A respected video game franchise got a much-needed shot in the arm with the release of one of the best role-playing games of 2021. In a year where role-playing games felt few and far between, Tales of Arise stood out as a game that not only lived up to the high standards of JRPG fans, but also helped to bring the Tales of franchise back to relevance. While many other role-playing games released this year either failed to innovate (Biomutant) or leaned heavily on nostalgia to tell an existing tale (Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl), Tales of Arise gave fans a complex plot, fantastic characters, and intense combat.
Tales of Arise was the first standard Tales of video game released in five years and represented a major step forward for the popular JRPG franchise. While the various games in the franchise have always received praise for complex stories and fully-fleshed characters, recent installments had gotten bogged down by the weight of its various in-game systems. Although Tales of titles remained popular in Japan, the series had become almost a niche franchise internationally, which is likely why fans had to wait so long for the next installment in the franchise.
Tales of Arise attempted to address some of these issues by paring down and refining its in-game systems. While the franchise’s Linear Motion Battle System remained intact, combat focused principally on two aspects – countering and finishing enemies with powerful combos. The result was a system featuring explosive battles that required both skill and strategy to complete. Of course, Tales of Arise is still a JRPG, so systems like fishing, animal husbandry, and cooking also had their unique place in the game, mostly to provide short-term buffs to party members.
The true highlight of Tales of Arise is its story, which is set on the twin planets Dahna and Rena. Several hundred years before the start of the game, Rena conquered Dahna using superior technology and turned the planet into the site of a strange contest to harvest astral energy tied to various elements. Initially, players control the ex-slave Alphen and the Renan fugitive Shionne, who find themselves trying to topple the five Renan leaders of Dahna and end the “Crown Contest” once and for all. Over the course of the game, Tales of Arise expands its core cast to a total of six characters, each of which have their own abilities and their own deep baggage over the cruel system they’ve grown up in. It’s easy for players to get lost in Tales of Arise’s story, especially as the game pulls no punches when it comes to showing just how cruel the systems of oppression could be and how hard it is to move past them after their collapse.
One of the highlights of the franchise is that the games are almost always standalone – each installment might feature similar game mechanics but tell wildly different stories that don’t require any sort of prerequisite knowledge to enjoy. That’s one of the reasons that Tales of Arise was so refreshing of an experience to play through. Players could explore a brand new world for the first time and developers could truly try to build something different instead of rehashing old stories in the name of nostalgia and relying on fan-favorite characters to make up for a lack of innovation. Did every story beat hit in Tales of Arise? Probably not, but at least the developers felt empowered to create something wildly different and wholly their own.
Tales of Arise was the best video game RPG released in 2021 and it wasn’t even close. Not only did the game truly suck you into a complex and tragic story, players found themselves rooting for both the characters and challenged themselves in immense and epic boss fights. It’s not very often that players juggle between battling mad swordsmen and offshoots of a sentient planet, but that’s what made Tales of Arise so fun. What other game can you grapple with the heartbreaking aftermath of a lifetime of psychological torture with some good ol’ fishing and decisions on how to raise your livestock? Hopefully, Bandai Namco will release the next major Tales of game a bit faster as Tales of Arise showed that the franchise is still relevant and a gold standard in an increasingly busy genre.