|Platforms||PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, Microsoft Windows|
|Release Date||September 10, 2021|
For almost a decade, I eschewed video games for board games, until Breath of the Wild reminded me of what I had been missing. And what I had been missing was actually an entire era of Tales: there are seven Tales titles available for the PlayStation 3, while only Tales of Berseria was developed for the PS4—until now. In the leadup to Tales of Arise, I went back and played nine other Tales games all the way through. I’m not sure the last time I anticipated a game as much as this one. Did I set myself up for disappointment? Let’s find out!
THERE ARE SPOILERS in this section. Skip down to the main review if you’d rather not see. I do my best to be vague.
Language: Many instances of d-mn, h-ll, p-ss. F–k is replaced by “freaking” which is used some, as is “crap” instead of sh-t.
Sexual Content: First, to be clear, there are no sexual acts beyond a single kiss between two characters. However, there is plenty of innuendo in the dialogue, some obvious (“hey, check out the hot chick over there,”) to subtle jokes, to an expression of concern over potential sexual assault (“he didn’t, like, do anything to you, did he?”). Primarily the sexual content is the way outfits just slightly push things; Shionne’s skirt is a bit too short in the front, and Kisara’s armor has an open back for no good reason. One major story boss has a nonsensical, revealing outfit. There are two optional hot springs quests; the men are shown in towels, the women are only shown from the neck up, but the scenes are again full of suggestive dialogue.
Violence: Most of the game has you fighting monsters, but almost all of the story bosses are humans, and many end up dead. Many NPCs are also killed; in particular, an entire town square full of people are liquefied in an instant. A large swath of NPCs are enslaved, some by force, some by deception, some by flat-out mind control, and many are killed.
Drugs & Alcohol: There are references to drinking at a bar; when a pair of characters feel strange, they think they were drugged or drank too much at the bar.
Spirituality and Themes: The overall “ideal” pushed in the narrative is one of overcoming one’s circumstances and creating one’s own destiny, much like many other JRPGs. There’s a sense that it requires teamwork and a family of loved ones, but generally presents an idea that supernatural beings are to be rejected and overcome. The game also focuses heavily on slavery and overcoming the enslavement of the people of Dahna, but to be honest, a world of predominantly white people being enslaved feels a little weird and tone deaf in 2021.
I’m going to do this review in reverse and talk up front about my frustrations, for two reasons: one, this game is so good that I want to end on a positive note; two, the problems with this game are so frustrating that I don’t want you to finish this review with that taste in your mouth.
There are two major flaws with Tales of Arise, both of which are completely fixable. The first, larger issue is that the game’s DLC is absolutely insidious. There’s a “news ticker” every time your characters camp (which is often), reminding you over and over that there’s DLC you can buy to boost your stats. And the bigger temptation to do it is that the game’s difficulty is inflated unnecessarily. I played the game in Story Mode (below Easy), and it was on par with Normal difficulties in past titles. I know this because, again, this is the tenth Tales game I’ve played in the past 2 years. In Story Mode, the game still took 45 hours to complete (easily 10+ more hours than any other Tales title), largely due to the amount of combat necessary. Occasionally the game forces the grind artificially, forbidding fast travel out of a completed dungeon without a reason (no cutscenes on the way back). Confession is part of the Christian faith, and I am ashamed to admit this crap worked on me. After 45 hours for the main quest, I really wanted to see everything else the game had to offer, but I did not want to grind another 50 levels, so I spent $14 on leveling DLC at that point. There’s also an intentional dearth of in-game currency (gald), but I managed to stay strong on that front. (Note: On 10/7/21, a Very Easy mode was added, presumably in response to complaints like mine.)
The second issue is that the game’s dialogue transcription is absolutely abysmal. I’m not talking about the actual writing, but the way it shows on the subtitles. The voice actors are given great lines and deliver them impeccably, but then the subtitles are filled to the brim with errors. I saw missing words, extra words (“to to”), many iterations of the wrong “you’re” or “it’s”, and more. One campsite discussion has Shionne’s voice saying something while the text on the screen is a completely different, irrelevant line. Whoever transcribed the scenes for this game deserves to be fired, with a subscription to Grammarly Premium as their only severance package. I’d suggest they fire the editor, too, but I have to assume there wasn’t one. It’s by far the most typos I’ve ever seen in an RPG, worse than PS1-era nonsense.
Whew, okay, sounds like a garbage game, huh? Are you still with me? Because if you can stomach those two glaring flaws, you will find that Tales of Arise is one of the best JRPGs, well, ever.
Let’s start with the graphics and audio. The Tales franchise has always leaned on a cartoony, anime style, and while that is still somewhat present here, the game adopts a much more realistic look, with lush, gorgeous, varied environments, and more than one cue taken from Breath of the Wild. And it’s not just that it looks great; the performance was also there. Load screens were very short on PS5, just long enough to take in the (often useful) backstory information on the screen. Battles can be truly chaotic, but I didn’t notice any framerate issues, and the speed at which you jump in and out of special attacks just felt great.
Unlike Breath of the Wild, our protagonists are quite chatty, and the entire voiceover cast is truly phenomenal. I can’t think of another single game where I was so pleased with the voice cast across the entire game, without a single obnoxious NPC or tertiary party member. As Tales moves to be a more “serious” contender in the genre, it’s easy to tell that it’s still finding its footing in some ways, like finding the right balance between serious and silly in its signature skits (not to mention, a move to in-engine scenes instead of anime artwork, although there are still several anime cutscenes). Several of the skits are too long without being witty or funny, yet I find the voice cast is so great that I was willing to overlook those growing pains.
Perhaps most importantly, not only did the voice cast deliver even on some of the weaker skits, they absolutely crushed the main story, which is possibly the best story in franchise history. Tales’ storytelling has been highly iterative—most of the titles have the same core concepts (two worlds, rival races or factions, a character with amnesia, eventually you travel in a SPOILER), and those motifs are immediately recognizable. However, I find that most Tales games flounder in the endgame, by solving a seemingly unresolvable crisis by using the standard JRPG trope: change the metaphysical rules of the setting on a whim and pull the desired ending straight out of the writers’ butts. I’m happy to say that Tales of Arise sticks the landing far better than any other game in the series by properly setting up and foreshadowing the final events. While the first two-thirds of the game follows an extremely obvious pattern—go to a new area, beat the big bad guy, repeat—the party’s characterization is so good and the game lands the ending so well that I’m not even mad.
Of course, as you traverse these beautiful and varied landscapes, you’ll be fighting monsters. Often. (As an aside, it was nice to have a story reason for the monsters for once!) Combat in Tales has also been highly iterative, especially in the last few titles. Tales of Graces f began the experiment of throwing TP (the equivalent of most games’ MP/Magic Points) out the window, while Tales of Zestiria and Tales of Berseria kept the experiment going. I tolerated the combat in Graces f for the most part, but I literally spent most of Zestiria and Berseria with the fights on autobattle and did something else while I waited for combat to be over. It’s entirely possible that I’m just a noob, but I hated combat in those titles and longed for the olden days. So, I was apprehensive about Tales of Arise continuing the pattern.
Yet, Tales of Arise has the best combat in the entire series. There’s a similar core concept: you can do some great cool moves, but eventually you’ll need to let your gauge recharge. But rather than sitting around doing nothing, there are so many interlocking systems to play with that you’re never just waiting during combat. Most important is the boost strike system: leveraging a strong enough, and long enough, combo against an enemy gives an opportunity to do a combo attack with a pair of characters, usually finishing it off an enemy. It happens lightning fast, it looks cool, and it’s over before you know it and you’re right onto the next enemy. Along a similar path, each character performs an individual move when a meter fills, and these are activated by the d-pad. They’re great to extend combos and get extra damage in, but they also have very specific purposes: Rinwell can cancel enemy artes, Shionne can annihilate fliers, and so on.
If I had a complaint about combat, it’s a silly one. As great as the voice acting is, and the little nuggets of conversation in combat are so well done, I miss win quotes. And pun-infested skits. I miss that zany, over-the-top silliness that defined Tales for me. Now, it took a long time for me to find it, but some of that silliness is still there. There are some funny skits, some goofy side quests towards the end, and the occasional funny shout in combat (“blah blah blah, MAGIC!”), but largely this is Tales all grown up. And that’s totally a good thing, but any parent knows that it comes with a bit of melancholy.
Tales has always been viewed as a “second tier” JRPG series, in a different class from Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. What it lacked in firepower, it made up for with wit and charm; but now Tales has it all. From the ground up, this game has been designed to compete with the titans of the genre, and Tales of Arise is better than any Final Fantasy from the past twenty years, and it’s certainly the best game in the Tales franchise. I really hope to see patch updates that adjust difficulty and fix all the typos, but even then, this is one of those once-in-a-generation must-play games for JRPG fans.
The Bottom Line
One of the best JRPGs of the PS4 generation.