Tales of Arise Preview: one of 2021's most anticipated JRPGs is a great starting point for newcomers

Although the Tales series is one I’ve always intended to jump into, I’ve never had a chance to. I made a deal with myself that I’d jump in at the newest point, TalesofArise, and then work my way backwards depending on how much I liked it. That means that, like many of you, I’ve been sitting patiently waiting for Arise to make a big comeback and finally release after its initial announcement a few years ago now. Thankfully, after being able to play through a vertical slice, I can confirm that Arise is shaping up to be one of the most exciting RPGs of 2021 and a great jumping in point for newcomers. I can only imagine how excited long-term fans are right now. 

The small demo I got to play was around 40 minutes long and consisted of a few small areas in the “Land of Green”, Elde Menacia. From some of the dialogue and from the general structure, it seemed to be early on in the game. The brief cutscenes only featured Alphen & Shionne, and didn’t give much of the game’s story away, although I was given the whole six-person party to use in combat and was able to parse a good bit of the cast’s personality through the field dialogue. 

Even though the demo was clearly trying to hide any major story beats, that field dialogue left me feeling hopeful for the plot as a whole. Similarly to some of my personal favourites in recent years like Final Fantasy XV, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox, and Persona 5, Tales of Arise does a really good job of portraying friendship, and it’s incredibly wholesome to see the interactions between the various characters. I obviously can’t speak for the main plot right now, but I will say that I really enjoyed the dynamics here, and all of the party bounce off of each other very naturally. It was one of the highlights of the demo for me, and I’m excited to get to know them and watch them grow as a cast. 

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This won’t come as a shock for anyone who’s seen the trailers for Arise, but it looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. There’s a really great combination of subtle cel-shading on the characters combined with environments that look vaguely watercolour. It’s a great effect and the environments all look fantastic. From my time in the demo, I also got a taste for the music and thought it was shaping up quite nicely. There weren’t enough tracks to really get a good idea of the whole OST, but what I heard was pretty pleasant. My only hope from the main game going forward is that it has some more distinct environments, as it seems like a lot of what we’ve seen so far is the standard grass area, snow area, and so on. I didn’t know this before writing this preview, but it turns out that Arise is using an “Atmospheric Shader” that is indeed inspired by watercolour, so it’s certainly effective!

Starting off the demo I chose to play as Law, the hand-to-hand fighter whose personality seemed the most in line with the character archetype I’m most fond of, that being stupidly energetic and confident. After wandering around the monster-filled grassy area, we were tasked with defeating a large monster that was giving a nearby town trouble. Once again these cutscenes didn’t really say much about the story, although I like the dynamic between Shionne and Alphen, which felt like a developing friendship. 

Although the game points you in the direction of the monster, I was given free rein to explore the small bit of world the demo was set in and get used to the combat. Right off the bat I’ll clarify that, for the purposes of this demo, I ended up using a keyboard and mouse. For a console player like myself, that’s a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. I had to re-learn a control scheme I hadn’t used since playing the PC version of Psychonauts about 12 years ago, so it took me a little time to adjust. Because of this, I was a lot slower and less skilled than I would have been otherwise, even if I am a newcomer to the series, so when I play Tales with a controller I’ll hopefully be able to get the most out of it. 

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What surprised me — more than discovering I couldn’t play with a keyboard and mouse if my life depended on it — was just how much fun I had with the game anyway.  Sure, I hit the pause button a few times during combos, but I still got a good taste of the game’s systems and found the combat to be a ton of fun. When I can perform perfect dodges and blocks without breaking my fingers, I’m sure I’ll get even more enjoyment out of it. One of the most consistent pieces of praise I’ve heard for the Tales series is regarding its combat, so it definitely felt like this demo was leaning towards that aspect. 

Generally speaking, combat is pretty simplistic and consists of a basic attack button and a few special moves per character, but combining them is satisfying and there are a few key mechanics that make it feel distinct. The first of those mechanics is the “Strike” mechanic that allows you to call in a partner for a special move once an enemy has been put into a staggered state. They’re a great way of finishing opponents off as well as looking incredibly flashy. 

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The other big feature is just how many of your party are on screen at once, and being able to swap between them at will. In the demo I was given the full party to use, and although two of them had to sit the action out, I could still call them in for boost attacks. It makes you really feel like a team, and it’s unique when most games have a maximum of three or four party members on screen. 

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One smaller gameplay feature I got to see that I’m particularly excited to see evolve in the full game is the campsite. Similarly to other games, you can cook or view social events here, and it seems like a good way of seeing how the characters bounce off of one another. Cooking is also pretty unique, as you’ll get different effects depending on who actually cooks the meals, which will hopefully lead to more dialogue and character moments. 

That ties into my biggest hope for the game; the characters and story. Similarly to how I felt about Scarlet Nexus, my main hope for Tales of Arise going forward is that its story is gripping and its combat mechanics continue to evolve for higher-level play. This small demo showed me that the formula here works, and teased that I will eventually come to care for these characters, I just need to see that in action. Tales of Arise already stands as one of the most exciting JRPGs of the year considering how long people have waited for it, but I’ve now seen for myself exactly why, and now I’m waiting along with everyone else.

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