Tales of Arise - much more complex than it looks.
Every so often, you have to take a punt on something. Back when I was at university, my best friend and I would play a game in the record store. We'd pick up the stuff we wanted, and then (assuming we could afford it that week), we'd pick up another record. The rules were simple. The band had to be one you'd never heard of. Ever. You just had to like the cover. The reason for liking it didn't matter; the rules were very simple. As you can imagine, this entertaining little experiment ended up with results that were... ahem... mixed. We found a couple of great albums this way, and discovered a handful of excellent (while usually phenomenally obscure) bands. More often than not though, we'd end up laughing and shaking our heads. For every good record we found, there would be ten or a dozen that were various shades of awful.
I don't often buy records blind these days. As long as COVID rages, I'll continue to lock myself away - and besides, I've got a Spotify subscription. I still buy CD's from time to time, but by the time I make the purchase decision, I already know exactly what I'm in for. I will occasionally buy a video game blind though. The most recent one I've bought in this way is Tales of Arise. I picked it up without knowing much about it, other than that it looked different enough to everything else I've been playing lately to be worth checking out. My last experience with the Tales series was with Tales of Symphonia - all the way back on the Gamecube. My memory of that game is hazy at best; I remember quite enjoying it, but not finishing it - but I can't remember the reasons why behind either of those points. I'm getting old. My memory isn't what it once was! The good news though? I'll be remembering this game as an example of a successful outcome to my little experiment.
Anyway... Tales of Arise. It's a lot darker than I figured it would probably be. Like I said, I don't know what I really expected - but what I definitely didn't expect was a tale of persecution, bigotry, slavery, resistance, and fascism. Look beyond the shiny anime cartoon shell, and what lies beneath is serious enough to give pause for thought. There are moments in here that have tugged at the heartstrings of this middle-aged grumpy man in ways that I never would have expected. Video games have become more willing to touch upon such subjects in the last couple of years - but I don't think I've ever seen these issues addressed by a game where the presentation is such a juxtaposition to the subject matter.
Because Tales of Arise is stunning. It's a cel-shaded masterpiece of stunning vistas, beautiful animation and a level of attention to detail that is never anything short of wonderful to behold. Character design in particular is wonderful. JRPG's have a style and aesthetic that is all their own, and Tales or Arise leans into it. The characters all look completely different, but yet when stood next to one another all look as though they belong in the group. It's not only the aesthetic character design - how those characters are written, the roles they play within the group and the spaces they occupy in the game's world are all as striking as their visual design. The characters all seem to begin their part in the game as occupying a space that treads dangerously close to cliche, only for them to develop into interesting and unique individuals over the course of the conversations, cutscenes and skits that play out over the course of the game.
Shionne begins the tale stand-offish and apparently needlessly aggressive; as the story unfolds, the game reveals to you the reasons why - they make sense and she becomes more relatable as a result. The same is true of all the other members of your group, which expands and contracts over the course of the story. Law comes across as little more interesting than an average angry teenager, until conversations reveal the depth of his feelings of worthlessness. The other characters have similar depth, their personalities shaped by their circumstances as much as their place in the world's political order. It's a singularly adult tale dressed up as a teenage drama - I just hope the players it's aimed at (the vast majority of whom are probably a lot younger than me) will pay attention to what it's trying to tell them, as it's a cautionary tale for the political reality that the world finds itself in.
That world is one of the most interesting I've experienced in a game for a long time - from a narrative perspective. It exists as a series of hubs and corridors to be explored, interspersed with enemy encounters - and it unfolds in a linear way as your gang travels across the various lands. From a gameplay standpoint, it sits as a semi-open world then - not exactly open to exploration, but with a limited opportunity for it offered up. Wandering off the beaten path generally rewards you with items and upgrades for your efforts. The thing I've been most surprised by though is the combat. So many JRPG's rely on turn based combat and, for me, it's a massive turn off. Tales of Arise though, does something far more interesting - where different attacks are assigned to different buttons and are performed in real time, with the ability to manage to passive/aggressive nature of the rest of your party with as broad or minute control as you wish. It's a clever way of doing things - and one that I soon warmed to after feeling a little baffled by it in the early game.
It's a JRPG game for people like me - who like the idea of playing a JRPG far more than they normally enjoy actually playing a JRPG. If you're looking for something that's a bit different to your average JRPG, and categorically NOT a first person shooter - you should definitely check this one out. It's a lot more complex than it looks.