The first chapter of the latest Tales of installment shows us but a glimpse of the magical world we are about to save early next month.
The first chapter of Tales of Arise slowly introduces us to the latest installation of the long-lasting Tales of series: Our radiant hero is still hidden under an iron mask, which gives him his rather plain nickname "Iron Mask". He has neither a face, nor memories and he doesn't feel any pain either. On the other hand, he has an overly fleshed out sense of justice, which might be the reason why he tends to get himself into trouble easily.
At first glance, this guy looks like the unemotional, empty vessel we often find in old fashioned JPRGs, but our protagonist actually has his own thoughts and he even speaks up for himself. The energetic man will develop over the course of the adventure but before we get to experience the epic moments Bandai Namco prepared for us, an introduction of the central factions is necessary. In this Tales of entry, the people of Dahna are oppressed and exploited like slaves by the Renan forces. There was a war between the two parties a few hundred years ago and the Dahnans have been oppressed ever since. Our hero feels the consequences of this conflict first-hand, because he mines ore in one of the slave camps of Orbus Calaglia.
His journey really takes off once Shionne enters the stage. The young woman is a Renan, but she is being imprisoned for unknown reasons. Of course, our brave hero doesn't hesitate to aid the damsel in distress, and so things are set in motion. The unlikely couple joins the local resistance called the Scarlet Crows, who over the course of the first chapter head to storm Castle Glanymede. To free the slaves of this region, they need to defy the ruler of this empire - the "wild beast" Balseph. While our two heroes recover from the initial shock, we resupply, scout the situation and learn more about the background of the Renan-Dahnan war.
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Before we confront the nasty baron on his fiery throne, you can expect fighting wolves, wasps, armadillos, a few golems and Renan guards for about three hours straight. The opponents are moving around the world in real time and once the battle is initiated we connect attacks and active skills in real time battles. Timing is important in Tales of Arise, because we should try to avoid enemy attacks whenever possible. Perfect evasive manoeuvres enable counterattacks and special support moves, which can be activated on command by your active as well as the passive party members, who will help you out in battle.
The combat system might seem a little punishing at first, but the level scaling is having a big impact on possible difficulty spikes (at least at the beginning of the game). Completing fights will help you acquire more powerful passive and active skills, and using these so called "Artes" during battle repetitively improves their effectiveness. Additional talent trees become available as soon as certain conditions ("Use attack X to force flying enemies to the ground 25 times") have been met or as a reward for finishing side quests. Also, if you unlock every skill in one of the many talent trees, you will receive completion bonuses like stat growth. Since you can encourage the computer to behave according to a certain play style, you should change the character you actively control regularly in order to keep track on the various progress systems of your squad.
While Bandai Namco created larger areas with little secrets and junctions that are encouraging exploration, I would describe Tales of Arise as a rather linear experience up until this point. Off the beaten path you will find treasure chests, cosmetic items (with which you can customise the appearance of your characters) or even one of those overly strong end-game opponent, who will challenge your late game squad dozens of hours into your own playthrough. Although the Kingdom of Calaglia is little more than a desolate place full of burning stones in a desert, this location offers a variety of beautiful vistas that contrast well with the mountainous landscape.
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What I've seen from Tales of Arise so far looks promising, but also a bit familiar. The game feels very grindy but at the same time you can battle more challenging foes with the right tactics and enough mechanical skills. I haven't really been able to interact with side-activities until this point, but I've spent all the more time listening to what NPCs have to say regarding the changes of their environment. I'm particularly excited about the development of our central heroes, too, because there is a captivating dynamic between the somewhat dumbfounded Iron Mask and his ever teasing princess. All the while a fantastic world full of magic is waiting that, we just have to tame it in order to end the war between Dahna and Rena.