Tales of Hearts R

Platform(s): PlayStation Vita
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: Nov. 11, 2014 (US), Nov. 14, 2014 (EU)


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PS Vita Review - 'Tales of Hearts R'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 29, 2014 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Tales of Hearts R is a Japanese role-playing game that follows the story of Kor Meteor, a brave young man living in a small village by the sea, as he sharpens his fighting skills under the watchful eye of his grandfather.

There are actually a number of Tales titles made exclusively for handheld systems. Their reputations are varied, but a number have never been released overseas. Tales of Hearts for the Nintendo DS was one of the spin-offs that seemed destined for obscurity, but  demand for a remake led Namco Bandai to remake the game for the Vita, Tales of Hearts R. Unlike most ports, Tales of Hearts R is almost a full remake, as the original was developed for the limitations of the Nintendo DS. In terms of portable Tales games, it certainly makes quite the introduction, even if it doesn't live up to its console brethren.

Tales of Hearts R follows Kor Meteor, a young boy who's training with his grandfather. He's learning to use a Soma, which is a special weapon formed from a person's spirit that also grants the ability to venture inside another's soul to cure them. Kor unexpectedly meets a young girl named Kohaku, who's being pursued by a witch. While trying to save her, Kor discovers an emerald-haired woman living in Kohaku's soul. An accident shatters Kohaku's soul into shards of emotion that spread across the world. Kor, , the emotionless Kohaku and her brother Hisui must seek the lost parts of her soul. Along the way, they'll be embroiled in complex plots involving the church, the army, and the malicious witch Incarose.

The biggest problem is that the plot is insanely fast-paced. Events happen and are resolved so quickly that there's little to no time for it to build up. Characters are introduced and go through entire arcs in the span of 10 minutes of playtime. One of the most ridiculous sequences involves three betrayals, four major plot twists and several teleportations — all within a 15-minute cut scene. The plot is nothing special, but it is competent enough, aside from the ridiculous pacing. A few plot threads get the necessary time to breathe, but most of the time, things happen far too fast. It's a shame because the cast is pretty amusing. Many of them are clichés, but a charming translation does a good job of making the jokes work. The weakest link is probably Kor, who isn't a very engaging protagonist. If not for Kohaku losing her personality for most of the game, she'd probably be a much better lead.

The core of any Tales game is the combat system, and Tales of Hearts R has a very solid one. As with all Tales titles, Hearts R resembles a mix of a JRPG and a fighting game. You control one character at a time, with the other three controlled by the AI. Fighting is done by stringing together various combo moves. While it isn't nearly as complex as an actual fighting game, it contains many features that fighting fans will recognize, including parries, canceling attacks, and juggling.

Tales R uses a modified version of the Chain Capacity system seen in recent Tales games. Like Tales of Xillia, it also retains the TP system. What this effectively means in combat is that every character has a combo string for regular attacks. At any time during this string, you can choose to use a special Artes move, which can be used instantly and repeatedly. Every character also has a CC meter and a TP meter. Each use of an Arte takes one CC and an amount of TP that depends on the move. If you lack either the CC or the TP to perform an Artes move, you can't perform it. CC replenishes quickly when not using Artes or when performing long combo strings, but TP is more restricted and requires you to fight without Artes for a while or to use healing items.

There are two interesting systems that make Hearts R stand out from other Tales titles. The first is the guard counter system. When attacking enemies, they have an invisible rage meter that fills up. When it reaches maximum, they turn red, and you can't knock them out of their next attack. This can be used to your advantage. If you press the guard button at the exact moment the attack hits, you'll perform a guard counter, which turns the on the enemy and allows you to continue your combo on the now-defenseless foe. As the game progresses, you can alter this to give you unlimited CC for a while, replenish health, or other positive effects. The mechanic rewards aggressive play, so if you stay on the enemy, you can perform some incredible combos.

The second feature also plays into this. When you attack an enemy enough, a symbol appears over him. Finishing an attack string or using certain special moves causes them to be "broken," at which point they're vulnerable to attacks for a while. You can instantly press a button to teleport to their location to keep attacking them and extend the vulnerable period. The catch is that you also can perform a finishing strike by holding down the attack button. The longer the combo, the more powerful this special move will be. If you let it go too long, the vulnerability wears off, and so does your chance to perform the special attack. It's an intriguing risk/reward feature.

The AI characters don't always play well with the guard counter and special attack features. Sometimes, I tried to bait a boss into a guard counter only to have the AI get in the way of the attack and prevent it. Even more common is the AI attempting to help by knocking the foe away from my combo. You can adjust this somewhat with the AI customization options, but it'd be nice if it were designed in such a way that you could do perform combos without the AI breaking them.

The only other problem with the combat system is one that only exists in comparison to the other Tales games. The characters in Hearts lack the variety in the recent console entries, like Graces or Xillia. In some ways, this makes sense: The original Tales of Hearts came out before either of those titles. It's still disappointing that there isn't more gameplay variety between characters. There is some, and I favored Kohaku or Ines over Kor, but they all played similarly. There's nothing as distinctive as Jude's quick-step dodging or Pascel's odd spell work. The closest is Gall's ability to throw his axe. This isn't entirely bad, as the game loves taking away characters for chunks of time, and you're never without a reliable backup.

Despite that complaint, the combat is fun, fast-paced, and does a great job of keeping you engaged. The guard counter mechanic rewards you for being aggressive, and it feels remarkably satisfying to pull off a string of combos while your flailing enemy's every attack is redirected. The combat balance is quite good. There are a couple of awkward fights, but none sour the experience. The bosses are quite enjoyable, if perhaps sometimes too easy.

There are some unusual ideas in the leveling system. There are no traditional weapon shops in Tales of Hearts R, but each character has an equipped Soma. Leveling up doesn't earn you any stats, but it rewards you with a number of points that can be spent on your Soma. Each Soma has multiple trees that you can upgrade. They're named differently names between characters, but they're roughly Balanced, Magical, Magical Defense, Physical and Physical Defense. Put enough points into the tree, and you'll unlock a new ability, which can include new Artes, new passive skills and new Soma forms, which replace weapon upgrades. Level multiple trees, and you can unlock special combo abilities. Each character has his or her own tree, but they can share abilities with allies as they gain friendship by fighting in the same party together or through various story events.

The odd pacing also applies to the dungeons. Most are incredibly tiny, and many are only a handful of screens that don't contain any puzzles. It's also odd when a dungeon introduces a gimmick or puzzle and fails to use it for anything significant. Sometimes, this is because you'll revisit a dungeon later, but most of the time, the dungeons are just too small for their own good. The game would've done better if it had fewer, larger dungeons. Most are so small that it isn't worth investing in the traditional Tales cooking system, since you're unlikely to need the boosts beyond the earliest parts of the game.

It sours the experience when you've only started a dungeon but reach the boss. It avoids the problem of having many dungeons that are too long for their own good, but the opposite isn't much better. The encounter rate also seems to have been ramped up to compensate. The Holy Bottle item, which traditionally eliminates weak encounters, merely reduces them, and a second item is necessary later to turn off random fights. There are a couple of fun dungeons, but there's also a lot of repetition. The most glaring are the Spiria Link dungeons, which are near-identical mazes differentiated only by the boss at the end.

There's a lot to do in Tales of Hearts R There are a number of side-quests and optional tasks, although a good chunk of them involve backtracking to previous towns or areas. The breakneck pace mean it feels surprisingly short despite the bevy of content, but it's not short enough that JRPG fans will be disappointed. It isn't a 100-hour epic, but you're not going to burn through it in eight hours, either. There are also the traditional Tales bonus areas and New Game+ features.

Tales of Hearts R isn't bad-looking for a fairly large JRPG. It's impressive how they effectively redid the entire game from its simple DS origins. A lot of the character models are simplistic, and the out-of-battle running animations are tremendously awkward. The game relies on animated cut scenes instead of in-engine stuff to convey some of the more dramatic moments. It's a pretty good-looking portable RPG, and the combat runs smoothly for a good experience. One sticking point for long-time Tales fans may be the lack of English voice acting. The game retains its original Japanese voice acting, although subtitles are provided for every out-of-battle line and most combat lines. The voice acting isn't bad, but the lack of a dub is very noticeable in that the script appears to have been written with a dub in mind. Several characters or jokes are rewritten in a way that only seems sensible from the perspective of a dubbed work. The script isn't bad, but it emphasizes the odd lack of dub. The soundtrack is generally quite good, although it isn't one of the Tales franchises' stronger efforts. There are no bad songs, but there are few standouts.

Tales of Hearts R is a solid and enjoyable JRPG, especially for a portable offering. It has a number of flaws, both on its own merits and in comparisons to its bedfellows, but it's still an enjoyable JRPG romp. It suffers from poor pacing and is generally unexceptional. If you're a JRPG fan looking for a Vita game, it's one of the better JRPGs available for the system. If you're a Tales fan, it's worth your time even if it is weaker than its console counterparts.

Score: 7.2/10

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