A bold fresh start for the series, Tales of Arise masterfully turns JRPG familiarities into an incisive reflection on imperial oppression.
Rebellious uprisings against oppressive, imperial regimes are a JRPG staple. Slave revolts and underground resistance movements are about as familiar to the genre as fighting gods and amnesiac, spiky-haired heroes—and yet, few games really delve into those things on a thematic level. An evil empire is a convenient premise around which to build a globetrotting quest to save the world, to lace with dramatic twists and moments to let the power of friendship shine through, but it’s less common to see a JRPG try to unpack that foundational idea.
At first glance, Tales of Arise might look the same: in a conquered world where the indigenous people live as slaves, yours is a fight for freedom, for liberation. But it soon becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to the picture: what comes after liberation, and what does an empire do to maintain control once brute force no longer works? What begins with the simple story of a slave revolt morphs into one of the most nuanced explorations of oppression, imperialism, and liberation I’ve seen.
Let’s start by setting the scene: the world of Dahna was once a peaceful place, more or less. Then, 300 years ago, people from a technologically and magically advanced planet nearby, Rena, swooped in and enslaved the whole population. Now, Dahna is split into five separate realms, each ruled over by a Renan lord, all of whom are engaged in a never-ending contest to harvest as much astral energy from the subjugated Dahnans of their respective realms.
Calaglia is one such place. A scorched wasteland drenched in fire, where the “embedded” are worked to the bone and left to die as soon as they’re no longer of use. Hope is a thing of the past, here—nobody alive has ever known any other way of life. That’s as true of Alphen as anyone else: a young man with no memories of his past, who can’t feel pain and does what he can to protect those weaker than himself but can’t begin to envision anything that looks remotely like freedom. That is, until a chance encounter with an underground rebel group and a mysterious Renan woman with her own vendetta against the five lords sets him on the path to liberation—for the people of his own realm, and for Dahnans the world over.
For a lot of games, this would be about as far as the slave revolt theme goes. A call to action for an unlikely hero that then sets them on a journey across the world, helping town after town, and ultimately taking down the evil empire once and for all. Tales of Arise follows a similar trajectory, but rather than simply treat the empire as a villain to be destroyed, it takes the time to explore, in great depth, the processes through which this sort of tyrannical rule sustains itself.
It’s not just slavery, despite the bluntness of Arise’s opening act. Oppression comes in many forms: poverty, the destruction of culture, the deliberate sowing of distrust, the threat of violence, the fall of one tyrant simply leaving a vacuum to be filled by another. Even when different peoples learn to coexist peacefully, the weight of history casts a long shadow that makes true equality a difficult thing to reach, despite the bests interests of those at the top—no matter how well compensated or how considerate their work conditions, when one class of people lives in servitude to another, that’s a form of oppression. Tales of Arise takes the familiar ebb and flow of a JRPG and turns it into a thoughtful exploration of the complexities in the ways those with power maintain their position over those without.
But it doesn’t stop there, either; it’s every bit as interested as exploring the impact of that oppression, from the most personal level to the way it shapes the world. Centuries of colonial rule leave scars, and history is never just a thing of the past. Here, ancient ruins of a long-lost civilisation—such a staple of fantasy stories—become a way of delving into what it means to have one’s whole culture washed away. The grudges that people hold and the baggage they carry shape their present and their future, and that’s every bit as true for societies, too. In the fight for liberation, toppling the tyrant is only the first step.
This is what sets Tales of Arise apart: not content to simply tell a rousing story of standing up to the might of an evil empire, it instead dares to explore how such an empire manages to maintain its dominance in the first place. It takes that even further, and asks: what comes after liberation? What happens once your people are free? How can that freedom be truly preserved in a world where power imbalances are ever present?
These are heavy, serious questions that Arise asks, and it approaches them with an impressive degree of nuance and humanity. For all its philosophical musing, it’s still still game that is, fundamentally, centered on people: flawed, ambitious, scared, playful, human people, and it doesn’t shy away from exploring those multitudes—whether in the form of someone trying to reconcile their own (very understandable) desire for vengeance with their dream of a better world, or the heartwarming scenes of a bunch of misfits finding a sense of family together, or in the jokes that stem from Alphen’s weird obsession with swords. Arise goes to some dark places, but never loses sight of the lightness that keeps its cast going, and never falls into the trap of thinking serious themes and humour can’t coexist.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Tales of Arise also serves up an immensely satisfying action RPG experience. The combat here is all about rhythms: the rhythms of enemy patterns, the rhythms of your own attacks and how they chain together, the rhythms that each character’s unique mechanics bring to the table. Most of all, it’s about figuring out how all these different instruments come together, and using them to compose the most elaborate, flashy, hard-hitting compositions you can—something that can take some time to get acquainted with, admittedly, but opens a world of depth and opportunities once you do.
What makes the system work so well is how smoothly all the different pieces come together. Taken individually, Tales of Arise has a lot of different systems and mechanics at play—and, honestly, having lots of systems competing with one another has often held previous Tales games back. But here, everything builds elegantly on everything else, fitting together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and exploring those interactions is a joy—especially with a fairly constant stream of new features, artes, spells, and the like giving you new tools to work with. There’s nothing quite like going from barely scraping together a five-hit combo to dropping triple digits like it’s nothing.
Despite its grim situation, Dahna is a beautiful world that serves up view after picturesque view. From gem-encrusted mines to opulent palaces, underground forests to sprawling wetlands, even the desolate wastelands left behind from three centuries of imperial rule—every new location is unique and memorable. Instead of expanse for the sake expanse, maps are detailed and intricate, encouraging you to explore every corner and building a sense of place in the process. Vibrant colours, careful composition, an abundance of little details, and pristine lighting effects (on PlayStation 5, especially) all come together to make Tales of Arise a game that feels like a living painting.
Tales of Arise is a phenomenal game: an engrossing story, the best combat the Tales series has seen to date, and art direction that’s nigh unmatched in its sheer beauty. But, impressive as those things are, what really sets this game apart—what really marks this as a bold new vision for the series—is how cleverly it twists JRPG conventions to unpack that well-worn “evil empire” trope. Tales of Arise is more than just a brilliant game; it’s a nuanced, insightful thesis on the mechanisms of oppression and liberation.
Tales of Arise
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.