Platform reviewed: PS Vita
Both PlayStation Vita fans and those of the Tales of franchise have been waiting for one of the portable titles to finally localize, and the debut of Tales of Hearts R is a realization of that waited time. Riding on its success is the hope and prayer—like almost every PS Vita title in the last couple of years—that other Tales games will release on Sony’s handheld. Luckily, Hideo Baba and the team at Bandai Namco is at the helm for Hearts R, and even though it’s technically derived from a Nintendo DS title that was never translated, the PS Vita version of Tales of Hearts R is exclusively in English.
Kor Meteor from Seaville has finally earned his grandfather’s Soma, which is a tool that channels a Somatic’s natural abilities in the form of a weapon, thus earning his right of passage into a lineage of Somatics forged by his grandfather. Upon his return to the small village of Seaville, he happens across a girl named Kohaku Hearts whom has washed up on the shore. Kohaku left her home with her brother Hisui in search of Kor’s grandfather, and they were pursued from their home by a robed witch named Incarose. Kor offers to help Kohaku by bringing her to both his grandfather as well as a Soma that she’s looking to wield. In the scene upon which Kohaku receives the Soma, Incarose attacks them, corrupts Kohaku’s soul crystal, and murders Kor’s grandfather. From here, Kor attempts to clear Kohaku’s soul by attempting a Soul Link, but her soul crystal ultimately becomes shattered into crystals of emotion and these crystals are shot out to different parts of the world which Kor and the team have to find in order to make Kohaku whole again.
The graphic fidelity is the first hurdle for Hearts R, especially if one has spent any amount of time with titles in the Tales of Xillia series, as character models are generally very neutral and barebone this time around, leaving little room for emotional expression of any kind outside of compensative full-body gestures. To counter this, animated cut scenes fill in more complicated scenarios along the way to help develop key moments. While these short scenes add variety to the mix, most of the game will be spent reading subtitles. Anime fans will be right at home, as the game is almost completely voiced in Japanese and accompanied with English subtitles; and while this won’t matter to a great deal of players, some may not respond well initially to the dialogue: it’s all a matter of preference.
The thing that stood out the most about the presentation is how strangely trope-like Hearts R was, especially considering that this is a Tales of title. I’m not saying that tropes aren’t present in other titles, but Hearts R was blatantly biased in some parts. This may be a sign that English scripts are generally catered to a different mentality, but the first ten hours or so had constant reminders of the old ways with statements about cooking, expectations, and the like in a way that I’ve never experienced in this franchise before. However—and this isn’t justification—this side of the game fades around the halfway point, as the characters become more developed and more significant to each other as well as the scenario in whole, leaving a firm sense of growth across the board. I always avoid spoilers, but in the closing moments of the game, the heroic Kor stops leading the charge like he does for most of the game and combines his strength with the main heroine Kohaku in a stellar display of both unity and connection that built up since the beginning moments on the beach where Kor found Kohaku. Again, this isn’t justification for tropes, but it is a justification in that the use of the tropes ultimately showed an increase in maturity and mentality in the characters as they grew as individuals, and that showing as opposed to telling is what differentiates great storytelling from average storytelling.
The Aerial Chase Linear Motion Battle System works really well in portable form, considering that most of the modern adaptations of the battle system in other games have an extensive amount of intricate featurettes and options to them. The reason why Aerial Chase works so well here is that it allows for a healthy dose of varied combat without getting too big for its portable britches. Chaining combos is elegant here, but it requires a bit of a process to string long combos together. Enemies, especially bosses, have a tendency to recover their natural shields much quicker, thus making the act of “juggling” foes mid-air quite a feat based on practice and familiarity with enemy attacks. To aid in the juggling process, Chase Mode helps make the battlefield more dynamic: After an enemy-specific amount of basic attacks, each monster will take on a blue target, which makes them fly into the air after the last basic attack in the combo. After sending the enemy airborne, players can then press Square to follow the enemy, continuing the string of combos in mid-air. Unfortunately, a few allies will take advantage of this mechanic and send opponents so far up into the air that Kor will be stuck on the ground with no way to reach the fray. This oddity doesn’t appear until late game after the characters develop their abilities, but Hearts R does allow conditional scenarios to be placed on characters so that they don’t go crazy spending their resources quickly by spamming abilities. This is compared to how Final Fantasy XII handled conditional actions, where, say, when an ally reached 25% health, that ally could be set to use more powerful abilities or heal his or herself. Ultimately, there’s plenty of room for hardcore players to delve into the system while new players can stick to the basics and reap success with a more narrowed focus, even if the rewards won’t be as beneficial.
Characters level up their Somas with Soma Build Points (SBP) obtained from combat in the same way that experience is generally earned. Those points can then be placed into five different emotions represented in a five-pedal flower. From there, each pedal teaches specific abilities for each character; and reaching higher levels in adjacent pedals yields new skills that can be equipped for passive use in combat, such as faster movement speed or damage enhancements. These same skills that are normally exclusive to each character can be learned by the rest of the team as their Soul Links level up. Through the story, series-stapled skits, and fighting alongside them, allies increase their links with each other, and those links are defined by how many stars are shared between them, rewarding the grind with a constant stream of skills, abilities, and SBP to develop all eight characters.
What stood out the most about Hearts R is how emotional the experience was. It wasn’t necessarily sad or anything, but emotional extremes were more present here as each character’s Somatic abilities were representations of their emotions. Coupled with that is the concept of humanity’s need for emotions in order to be human. After Kohaku loses her soul crystal, she becomes a shell of a person, but she becomes more and more like her old self as more of her soul crystal is returned to her. What elongates the significance of this even further is that she becomes arguably the most interesting character once she is whole again, as her faults and emotions were laid out bare for all to see in their more concentrated forms only to reach a complete fruition of her confidence and candor once she found all her components. The human condition becomes a big part of the story, and even though there are long stints of dialogue stringing out complex subplots, the 30 hours I spent playing through the main storyline resulted in my interest to go through the rest of the side quests and end game events to develop the characters further.
Tales of Hearts R is a journey through the metaphorical soul and, while somewhat angsty, it holds a great deal of substance for the handheld platform as well as the genre. Fans of old-school quality RPGs will be right at home while newcomers will be greeted with a streamlined yet complex tool set that will yield success throughout. Graphic fidelity and dubbing will be the only hurdles to a title that digs deep into the human condition and comes out with a sense of unity and inspiration.