Hello. I’m Benjamin Wagner, this is my blog and today I feel like I have gone to heaven. The Tales of Series is one of the largest and most important JRPG series in existence. According to Wikipedia, it is the 7th best selling JRPG franchise of all time. The greatest book of all time, A Guide To Japanese Role Playing Games published by Bitmap Books, lists the Tales series as one of the largest JRPG series and calls its fanbase ‘passionate’. I wouldn’t know much about any of that because Tales of Arise is my first real crack at one of these titles. I have played 1 hour of Tales of Symphonia, Tales of Beseria, Tales of Vesperia and Tales of Zestiria but never got any further. Not because they were bad in any way; they just slipped back into the backlog. The first impression just wasn’t strong enough for me to feel like the game was worth jumping above the countless other games I had to choose from. It was all lining up to much the same with Tales of Arise. I bought the game when it was released in September 2021 but it immediately got pushed further and further back. The thing that changed things for me was the number of Youtubers, bloggers and reviewers that I saw praising this game to high heaven plus the combat looking a little different to what I remembered the other games having. I bumped it up my list and thought it was time to give this series a proper try.
And boy, was that a good decision.
Tales of Arise is not just my new favourite JRPG, it might very well be the best game I have ever played. Tales of Arise is amazing. Here is why.
Tales of Arise is set in a world with two warring planets; Dahna and Rena. 300 years before the main story commenced, the Renan’s routed the Dahnan’s in combat, enslaved the native folk and split their planet into five isolated locales. These locations are led by a Lord; a man or woman of noble Renan lineage and powerful Astral Artes ( a sort of magic that is unique to the Renan race). These five lords extract astral energy from the enslaved Dahnan’s and the one with the largest amount of Astral energy in their master core (a magical device that looks like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange) becomes the new sovereign of Rena. Alphen, a Dahnan slave in a conspicuous iron mask, attempts to break free of the shackles that bind him and joins the resistance; a force determined to turn the tide on their oppressive masters. To do that though, he needs the help of a prickly and mysterious Renan woman who is destined to hurt anybody who attempts to get close to her. She is determined to overthrow the five Renan lords and pledges to work together with the iron masked fighter to do so.
This synopsis is sort of bonkers, isn’t it? JRPG’s often produced story’s that are much better experienced rather than explained and this seems to be the case here as whilst playing the game, everything makes perfect sense but written on a black background, the whole thing seems a bit convoluted and mental. Nevertheless, this synopsis really is scratching the surface of what is an incredibly deep narrative. And, because of that.
Spoiler Warning: This is a spoiler warning. You have been sufficiently warned.
I did toy with the idea of writing a review that doesn’t tackle spoilers in order to appeal to potential employers in the future but I don’t feel that it is right here. Tales of Arise is a story-heavy JRPG and this is one of the driving factors on why I love this game. I won’t be spoiling everything in the game but I will go deeper than some of you may feel comfortable with. So, without further adieu, let’s dive into the amazing areas of Tales of Arise.
Amazing Area 1: Graphics
A lot of JRPG’s are very pretty. Many older games have distinct art styles and sprite work to make them stand out. Many 3D JRPG’s look good today but, if you really think about it, the budget constraints usually show through in the end. If you disregard Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, I find it difficult to recall a JRPG series that goes all-in on the visuals. I’m already pushing it with Dragon Quest. Tales of Arise has graphics that make it feel truly triple-A. You can do a lot with an anime aesthetic to cover up gaps in power and fidelity but that simply hasn’t needed to happen here. Prior to 2016’s Tales of Beseria, there was a Tales of game almost every year. Tales of Arise is the first game in the series in 5 years and this longer development cycle really, really shows. The environments vary from swelteringly molten to refreshingly tropical; all of these jumping out of the screen and inviting you to bathe in their humble embrace. The main party of characters are all anime chique and unique and even the mob NPC’s have enough visual fidelity and variation to excuse the use of duplicate models when needed. I think we have finally reached the time in gaming where games, irrelevant of genre or studio, are starting to all reach this level of graphical impressiveness. The PS4 to PS5 jump in graphics is much smaller than the leaps we saw in gaming past but the consistency of the graphical direction and style in Tales of Arise hints at it. The difference between cutscene and gameplay is now thinner than ever. Think back to the original Final Fantasy 7 where you had to have chibi characters alongside fully-drawn anime hunks just to make sure the game would run. With the ultra-powerful PC’s and consoles of today, this truly is a thing of the past and the world of Tales of Arise benefits greatly from its strongly ingrained visual identity.
Tales of Arise is not the greatest looking game of all time. But, in its field, it might just be the best looking JRPG to this date. Like saying that you aren’t the best looking man on the planet but you are the best looking one in your social group. I hope that Tales of Arise signals a bright future for JRPG series like Star Ocean, Atelier, Ys and more to make the leap and reach the levels of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and now Tales of Arise.
Amazing Area 2: Shionne & Alphen
Think back to the first JRPG you played. If you like the genre, you probably loved the experience. I bet you can remember the protagonist. I bet you remember them fondly. I even bet that they are likely one of your favourite characters. Tales of Arise manages to recreate that special feeling with its two protagonists; the hero Alphen and the heroine Shionne.
As written in the bible of JRPG’s (Old Testament, Book of Namco, Verse 15, Paragraph 4), ‘Thou hero must’th hath a backstory shrouded in’th mystery’.
We meet our main character before he even learns his own name and is instead known as ‘Iron Mask’ because he wears a large iron mask that he is unable to remove for some reason. Seemingly also because of the mask, Alphen is completely immune to pain. This makes his life as a slave slightly more bearable but far from ideal. Though his memories are limited, his moral compass is still as straight as ever; putting himself in harm’s way to help those around him. And this moral compass leads him into the path of our heroine; Shionne. This beautiful young lady is found captured and handcuffed in a train cart but is saved by a stroke of luck as the revolutionary group, The Crimson Crows, ambush the Renan slave lords and whisk Shionne away from them under their nose. This is where Alphen’s party trick is revealed. His immunity to pain even allows him to touch Shionne; a lady who has been cursed with ‘thorns’ spawning from her body and harming anybody around her.
Alphen is a pretty cliched character, all things considered. He is the lawful good and the ever-optimistic progressive light that a story like this one needs to survive. He helps whoever he can and puts others first. He has great strength and inspires those around him. But cliches and stereotypes exist for a reason; they work. They speak to people. They make the player feel safe. But the beauty of Tales of Arise is that Alphen is deeper than just the cliches. His character is more than that. He goes on a journey not just with his feet but with his emotions as well. He evolves from a masked amnesiac to a reluctant hero and finally, after regaining his memories, a sovereign who has to deal with his past sins. Alphen has believable and relatable development. His goals are understandable and his doubts even more so. He even has a minor breakdown during the story and the way this is dealt with hits a little closer to home than I expected.
Shionne is just as compelling a character, maybe even more so. She again fits the typical anime cliches you would expect. She is a frosty tsundere (a girl who hides her affection with biting remarks and a cold demeanour to hide her embarrassment), has a heartbreakingly sad backstory and the ever-present threat that the ending might just be as sad as I am Setsuna. It can be a little difficult to warm to Shionne, especially if you are not as well-versed in the good cult of a-nime as I am but her initial prickliness is by design and by that design it is intrinsically linked to her character. That’s right, just like Alphen, Shionne has a curse of her own but instead of it being a hulking, irremovable mask it is a magical curse that causes pain to any who try to touch her. Ironically, it is known as ‘her thorns’. Quite poetic, if you think about it considering she is as beautiful as a rose. Watching this young lady who knew nothing but loneliness gradually open her heart to her travelling companions is one of the biggest joys that this game brings and her ‘will they, won’t they’ romance with Alphen could have a Shoujo manga written about it. Heck, I’d read it.
And whilst the main story does a great job in fleshing out these characters, they come to life even more in the optional ‘skits’ that appear at incredibly regular intervals. These skits are short conversations that appear in a manga style on screen and flesh out a plot point or have the party members chatting irreverently to one another. These not only add depth to each party member but also act as a good cooling off point; a moment of respite when the stories get heavy or the battles too numerous. They also have some of the funniest moments in the game hidden in them, often involving a pet owl that tags along for the journey.
Alphen and Shionne are more than they should be. On paper, they are cliched anime characters that people have seen dozens of times. In reality, they create such a warm and likeable pair that you can overlook the cliches and stereotypes and just enjoy the invigorating relationship or what it is. Beautiful.
Amazing Area 3: The supporting cast
A JRPG is more than just your main character(s). Other party members and memorable NPC’s are needed to make your game sing and this game is like the Sister Act choir; a truly angelic chorus of sass and beauty. Rinwell, a young mage that you come across in the second area of the game, is understandably a little confrontational at first. Please remember that the native Dahnan’s have been oppressed by the Renan’s for such a time that the resentment between the two races is massive. Rinwell has known nothing but this oppression and only has a small owl named Hootle to keep her company. She warms to Alphen and Law, the son of Alphen’s saviour Zephyr, quickly but finds it harder to accept the help of Shionne. For her, she is the very personification of the enemy. Shionne isn’t a human to bond with but a Renan to be chastised and dealt with. Rinwell, through Alphen’s guidance and learning about Shionne’s kindness, grows as a person. She learns to see others for what they are, not how they were born. She learns that every person, be it Renan or Dahnan, has their own problems, goals and setbacks. She grows through each conversation, through each battle, through each meal. She learns to love her party members for their personality, not their race.
And this is really what this game shoves down your throat at every instance. The message is constant and unending and it works because the message is sound. It is universal. Each character has an arc that involves accepting their past, the mistakes they’ve made and attempting to strive forward to a more fulfilling future. The companions I am yet to mention, Dohalim and Kisara, both strive to make a world where Dahnan’s and Renan’s can co-exist peacefully and, to do so, confront the naivety and mistakes they have made and the lives that were lost through their previous misguided attempt at this. Even Law, the rambunctious young son of Zephyr, struggles to come to terms with the death of his father knowing that he was an indirect cause of the event. And, by the by, Zephyr’s death is not really a spoiler. It was abundantly clear to me from moment one that he would die; it was actually the third note I wrote about the game whilst playing. He just kept triggering death flags and paid the price. But even despite this hamfisted death, even he becomes an important character through some clever writing and a carefully built first act that doesn’t rush through the plot points.
Half of what makes the characters so great is the personality traits themselves mixing with one another but the other half is just exceptional writing. There is sadness, humour and understanding that is just universally entertaining. Heck, the side characters and villains even get a decently fleshed out story and development as well. I was going to go through each character one-by-one akin to my Final Fantasy 7 Remake review but… Well, quite frankly I can’t be bothered. Nobody in their right mind would read through that and I think you should just go play the damn game now anyway.
Regardless of my bone-idleness, we move onto another amazing factor.
Amazing Area 4: Superb combat and progression
One thing I did notice when I tried the previous games in the Tales of series was that I found the combat a little underwhelming. Not bad, per se, but that it didn’t really hold a candle to the refined and traditional Dragon Quest, the progressive and exciting Final Fantasy or the relaxed but engaging Atelier games. Tales of Arise goes in completely the opposite direction and manages to create an action combat system that is simultaneously challenging and a hell of a lot of fun. As you would expect, you have a standard attack and a dodge and these are very, very functional. But it is the special moves that you map to three of the face buttons that add extra depth. Then, as the game progresses and your affinity with a move increases, you can hold that button down for a stronger attack or a new attack entirely. Also, by pressing an arrow button when a character portrait is lit up activates a powerful special move or ability that can deal massive damage or, depending on the character, cast a buff or debuff. Did I also mention that if you manage to break the enemies defence you can activate a screen wipe style attack? Oh, and did I mention that this is all expertly balanced by the use of the ‘CP’ system; CP standing for cure points and the number limits the amount of healing and buffing a party can do which balances combat and prevents the game from becoming too easy. (And as I was playing on story mode, the easy mode of this game, this balance surprised me). Did I mention that three other party members fight alongside you with surprisingly intelligent AI that you can programme (sort of) to your own needs?
Honestly, the combat in Tales of Arise is breathtaking and it never left me cold. I was constantly engaged; staring at the screen like a lecher into the girls’ showers. The variety. The visual spectacle. The surprising need for balance between attack and defence. This game gave me the complete experience and a feeling that I often chase but struggle to find. I won’t say that I preferred this system to Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s but it is at the very least on par with it. And that is an achievement in itself.
And the achievements don’t stop there as Tales of Arise manages to outclass its much more famous rival in terms of skill progression. The skill-trees used in this game involve unlocking titles by unlocking various perks and abilities on a skill tree through points earned in battle. Pretty standard stuff in this modern era of Ubisoft style gaming. The difference is that the skill-trees always feel manageable. Each character has a large potential for growth but, as the titles unlock in tandem with the story or depend on you completing optional content, you never get the Final Fantasy 7 Remake problem of struggling to understand what is going on on the screen. Final Fantasy 7 Remake put in an auto button for its skill trees because it knew it was hard to grasp. Tales of Arise didn’t need to do this because they designed their system well and made unlocking nodes on a skill tree more fun than it has been in years. Honestly, as much as I love the story in this game, it won’t be for everybody because of the anime of the matter. However, the combat is something that I would implore everybody to pick up and try. Just do it.
Amazing Area 5: Soundtrack
I have said time and time again that I am not the best at judging the quality of music in a video game. I have long held the belief that if you don’t notice a soundtrack, it is probably pretty decent. You only sit up and pay attention when it is either so good or so bad you can’t help but notice. In Tales of Arise, it is the former; so good in fact that I am actually going to try and talk about it.
From the very moment the game boots, you are greeted with a beautiful J-Pop anime opening song that sets the tone for the upcoming adventure. Upbeat, deep rock guitars and beautifully controlled vocals get you pumped for the inevitable ups and downs that await you. The song is in Japanese but the lyrics themselves are also well written and the chorus is incredibly catchy. It’s on my Spotify playlist so it’s definitely good.
Then we get to the game itself and the BGM and battle tunes that pepper your experience is just as good. Final Fantasy 7 had some of the best adrenaline creating music in gaming but I would say that Tales of Arise manages to outdo the master once more here. Honestly, the fact I still have some of these tunes going around in my head a week after finishing this game is a testament to just how strong the compositions are.
And that would be enough. Except, after you finish the first part of the story: i.e., defeat the Five Lords that have been in control of Dahna for 300 years before you came along, we are greeted with a second anime opening. This signals that the story almost starts anew here; like moving from Alabasta to Skypeia in One Piece or one book of Harry Potter to the next. The song you are greeted with is much more melancholic and has a deeper feeling of longing attached to it. Ayaka’s voice creates a soft and sad atmosphere that fits the story developments at the time. Here, the game doesn’t need to amp you up. You are invested. You are here to the end. The game knows this and changes tune with maestro-like intellect.
I think I did a decent job of that.
Oh, and I don’t have a separate section for it but the voice acting is top class. I chose Japanese voices because it is just what I prefer but the English voice acting is on the same sort of level as Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s which is a pleasant change from the normal cringe-inducing anime American tropey voices we are usually subjected to. The Japanese cast, while I’m on them, all put in stunning performances and manage to bring personality to these characters with the sort of effortless grace that a prima ballerina would envy. Rinwell and her owl are the two that stand out the most to me but they are very truly the best of an already stand-out voice cast. Incredible work.
Amazing Area 6: JRPG-ish story but still amazing (a little convoluted but incredibly engaging. Lore heavy but fun.)
This story is bonkers and I absolutely adore it. What begins as an amnesiac joining a revolution transforms into this same man becoming the country’s hero and being the light of resistance against the slavers. The setup isn’t overly original; defeat 5 bosses to free the land and reach your goal. But it is never as straightforward as it looks on paper. Each area has a unique story arc of its own and often surprised me in how they panned out. The first area is more of a tutorial zone than anything but I still found the interactions between Shionne and the revolutionary Dahnan’s to be eye-opening; a lesson in how much hatred is trapped on this planet. Then moving to the second area of Cyslodia, the story seems to follow a similar path before pulling the sheets from beneath us and performing a David Blaine level switcheroo. It was here I could see that this game took risks in a vacuum. The developers managed to create a world and story that felt familiar but also new and exciting. As if this game were created for long time JRPG fans; teasing them into a false sense of security before pulling down their trousers and changing the script. Area three, Elde Menancia, changes the script once more and has us enter an area that isn’t hostile and instead has the Renan’s and Dahnan’s working in harmony. Of course, this doesn’t last and we end up helping in a sort of civil war but even this doesn’t go as you would expect. Lands 4 and 5 are much the same and both twist the story to keep it fresh. But the story doesn’t end after you beat the lords. No, the game then hits the accelerator, revs to 5000, and shifts up a gear. You even end up in space!
I did forget at times that this game had many sci-fi influences before panning the camera up and spotting the satellite that hovers just off the planet’s atmosphere; always watching. The final 5-10 hours of the game keeps the momentum going and it never really stops until the final whistle. Sure, the game gets wordy near the end but the lore explanations and the incredible plot twists that happen do enough to keep the game engaging. And whilst I could see Zephyr’s death from a mile off, most of these end-game spoilers were gripping and kept me on the edge of my seat. Basically, I didn’t know how this game would end and it made the final scenes even more worthwhile to watch. I do love a happy ending.
I’m going to say it here. Go and play this game. Play it now, then message me and we’ll talk. I’m not going to spoil every plot detail or this review will be 15,000 words long. Just play it. Anybody can message me about this and I will be happy to talk at length about it. Offer is open; no time limit. Ball is in your court!
Amazing Area 7: Difficulty levels for everybody
This will probably be minor to some people but I found the balance between the difficulty levels to be very, very good. If I wanted a challenge, I could turn the difficulty up for a couple of fights before switching down to a more manageable story difficulty so I could enjoy the story. Hell, even on story mode, there are a couple of fights that can be very challenging if you are levelled enough or if you don’t learn the patterns and dodge. The gameplay rewards defence as much as attack and learning to balance the amount of CP being used can be a challenge regardless of the difficulty balancing. I found this game to be extremely well suited to my tastes but there are various harder options for the masochists who enjoy dying over and over. Honestly, it’s options like this that make Returnal hurt even more. Oh well.
So, yeah. This game is truly incredible. I love it so much that I really wish I could wipe my memory just to experience it all again. I will tell everybody I know ( a small list, but still) to play the game and the memories I made in game will live with me a good while. But, the game still isn’t perfect. How could it be? No, a couple of irks to tick off before we all go for a pint.
Minor Irk 1: Buyable EXP packs
Yeah, this is a pain in the ass. A modern trend in video games that is about as scummy as a man in a silk suit, the potential to buy level boosts and ways to increase in-game progress with real money really sucks. I have never had a problem with loot boxes for cosmetic items. Skins and costumes, which this game also offers, are fine for those it interests, if not usually a bit pricey for my liking. However, by implementing packs that include items that boost the experience gains after battle by double or increase your level by 10 in an instant really feels crap. It throws off the balance of the game and tempts the player into doing something they really don’t need to just for convenience. And yes, I did buy one of these just to try it out. It isn’t expensive, only about £2. That doesn’t make it okay. It makes the game feel unfinished- as if they left it like this so they could tempt unknowing saps (like me) into buying them. It is all the more egregious here in a single-player JRPG with intervals that require a bit of level grinding to catch up. Honestly, it doesn’t ruin the experience but their mere presence taints the game with an eggy-odour of sleaze that it didn’t need.
Minor Irk 2: Last 5 hours is very wordy, monster variety is limited and combat gauntlets can become tedious in the final dungeon
I mean, JRPG’s are known for having endings that read like a novel and Tales of Arise is no exception. The last 5 or so hours of the main story is very plot-heavy and the amount of lore heavy dialogue can be a little overwhelming. The story is undoubtedly interesting and I really love all the twists and turns they thrust upon the player but it will make the endgame a little tedious for a few. Granted, voice acting does make this a little more bearable. Speaking of minor gripes, the variation of monster types is also a little underwhelming as you will be fighting wolves and golems until the very last minute, albeit with different colour palettes and various movesets. And honestly, I could do without the combat gauntlet in the final dungeon as it makes it just a little bit tedious but…
You know what. I don’t really care about any of that. And that takes me to the crux of the matter.
Crux of the Matter
This game is the best modern adaption of the JRPG genre. Sandbox style open areas. Energetic, fluid and engaging action combat. A beautifully weaved narrative and a lovable cast. Stunning graphics. None of these things are new in isolation but this is the best blend of all of the relevant parts to this date. Final Fantasy 7 Remake struggled to last the distance. Tales of Arise lasts it and then some. The few minor flaws are so minor that the massive, hulking plusses dwarf them and make them as forgettable as Darius Danesh’s number 1 single Colourblind. This game is simply one of the best I have played. There were no performance hitches and no moments where I thought of quitting; even in my previous favourites Dragon Quest 11 and Final Fantasy 7 Remake I had moments of boredom and doubt. Heck, I think I might even prefer this to Atelier Lulua and I never thought I’d say that in my lifetime. Tales of Arise manages to miraculously burst free of the thorns that bound it and not just match the bigger budget Square Enix franchises but go as far as trouncing them too. I give Tales of Arise:
Tales of Arise: 9.8/10– Simply the most polished and enjoyable JRPG I have had the pleasure to experience. Play this game. The Tales of franchise has just had its Final Fantasy 7 moment.
Yes. I love this game and I think any JRPG fan would be lucky to enjoy this one. If you’ve played it, please leave a comment and tell me what you loved about the game. If not…get lost? Anyway, I’ve been Benjamin Wagner and I endorse this message.