Having been a fan of JRPGs since my teens, I somehow only discovered the Tales series about three years ago. I am glad that I did. The series has continued to produce solid games that have kept me entertained of a long time, usually hitting the 100 hours played mark. The downside of being a fan of a Japanese game franchise is that you often see new entries being released in Japan that never make it to Western shores. The original Tales of Hearts was one of those games, being released in Japan in 2008 exclusively for the Nintendo DS. Since then, Namco Bandai have started project Re-imagination (hence the R in the title) where older DS titles are completely remade for the Playstation Vita. Tales of Hearts R is the second game to be remade, but the first to be localized for North America and Europe. We had to wait over one year since its March 2013 release in Japan. So has the wait been worth it?
Story and Characters
Tales of Hearts R revolves around the story of Kor Meteor. At the young age of sixteen he is training to become a Somatic, a special type of warrior. A Somatic uses his or her Spiria (or soul) as the force of their power through a special type of weapon called a Soma. As we meet Kor he is living in a small seaside village while training under his grandfather. However, Kor’s life is quickly turned upside down as he meets a beautiful girl (as the story usually goes) named Kohaku Hearts. She is being hunted by a powerful sorceress for unknown reasons and is looking for her brother who she got separated from during their escape. Soon the growing party find themselves hunted by the church and the imperial army (who have conflicting agendas with each other as well as the party), haunted by a dark prophecy about falling moons and the end of the world, all while desperately trying to save the shattered soul of a friend.
A problem that most JRPGs have is that the story has a slow pacing. In Tales of Hearts R, this is never an issue. This could be because the game is shorter than its home consoles counterparts and the story therefore becomes more compact. I also found it very enjoyable that it never tells you outright what is going on at all times. For example, you are aware of agents of the church coming after you and you have an idea of what they want from your party, but you are not explained why. What each character or faction’s endgame might be is discovered over time. I was as confused as Kor about why ‘everyone’ seemed to want to stop me for reaching my goal, and the drive for answers kept my interest peaked through the story. As suggested by the title, the story does touch upon some cliché themes of feelings, love and the power of the heart. Some of might find these scenes a bit cringy, but I personally didn’t have a problem with it.
The characters you meet along your journey are, as usual in Tales games, well written and easy to like. However, some of them are very familiar stereotypes that you meet in most games in the franchise. Some examples are Beryl, a young, loud, and quirky mage, and Gall, the older, wiser man that hold the youngsters in check. Staying with ‘safe’ stereotypes is both positive and negative for returning players. The good part is that there is a certain familiarity that lets you easily connect with them, while the bad side is that it becomes a bit predictable what these characters will add to the party and character interactions.
That is not to say that the Tales writing team is lazy. One of the fan favorites in the series is the Skits. Skits are short and optional scenes that flesh out the characters’ personalities, their evolving relationships and backgrounds. These appear randomly, or after achieving certain goals, as a title in the lower left corner of the screen that you simply press Select to initiate. You can skip them if you so choose, but they do add a lot to the experience of the game and some are downright hilarious. A new addition to this game is that some Skits actually help to grow the bond between the characters involved. As this bond grows stronger you can unlock new abilities and attacks that the characters perform together, adding a new layer of tactics on the otherwise deep combat system.
A Rich and Deep Battle System
The battles in Tales have always been one of the series’ highpoints for me. While most JRPGs have decent combat, I often get bored with random encounters. Running through a dungeon can sometimes become a hassle as you hack, slash and spell-sling your way through countless weak enemies without having to consider any tactics. In Tales, it feels very different. The battle area is an enclosed space that you can move freely around in, allowing you to flank enemies, dodge or even run away to avoid damage. You can attack enemies from any angle, and with a mix of standard attacks and special moves that you choose for your character. While you only control one character, you can set up tactics and specific commands for your allies at any time. You are able to set up your own battle formations in the menu, meaning the place on the battle screen you want your characters to appear at the start of any battle. From my experience, the party AI works well with this system. If you place a character in the middle of the area, they will usually focus on close range attacks. If you place them further away, they will focus on ranged attacks, as well as trying to keep their distance from the enemy. But a good formation does not ensure an easy win, as enemies will do their best to mess it up for you. They will also spread out, hunt weaker characters, and disrupt spell-casting. This makes even the small random encounters interesting. The normal enemies are not typically difficult to take down, but I did find a few of the story bosses to make a serious dent in my Life Bottle supply. If the difficulty proves to easy for you (I played on Normal) you can easily choose a higher difficulty in the Settings Menu at any time.
There are other systems that adds more depth to the combat as well. The theme of feelings is central in the game and that affects the enemies as well. As you slash away on an enemy, it will eventually become enraged. When this happens it will use a special attack that will knock you back and interrupt your combo. To avoid this, you can use a counter attack of you guard at the right time. The timing can be a bit tricky to get used to with some enemies, but once you do it can be a lifesaver, especially against bosses. In addition, you eventually learn how to use Chase Link. This special attack triggers if you are able to land enough hits on the enemy without interruption. When Chase Link is active you will hit the enemy back and forth on the battleground. As the enemy is knocked back you can teleport directly behind them and continue the onslaught. Chase Link is on a strict timer, and when it’s nearly depleted you and initiate a powerful finishing blow to hopefully finish off the enemy. As a bonus, some characters might join you in this mode, unleashing a powerful dual attack. Chase Link looks and feels great to execute, and I couldn’t help but feeling a bit of glee as I pummeled my defenseless enemy through the air.
As you level up, you gain points that you can use to power up your Soma. The Soma is split into five categories: Fight, Endurance, Belief, Mettle, and one category that is unique to each character. This system allows for some customization of how you want your characters to grow as you can spend your points however you want. It doesn’t only affect character stats, but also what skills and powers you will earn and which stats will be available for your weapon. How you develop the characters’ Soma therefore has a direct effect on battles as it determines their strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks.
I usually don’t like to mention graphics in a review unless they are impressively good or bad. However, seeing that is game is a remake I feel like I should give it some attention this time around. The original Hearts was released for DS, a console with very different limitations than the Vita. Because of this, the game has been rebuilt from the ground up and is almost not recognizable anymore. While the style of the DS version was more of a classic sprite art style, the Vita version has adapted the 3D anime art style that the home console games have been using for years. While the graphics has had an impressive upgrade, it’s still lacking in some areas. The risk of using cell shading or anime art styles in games is that if it is not used well, the world can seem very flat and hollow. In Hearts R, the graphics look great in small areas and villages, while in bigger dungeons and especially the world map it feels very flat and lifeless. As for the characters, their costumes have some great details to them, especially some of the optional outfits you can find. The game also uses short anime videos as cutscenes to introduce new characters or during important scenes in the story. These cutscenes look absolutely fantastic on the Vita screen, and the quality is high enough to make it look like they have been cut out from a feature film.
Tales of Hearts R is a solid JRPG in its own right, and perhaps one of the strongest titles released for the Vita overall. It stays true to the Tales tradition and has all the elements of a classic JRPG. It will appeal to fans of the series as well as fans of the genre. The story is interesting and keeps enough details hidden to make you want to play on to discover what is really going on. The world is big in scale with a lot of opportunity to explore. Characters are well written (especially if you watch the Skits) and all add their own quirky personalities to a lovely mix. The combat system is deep, fun and addictive which makes even the random battles in the world entertaining. If you are a completeionist like me, or just want to casually play through for story and characters, the game is able to satisfy both needs.
I highly recommend it to any fan of traditional RPGs. I have really enjoyed my time with it and look forward to a 100% run on New Game +.