Big budget, Japanese role-playing games are a rarity these days. Outside of obvious mainstays like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, it's a genre that often has to make do with more cost-efficient production. You either get your breakout hit — like Atlus did with Persona 5 — or you go underappreciated for what feels like an eternity, as has been the case with Falcom's The Legend of Heroes franchise.

Bandai Namco's Tales series falls somewhere in between. The property's mainstream popularity peaked with Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Vesperia years ago, and it's been a bit up and down ever since, both in terms of game quality and commercial success. As such, Tales has never quite managed to embed itself as an elite JRPG series — but Tales of Arise is clearly gunning for the top, or thereabouts.

In a lot of ways, Tales of Arise is just what the franchise needed. Without a doubt, this is a bigger budget release. It shows in the gorgeous new graphics engine, and the game's sheer amount of content, both story-driven and optional. A lot of time and effort has been poured into this thing, and as a result, it's the highest quality Tales experience in a long, long while.

You play as Alphen, a mysterious man trapped in an iron mask, who happens to be suffering from a severe bout of amnesia. If your tired anime trope detector is about to explode, that's perfectly understandable — but Alphen, like the rest of the main cast, deserves a chance. Over the course of what quickly becomes a rather epic adventure, Alphen and his fellow party members go through a lot of character development. They're an endearing bunch, and watching them grow bit by bit across this lengthy journey forms the story's backbone.

A slave to start with, Alphen seeks to break free of his shackles and overthrow his oppressors — a race known as the Renans. It's a surprisingly sci-fi premise, as the Renans actually hail from a different planet. They conquered Alphen's homeworld, Dahna, 300 years ago, and now, their technologically advanced empire siphons elemental energy from both Dahna and its inhabitants. A chance encounter with an equally mysterious young woman called Shionne gives Alphen the opportunity that he's been waiting for, and it's not long until the two of them are fighting back against the baddies.

Dahna's liberation is the driving force behind much of the plot, with Alphen, Shionne, and their ragtag allies travelling from one oppressed region to the next. Each area has its own story arc — usually involving a soon-to-be party member — and while a few of them are somewhat predictable, the almost episodic structure makes it all quite memorable. Tales of Arise soon nails that feeling of being on a grand adventure, taking in wonderous sights and embracing the unknown.

It's no picnic, though. At times, the story takes some pretty dark turns, and some of the revelations that Alphen and co. have to deal with add a surprising amount of weight to their quest. Don't get us wrong, it's all anime at the end of the day, but much like Dragon Quest XI, there's a noticeable push to make things just a bit more mature, and it really works.

The plot pacing can be a little wonky, however. Tales of Arise can't escape the modern JRPG trap of having characters explain the current situation over and over again, just in case you weren't listening to the last six conversations. Thankfully, the overarching story has more than enough twists and turns to hold your attention, and, as mentioned, it's hard not to cheer for the characters themselves — especially as the pressure mounts later on.

Overall, the story does a great job of stringing you along — but it's the strong sense of progression that makes Tales of Arise shine. Levelling up your party, learning new abilities, finding new equipment, and finally besting enemies that once seemed insurmountable — all of the stuff that makes playing a classic JRPG feel so rewarding. It's all here, and it's all executed extremely well.

Which brings us neatly to combat. Tales' prime differentiator has always been its battle systems, which embrace combo-based action instead of command or turn based combat. Tales of Arise is no different, but compared to previous Tales titles, it feels much more... modern. Completely free movement and the addition of a responsive dodge roll are immediate game-changers. Meanwhile, special attacks use up AG — a resource that refills in just a couple of seconds, allowing for relentless combos as long as you properly pace yourself.

On a surface level, it could be argued that Tales of Arise has sacrificed technical depth for accessibility — but other adjustments ensure that this combat system blossoms as the game progresses. For starters, enemies around your level or above have large health pools. Just hitting them with normal attacks won't be enough, and so forming flashy combo strings is the way to go. Keep up the combos, and your opponents will eventually stagger, leaving themselves wide open to a 'boost strike' — a glorious instant kill that combines the powers of two party members.

There comes a point where combat just clicks, and it's fantastic. Creating a satisfying rhythm is hugely important for fast-paced action games, and Tales of Arise gets it bang on. Dodging an incoming blow at the last second, filling flashy combos, and calling on your allies to create openings with their own unique boost attacks — it's brilliant fun. And, on PlayStation 5, DualSense support means that different actions use different controller rumblings. It's far from the most impressive implementation of haptic feedback on Sony's system, but it definitely still adds to the experience.

You don't have to play as our sword-wielding protagonist, either. There are six playable party members — interchangeable at any time — and each of them brings their own unique fighting style to the table. Shionne is a long-range sniper, blasting flying enemies out of the sky with her rifle, while Rinwell takes time to cast devastating magic spells that can wreak havoc on whole groups of foes. You don't have to switch characters if you don't want to, but should you decide to freshen things up, there's immense enjoyment to be had in mastering everyone's abilities.

It is a shame, though, that there aren't many types of enemies to contend with. Wolf-like monsters, for example, exist throughout the entire game — they just get more and more evil looking at higher levels. Sure, tougher foes get a couple of new moves that you'll have to watch out for, but visual variety is still an issue. It makes sense in terms of lore — monsters are actually just animals that the Renans weaponised — but it's a bit disappointing to enter a whole new area, only to find that the same kinds of wolves, lobster-things, and overgrown bugs populate the countryside.

Another gripe we have is with party member intelligence. You're joined by three computer-controlled allies at all times in battle, and while you can tweak their behaviour — for the love of god, tell them to run away when their HP is low — they're still frustratingly thick at times. Now, obviously, you don't want your companions to be unstoppable since that would make the game far too easy — but it feels like there's room for improvement.

The problem is that healing spells use a separate resource, called Cure Points. Cure Points are shared across the party and don't regenerate in combat without the use of specific items. And so, while you might be untouchable in a fight, if your allies take a beating, your Cure Points are still going down the drain. In that sense, particularly during difficult boss battles, it can feel like you're being punished for the reckless actions of characters that you have very little control over.

Fortunately, things do tend to even out as you acquire new skills and find better ways to manage your Cure Points — but it's still an annoying aspect of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and very well crafted combat system.

Said system is put to good use, by the way. One of our favourite things about Tales of Arise is the amount of late game content, in the form of long, interconnected side quests and challenging optional bosses. Without spoiling anything, these excursions are hugely rewarding, offering up top tier equipment and other powerful boons. Mopping all of this stuff up is an absolute blast, and adds an extra 20 or 30 hours of adventuring to an already meaty, 60-hour RPG.

Moving on, the visuals in Tales of Arise are worth another mention. It's an incredibly pretty game, both in its main character models and its often amazing environmental design. Seriously, some of these locations are stunning in their artistry, presenting the kind of situation where you start panning the camera around in an attempt to breathe it all in. Simply put, this game's begging for a photo mode.

Although once you notice it, there is a weird amount of pop-in going on. Most of the time it's just shadows coating distant environmental details — no big deal — but when non-playable characters start popping into existence 20 feet away, it's a bit jarring.

Elsewhere, performance is hard to fault. A dedicated frame-rate mode ensures 60 frames-per-second in even the most chaotic of boss battles, at what appears to be a fairly high resolution. You can also opt to maximise resolution by cutting the frame-rate to 30, but in our experience, the trade-off really isn't worth it.

Conclusion

Tales of Arise went above and beyond our expectations. With its picturesque landscapes instilling a real sense of adventure, it's easily one of the strongest, most cohesive Tales games to date. Dramatic cutscenes and memorable character moments help sell an intriguing story, while a satisfying combat system becomes more and more engaging as your party powers up. A fantastic, modernised journey with all the rewarding qualities of a classic JRPG.