The long running Tales series has had its share of ups and downs, but still maintains one of the best combat systems in JRPGs. Fast paced and highly diversified, there’s few titles that can rival what Tales brings to the table. While we will have to wait until late next year before receiving the next big instalment in the franchise, there’s one smaller title many may be overlooking. Bandai Namco has crafted a remake of Tales of Hearts, a Nintendo DS game that was released back in 2008 exclusively for Japan. Fortunately, demand in North America and Europe was grand enough for the company to justify a localization, and here we are with one of the lengthiest and most visually striking RPGs on the PlayStation Vita.
Unfortunately, the story of Tales of Hearts R isn’t worthy of much praise. It revolves around a young girl named Kohaku who has her “Spiria,” which basically holds all of her emotions, shattered and spread across the world. It’s up to her brother and an unlikely hero, Kor Meteor, to scour the planet in search of bringing Kohaku back to her spunky young self. This has the setup of being something special, but unfortunately doesn’t follow through. While some of the characters that inhabit the lengthy campaign have compelling personalities, mainly the mysterious Ines and childish Beryl, Kor’s upbeat, overly trusting and downright boyish makeup doesn’t paint a great protagonist. Just when you think he begins to develop into a more determined and focused individual, he reverts back to one of the most awkward heroes in Tales history. Kohaku herself starts off as one of the most entertaining individuals to grace the screen, but since she becomes an empty shell for twenty hours, it really dampens the mood. Even her romantic interest in Kor as the story progresses is uneasy at times and almost feels forced just for there to be a driving love factor in the background.
While Ines and Beryl are enjoyably comical, the remainder of the supporting cast lacks a punch of significance. Chalcedony and Kunzite are similar to one another in that they are void of much emotion and only serve their own righteous programming. The elderly Gall is almost non-existent at times and Hisui starts off as an interesting addition, but fails to develop and stays static as the hotheaded, protective brother he is. What is done well is that virtually the entire game is voiced, at least in Japanese. For the most part, the dialogue is fine, although it’s a little melodramatic and far too forgiving among character mistakes and betrayals. Regardless, even with a so-so cast of characters, having everything voiced is a nice touch for a handheld game of this size. The story of collecting someone’s emotions is refreshing, and when Kohaku gets them all back, it opens up an absurdly serious plot. Unfortunately, if it wasn’t for the antagonist’s aggravating batch of underlings, this would be so much more enticing.
It’s very apparent that Tales of Hearts R was developed for handheld systems as the dungeon structure is limited. Each dungeon throughout the vast planet is not only linear, but incredibly straightforward. There are occasionally branching paths that may lead to treasure chests, but for the most part, if players avoid combat all together, getting to the boss battle will take just a few minutes. Later in the game they become a little more diverse, but even then, there’s not much thought needed to traverse someone’s Spiria or a dungeon. It wouldn’t be so bad if Spiria links didn’t contain the exact same visual designs every time; this leaves the earthly settings to make up for it. At the very least, there are dungeons that interconnect with areas only accessible later in the game, making it feel like a more focused and developed world, even though a lot of the series-wide traits and fiction are disappointingly missing.
With all the story and dungeon progression aside, what Tales of Hearts R does well is its combat. The original Tales of Hearts contained a sprite-based, 2D system that worked perfectly with the Nintendo DS. The battle system is now more in line with modern iterations, sporting a 3D battlefield and fully modelled characters and monsters. Oddly enough, to what I assume is just the limitations of the PlayStation Vita, the idea of interacting with enemies on screen to activate a battle is no more. This has gone back to old school JRPGs in that there are random battles when walking around a field. This can be taken as a positive or negative depending on the player’s preference, but there are items that can negate or enhance encounter volume. The battle system isn’t too deep as it mainly boils down to simple striking with assignable Artes (special attacks), but it’s when you get into counters, Chase Links and Spiria Drives that the combat really opens up into something memorable. There’s the ability to set how teammates will act in battle, and for the most part they will follow your orders, from onslaught to supporting. Overall, this is the driving factor for Tales of Hearts R as each character has their own unique attack patterns, and combat works perfectly on the handheld system.
Like past games in the series, Tales of Hearts R allows for a fair amount customization when leveling up. Instead of having a Lilium Orb or equipping specific titles to master, obtaining a new level will net SBP to be used on a character’s Soma. You’re not actually enhancing a person’s skills, but leveling up their weapon, each equipped with five different unique traits. These basically boil down to specialty attack Artes, magical abilities, direct combat, defense and support. Even though this takes a fair amount of time to do, the Soma system is a surprisingly enjoyable part of Tales of Hearts R as it allows you to really pick and choose how to raise characters. Whether Hisui is focused towards healing or archery, Ines towards strength or balance, or even Kohaku towards magical support or aggression is entirely up to how you want to divide the responsibilities. Leveling up specific branches in the tree will unlock Artes, skills, higher attributes and even better weapons to be equipped. Because each individual has their own skill trees, it allows for a lot of variation between picking teams.
Tales of Hearts R is a straightforward RPG with a heart of gold. It has a fascinating plot that’s unfortunately populated with a less than compelling cast and spotty character development. A game is only as good as its protagonist, and the ineptly named Kor Meteor is arguably one of the worst in the series. Dungeon designs are also dry and far too simplistic, requiring little thought to get through, but thankfully the combat redeems most of its regrettable qualities. Progression is done well as grinding is almost never needed, while the battle system offers a fair amount of variety depending how characters are developed. While flawed in some places, Tales of Hearts R is still a meaty package that should please dedicated fans.
Version Reviewed: PS Vita