I spent much of my time with JRPG Tales Of Arise veering from a state of serene calm to one of total confusion. Like I'd been out for a walk down the street, spotted a group of misfits down a quiet suburb, and starting yelling encouragement as they kicked seven shades out of a fire hydrant. That feeling of not really knowing what you're doing, but rather enjoying whatever it is that you are, in fact, doing.
In my half hour hands-on with Tales Of Arise, I explored a very small slice of what seemed like a vast JRPG. I was plopped in a location pulled straight from the anime chapter of the Fantasy 101 textbook: a peaceful, grassy area flanked by mountains, home to a few nice trees, some strange pig-rabbit hybrids chilling in a pen, and off in the distance, a huge gilded city.
I'd say that for the most part, Tales Of Arise's exploration was adequate JRPG fare. I ran around the aforementioned zone littered with enemies which didn't attack me unless I ran into them. I found chests off the beaten track that contained new gear like bigger swords or shinier gauntlets without too much effort. And I hoovered up ore and tomatoes and slabs of meat with a brush of the hand. It didn't offend, but neither did it excite.
In a spur of the moment bid to up the ante, I tried swinging my sword at a fence, but it didn't break. Forgive me for this, but I also tried hitting the cute pig-bunny things, along with a couple of cows for good measure. Nope, no splinters, no startled oink, no high-pitched moo. Of course, not an unforgivable offense by any means, but I got the sense that the world, despite being rather pretty, was very rigid; an unmoving space to eventually be ticked off your 100% exploration list.
I did enjoy the calm exploration of Tales Of Arise, partly because it felt familiar and partly because it was just quite pleasant. Tese were the relaxing jaunts I knew all too well from my time with other JRPGs like Atelier Ryza 2. But damn, that huge gilded city was a real tease. The preview build wouldn't let me wander in, so it's left me as this raging bundle of curiosity and frustration. Surely there are loads of NPCs in there, who'll task me with finding their lost cats for XP, or vendors who'll sell me gems in exchange for carrots I've harvested? But nah: I had to play outside, while the adults I imagined into existence enjoyed themselves inside its glistening stone walls. It did the job, considering I desperately want to take a peek inside when the full game launches.
But after this wide-eyed exploration came bursts of dizzying violence, which made up the other half of my thirty minutes with Tales Of Arise. My word, I had no idea what I was doing - but I enjoyed it, I think?
I could still have fun, win fights, and look cool without really knowing what on earth was happening on screen.
Combat in Tales Of Arise is a real-time affair, where you hack-and-slash enemies to death with the power of anime. And if the enemy tries to put a plug in your hyaahs! and hnnghs!, you can dodge-roll out of danger. You control one character, while the rest of your party engages auto-pilot and screams whatever move they're doing every 0.01 nanosecond. I can only describe it as a sensory barrage.
These party members fulfil the anime tropes and all roughly correspond to your usual RPG archetypes. I played as Alphen, a cool swordsman with a flaming sword and an eye patch purely because he seemed like a good all-rounder. But then you've got five others, including Shionne, a gunslinger with an attitude, Rinwell, a happy-go-lucky mage, and Law, a very enthusiastic boy who loves martial arts. There's also a stoic tank and a posh fella with a lance. You can choose which one you want to play before you head into battle, but you can't swap between them mid-fight. Three of them will fight alongside you during a dust up, while two others will wait in the wings to be called upon only for special moves. Of which there are many.
And I'm going to be totally honest with you here: I mashed buttons in a blind panic. In every skirmish with a nasty bird, every scuffle with an angry boar, and even in the end boss of the demo, which was an unpleasant insect. My eyes flitted over all manner of bars and character portraits and numbers without really understanding any of them.
I hardly ever seemed to run out of the bar juice needed to sustain attacks, though, and I liked how Tales Of Arise was generous in fuelling the chaos. Every basic attack I landed fed me blue crystals, which then let me pull off powerful moves called Artes. As swordsman Alphen, I could plummet to the earth as a ball of hurt, while the posh lance person of the crew had this spinny mid-air move I absolutely rinsed.
Oh, but that's just phase one of the bewildering chaos. Landing a huge combo or getting a enemy's health low enough opens the option to trigger Strike attacks, which are even more powerful than the Artes. At the press of a button, two allies team up and perform a mega-move that both seriously dents an enemy and looks very cool in the process. I particularly liked one called Super Flashing Fang, which sees Law jump through a portal created by Rinwell before obliterating an enemy with a meteoric fist to the face.
Combine these parts together, and fights in Tales Of Arise are a wonderfully fluid cacophony of noise, numbers, and knuckle-dusting. There's real potential to string together some sweet-looking combos for those well-versed in the doling out punishment. I was just impressed that I could still have fun, win fights, and look cool without really knowing what on earth was happening on screen.
So as the dust settles, do I want more of this Tales Of Arise mayhem? Yes, yes I do. I'm sure I'd eventually get the hang of all the attacks and bars, and be able to fell a demonic plant with some semblance of strategy. It's not impenetrable, but it does need more time than half an hour to get to grips with it. And do not get me started on that city again. It feels like I've only just scratched the surface of exploration, and there's a beautiful world of pig-bunnies and tomatoes waiting for me out there. I'm desperate to see it.