The term 'anime' covers all sorts of sins. Just thinking about the word might bring to mind the humanity-ending crisis and depressive episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or something entirely at the opposite end of the entertainment spectrum like Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? Tales of Arise feels like it's drawing from just about every point of the expansive anime visage.
Bandai Namco's latest anime-aesthetic adventure starts out in the 'serious' section of the anime universe. Tales of Arise is a story about an enslaved race of people, who slowly learn to pick up arms and fight back against the oppressors who've held a vice-like grip around their throats for over three centuries. The Dahnans have been made to suffer unimaginable horrors under the rule of the Renans, who hail from a technologically-advanced world and will stop at nothing to drain this planet's resources and its people for all they're worth, and the action-RPG isn't shying away from studying the exploitation and loss of self that takes hold under slavery.
As the 17th entry in the Tales franchise, Bandai Namco's series has seen more releases in less time than Square Enix's Final Fantasy saga. Still, Tales has never quite risen to such highs worldwide, occupying a more cult-like following compared to the blockbuster successes of the aforementioned series. Despite the rampant release schedule though, Tales of Arise is the first new entry since 2016's Berseria, and is generally viewed as a soft reboot for the series at large, attempting to find footing with a bigger audience than ever before, especially in the west.
Arise still falls back on some recognisable anime storytelling trends you've no doubt seen in countless pieces of media before. Like a friend being begrudgingly dragged on a night out, some well-trodden anime concepts rear their heads to balance out the darker nature of Arise's storytelling. 'A woman with an insatiable appetite but who is very embarrassed about it' pops up through the enigmatic Renan warrior Shionne, for example, and the headstrong Danan youth Law wants to punch through everything in sight, at one point literally offering his services of punching through a concrete floor.
It's a little disappointing, then, that Tales of Arise can't quite manage to maintain its commentary on and depiction of slavery without muddying the waters by falling back on some cliches. It's a massive adventure as well, jamming what's effectively two games, each with their own animated title sequences, into one package. The first focuses on breaking the shackles of slavery and ruminating on how an enslaved people can set up their own society once they're free of their oppressors, while the second game strays into Kingdom Hearts territory of intergalactic adventures and lengthy monologues about the spirit and willpower that resides within us all.
It's in that second portion that the adventure starts to wear a little thin. Arise's strength is in its characters, uniting from all walks of life to break free of the chains that bind them. The wizened Dohalim is an enticing companion, and a pleasant surprise in that he's a person of colour given ample screen time to develop over the course of the 30-something hours of this JRPG. Arise's back half is waylaid by fairly monotonous dungeon-crawling though, opting for wall-to-wall action in favour of character development. Arise's troupe are really something special, each one of which you'll be given different reasons to root for, but it's a shame the vast majority of the character building happens in the first half of the game.
One constant is Arise's combat system, and it's fantastic. The basic starting point is protagonist Alphen, who ducks and dodges through fights as a fiery swordsman, but while every supporting character fights alongside you in a combat arena, they can periodically be summoned in for special moves that really hit home against certain enemies. Arise makes you pay attention to the enemies you're fighting, forcing you to learn their movesets with a view to pulling off risky last-minute dodges, but also engaging with the player to decipher which abilities throw off which enemies. The stoic Kisara's shield bash will stop a rampaging enemy from storming across the battlefield for example, laying them out on the ground for your team to dig into.
What's really surprising is how much Tales of Arise riffs off the excellent Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Many of Sekiro's fights weren't actually about whittling down the enemy's health at all, but rather building up a separate meter with parries and well-placed attacks to 'stun' your foes, allowing the titular shinobi to execute them in one decisive attack. Arise takes this formula and meshes it into a frantic party-based battle system, letting the player build up an enemy's stagger meter so they might deliver a killing blow early with one supremely powerful move, while incorporating special allied abilities to keep the hits coming and that meter rising. It almost plays out like a chaotic puzzle game, where you'll be figuring out which allies are available to lay into an enemy and keep the stagger meter going up while Alphen backs off and recharges one of his abilities in turn, ready to jump in and take over.
Perhaps it's not really surprising, with such a great battle system, that Tales of Arise relies pretty heavily on dungeon-crawling. These aren't "dungeons" per se, because there isn't really any puzzle aspect to them, but more like a towering gauntlet where you'll run from room to room beating the crap out of people like a raging bull, all before one final, story-centric boss showdown. Once you've figured out which allied attacks work where to displace which enemies though, the dungeons are a breeze, and well worth the promise of advancing the plot and stories of your ragtag comrades.
Tales of Arise rides the high of a brilliant battle system and a charismatic supporting cast. It's not always the smoothest ride, especially when the back half of Bandai Namco's game stumbles into interplanetary affairs and storytelling that goes for something a little more grandiose, but the combination of compelling characters and a plot that'll genuinely get you rooting for everyone involved is a sublime match.