Tales is a JRPG series that has never reached the same number of sales or popularity as Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy but still managed to serve several quality titles ever since it started with Tales of Phantasia in 1995. During its 26 years, the series has served us fan favorites such as Tales of Symphonia on GameCube or Tales of Vesperia on Xbox 360, but titles like Tales of Xillia and Tales of Berseria have also given us plenty of quality action JRPG fun over the years.
The Tales series, however, has had one major weakness over the last years: It has never given us a game developed solely with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One generation in mind. The last game released in the series was Tales of Berseria in 2017, which was originally developed for both PlayStation 3 and 4 (the PlayStation 3 version only saw release in Japan in 2016). The newer the games, the clearer the old age of the series' graphics engine. Tales of Berseria did not look bad by any means, but compared to other games of the generation with anime aesthetics, it just did not show the same generational leap that it could and should have done.
With Tales of Arise, Bandai Namco is clearly addressing this issue, and an improvement of visual quality is its top priority for its first new Tales title in five years. After testing a demo of the game lasting between 30 and 40 minutes it is evident that the developers have spent their time well, and those who have waited for five years for the next Tales game can rest assured that the wait has not been in vain.
For the demo, I was placed at a certain point which according to Bandai Namco will take place between ten and twenty hours into the complete version of the game, when all six of the game's party members are available to the player. This gave me the opportunity to change between the characters and try different playstyles, such as switching between melee and magical characters, and the various playstyles give a good balance to your party. We have been introduced to the main characters Alphen and Shionne on earlier occasions, but this demo also gave me a sense of the four other main characters who will accompany the player for the entire journey.
Like most Tales games, you can only have a total of four active party members, but that does not mean the two backup characters can simply kick back and relax while their friends are fighting for their lives. You will control your preferred character in combat while being supported by the three other active party members. When the other characters can support you with a powerful attack, you can activate these attacks by using the D-pad on your controller. What is new and neat in Tales of Arise is that this also applies to the non-active party members, which makes them feel included in the fight even though they are on the sidelines.
The combat system will be familiar for returning Tales players, but Tales of Arise wants to welcome old and new players alike. To make sure this happens, the action-packed combat system is greatly simplified. The monsters will walk around freely on the world map, and as soon as you walk into one you will be transported into a circular combat area where friends and foes may move freely. You may move, use a standard attack, dodge, or use Artes, which is the recurring Tales term for special attacks both physical and magical. Your character can have three Artes mapped to three of the controller's buttons, and the number of remaining Artes attacks available can be seen over the health meter. There is no need to panic if you run out of Artes, as they will replenish rather quickly during combat.
Like any JRPG worth its salt, the Artes attacks come with lots of noise and flashy animations, but this never appears to have any negative effects on the performance of the game. The combat runs smoothly and always keeps you in charge and control of the situation even in the most action-packed, high-octane situations. The controls have received some light adjustments which makes them much easier to use, meaning that if you have even been put off by the complicated controls in previous Tales games, you might want to consider dipping your toe back in. The streamlined controls will no doubt make it easier for newcomers to get into the game, and it is much easier now to keep control of everything happening on the screen even in the most intense and flashy battles.
Another staple of the Tales series is the compositions of the series' composer Motoi Sakuraba. Most of our readers will probably be more familiar with his works in the Dark Souls trilogy, but Sakuraba has composed the music to almost every Tales game over the last 26 years (Tales of Legendia and Tales of Innocence being the only exceptions). The demo comes with an audio vibe clearly marked by Sakuraba's characteristic style in his choices of genres and instruments, and as expected, these tunes fit quite well into both the heat of combat and the tranquil wandering across the farmlands. Though I was only able to hear a couple of the tunes the game will have to offer, the combat theme struck me as catchy with its Spanish-themed sound. If the rest of the game can present the same audio quality, we are in for a treat.
The greatest facial lift in Tales of Arise is, well, its faces. Not just the faces, but the entire visual quality and graphics engine is vastly improved over previous titles, and it's clear this has been the top priority of Bandai Namco resulting in the most adjustments. Previous Tales titles were developed by using an in-house engine with only slight adjustments made between titles, but Tales of Arise marks the end of the in-house engine in favor of Unreal Engine 4. Since the last previous titles have looked pretty much the same at first glance, the change is even more noticeable, and all in Tales of Arise's favor. The monsters and characters are much more detailed and alive, the nuances in clothing materials and surroundings are way sharper, the movement feels more natural, and the animation style comes more to life than what we have seen before. The anime style feels more real and alive, which puts the title on the same level as some of the best games in class like Dragon Quest XI, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, and the older Sega title Valkyria Chronicles. The six main characters have an appealing design with a lot of details in their clothing, weapons, and armor, making me want to see more already from the very first minute. There were only a couple of minor visual hiccups during the demo, like some textures loading later than they should, but this is most likely because the game is still a work in progress.
The core of every JRPG is the cast. Even though all six main party characters were present in the demo, it is hard to get a good feel for them from such a short demo, especially because the demo did not contain much related to the story. As noted above, the design of the characters is quite appealing and the small quips they exchange during or after combat certainly gave me some idea of what to expect, but it is hard to tell anything more than that until the full game is released. The demo came with both English and Japanese audio and it was no problem running the demo twice to compare the different dubs, but 30 minutes is not enough time to tell much about the general quality of the voice acting. The little I heard of both Japanese and English was pleasant enough, so I believe players will have a good experience regardless of their linguistic preferences.
After a long break and a fair amount of reconstruction, Tales of Arise looks to be the game that can give the series its long-overdue comeback. The wait has been long, but the demo certainly gives the impression that the wait has not been for nothing, and good things will come to those who wait. Almost every part of the demo makes me hungry for more, whether we are talking about the visual design, the quality of the graphics, or the fun combat system, which now feels way more accessible. It will be fun to see the game run on the next-gen consoles as well, and I for one feel quite ready to embark on this new Tales adventure when it arrives on September 10.