A few months back, I was looking for a game to play to take me out of a gaming funk. I ended up playing NEO TWEWY; and, in fact, playing it did make me happy. Which surprised me a bit: there’s a part of me that expects JRPGs to be some combination of too much of a grind, badly balanced, and/or have too many obscure secrets for me to enjoy them? But I think that feeling is out of date, or at least it doesn’t represent the best of modern JRPGs. Final Fantasy VII Remake is one of my favorite games over the last few years; Nier: Automata is still lodged in my brain; and then there’s the Persona series and Tokyo Mirage Sessions.

Putting those together: I like it if a game is stylish and has striking environments, has characters that I care about, and has combat that doesn’t particularly strain me but that does give me something to do without overwhelming me with either repetitiveness or resource exhaustion. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the games above are action RPGs rather than turn based.) And, if a game can put all that together, I’ll be happy to go along with it, enjoying the story and environments and poking my nose into side quests that the game throws at me while following the lure of having numbers go up.


It’s still an open question to me how many games are out there that are in my sweet spot. Several of the games mentioned above are extremely well thought of, as some of the best games of their respective years, so maybe what’s really going on is that I like games that lots of other people like! Though I don’t hear many people talking about NEO TWEWY or Tokyo Mirage Sessions, so there’s probably something about the JRPG genre (or a subset of it) that appeals to me specifically. And appeals in a specific way: these aren’t just games that I enjoy, they’re all games that make me feel happy. At any rate: something worth digging into.

So, after reading some discussions of recent JRPGs, I decided to give Tales of Arise a try. I haven’t played any other games in the series, but it’s been around for a while, so presumably the series does some things well? I remembered hearing good things about Tales of Arise when it came out last year, including that it had action combat somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII Remake, so that’s a good sign. And I do have a few friends who mention it occasionally in quite positive ways on Twitter, which is also a plus.


Indeed, playing Tales of Arise did turn out to be a good choice. I enjoyed it, playing it did in fact make me happy, and Liesl was interested enough that she’s started playing it as well.

Mechanically, I enjoped the combat fine; the one odd thing there is that I kept on unlocking new moves for characters but I rarely switched out the move set for the character I was playing (the main exception being when I was fighting bosses and minibosses, to match their elemental resistances / weaknesses), and keeping the same move set turned out not to be a problem. In games where numbers go up, I expect newer stuff to have higher numbers than older stuff in ways that makes you want to switch to newer stuff; in Tales of Arise that’s certainly the case for weapons and armor, but your moves don’t have numbers associated to them (aside from the usage count), and, based on my experience, you don’t actually have to switch them out? Not sure what’s going on there.

On a bit of a side note, I was worried that the game might not be balanced well, given that there’s a deluxe edition that makes the leveling curve a bit more favorable to the player. I actually ended up buying the deluxe edition, because it was on sale when I bought the game while the standard edition wasn’t, so it was cheaper than the standard edition, but I didn’t turn on the leveling curve changes, and my leveling still went well. Standard monsters were never a problem, mini bosses and full bosses were tough, and when fighting those latter categories of enemies, I would end up dipping noticeably into my stash of rare / expensive healing items but not actually running out; this is the level of tension that I want. And I never had to grind: I generally fought every enemy the first time I went through an area and ran past most enemies in subsequent trips through that area, and that went fine.


So Tales of Arise did a good job of avoiding pitfalls that would make me unhappy: like most JRPGs, you spend a lot of time in combat, but I basically enjoyed the combat in the game, so I was happy enough to spend an hour going through a dungeon. But, of course, my goal isn’t just to not be unhappy when playing a game, it’s to be happy. (Or potentially actively interested or curious, there are a range of positive emotions that are all good things for a game to invoke!) Which, for a JRPG, usually comes down to the characters and their interactions, with the environments and worldbuilding also playing a significant role.

And I just liked spending time with the characters in Tales of Arise. I don’t think there’s anything stunning or deep going on there: if I watched more anime, I could probably point to dozens of examples of characters and interactions that are similar to those in this game? But patterns of interactions turn into tropes because they work well; so yeah, it turns out that I’m entirely happy to see a relationship between a main character and a tsundere companion play out; to see a group of people from different backgrounds be shoved together, be initially at odds, and then to grow to understand and care about each other; and so forth.

In terms of world building and plot, Tales of Arise has a pretty standard setup of a group of people fighting against an overwhelming enemy. I thought the game did a slightly more thoughtful job of that than most games: it did at least acknowledge the fact that, if you’re fighting a politically dominant group that’s larger than just a few people then, even after the battle is over, you’ll still have to live together, and that’s an important problem with no obvious solution. But still, it’s mostly a game where you are the good guys fighting against the bad guys; that’s okay.


One surprise about how plot and character development occurred in the game was how it was delivered. There were standard cut scenes, of course, but most of it was delivered in the form of skits. Which are apparently a thing that the Tales series does, it was just new to me.

Basically, you’d be walking along, and then you’d see a prompt appearing on the screen mentioning a topic to discuss. And if you press the right bumper at that point, the game would switch to going through a series of comic book panels where some of your party members talk about a topic: maybe something related to the environment you’re going through, maybe something related to an event that’s just happened or a goal that you’re moving towards, maybe just something that’s on their mind for whatever reason.

And I really like this mechanism! Primarily, I think, because it’s grounded in conversation. So, even if the topic for a skit is doing broader world building or plot propulsion, the skit is always pairing that world building with showing you what these characters think and where they’re coming from, how they interact with each other. And that means that you see how they and their relationships change and grow as a result.

Also, some of the skits are really well done. I think my favorites are ones that show up in the owl forest: there’s an owl king and queen there who speak to you at length when you bring owls back to them. The thing is, they don’t actually speak in a human language, they just hoot at you; but the game then gives you these skits where the two main characters play the role of the owl king and queen, imagining what they think the owls might be saying.

Which turns into this delightful interaction where, on the one hand what the characters are saying is a plausible guess as to what the owl king and queen are saying; but also it always ends up representing things that the two humans feel, that maybe they’re a little annoyed about. So you have these two characters who aren’t great at communicating (in fact, one of whom is noticeably bad at communicating), finding a way to talk to each other and make progress in getting out their feelings; and the game even foregrounds this by having the other characters looking at those two and making comments that explicitly point out the fact that there’s something going on here between those two that isn’t just trying to figure out what the owls are saying. It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s a little emotionally moving, I was happy every time it happened.

So: skits are good. They’re much more grounded in everyday human interactions than standard cut scenes are; BioWare party banter is another point of comparison, but I think those lean a little more in the other direction, doing a good job of showing human interaction but generally in a way that’s not so connected to other things that are going on in the game. Don’t get we wrong, I love a good cut scene and BioWare party banner is great (I should really replay Dragon Age II), but the skits in Tales of Arise hit a sweet spot between those two options that I’m glad to see.

And to see over and over again: I saw more than 300 of them over the course of the game! I don’t want to minimize the work that goes in to drawing the pictures in the skits, they’re more expensive to produce than party banter, but still, yay for effective mechanisms in games that aren’t as expensive to produce as full cut scenes or richly detailed 3D environments.


So: yay for Tales of Arise, and clearly I should continue to play more JRPGs! Probably including more Tales games, it does seem like I haven’t been paying enough attention to that series.

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