Across the last two decades, the Japanese role-playing genre has undergone a number of significant shifts. Many of these changes of obvious- the capability of contemporary hardware now offers the ability to render richly detailed realms or deliver sophisticated battle systems. But other alterations are slightly less apparent, such as how contemporary protagonists have gradually shirked their innocence and altruistic temperaments, transforming the unlikely hero into a woefully egotistical, reluctant hero. As well, modern narratives have attempted to transcend the legion of lands gamers have liberated over the years, but have struggled to provide an impetus that players can get become immersed in.
Then there’s Bandai-Namco’s Tales series, which has tenaciously resisted most of these modern trends. Sure, Xillia 2 might be a bit more melancholic that most of our ‘90s-era treks, but fundamentally the franchise is rooted in the same old-fashioned sensibilities which have become a trait for the Tales series. As such, as a port of a 2008 Japan-only DS title, Tales of Hearts R demonstrates the halcyon tenets of the JRPG. While some might scoff at the game’s reliance on character trope or adherence to the series’ action-driven battle mechanics, PS Vita owners who appreciate grand adventures from role-playing golden era will enjoy the trouble-free, indulging journey. It’s little wonder than Hideo Baba, longtime producer and brand manager for the Tales games has said that Hearts is one of his favorite games in the series.
The game’s introduction introduces players to Kor Meteor, a likeable sixteen-year old who demonstrates a prodigious command of Soma- a type of ancient, malleable weapon that’s forged from the ‘spiria’ of other people. Kor’s age isn’t just keeping with role-playing tradition, it’s also symbolic of the tension between the need for autonomy and continued tutelage via his compassionate grandfather, who’s humorously referred to as “gramps”.
The next day, the elder is called to perform a spiria link, a procedure that sends a character into the soul of a character in an effort to eliminate any malevolent entities. While Kor yearns to perform the process, his grandfather concludes that the character is still too emotional, and asks the youth at stay at home. Soon after, the protagonist walks outside out the house, only to discover a mysterious women washed up on the adjacent beach.
The young woman, named Kohaku Hearts, soon awakens, explaining that both she and her overprotective older brother Hisui were being chased by a witch. Kor offers assistance, telling Kohaku that his grandfather’s Soma is housed nearby. But as soon as the newly assembled trio retrieve the artifact, the witch attacks- severely injuring both the grandfather and Kohaku. Desperate to save the girl, Kor attempts a spiria link, but the undertaking fails, inadvertently splintering the women’s psyche, sending pieces in far-flung directions. With the weight of both Kohaku and his grandfather’s injuries on his shoulder, the young hero determines to resolve the predicament, driven by the devotion of both his closest relative and an acquaintance he just met.
In keeping with Tales tradition, relational development is articulated through both obligatory dialog as well as skits, which periodically offer supplemental conversations. These short exchanges range from the comical (the word “peanuts” is misheard as a body part) to the endearing (Hisui’s respect for Kor grows after the protagonist acknowledges pain be inevitable while assisting Kohaku), but they frequently make the player feel like an interloper who’s privy to more personal interchanges. Pleasingly, they also offer the ability to build rapport with team member, potentially bolstering character stats.
Naturally, the power of party members is also increased by gaining experience, with Hearts extending a five-point skill tree that players can invest dividends in. Beyond mere statistical augmentation, there’s also the acquisition of new skills, with each character increasing their arsenal of melee- or ranged-based attacks, passive and active skills, along with a magic system referred to as Artes. What’s particularly pleasing is the rejection of rigid fantasy roles. While there’s specialization, characters have the ability to use both weapons as well as magic, which help to make each personality feel astonishingly potent as they stun and juggle enemies who dare encroach on the team.
Beyond the pursuit of party member augmentation, Hearts extends a number of other tasks to chase. Collecting recipes and ingredients allows players to execute their culinary skills in a dungeon or overworld, resulting in a gastronomically gratifying consumable that can provide either a temporary buff or regenerate lost hit points. Even more involving is Hearts ever-escalating control over ally artificial intelligence, which recalls Final Fantasy XII’s gambits. Building on an adeptly autonomous baseline, Hearts allows players to add an increasingly elaborate set of rules. Just one example: players can command an ally to cast a healing Arte on any character that drops below forty percent of their HP. The beauty of the mechanics is that is wholly optional. Party member function just fine on their own, but those with an infatuation for micro-management can establish an elaborate set of rules for comrades to follow, shift between characters, or issue directives with a swipe of the touchscreen.
Regardless of whether players involve themselves with Hearts AI, the game’s combat remains thoroughly compelling. At its core, the title’s combat remains the Tales series trademark brick, combo-heavy, action-driven battles, extending more than enough variation to offset stagnancy. Although encounters are random and can occur with an irksome frequency when navigating across the overworld, most scuffles are quickly settled. Initially, combat is superbly simple, merely tasking players with punching out combos of basic attacks and Artes with successions of the ‘X’ and ‘O’ buttons, while square is used to block any incoming strike. Navigation can be accomplished through two schemes, with the directional pad mirroring the movement of a 2D fighter, while the analog nub permits players to free-roam the playfield.
Nuance stems from a number of mechanics that emerge over time. Assault foes too many times in rapid succession and they’ve apt to turn red- indicating a devastating counterattack is incoming. Ideally, players can adopt a well-timed defensive stance, creating a guard counter than permits players to persist their combo. Later, you’ll will earn the ability to chase link, which allows players to juggle enemies, perform finishers, and even warp to the next enemies to allow an uninterrupted barrage of power. Furthermore, Hearts extends Spiria Drive, a mode which increase your speed and strength for a limited time, which is essential in boss battles.
Although the game’s trek is a largely linear journey, Hearts does propose a pleasing number of alcoves among its overworld, dungeons, and Spiria links. When not venturing along these antagonist-filled alleys, the game also has a number of combat-free zones— towns that are filled with the typical selection of NPCs, sundries, bars, and inns. Like the rest of the game, their drawn in a way that’s certain to stoke the flames of nostalgia for veterans of PS2-era RPGs, conveying a quint charm that missing from modern games. Also absent is any kind of English voice-over, a pardonable omission that will probably go unnoticed by genre aficionados. The game’s other aesthetic niggle is found in the animated cutscenes. While Production I.G.’s cinematics help bring the characters to life, they inexplicably shift between wide- and fullscreen output.
While players seeking a strenuous challenge might not appreciate Tales of Hearts R’s low level of difficulty, that’s really only the transgression committed by the Tales team. Look past that indiscretion, and you’ll find a largely enjoyable adventure, elevated by both a pleasing thirty-hour storyline as well as an engaging battle system. Although the PS Vita has no shortage of respectable role-playing games in its library, ardent fans will certainly want to make Tales a permanent part of their collections.
Tales of Hearts R was played on the PS Vita with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Publisher: Bandai-Namco Games
Release date: November 11th, 2014
Price: $39.99 digital, $39.99 retail (Gamestop Exclusive)