Three Hours With Tales Of Arise

Three Hours With Tales Of Arise
Screenshot: Bandai Namco

For years, Tales games have looked the same, felt the same, played the same, probably even smelled the same, y’know, if game code had fragrance. Each successive entry introduces a tweak or three to established formula — say, a shift to how you cook food, or an overhaul to the combat system — but the foundation remains the same. When you play a Tales game, you know exactly what you’re getting. It’s one reason why erstwhile Kotaku press sneak fuck Jason Schreier likes to describe the series as “fast food.”

Tales of Arise, the next game in Bandai Namco’s long-running series, comes out for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC on September 10. It’s the first entry since 2016’s Tales of Berseria, which is so old it launched during last console generation’s cross-gen grace period. Arise is also the first game in the series developed with the Unreal 4 engine, pushing back the development timeline but ultimately allowing for way prettier visuals and punchier action.

Tales of Arise shakes up the decades-old recipe. The battle system is completely different. Gear is totally streamlined. Same with healing. And, yes, the game itself is a whole, whole lot better-looking (all thanks to those aforementioned Unreal 4 dev tools).

But despite the changes, Tales of Arise remains unmistakably a Tales game. Let me put it like this: If Tales games have historically been MacDo’s Happy Meals, Tales of Arise is something from Shake Shack. It’s still an assembly line patty; it just tastes better.

Last week, I had the opportunity to mess around with a demo build of Tales of Arise for a few hours. I’ll confess to a degree of initial apprehension. Tales is among my most cherished game series. It’s been a while since the last release, and this entry has already suffered one significant delay. Plus, it’s billed as totally new.

At the start, I was given a choice to play as one of six characters: Rinwell, Arise’s requisite mousy mage character; Kisara, an even-keeled soldier and shieldbearer; Law, a martial artist who eschews weaponry for the fine craft of punching everything to pieces; and Dohalim, whom I’m not really allowed to say much about beyond “he wields a staff.” Those four join the two main characters; Shionne is a woman with pink hair and a curse that makes her hurt anyone she touches, while Alphen is a guy who can’t feel pain. He has an eyepatch and a sword called — get this, it’s so metal — Sincleaver.

I chose to play as Shionne, partly because I was curious about how a gun-wielding character would operate in battle, and partly because I had an inkling that her personality would line up with my own — spoiled, lazy, constantly hungry.

The demo started with Shionne, Alphen, et al. wandering around somewhere called, and this is verbatim, Lande of Green Elde Menancia. Between its sweeping fields and Xenoblade-esque overhangs, Menancia sure belongs on the cover of Fantasy Travel + Leisure. The only apparent problem — and it’s a big one — is a scourge of zeugles (Arise’s terms for “monsters”).

After a quick introduction to the battle system, a civilian suggested I pay a visit to Viscint, the region’s capital, where I could safely post up for the night. When I got there, the town was on lockdown; a large mon — sorry, zeugle had been terrorizing the region for weeks, forcing Viscint’s unadventurous bureaucratic leaders to close up shop. Of course, you and your crew are dispatched to deal with the m…Zeugle.

My gut about Shionne was correct, by the way. She only accepts this mission on condition of scoring a room in the city’s swankiest hotel. (When you later turn it in, she basically goes, “And this comes with food, right?”) Why fight for money if you’re just gonna funnel it into the nearest five-star hotel anyway?

Screenshot: Bandai Namco Screenshot: Bandai Namco

What’s so fancy about Tales of Arise’s battle system?

At first glance, Tales of Arise’s combat might look no different than battles from other recent Tales games, or at least those that have featured free-flowing camera controls. Battles go down in a circular 3D arena. You can perform basic attacks via one face button. Your artes — essentially “special attacks” in Tales-land — are tied to the other three, and drain energy from an artes gauge. Wait a few seconds and it fills back up, meaning you no longer have to sweat MP as you did in many older Tales games.

There’s an even bigger paradigm shift with so-called “boost attacks.” Though you can only have four party members on the battlefield, you can call out boost attacks from folks outside of battle. Each teammate has a signature boost attack, and every one wrecks. Essentially, on top of your own bag of tricks, you have five other special attacks, courtesy of your teammates, that are tied to relatively short cooldowns. (Though every character has a different move, I didn’t pick up on how they differ beyond “this attack deals a shit-ton of damage.”)

The biggest change, I felt, is the new onus on dodging. Dodging in Tales of Arise feels as snappy as dodging in any other big-budget action game. And if you do it often and well — if you repeatedly time your dodges right before an enemy’s attack — you can activate an “overlimit” state. As far as I can tell there’s no way to block in battles unless you’re playing as Kisara, the woman with the enormous shield. (I didn’t play much as Kisara.) You’ll find a hard time finishing battles intact without dodging constantly.

All of this amounts to a combat system that’s tighter than in any previous Tales games. Combat in even the more recent entries has felt like you kind of just poke monsters with a stick until they give up on life. Combat in Arise has weight and heft; you can feel these hits land, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco Screenshot: Bandai Namco

So, how is healing different?

Healing took me a hot second to get used to; characters can no longer pop apple gels and healing spells with abandon. Instead, the entire party shares a pool of Cure Points (CP). Naturally, using magic or items to heal drains CP. This does not restore between battles, nor does your health. You can only restore CP by using specific items, or by sleeping at inns or at somewhere I’m not supposed to tell you about thanks to ridiculous embargo restrictions. Just know that That Place That Shall Not Be Named is also where you can watch the series’ famous character skits.

I started with 250 CP. Only against the demo’s boss did it dip to precarious levels.

How does Tales of Arise’s equipment system work?

Recall Berseria’s equipment system, in which you could customise six slots of weapons and armour for each character. And that’s to say nothing of the infamously polarising skills system that demanded you constantly break down new gear to infuse with existing gear. Juggle that across all of the members of your party, crunch some numbers, and you can begin to see how many hours players sank into a maddening system that did not offer boons commensurate with the effort put in.

In Tales of Arise, meanwhile, each of your six party members has just three gear slots: a weapon, an armour, and an accessory. Put the best thing on. That’s it. Simple, at least so far.

Demos, of course, are never indicative of the final product. Call it an occupational hazard, but I play a ton of game demos. More often than not, I putz around for 30 minutes, maybe an hour, see what I need to see, and move on.

With Tales of Arise, I knocked out the main demo quest in about 45 minutes. I then proceeded to fill up nearly every remaining minute of my three-hour session just messing around — reading tutorials, poking around menus, fighting cannon fodder battles I didn’t need to fight, cooking, obviously — because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to see more. The demo restrictions didn’t let me. So I took a longer, more careful look at what I was allowed to look at.

That, more than anything else, tells me what I need to know about my initial feelings here. It’s too soon to say if Tales of Arise will be one of the great Tales games when it comes out this September, but I did enjoy my time becoming familiar with its retooled systems and dynamic new combat. At the very least, I’m looking forward to playing some more.

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