I’ve often heard Bandai Namco’s series of Tales games referred to as JRPG comfort food, and it’s a sentiment that I agree with. Despite their ups and downs, the franchise never had disastrous receptions. The story and worlds are rarely innovative, operating along classic JRPG “save the world” plot lines, but it’s a storytelling technique that they’re pretty good at. The art is graphically simple but appealing. The action combat system, which still plays out through specific encounters, offers something that many fans of both action and turn-based systems can likely enjoy. I rather like the series.
I’ve also wondered if it can ever be a great franchise again because I don’t think it has been in some time. The reveal trailer of Tales of Arise, a new entry announced at Microsoft's E3 2019 conference, has made my hopes rise considerably. The pessimistic side of me is convinced that nothing will really change, and shiny new graphics don’t mean anything. The optimistic side of me tells the pessimistic side to shut up.
Although judging a game on visual quality alone is never a good idea, I do legitimately think the obvious upgrade showcased in the new trailer provides a source of anticipation. The last two games in the series, Zestiria and Berseria, both received PlayStation 3 releases in Japan alongside the PS4 counterparts, and the games are appropriately modest to meet system requirements. Although PS3/PS4 dual releases haven't been uncommon for JRPGs, more recent flagship releases like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest have moved on from the last generation to make full use of the newer Sony hardware. Consequently, the cross-platform limitations helped to relegate Tales to its gradual decline as a B-series, unable to compete with its counterparts. The open world that Zestiria boasted turned out to be a little different than traditional JRPG areas, only eliminating the need to travel through an overworld. In 2017, longtime series producer Hideo Baba left Bandai Namco, and some new blood was injected into the games. Although Berseria’s story did improve from the largely generic and slow plot of Zestiria, it still struggled to rise above the lackluster city and dungeon design, despite the perennially engaging combat that the series offers.
In recent years, as the new games continue to struggle, Bandai Namco has made it clear that they know which games are the fan favorites. Tales of Symphonia, along with its Wii sequel, received a PS3 remaster that eventually made its way to Steam. Tales of the Abyss found itself on the 3DS, a common JRPG destination that could more or less manage to run the original PS2 graphics. Tales of Vesperia, which might narrowly dethrone Symphonia as the most universally beloved entry, has been given the best treatment. You can buy it today on PS4, Xbox One, Steam or the Nintendo Switch, remastered with features that never made it outside of Japan the first go-round. Meanwhile, games like Legendia, Graces and both Xillia entries that were originally contemporary to the now-remastered entries haven’t returned to store shelves since their original releases.
Common to all of the most popular entries are likable casts of characters with good chemistry and interactions that alternate between humorous and heartfelt. Symphonia and Abyss in particular also offer a myriad of towns and cities that, although by no means shockingly original in design, populate their streets and buildings with individually memorable NPCs to round out the world of the game. The stories of all three games build on many classic JRPG tropes, but they maintain a consistent pace of plot development across their lengthy runtimes to keep the narrative engaging until the very end. The Vesperia remaster trailer embedded below outright declares it "one of the best stories" in the series. The games feature engaging dungeons, with sometimes surprisingly unique enemy types and a variety of puzzles to solve. When all of these elements are brought together, they provide the full package of a Tales experience that resonates with fans. The re-releases prove that Bandai Namco understands the love for these games. So why haven’t they yet extracted the elements that made them so good and implemented them properly again?
Berseria offers some indication that they might actually be trying to do so. Even though it still falls short of many of the classic entries, it begins a series of course corrections that push it in the right direction. The biggest leaps forward are in the characters and story, which both incorporate more unique ideas than in Zestiria. Velvet Crowe became the first female to be a solo protagonist in the series and brought a surprisingly jaded worldview to the table, carried to life in even the English voice over with a great performance from Cristina Vee. Her party features characters who each come from uniquely different backgrounds and perspectives on the crisis that threatens Berseria’s world, among them a particularly memorable self-proclaimed witch who dresses as a jester and haughtily taunts the other characters at every turn. Velvet’s party rarely struggles with the hesitance to kill other people, a concept that, although deeply compelling in some games (for instance, the excellent JRPG Nier: Automata), took a repetitive and largely pointless role at the forefront of Zestiria’s story. The environments receive a more modest upgrade, with a few more memorable locations and the occasional cozy tavern to enter. Where the game still struggles is with the overall liveliness of its towns and cities—citizens only partly recover from their status in Zestiria as completely impersonal mouthpieces—and in the design of its dungeons, which are yet again an improvement but still fail to offer any particularly exciting elements.
Bandai Namco has consistently struck a balance between detail and cartoon simplicity in Tales design, straying far from any attempt at realism while avoiding the overly simple anime look of games from developers like Compile Heart (Hyperdimension Neptunia, Fairy Fencer F). It’s always been an agreeable style, but over time other developers have continued to hone similarly cute looks further than Bandai Namco has pushed Tales. Dragon Quest XI brought a completely loyal vision of its own classic series' graphics into a new realm of detail and liveliness. Meanwhile, Ni no Kuni games brought the unforgettable Ghibli style into 3D. Even Bandai Namco’s own one-off game, Eternal Sonata, utilized a similar style to Tales in a way arguably more memorable than the actual series has since.
Berseria opens fairly strong with an opening town draped in vivid autumn colors and falling leaves, and although the game rarely matches this standard in later areas, it’s a clear reminder of how much the art style can do when paired with adequate inspiration. Around the beginning of the Arise trailer, a series of environments are quickly cycled through, and they make it look like Bandai Namco may have accompanied the graphical upgrade with that necessary inspiration. A large city—probably the fantastical country’s capital—adds friendly detail to its streets with dangling bouquets of flowers. Several shots reveal a moon and a planet that looms largely beyond the horizon. These terrestrial bodies, likely plot critical, lend a point of interest and life to the skies. One shot places them behind a ridge at the end of a snowy climb, lit by a sole wooden lamppost.
The rest of the trailer shifts its focus primarily to two characters, presumably principal protagonists, and exciting combat footage. The female character who takes the trailer’s central focus is one cause for possible concern, as her overall appearance bears striking resemblance to Lailah, a Zestiria character. If she isn’t Lailah, the design seems lazy. If she is, I hate to say that she’s a bit on the boring side, and they’ll have to do some real work to make her an engaging protagonist. She does have a gun, so there’s that. Her male counterpart’s face remains covered throughout the trailer, no doubt for some reason that will play a central role in the plot. What’s more exciting here is the combat, although its appeal isn’t surprising, as it’s that’s one of the few elements that even Zestiria got right. In a new engine, however, the attack effects are given new life, making contact with enemies punchier and more exciting in a bloodless game. It also looks like world traversal may transition into action more seamlessly this time around. Coupled with the similarity in art style, the overall fluidity calls to mind the in-development Granblue Fantasy JRPG for consoles. Considering PlatinumGames’ former involvement in the combat of that title, it’s a comparison to be proud of.
Beyond all of the trailer footage, what I find inherently exciting about the trailer are the possible ramifications of the graphical upgrade. Sure, better graphics are nice, but what do they mean about the game’s production? It’s possible that Bandai has finally started considering the possibility of Tales as a true flagship again and is finally putting significant funding into the games once more. In that case, the game stands a good chance of being better across the board. The gripes I still had with Berseria likely trace back more to budgeting than anything else—if money’s tight, designing deeply detailed dungeons and towns simply isn’t possible. If the majority of Arise’s budget is going towards its visual appeal, however, the rest of the game could suffer.
Of the Tales games I have played, Symphonia remains my personal favorite. It’s never been a groundbreaking game, but instead a perfection of the classic JRPG. Despite laughably stiff character animations and its constant shuffling of well-worn genre tropes, Symphonia never fails to feel alive, like a fully realized fantasy world and not just the all-too-common thin façade of one. Ultimately, that’s what I think Arise should strive to accomplish. Tales isn’t a Persona or Automata, but it doesn’t have to be. If Bandai Namco can bring the detailed environments they’ve shown off at E3 to life and fill that world with bustle and charm, then they’ll have made a game worth playing.
To bring my pessimistic side back out, there’s an unavoidable possibility that Tales of Arise will offer nothing more than a shiny coat of paint on a largely weary and lagging series. If that’s the case, it still won’t be the end of the world that Tales heroes are always fighting to stop. The glimpses of combat in the new trailer promise to maintain the continually engaging real-time action system that the series is known for, and the addition of Look-a-Lailah’s big gun has to be fun. But it could be so much more than that. Here’s to hoping.