A man wearing an iron mask who does not remember his past. A woman who electrocutes people and has a magic stone hidden in her chest. A motley band of rebels trying to overthrow an empire. The start of Tales of the Ascension is ridiculous, and also the most fun I have had with a JRPG in years.
There are several reasons for this.
One is that Arise is a very, very nice game, much prettier than I would expect from a low budget version made in Unreal Engine. It sounds like how my brain remembers PS2 JRPGs: like a cel-shading anime that you can walk around in.
Arise isn’t cel-shaded, but it has crisp lines that really showcase the vibrant colors and environmental details bringing its sci-fi fantasy world to life. Bandai Namco Studios may have been working on a tight budget, but nothing on Arise feels right off the EU assembly line.
Another reason is that its real-time action combat is simple yet endlessly satisfying. There is a hint of complexity in the way you chain the abilities together, but mostly it’s great fun to jump, roll, and pull off cool, heavy combos with just the press of a few buttons. You know something good is going on when you walk past the same generic dinosaur-like monster a dozen times and can’t help but jump back into battle for a few more experience points each time.
But the biggest reason Arise won me over so quickly, it’s how it immerses you right into its messy story without getting bogged down in a bunch of details or sidetracked by endless banter. It all starts in a dry wasteland called Calaglia, ruled by Lord Balseph, regional director of a technologically advanced empire. You play as Dahnan, a slave who can’t remember why his head is locked in an iron helmet.
The game lays out the stakes of the fight, then immediately gets into the action. A group of rebels called the Crimson Crows attempt to hijack an Imperial convoy. Inside, they find a woman named Shionne who inadvertently electrocutes anyone she touches. She happens to be a member of the empire, but is clearly not on her side. Also, she has a gem called the Main Core hidden in her chest, from which Dahnam can pull out a fiery sword and proceed with the destruction of enemy soldiers. Revolution and intrigue ensue.
Kotaku‘s Ari Notis explained it perfectly in his review when he described Ariseas “a deliciously cascading mystery, which answers each question by raising two others which are far more intriguing than the first”. There’s nothing fantastic about the writing, and I’m not emotionally attached to any of the characters, but I’m interested to see where their fight for liberation is going. Interested enough, at least, to propel me through an otherwise familiar but pleasantly airy formula of fierce battles, completing side quests, and leveling up for bosses.
I have the feeling that AriseHeroes don’t know their world and their battles as much as they think they do. How did the empire come to rule in the first place? What is the long game behind its cruelty and exploitation? Why has the one person who can seemingly do it all fall apart, lost their memory? The conflict is both easy to grasp – the underdog rise up – but difficult to predict, which is just enough to make me want to switch between loading screens.
Opening up your 50-hour JRPG epic with minimal relativity and suspense seems obvious, but there are plenty of games that don’t. I struggled with a few precedents Tales games for this very reason. I like Dragon Quest XI for what it is, but it’s a snoozefest. Same Final Fantasy XV does not start until the last third. Octopath traveler and Courageously Default II have good turn-based combat, but everything else is as stale as a centuries-old fairy tale. It doesn’t make these games bad, but it did keep them from getting me into the jump right off the bat like some of the classics that inspired them did.
Xenogears comes to mind, not only because it also has a desert section at the start and revolves around one civilization enslaving another, but because it also pulls a lot of miles out of simple mysteries from the start. I doubt Arise Will prove to be as surprising or impactful to me as Square Enix’s bible mech game, but it made me excited to find out.
Where so many other recent games in the genre have let me down, even when I got to enjoy them overall for what they were, Tales of the Ascension hooked me up and won’t let go. I hope it never will.