The following article contains spoilers for Tales of Arise. Despite what I’m getting ready to say, this really is a good game. Give it the benefit of the doubt and give it a play before you spoil it for yourself.
Tales of Arise is one of the best JRPGs that I’ve ever played — at least the first half that is. It builds a coherent and interesting narrative with ease, layering the problems of Dahnan and Renan conflict with a relatively light touch, at least for a JRPG. While Balseph and Ganabelt are less than morally grey — Ganabelt is literally Scooby-Doo evil (“and I would’ve gotten away with being a fake Resistance leader if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!”) — the first three Lords explore the Dahnan-Renan dynamic in increasingly interesting concepts.
By the time I reached Almeidrea in Mahag Saar, we had already seen one brutally oppressive Lord, Balseph, one coercive police-state Lord, Ganabelt, and one cooperative and consensus-building Lord, Dohalim. The game was beginning to suggest relatively complex ideas about race and class, noting that oppression can come in many forms, whether it be in Balseph’s overt control of every aspect of Dahnan life, Ganabelt’s utilization of collaborators, or Dohalim’s self-interested Renan paternalism.
Unfortunately, after Dohalim, Arise takes an approach that tarnishes this initially fascinating concept. The story starts well in Mahag Saar where, allegedly, Dedyme and the Dark Wings have captured the ruling Lord. There, Arise explores anti-Renan racism, describing how hatred is wrong, no matter who it comes from. Unfortunately, the game’s insistence on forcing battles against Renan Lords–how much more interesting would it have been for us to face down Dedyme and his army of cronies and then bear the moniker of “Dahnan killers” for the rest of the story–destroys any nuance in facing down Almeidrea.
The narrative also forces Law into an awkward encounter with Rinwell about the problems that come with revenge, despite both Alphen and Law getting their respective revenge just two or three in-game hours before. That’s not even mentioning the paternalistic ludicrousness of a male character lecturing to a female character about how she has to control her emotions and temper her desire for revenge when neither Alphen nor Law needed to.
These problems, though frustrating, are far from egregious and the story stays mostly on track through the end of Almeidrea’s storyline. The problem emerges when we’re first introduced to Vholran, when he captures Shionne and kills Almeidrea on the latter’s ship.
Vholran’s character is a mess. At first, he’s an interesting unknown, the clichéd, “you’re not ready to fight this guy yet,” forced-loss, JRPG trope. We know he’s somehow tied to Alphen’s past since he knows how to awaken Alphen’s rage by attacking Shionne and we know how powerful he is by how effortlessly he deals with zeugles early on when the party is in Cyslodia. Nevertheless, his motivation in capturing Shionne — what is it, to awaken Alphen’s memories, to lure him into Ganath Haros, to weaken the party? — and his overall desires are poorly illustrated. His lack of interesting motivation, position as the final boss, and role as the “other” sovereign make him seem like a poor man’s Sephiroth. Nevertheless, whereas Sephiroth made sense as Final Fantasy VII’s central antagonist, given his history with Cloud, Jenova, and SOLDIER, Vholran’s place on the periphery of the story until the very end makes his role not only less understandable but less interesting as well.
My biggest problem with Vholran, though, is that his introduction leads to some of Arise’s weaker moments: Alphen’s revelation as the sovereign, his interaction with Naori as the maiden, and the eventual discovery of the “big bad,” the Great Spirit.
The concept of the sovereign is poorly thought out and even more poorly integrated within the overall story. It is never explained as to what the sovereign’s powers actually entail outside of the Spirit Channeling Ceremony — besides jumping very high, becoming all glowy, and being able to handle vast amounts of astral energy. Further, Alphen’s history with Naori lacks a substantial connection with his current relationship with Shionne. Sure, we know that Naori was Shionne’s ancestor, but how did Naori seal the Great Spirit’s power within her, especially if it was such a small amount, as we later find out on Rena? How were the thorns passed down over generations if they made contact with others painful? Why didn’t the Helganquil intervene to prevent Shionne from contacting Alphen and setting off the events of the story if they are as omnipresent and omniscient as the story later makes them out to be?
The last half of the game suffers from trying to cram too much information into too few areas. Lenegis, and the inhabitant Renan society, lack the interesting social dynamics that we have expected from the beginning of the game. Despite one passive-aggressive remark from Dohalim’s friend, Avakhir, the idea of Dahnans not only traveling to Lenegis, but strolling around without showing open deference to Dohalim and Shionne seems not only unrealistic but markedly immersion-breaking. Additionally, if Shionne was the persona non grata on Lenegis that she suggested several times within the story, why isn’t this mentioned even once during the party’s visit there?
Rena itself is demoted from what we assumed was going to be the fascinating capital planet of an expansive, fascist society into a hollowed-out apple core home to yet another evil spirit with an appetite for world-ending annihilation. The sovereigns of the past three hundred years? They’re now yet another JRPG mega monster with human faces. The society built on oppression and exploitation that the Renans benefited from? That was simply a front for an evil planetary spirit that–get this–actually wasn’t all that evil because it just wanted balance in the cosmos.
Yeah, I don’t know either.
I suspect as many other players have, that the info dump given to the player by Hevrekt-35 resulted from either issue in development a la Xenogears or budgetary constraints that hampered the developers’ ability to flesh out Rena in the same way that they had Dahna. Whatever the reason, the result is a disappointing second “half” of the adventure that not only makes Shionne and the party’s accomplishments in the first half seem uniquely pointless, but also hits the player with several classic deus ex machina tropes in a row (e.g. Hevrekt-35 and his magical floating space station, Alphen going full Goku in the battle with Vholran, and Alphen and Shionne’s ability to destroy not only her thorns but also the Great Spirit with–what?–a Spirit Bomb?) that stretches the player’s ability to really understand what’s going on.
That’s one of the biggest flaws of Arise. Too often, JRPGs hit the player with complex philosophical, religious, or spiritual ideas that overwhelm whatever characterization the human characters receive, burying unique, personal human stories beneath the need to tell everything on a vast cosmic scale.
Arise’s first half is a masterclass in telling a human story, one of breaking down walls, confronting racism, and encouraging diversity and inclusion that is too often lacking in JRPGs. When the story goes cosmic in its second half and belittles the differences between Dahnans and Renans by revealing that they were the same all along, it cripples the progress made in the first half of the story. Arise succeeds in making us care about each of our characters, but then minimizes most of that characterization by trivializing their differences in the final act.
It may sound like I’m not a fan of Arise or I didn’t enjoy my time with it, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed most of it. It’s just a shame that a tale that starts out so good just can not seem to cross the finish line quite as strongly.