Friday, January 21, 2022

Tales of Arise: Addicting Game, Flawed Story

Shionne (left) and Alphen (right), the game's main characters.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

These days I don't have much time, so it's rare that I finish long sprawling RPGs like Tales of Arise. But finish it I did, and so I figured I'd take the time to jot down some of the thoughts on the game. To sum up, my initial impressions were very positive. I liked the protagonist, I liked the graphics, and I found the combat to be a nice improvement over the last Tales game I played, Tales of Vesperia (admittedly I have not finished this one). 

As the game wore on, I ran into several roadblocks that tend to arise (sorry) in most Japanese RPGs (or JRPG for short): the enemies got tougher, requiring some grinding. The bosses had overinflated health pools, and money and other important battle items like Arise's equivalent of health potions became scarce. Maybe I am less dedicated than the average gamer these days, but I felt obligated to buy the double EXP downloadable content around midway through the game, because keeping up with the leveling curve was becoming a chore. For those of you who have played, this is right around after you defeat Almeidrea and begin journeying to Ganath Haros. 

Scarlet Nexus [minor spoilers for that game ahead], another recent JRPG, did a better job with pacing. It too had portions that were a slog--and had some equally questionable story beats--but it only clocked in at around 30 hours to complete, whereas Tales of Arise easily takes 50-60 hours. It also did a better job of making you feel as though you were becoming more powerful. My Kasane felt like an invincible one-woman psychic army by the time you reach the final fight with Karen. My Alphen, by comparison, felt about consistently powerful relative to opponents until the last 5-10 hours or so, when you gain access to some more powerful items and skills to sink your SP points into. 

The scope of Tales of Arise's story is what's most impressive to me. You begin in a small town as an eager resistance fighter, and end on a different planet conquering what is essentially a god composed of sentient magical energy. There are positives and negatives to this--Arise almost feels like two separate games patched together. In the first you are trying to rid the planet Dahna of its Renan overlords. In the second you go on a quest to destroy the Renan Sovereign, only to find that there is no Sovereign and that their society is a lie, one carefully constructed by an alien race known as the Helganquil so as to harvest astral energy for the "Great Spirit" of Rena. 

If that shift sounds confusing, well, it's because it is. I thought the first part of Tales of Arise was stronger than its second. Taking out the Renan Lords was fun, with the story progressing in an interesting manner right up until you defeat the psychotic Water Lord, Vholran Igniseri. What proceeds from there is a lot of space magic and exposition that might leave most people's heads spinning. 

The ending is still very satisfying, at least, for me, but it probably would have been better had the story stuck with what worked. That is, instead of introducing a new set of antagonists, keep the Renans. When you go to their space station, Lenegis, make the story about uncovering more about their society and about their true leader, the Sovereign. From there you could go to Rena, which could be a complete planet (rather than an unending copy/pasted dungeon) and dismantle the Sovereign and their strongest associates, perhaps using help from all of the Dahnan and Renan allies you've made in the first part of the game. 

I think this would have made Vholran a better character too. Instead of acting as a final antagonist to give the fight against the "Great Spirit" a human face, he could have acted as a third faction in your fight against the Renan Sovereign. He could have represented chaotic evil, with the Renans being lawful evil, and Alphen and company being lawful good, etc. It almost seems like this is the story they were setting up in the first half of the game, but in the interest of subverting the audience and/or expediency, they scrapped it in favor of a fight against unrelatable and personality-less antagonists, whom we defeat with the power of friendship (essentially). 

Instead of a final battle against someone representing the evils of Renan society, we fight a mindless entity who "willed" the Helganquil to construct Renan society and puppet them into dominating Dahnans. This removed all agency from the Renans and the actions they took to conquer Dahna, with the storywriters almost saying "they were never evil, just misled." Personally I didn't find that satisfying. I know what they were trying to do--a big theme of Tales of Arise is that of forgiveness, that people can be redeemed, and that one's intent to do good can often end in actions that appear evil to others. We were supposed to say to ourselves "hey, the Renans are oppressed just like the Dahnans! We should feel bad for them and forgive them!" Maybe if executed better this story twist would have worked, but in my opinion it fell flat. 

Quibbles with the story aside, I still finished the game, and like I said I don't make a habit of finishing extremely long games often. Tales of Arise is just a fun game to play. Moving around the map feels good, combat feels satisfying, and unlocking skills and crafting powerful accessories is addicting. The characters and their relationships are a plus too. Seeing Alphen's relationship with Shionne develop over the duration of game was a treat, as it felt very organic. All of the companions had engaging backstories, and indeed over the course of the game you hear from them a lot. In fact I think this game might have the most voiced companion dialogue I've ever heard (they literally never stop talking). 

For those of you into post-game content, Tales of Arise has a lot of it. I haven't sunk my teeth into it, and don't really plan to, but it's there. From what I can tell there's a bunch of high-level dungeons that unlock as well as fights vs. characters from previous Tales games. Ultimately, these are meant to get your characters from the level ~55-60 you'll be at the end of the story up to the level cap of 100. If you really like the strategy and execution of Arise's combat, there's a lot of fun to be had here. 

That's all I have for now. I may have more to say about this game in the future, but these are my impressions having finished it literally less than 24 hours ago. The game is quite the odyssey, and by and large, I'm happy to have experienced it. 

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