s rarely considered, but Arise makes a strong case for why it’s just as important as every other facet of combat. At its worst, it’s the JRPG equivalent to those overly drawn-out matches on Battlefield‘s Operation Metro map. It’s an exciting map in shorter bursts with peaks and valleys much like Tales of Arise‘s battles. Stretched too thin, however, it loses its luster.
Tales of Arise is a battle of attrition; its level scaling and XP acquisition is never so bad as to make the DLC necessary. With that said, the overall experience would have been immensely more enjoyable with a more reasonable rate of levelling and level scaling. Even if it’s rarely difficult, its mob battles often last too long. More importantly, though, this balancing betrays one of the genre’s most enticing elements: progression. That dopamine rush from levelling up or acquiring enough skill points to invest in a skill comes so infrequently that it never reaches the flow state so many RPG’s should rest firmly in.
The other elephant in the room concerns multiplayer. Tales of Arise removes the co-op that’s been a series staple since 1997’s Tales of Destiny. According to an interview with IGN, producer Yusuke Tomizawa said Tales of Arise is, “really a standalone game where one person really enjoys the drama”. Tomizawa goes on to defend this decision by assuring the combat mechanics involve more co-operation with the party members in the form of its boost attacks and boost strikes.
This argument doesn’t hold weight because Tales of Arise is far from the series’ most accomplished, dramatic narrative with its ham-fisted messaging. The new combat system’s mechanics also hold so much promise in a cooperative setting. Previously, players would just be doing their own thing in battles. Due to the nature of how boost attacks work along with the action gauge, however, Tales of Arise would necessitate coordination with your buddy. This would have made for a more tactical and difficult cooperative experience that differentiated itself from solo play in an interesting way.
25 Years of Tales
Tales of Arise is such a conflicting experience for a long-time fan. Its triumphs can’t go understated. Combat is intuitive. It just works in a way that’s immediately enjoyable. The cast is interesting enough to carry the adventure and skits may not be as emotive as the 2D art, but their integration is more immersive. With nearly every success, though, there’s an associated “yeah but…” attached to it.
The cast is endearing, but they’re the center of a plot whose hokey writing diminish the impact of its message. Combat is intuitive, but it’s also doesn’t reach the depth of entries like Tales of Vesperia or Graces F. It’s visually stunning…in comparison to the previous games. Seeing as they were built for PlayStation 3, it damn well better be stunning in comparison to a 15-year-old console. Tales of Arise lacks the grandiosity and polish befitting of the 25th anniversary. That isn’t to say it’s a bad game. Far from it in fact–but this franchise deserves better now that it’s in the mainstream spotlight.