Back in June, we had the opportunity for a brief bit of hands-on time with Bandai Namco’s upcoming latest installment in the Tales series, Tales of Arise. Isaac came away impressed with what he got to play — albeit with a few reservations that were mostly a result of the hands-on session only involving a small, fairly context-free chunk of the final game.
Now, we’ve had the good fortune to be able to play through the entire first chapter of the game, which amounts to about four or five hours of gameplay. And boy is this game going to be good.
Tales of Arise opens by introducing protagonist Alphen, though he’s known as Iron Mask at the outset of the game. In traditional RPG hero tradition, he’s lost all his memories, and to make matters worse he’s found himself with a bloody great lump of metal stuck on his head, obscuring his face. Said “mask” cannot be removed or broken, so he’s just sort of stuck with it — this naturally makes him stand out a fair bit, particularly as he’s a member of the oppressed Dahna people.
Oh, and he can’t feel pain. At all. Which means he’s more than capable of taking a beating from the Renan slavemasters and often does so in place of the people he’s decided he wants to protect. The only trouble is that if you can’t feel pain, you can’t tell how badly you’ve been injured — and as such he finds himself frequently needing a bit of patching up from the camp’s “doctor” of sorts.
As we join the story at the opening of Tales of Arise, we’re given a first-hand look at the game’s core conflict between Dahna and their technologically superior astral neighbours of Rena. Dahna’s people have been under the yoke of Renan oppression for three centuries by the time the game gets underway, and most people have given up hope — willingly submitting to a life of servitude if only so they can continue living a little longer. But is it really “living” if you’re not free?
After a little bit of “everday life as a slave” gameplay that involves a few menial chores and getting to know some of the residents of the camp that Iron Mask calls home, there’s a dramatic incident that introduces us to main heroine Shionne and her “curse of thorns” that electrocutes anyone who touches her. Iron Mask, Shionne and some members of the Dahnan Resistance escape to an underground base, where Shionne is confined when it is discovered that she is actually a Renan.
There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding her, though — the Renans seem pretty keen to capture her, and she most certainly doesn’t appear to be on their “side”. In fact, she states that she wants nothing more than to take down the five Lords who currently rule over Dahna, for reasons that are not initially clear. Eventually, after the Renan forces attack the resistance base, the survivors conclude that Shionne is probably someone they want to keep at least vaguely on their side for the immediate present while their goals align — and from here the adventure proper begins.
The main goal of Tales of Arise’s first chapter is to make it to the castle of the local Lord and kill him. There’s a bit of prep work that needs doing first, though, and said prep work introduces players to the more “open” structure of gameplay after the linear opening sequence. There are sidequests to complete, areas to explore, items to gather and collect, weapons to craft and cooking recipes to discover. While there’s only a few of each in this first chapter — plus relatively little opportunity to level up — it does at least provide a nice taste of what we can expect in greater quantities over the course of the rest of the game.
Tales of Arise’s various field areas are a lot more interesting to explore than they have been in some of the earlier installments over the last couple of console generations. Most areas are fairly large fields that have multiple levels and several routes to get through them; it takes quite a “Japanese open world game” approach to things in that there are clear paths through the environment, but a number of different ways you can go at any one time.
The main way in which Tales of Arise contrasts from other Japanese open-world RPGs is that combat still unfolds on a separate screen. Running into enemies in the field causes a battle transition, at which point Alphen and Shionne have to fight off their foes.
Battles are fully real-time 3D affairs in which the character you control has full freedom of movement around the circular arena in which the battle is taking place. Normal attacks can be performed with the shoulder buttons, and there’s a strong emphasis on performing combos by chaining normal attacks into Artes and back into normal attacks again.
To discourage spamming an individual ability, there’s a system of diminishing returns in place, where failing to vary up the Artes that you use causes them to penetrate less of the enemy’s defense each time, so you’ll need to mix up your combos to be most effective in battle.
Initially, combat in Tales of Arise does feel a bit button-mashy, but as the game progresses through the first chapter it introduces a number of new elements that add more in the way of strategy, including contextual attacks during boss fights for unique means of blocking and countering special attacks, and powerful “instant kill” moves if you’ve asserted your dominance over an enemy in a suitable manner.
Probably most notable among Tales of Arise’s combat mechanics is the fact there’s no MP system for casting abilities; instead, each character has a rapidly recharging Artes Gauge, with each of their Artes costing one or more pips on the gauge to unleash. Stopping attacking for a moment causes the gauge to replenish quickly, though it still restores slowly while performing normal attacks, which cost no points on the gauge.
Alongside this is the “Cure Points” resource, which is shared between the whole party. This acts as a reservoir of healing that is drawn from any time a character (just Shionne, in the case of the first chapter) makes use of a healing Arte. When it’s run out, you can’t do any more healing through Artes, though items will still work. In order to replenish it, you can either restore it through the use of certain items (which can be used during combat) or take a rest at the campfires scattered throughout the various field areas.
The campfires also provide the opportunity to see unique pieces of dialogue between the current party members and, once the ability is unlocked, cook meals that confer time-limited buffs to the whole party. You’re also able to review any anime cutscenes or skits that you’ve previously seen, so if you need a refresher on what’s been going on up until this point, you can do so at the campfires.
Ah yes, skits — a core part of the Tales experience. For those less familiar with the series, skits are conversations that pop up as you explore various areas, allowing the whole party to chip in on the situation and discuss what is going on — or sometimes just chat about something completely unrelated. They’re one of the most fondly regarded parts of the Tales series because they’re the source of some fantastic characterisation and a means of enjoying the developing relationships between party members — and I’m pleased to confirm that they are very much present and correct in Tales of Arise.
While in past Tales games, skits were delivered through animated talking head portraits, occasionally with some abstract movements to imply expressions and bodily movements, here in Tales of Arise they take on a more “comic book” approach, with each individual line in the skit presented as an animated frame on a comic book page. This gives a much more dynamic, dramatic feel to the conversations between characters and really works well for the format — it certainly feels a little more natural than all the characters staring directly at the player while chatting with one another.
If this style of presentation sounds familiar — you may be thinking of Sony’s excellent but tragically overlooked Gravity Rush series — then you’re probably going to appreciate the visual presentation of Tales of Arise in general. While still recognisably “anime”, primarily through its character designs, there’s a pleasingly stylised nature to the environmental visuals that is strongly reminiscent of European comic artwork — particularly the work of Jean “Moebius” Giraud, who was such a key inspiration on the aforementioned Gravity Rush.
If you’re unfamiliar with this distinctive style, it can be recognised by how background elements often blend off into something of a coloured “haze”, albeit with high-contrast details still visible, usually in the form of black outlines. Tales of Arise makes prominent use of this very distinctive aesthetic throughout, and when combined with the comic book-style skits, it really has a pleasing sense of visual coherence to it.
An interesting aspect of the broader audio-visual presentation is how it blends both distinctively eastern and western elements together. While, as previously noted, the characters are very much “anime” in style, aspects of the game’s overall aesthetic have a bit more of a western feel to them. This is especially apparent in the orchestral soundtrack which, although more melodic and less “ambience”-based than the work of prominent western game composers such as Jeremy Soule, definitely has the feel of a western fantasy epic about it — particularly once the choirs start kicking in, which they frequently do!
For those who feel a sense of concern about this, fret not; this doesn’t mean that Tales is losing its identity as a distinctively Japanese work. Rather, it’s perhaps best thought of as the difference between a made-for-TV anime and a big budget anime movie; Tales of Arise is very clearly taking aim at the latter having given us a number of installments that felt rather like the former in the past.
It’s attempting to court a broader audience, in other words — and while these words often fill people with dread at the prospect of a watered-down experience that doesn’t really appeal to anyone, so far Tales of Arise really does feel like it’s found a good balance so far. Yes, it sounds like a western fantasy epic in terms of its music, but it’s got all the melodramatic shouting and emotional running off to do something stupid you’d expect from something anime-inspired — and yes, there’s a Japanese voice track, too, if you want that full “anime” experience.
Speaking as someone who generally doesn’t resonate all that hard with big-budget, focus-grouped experiences, I feel confident that Bandai Namco know what they’re doing here. They’re aware that a lot of their games very much appeal to the otaku audience for various reasons — but they’re also aware that over the years, Tales has become one of their flagship franchises, and thus it deserves to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Yes, even the people who complain about other games being “too anime”, as silly as we all think they are.
The end result, at least judging by this first few hours, is going to be a game that is highly polished, enjoyable to play and full of interesting characters to learn more about. I came away from the first chapter’s dramatic (and mechanically interesting) final boss battle absolutely thrilled with what I’d just experienced — and I can’t wait to see more.
Tales of Arise is out on September 10, 2021, and a public demo is coming soon for PS5, PS4, Xbox series whatever and Xbox One. Thanks to Bandai Namco for the hands-on session. Find out more about the game on the official website.
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