I don’t want to feel so dour about Tales of Arise because it’s part of a series that I quite like. It’s a scrappy underdog of an action RPG franchise that remained unbent from its esoteric, corny, twee roots well through the 2010s. When a Tales game is released, there’s a few things I can expect. For one, I’m probably the only person in my friend group to purchase it day one. After laying the proselytizing on thick, slowly my friends’ interests will be piqued. I can trust that the game’s set-up, from its worldbuilding to its first plot thrust, will hook me and serve as the main propulsive force to push me through the game, which I can almost guarantee will be 20 or so hours too long. Arise’s early days did, mostly, align with my previous experiences with the franchise, but I could tell it was trying to be more from its foreword.
Arise opens unlike any other game in the series—with news of a war from the far past, an inevitable loss at the hands of a far greater empire, and the eventual subjugation of a planet’s entire population. We immediately know the central paradigm at play in this world; the Dahnans have been enslaved by the Renans for hundreds of years, and its abolishment lies solely on the efforts of our protagonist, Alphen, and his gradually growing entourage.
This isn’t a particularly new concept in RPGs. I immediately drew parallels to Final Fantasy XIII, which also features a misanthropic pink-haired girl in white with a giant, difficult to wield gun. XIII’s central conflict between Cocoon and Pulse, a satellite and the planet that traps it with its gravitational pull, is reminiscent of the sci-fi spin on classic feudalist fantasy present in Arise. Another obvious touchstone is Dragon Age: Inquisition, which traces the ongoing liberatory efforts of the mages from the perspective of a peacemaking supranational organization. Of course, as in Arise, most of this peacemaking involves beating the daylights out of whoever’s unwilling to listen—these games have a hard time spotlighting the administrative and relief efforts that happen off-screen.
Nevertheless, I was pulled in by Arise’s promises. It’s an undeniably beautiful game; all of the effects and animations in battle are sparkly, colorful, and bombastic, in a way some developers shy away from as to comply with the codified restrained greyness present in most contemporaries of its ilk. And, for the game’s first arc, I was fairly enraptured by all of the new additions. Tales, as a series, is one that has staunchly stuck to tradition—anyone who has played a Tales game probably knows you can easily pick another up and, even if their releases were separated by over a decade, you can easily slide in and understand how nearly every mechanic works, from combat to cooking. Tales has a certain language to it that allows veterans of the series to know exactly where to look to access its many secrets; there’s loads of hidden content such as the elusive Grade Shop, tons of hidden skits, and missable, sequenced side quests.
A lot of Arise’s innovation comes from scrubbing it clean, making these hidden elements more apparent or bubbling the engaging content to the surface. Like XIII, Arise is a mostly linear experience—where that game was derided for its “outdooridor” level design, though, Arise has mostly been praised. I can understand this, to a degree; the locales in Arise are sumptuously designed and just open enough to provide an illusion of explorability. When examined, though, or when the story begins funneling you down connected alleys and narrow streets, it becomes obvious how hollow the world feels. The connective tissue that binds the world of Dahna feels tenuous at best, with rapidly changing biomes that make little sense without a provided lore reason for the planet’s scorched ecosystems. The type of slavery examined in each arc is also pretty thoughtless; the game begins with a brutal depiction of chattel slavery then moves towards a more anxious, Nazi-esque form of social policing, which is bookended with a rather idyllic depiction of plantation farming. But no matter the aesthetic form the slavery in Arise takes, the function is the same: intense labor is used as a means to acquire a magical resource, which makes the work the slaves are doing mostly perfunctory. With the relative smallness of each arc’s setting, the game’s adventuresome spirit feels quelled to that of a double cour seasonal anime. It’s a game that probably could have benefited greatly from an overworld map—but those are a thing of the past, and a mark of uninventive structure.
The seams truly began to show when Arise reached its second arc, however, when the game’s leaden dialogue failed to contend with the actual action happening in any meaningful way. Tales is known for its quirky, humorous interactions between its ensemble casts. There’s an attempt to do that buried within Arise, but the game’s self-serious plot always takes point in a way that undermines the potential relationships between the characters. Instead, the dynamics are delegated to rather shallow signifiers. Shionne and Alphen bicker like a married couple, but the game fails to explain why they continue to do this many hours into their alliance. Rinwell has a schoolyard crush on Law, who is an oblivious but lovable dunce, so she typically treats him with a sort of mild annoyance. The game shallowly pairs off its gender-balanced cast into neat pairs of heterosexual love interests which feels like a tired and trite way to express characters living under the thumb of colonial subjugation. It all serves to further illuminate the childish and platitudinous slave story Arise fumbles to tell.
I would have been fine with these banalities of characterization in any other Tales game. The writing in Arise, however, buckles against its desire to keep up with other RPGs of the day and its own history. Much of the structure falls into what I dub the VII Remake-ification of Tales: waypoints and fast travel, stunted “realistic” movement outside of battle, hackneyed “I spy” collectables scattered across the map (perhaps as an attempt to get you to look around at the lovingly designed environments), trivial crafting and upgrading systems that serve to give minor, undetectable buffs to very specific combat mechanics, and stagger-based combat concerned with seamless combos, chaining, and visual noise.
The willingness to abandon the spirit of Tales in favor of derivative gameplay ideas fills me with a certain despair which extends beyond just Arise. I fear the near future of the action RPG—I’m afraid VII Remake has set a blueprint of success, and the many beloved JRPG franchises that have failed to bust into the AAA sphere will follow suit, hoping to chase the lightning in a bottle found in VII Remake. In doing so, Bandai Namco has crafted a game that may well appeal to a greater audience but only alienates its loyal fanbase for the sake of homogenization. I worry they won’t be the only ones guilty of it.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire