The newest Tales finds its core with its Odd Couple pair of heroes
Having good leads in an RPG can be make-or-break for some games. Any lengthy role-playing game will likely ask you to spend somewhere from 40 or more hours with its cast, and the majority of it with the protagonist. That time gets easier if the protagonist is likeable, and thankfully, I really liked both of the protagonists of Tales of Arise during its first few hours.
Tales games, at least those I’ve played, have had some pretty good leads. I’d put Velvet Crowe and Yuri Lowell up as some of my favorites, and while I’m not sure if Alphen or Shionne are hitting those highs yet, I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with them thus far. We had a chance to play through the first “section” of Tales of Arise, roughly the first few hours which introduce you to both characters; Alphen, the amnesiac man in the iron mask, and Shionne, the runaway royalty with her fair share of secrets.
For context, the world of Tales of Arise has two distinct nations: Dahna and Rena. Hundreds of years before the start of Arise, Rena invaded Dahna and subjugated its people, resulting in a present-day scenario of technologically advanced, militarily superior Rena forcing the Dahnan populace into servitude. Dahnan civilians are also unable to use astral artes, like healing, and are often outfitted with special crystals by the Renans. Those seem significant, though it’s not clear just how yet, outside them acting as a symbol of Renan power over the Dahnans.
Initially, the protagonists end up meeting by chance: Alphen, who’s been working in the Dahnan labor camps for about a year with no memory prior, winds up running into Shionne as she’s escaping both Dahnan resistance fighters and Renan soldiers. As events progress, it becomes clear each has their own reason for wanting to fight against the Renan occupation.
Alphen has been, quite literally, thrust into a Man In The Iron Mask situation, working away his days with no face, name, or memories. In fact, for most of the intro, he just goes by Iron Mask. Day in and day out, he sees the cruelties inflicted on the Dahnan population, as they struggle and die laboring under Renan command.
Shionne, meanwhile, is a tad more mysterious. I got the sense there are greater motivations we have yet to learn, outside of the section I got to play, but the short version we’re presented with is that she’s being hunted by the Renans. She’s quickly positioned as both Renan and unlike the others, where she still has misgivings about working with the Dahnans. An entire plot point is about getting Shionne some Renan armor to wear, rather than Dahnan attire. But she also seems to greatly dislike the ruling class of Rena; she stole something precious from the local Renan lord, and with it, she’s attempting to overthrow the whole system.
It’s a very enemy-of-my-enemy setup, and the two protagonists often bicker and snipe at each other. Alphen is blissfully headstrong and sure of himself, even when it could lead to his own demise, while Shionne is cautious and reserved when it comes to discussing anything about herself. It becomes clear over time that both are trying to expand their view of the dual worlds they live in, while also fighting their internalized beliefs about each other’s worlds.
This thematically ties into their own abilities as well. Shionne can use astral artes, most notably healing, but also carries within her a flaming sword. Normally, the sword would scald anyone who wields it, and Shionne herself emits lightning (colloquially referred to as “thorns”) when anyone attempts to get near or touch her.
As it so happens, Alphen cannot feel pain, which is normally a bad thing, as he comments that he could be near death and not realize it at times. But when it comes to wielding a flaming sword, or working with a woman who shocks those around her, it comes in handy.
So these two, who stumbled into each other due to coincidence and find themselves working together due to an unlikely combination of complementary talents, are begrudgingly forced together. And watching them go through ebbs and flows of opening up and closing themselves off, wrestling with their own preconceptions and the secrets each is hiding, drives much of the early game of Tales of Arise.
The early section we saw only featured these characters, unlike our previous preview which let us go hands-on with a party of six fighters. Most of my comments on the battles, world exploration, and other systems hold true in the early hours. Using Boost Attacks and Boost Strikes emphasized the party aspect of combat, and with only two people to work with, much of the early game felt like Alphen and Shionne growing accustomed to working in tandem.
I also got to see some skits, a staple of the Tales series. For those who haven’t played a Tales game before Tales of Arise or need a refresher, these are short side scenes that play as you travel around the map or through a dungeon. They’re largely optional, and simply pop up as an option in the bottom-right corner; hit the button, and you’re treated to a minute or two of the characters talking amongst themselves about anything.
These can range from moments that build upon individual characters, to exploring party dynamics, and even to silly one-off goofs and jokes. In past Tales games, they’ve also frequently let characters speak their minds on what’s been going on in the main story, or highlighted certain dynamics and how they can create their own tensions and moments of growth for the group.
They’re legitimately one of my favorite parts of the Tales series, something that contributes to the series’ overall feel to me as a game about your party, and seeing them interact with and change each other over the course of the journey.
At just a few hours, it was a little early in Tales of Arise to get a sense of the breadth of skits (and I also didn’t really have the party size to explore that in the first place), but I will say one noticeable change is the production value of them. Rather than talking heads, comic panels with characters posing and occasionally animating move in and out. It’s not a drastic change, as they’re not really “cutscenes” or anything, but it’s a noticeable change that I hope can allow for skits to cover more ground and show more interactions, like two characters sparring.
Overall, the first few hours of Tales of Arise have me invested. It’s a good start, with some neat change-ups to the formula that have been gone over already. But storywise, I really want to see where Alphen and Shionne end up going with their arcs, both individually and as a pair. Whether their dynamic can keep things interesting throughout the length of a full-scale RPG is one thing, but in the short glimpse I got to see of it, I’m already pretty endeared to this prickly pairing of protagonists.