The story of Tales of Arise hits a lot of different notes, beginning with what is effectively a slave rebellion, escalating into something much more by the end of the game. In the world of Tales of Arise, there are two planets, Dhana and Rena, and sometime 300 years before the start of the game Renan forces invaded Dhana and enslaved all of its people for nefarious aims. You quickly become acquainted with the amnesiac main character, face covered by a large iron mask, living the life of a slave, forced to work each day for his oppressors while unable to feel pain or recall his own name. Tales of Arise starts out with a very interesting premise: Oppressed vs oppressor, and Alphen soon tries to protect a prickly young woman named Shionne whose goal is to kill the five Renan lords, who are basically the, “Kings” of each country in Dhana. Cornered by the forces of the slavers, Shionne releases a flaming sword that burns anyone who wields it- convenient, then, that she’s a healer, and that Alphen can’t feel the scathing heat as his arm catches fire while wielding the sword.
The new visual style for Tales works extremely well, with cinematography and more characterized animations that put older Tales games to shame. For example, Alphen walking around with half of a mask on his face would normally appear quite silly, but it seems almost triumphant when he remembers his name because part of his mask shattered during combat. The more dynamic animations and great voice acting do such a great job that you won’t remember that it’s kind of goofy that Alphen has his face obscured, because the scene completely sells you on why his face is covered, and lets you know that there are more secrets to come.
To add on top of this, the crew of Arise will regularly have endearing banter with one another in skits that have a similar visual style to the ones in Scarlet Nexus- presented as in-engine manga panels, sometimes expanding on story information, or just for laughs. For the most part, each character has a personality quirk that hopes to captivate the player (though some may take more time than others, such as prickly, tsundere Shionne), such as a mage girl who has such an intense indignation of the treatment of Dhanans, that she fights using every spell you could imagine except Indignation. Another is a traitor to his own people, and eventually joins you so that he can be half the man his father taught him to be. Each party member you meet has a reason to join you, and further, a reason to join you until the end of the story, which is somewhat refreshing considering many JRPGs introduce characters as set pieces and then the writing forgets that their business concluded 20 hours prior to the end of the game, that sort of thing.
Combat in Tales of Arise is very similar to previous entries, yet still maintains a new, distinctive flair. You attack with normals and artes (basically your special attacks), and once you stagger a foe you can launch them into the air and beat on them until you run out of points in your Action Gauge. Each character has their own unique mechanic they bring to combat- Alphen is able to draw the Blazing Sword and spend his health to boost damage, while the magic caster Rinwell is able to hold and charge multiple spells so that she can cast powerful arcane artes you may not have even unlocked yet. Each party member has a special ability that make them more fun to play and healthily differentiates the cast, so if sword-swinging with Alphen isn’t your speed, you can try using the bareknuckle brawler or the knight who wields a shield and a mace, instead (these characters were shown in promotional materials, but they will not be named here so as to avoid spoilers).
The new additions to the Tales formula are probably the best new mechanics in a very long time- each party member has a gauge on the lower left of the screen that fills up as you attack and defeat enemies. Once this Boost gauge is full, you can call in a character to attack your target with a special arte that can debilitate certain enemies. Shionne, for example, can be called in to shoot flying enemies out of the sky, leaving them grounded and vulnerable for the upcoming pummeling, while Rinwell can be called in to interrupt enemy casters, steal their spells, and use their magic against them. Each Boost attack has a specific kind of enemy it works against, except Alphen’s, which is a guaranteed knockdown against every enemy in the game- making his Boost attack invaluable against human bosses in the game whom you can’t otherwise stun or stagger. Using Boost Artes also refunds some spent Action Points, letting you combo longer, as well!
There are also special Boost Strikes that you can perform, which are flashy, cinematic attacks that deal big damage. Comboing enemies fills the diamond-shaped targeting indicator, and the more hits and less health an enemy has, the faster this meter fills. Once filled, you can press the dpad to be treated to a brief cutscene of two of your characters combining their powers to decimate that target, giving you an extremely rewarding payoff for comboing enemies. These attacks often have decent area-of-effect ranges too, so it’s not uncommon to combo 1 enemy out of 4 with the Boost Strike killing all foes in the battle. For the most part, players will want to reach high combos, which you’ll do by mixing your attacks, launching and juggling enemies, and mix in your Boost Artes regularly to get the flashy-but-powerful Boost Strikes.
Characters that the player doesn’t control are used by the AI, to varying degrees of success. You can mostly control what your party does- setting variables such as, “If a party member’s HP falls below 75%, heal” or, “If own HP is below 50%, stay away” can do a long way in improving the survivability of your AI teammates. You can also turn on or off learned artes while a character is in CPU control- extremely valuable with AI Alphen, because he’ll spend all of his HP killing a floating gremlin then die because he was at 1 HP and forgot how to dodge. This will happen constantly, so if you’re not in a boss fight, turn Alphen’s Blazing Sword artes off or deal with his suicidal tendencies.
Since there’s no MP, TP, or anything that would moderate spell casting in Arise, players can spam their artes as often as they want, especially compared to previous entries. Healing, however, is restricted to the amount of CP you have. Certain buff spells, healing, and resurrections consume CP, of which you get a small amount at the end of battles, but can also be recovered with gels or by resting at a camp or an inn. CP is also used to open certain areas of various dungeons throughout the game, as you might encounter a location where a treasure chest is locked behind a wall of flames and Alphen can spend 10% of your CP to disperse the wall. This makes for a bit of an interesting dynamic in that, if you do very poorly in combat, you might have to spend items to fully explore a dungeon, but for the most part that never really came into play, as the only time I bottomed out my CP gauge was when I accidentally walked into a late-game location with enemies 15-20 levels above mine. Or, perhaps, you may run out of CP because the AI spends all of its HP then dies to a love tap, such is life.
The visuals of Tales of Arise already received some strong praise above, but it’s worth mentioning again how gorgeous this game looks, especially when compared with Xillia all the way through Berseria. Arise captures the “Anime, but game” aesthetic that previous titles have tried to do so much, but failed to do so. It doesn’t hurt that Arise runs fantastically on somewhat dated PC hardware, getting a constant 60fps with a Ryzen 3900X and a GTX 1070 at 1440p. Similar to the graphics, Tales of Arise has a stellar soundtrack, with this being one of Motoi Sakuraba’s best works. The normal battle theme gives strong vibes of Baten Kaitos (for all three people who remember that game), while every other theme in the game suits the mood, or gets you hyped for battle (amusingly enough, an orchestrated version of the large monster theme from Vesperia plays when you’re trying to catch a boss fish).
Outside of the story and combat, there’s still plenty to do with loads of side quests that yield a variety of rewards, and is the primary method from which you’ll earn money in the first portions of the game. After reaching a certain point, you’ll be able to fish, participate in the arena to take on special challenge battles of differing levels which can reward you with special costumes, titles, and equipment, and you can also hunt various owls throughout the land which gives you special attachments like glasses and animal tails. There’s a fair amount of side content, though if you just primarily wanted to play the story, you could likely finish Tales of Arise in around 35-40 hours, and it might take 60-80 hours to fully complete.
Tales of Arise is a great game with an absolutely fantastic experience. There are a few nitpicks that can be made, such as the sometimes mediocre AI with either a complete inability to dodge, or the willingness to kamikaze at the drop of a hat, but for the most part that can be managed by spending some time in the Strategy menu and customizing your experience. Another major nitpick is the DLC practices of the game, where buying the deluxe version of the game will give you special bonus titles as well as artes the characters can’t learn anywhere else. Most of the DLC artes are lackluster, but one character is unable to learn an area-of-effect healing arte without the DLC, which is an incredibly odd choice.
It’s up to the individual player whether those couple of drawbacks is enough to ruin the experience- for myself, it had absolutely no impact, though I know there are people substantially more annoyed by poor DLC practices. For those who are sensitive to those kinds of procedures, Arise is perfectly playable without the bonus DLC costumes and artes, and shows that Bandai Namco has improved dramatically since the missteps made with Tales of Zestiria. If you’re after an excellent JRPG with fantastic combat, strong fantasy visual design, great music, and a decent story, Tales of Arise will definitely be worth your attention.