Having dabbled in two previous portable Tales of titles — Tales of the Abyss (a 3DS port of the original PS2 version) and Tales of the World for PSP — I dove into Tales of Hearts R expecting more or less the same experience. What I actually experienced, however, blew my expectations clear out the water.
The game starts off with quite the bang, as it shows siblings Kohaku and Hisui being pursued by the Witch. The pair faces certain death but are saved by Kohaku’s quick thinking when she knocks both of them into the sea below. I must admit, it was nice seeing a main female protagonist take such initiative in a JRPG.
Meanwhile our protagonist, Kor Meteor (or Shing Meteoryte in the Japanese version), has finally passed his grandfather’s last test and inherited his Soma, becoming a full fledged Soma user, or Somatic. Later on he comes across Kohaku washed up on his town’s beach and agrees to take her to his late mother’s Soma, meeting up with her barely recovered brother along the way. They’re of course attacked by the Witch once reaching their destination.
When Kohaku’s Spiria is taken over by the Witch’s xenoms, Kor decides to dive into her Spiria core and get rid of the problem despite him never physically doing it before. Pretty heroic, right? Except that Kor has been diagnosed with a debilitating condition known as “being a complete dumbass” and managed to shatter her Spiria core with his out of control emotions, which means she doesn’t experience any herself.
Luckily for us, one shard of the core remained — her kindness — and it’s essentially drawn to and tracking down the other shards. This means that on top of running from the Witch, the group must now find Kohaku’s Spiria core shards which are scattered across the game.
Before I move on to other points, I’d like to discuss the subtitles and localization effort in a bit more detail. Now, for some of you who happen to be fluent in Japanese you’ll notice a discrepancy straight away with what is being said versus the dialogue in the text box.
All the telltale signs are there: the use of artistic license in translated dialogue to convey certain meanings more coherently, the use of distinctive speech pattern to convey personality types more clearly and even a seemingly arbitrary name change (from Shing Meteoryte to Kor Meteor).
By no means am I implying the localization effort is terrible; in fact I would say it’s excellent. But the confliction between spoken and written words is a bit jarring, unless of course you don’t understand Japanese in the first place.
It’s such a strong discrepancy, in fact, that it resembles an abandoned full dub. However, I doubt that theory to be true since it took such a colossal effort to even bring this remake over to the West in the first place, so the likelihood of a dub being invested in is pretty low.
That being said, you do have an option to turn off the voices during cutscenes to eliminate the issue, but personally I’d recommend you leave the voices on as the acting is quite good and gives each scene an extra emotional punch.
Localization aside, the meat of the game is the battle system and in this case would be akin to enjoying a succulent steak. You start off with the basic action RPG system that the Tales of series is known for: execute combos with a single button and create new ones by hitting the directional pad in different directions.
There are several types of points to watch out for in combat: HP, TP, TC and the Spiria Drive guage. HP (Hit Points) is pretty self explanatory for JRPG fans but for those not in the know, it governs over the amount of damage you can sustain in battle until you are knocked out. TP (Tech Points) are used for Artes, TC (Tech Count) denotes how many times in a row you can use Artes before waiting for the counter to reset and the Spiria Gauge (which will be explained in more detail below).
Party members can simply move left to right, but free running is also possible, making for refreshingly free combat not usually seen in portable Tales games. Your main objective, though, is to keep your combos going as long as possible without interruption to ensure the enemy attacks as little as often.
One such method is air juggling (which I’m sure fighting game fans are very familiar with), another is chaining regular attacks with special moves called Artes and still another is by use of a technique called Charge Guard, which is triggered after you block an attack at just the right moment when a foe goes aggro and turns red after sustaining enough damage. This timed guard throws off the foe and lets you continue your combo uninterrupted. Mastering these techniques is the key to victory, especially during grueling boss battles.
Another important gameplay mechanic is called Chase Link Mode, which is triggered after hitting an enemy with a Break Attack. A blue target reticle appears on the foe and from there you can choose several different options. First up is Chase Dash, in which you press “Square” to instantly teleport to that foe’s location. Next, is the finishing move that is executed by holding down the “X” button after a combo. However, the Chain ends after this command is carried out, so it must be timed wisely.
A two-person move called Cross Chain Charge is occasionally available during Chase Link Mode, denoted by a glowing character portrait, and it has the effect of greatly extending Chase Link’s duration. You can always continue to just wail on the enemy after Chain Link is initiated, extending the duration of the mode.
As previously mentioned, Spiria Drive Mode is a superpowered state that increases Physical and Will attack and defense by 20%, causes TC to not be depleted, Will Artes can be cast instantly and the character cannot be staggered by enemy attacks. The gauge for this mode fills with each attack and hit sustained during battle.
As in any Tales game, the player controls one character and the rest fight according to their general AI commands. Tales of Hearts R takes this to a whole new level by allowing the player to fully customize commands and set parameters for those commands to trigger, very similar to the Gambit system from Final Fantasy XII.
Some commands can be set to always occurs and if you want a particular action to be done immediately, you can set a touch screen or analog shortcut for that too. The best part is that this system is completely optional and players can choose to rely on simpler AI settings instead.
You encounter foes through random encounters, much like Tales of the World and unlike many other Tales games. A bit jarring at first but players will quickly become accustomed to it, especially since the encounter rate is very reasonable. Enemy AI itself is a mixed bag — later foes and later bosses react to your attacks and skills with great intelligence but early on the AI is a bit on the predictable side, making fights pretty easy to end once you have a good knowledge of battle techniques.
Stat growth, skill, weapon and Arte acquisition is done through Soma Building, one of the best features of this game. Each character has five total attributes that can be improved upon — Endurance, Fight, Mettle, Belief and one final stat that differs between each character (Kor has Sincerity, Hisui is Tenacity, Gail is Virility, Beryl is Vitality, etc). Each level up nets you a certain amount of SP (Skill Points) that can be put toward each attribute in order to increase stats, as well as level up said stats to acquire new upgrades for your Soma (essentially your weapon made from Spiria), learn passive skills and learn new Artes techniques.
Soma Building is an excellent alternative to the more traditional level-up system and the commonly seen skill tree, as it allows for near complete customization of each party member without the linearity and constraints of other systems. As an added bonus, unlike other titles Hearts R rewards players who evenly levels up each stat by awarding them with unique abilities and weapons not normally found.
Passive skills gained through Soma Building can be equipped using SP (Skill Points). However, that’s not the only way for a character to gain skills: they can also share skills with each other through bonds they form during pivotal story moments and through natural battle. This can be a great way for party members to access skills they normally would never learn on their own. These bonds have levels as well, and certain skills of certain levels can be shared with characters who share that bond level with them.
There’s of course tons of sidequests, skits, DLC costumes and other unlockable bonuses available for players throughout the game. Endgame content is plentiful, with new locales to explore and plenty of bosses to fell. You even unlock a special scene in the ending just by clearing a certain final dungeon (no mean feat I might add).
While the gameplay is the meat of Tales of Hearts R, its graphics can be considered the sauce that gives it an extra kick. As many fans may be aware, this title is a complete remake of the original DS version, rebuilt from the ground up for the PS Vita. As an example, see what the original version looked like:
Versus the new version:
The results are staggering to say the least. The full lushness and color of the original 2D sprite graphics are fully retained in this 3D remake. It doesn’t hurt that the PS Vita’s OLED screen makes the visuals look even more crisp and gorgeous than normal.
Bandai Namco truly outdid themselves with Hearts R, and the love and attention to every detail really brings this remake to full splendor. Music is overall pretty good as well, with some nice boss themes and catchy leitmotifs. Certainly not the series’ best but very far from being anything near bad.
Earlier in the review, I spoke at length about the localization and voice acting but neglected to mention the more important aspect of characterization itself. The protagonists are mostly well-written, with the tendency for them to fall into cliques and common character tropes, although this is more of a by-product of a very “by-the-numbers” plot.
What makes the plot interesting are the character interactions and quirky moments that arise from them, showing off unique facets normally not possessed by whatever personality mold they’ve been assigned too.
Interestingly enough, Gall was never in the original version of the game; he was added as a “bonus” character in the remake. Even though Gall is a new addition, he fits in surprisingly well with the plot and is probably the only party member written without a particular archtype in mind, giving him a nice flexibility to interact with any other protagonist and adapt to any ongoings in the plot. His weapons in battle fit in well and add a new dimension of strategy when controlling him.
Tales of Hearts R doesn’t have the most original story and the characters are mostly well-meaning but occasionally stereotypical. The game’s localization feels a bit lacking without an English dub as well, considering the amount of work that was clearly poured into the translation. However, the beautifully remade visuals, stellar combat and development system and on-point voice acting more than compensate for the admittedly superficial shortcomings.
If you own a PS Vita and are on the lookout for a great new game to add to your library, Bandai Namco has a lovely polished gem for you to purchase.