The Tales series returned in flashy fashion last September with Tales of Arise, the 17th mainline title and one that breathed some life into the long-running action-RPG franchise. That’s a proper Tales game, replete with an anime opening and fast gameplay and all the good stuff series fans love. The recent mobile release Tales of Luminaria tries to do much the same thing, just compressed into an on-the-go experience for Android and iOS that you can play with one hand. It kinda works, or at least it would, if it weren’t mostly ruined by the decision to make it playable only in a vertical orientation.
This piece originally ran on Kotaku Australia on November 11, 2021. It has been retimed as a weekend read.
It’s an odd choice, though one that does differentiate Tales of Luminaria from other mobile action RPGs on the market. Still, the decision puts constraints on the game’s design, particularly the camera and combat.
There isn’t any one central protagonist here, but you start the game as Leo Fourcade, a hot anime sword boy with red hair and a tattoo of some tribal-looking pattern on his right forearm. Leo’s just one of 21 playable characters, which you unlock as you complete each episode. There’s an impressive variety of class archetypes here, ranging from archers and battlemages to gunslingers and sword-wielders. Some characters share weapon types, but even still, their movesets and playstyles are wholly unique. And each one has their own episode that lasts about an hour or so, meaning there’s plenty of content to squeeze out of Tales of Luminaria.
But what could have been an enjoyable Tales game is largely impeded by its insistence on vertical-only play. Yes, whether you’re on iPad or iPhone, you can’t change the orientation, even if you’ve unlocked it on your device’s UI. It’s different, sure, but forcing you to play in portrait mode presents frustrations outside of your control in combat and general movement, which isn’t all that accurate as a result of the touchscreen controls.
The mandatory vertical position also impacts the camera, which is totally useless. It isn’t so much behind your character as it is just swinging around the screen, jumping between looking over one shoulder and looking over the other without your input. And if it isn’t enjoying its freedom, it’s probably because it’s gotten stuck in the wall or between characters. You can’t even swipe to move the camera around. You can only gaze through the narrow window provided by your phone’s screen, so good luck dodging enemy attacks when you can’t even see them.
Combat, with its imprecise touch controls, doesn’t fare much better. On the screen are four main buttons: attack, up to two regular “artes” (special moves that recharge when you attack enemies), and one mystic arte. You dodge by flicking your finger across the screen, and counter by tapping a quick-time-event prompt that appears. It’s pretty easy to pick up and play. However, because you’re doing this on a touchscreen, commands don’t always register when you want them to. You could be tapping attack to do a three-hit combo, then stop so you can flick to dodge before tapping on an arte, but your character may not get the message you’re intending to send. You’re far more likely to take damage or roll toward instead of away from the enemy because of how you tap on your screen. There’s also no dedicated block button, so your only defence is countering or dodging.
Despite all this, Tales of Luminaria has bright spots that truly shine. It not only looks like a Tales game; it sounds like one, too, with a roaring orchestral soundtrack and very anime voice acting for every character. Interactions between the playable heroes also hit on the series’ familiar tone. Heartfelt moments and friendly banter abound as your party of three travels around the game’s world. And it tells an intriguing story about shapeshifting students and cults overthrowing the government. It’s a little truncated, being on mobile and all, but it’s very much a Tales experience.
If any of this sounds like your thing, or if you’re willing to deal with the wonky camera and imprecise controls thanks to the always-vertical position, then you can download Tales of Luminaria now on Android or iOS devices. It’s an often-frustrating experience that still has some familiar Tales series charm, and that’s fine. But if you’re looking for a deeper Tales game, one with more accurate controls and this adorable cat, then I can’t help but recommend picking up Tales of Arise instead. It’s the real thing.