Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord Review
Sony PlayStation 3
As one of the more esoteric titles to hit the PS3 in its twilight years, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord doesn’t make any attempt to endear itself from the off. It is the epitome of niche: a visual novel combined with SRPG elements, deploying a chibi art-style and a story so convoluted and overwrought that none but the most persistent gamers would stick with it. That’s a shame, because once you dig past the game’s self-indulgence and many, many quirks, there’s actually a fair amount to enjoy here.
You play as Hamilcar Barca, stuck in a labour camp ruled by the conquering Imperial Army, which is part of the evil Divine Empire. Seven years ago, his father was betrayed and assassinated and the resistance was quashed by the Empire. Since then, heavy taxation has taken its toll on the country’s people but Hamil has not fought back, for fear of causing even greater wrath to be inflicted on his people. However, during preparation for a festival he encounters a young woman called Tarte who claims to be the reincarnation of a war god, and when her life is threatened he decides it’s finally time to act. Those keen on Phoenician history will be in for a treat, as vast swathes of Punic mythology are either recreated, borrowed from, or referenced in-game, and there’s no need to have played the previous instalment as this is a completely separate story.
Tears is an interesting take on the SRPG genre, as it veers more toward a full-blown novel; imagine if the character interactions between Fire Emblem’s battles lasted for forty-five minutes each, and you’ll get some idea of the breadth of the game’s narrative. The amount of dialogue here is staggering and anyone looking for an English dub will be disappointed as it’s only voiced in native Japanese. However, the written translation is excellent, filled with a combination of humour and gravitas, and an inordinate amount of exposition.
There are thirteen chapters, and it’s possible to spend around eighty hours ploughing through the game, but it’s worth noting that the pacing is pretty awful to begin with. The first chapter alone could take six to seven hours, and you’ll experience a total of four battles. Unless you want to zip through the story - which isn’t recommended if you want any idea of what on earth is going on - then you will have a lot of reading to do. Thankfully, things get back to a more reasonable balance of combat and story from the second chapter, which introduces shops, battle practice and…elephants. More on that later.
The thought of sitting in front of what is essentially an entire series of manga whilst hitting X to proceed past each dialogue box might rightly send players running. Fear not, as Aquaplus have kindly included an auto-play function which just lets you watch and enjoy each lengthy conversational cutscene. You can speed up or slow down the text, and skip or return through portions you may have missed. These touches are appreciated and mitigate some of the problems you might expect from such a verbose game. The voice acting - even for non-Japanese players - conveys the relevant emotions more than adequately. Given the anime style, there are inevitably a few duff characters hamming things up, but the main protagonists do a decent job of avoiding cliché for the most part. A few tropes remain but they taper off as the tale progresses, leaving richly nuanced characters in their wake once the genre staples are shaken off.
The main draw here is the combat though, which is by far the most enjoyable aspect of Tears. Granted, this enjoyment might well stem from actually being able to do something after enduring another half hour cutscene, but there are a number of features which elevate this above the standard scissors-paper-stone mechanic that many SRPGs employ. Taking a grid-based approach a la Shining Force or Fire Emblem, the aim is to clear the field of enemies using your varied cast of fighters and their melee and magic skills. Basic strategy is no more complicated than moving a character up to an enemy and attacking, but there are a number of additions which make each fight engaging.
Selecting a leader grants a bonus skill to that character for the battle’s duration, which can be an increase in experience, a bonus to all-party healing after each turn, and so on. Furthermore, you can build energy in battle to chain strikes together once your meter is full; hitting X at the right moment after attacking will carry out a powerful follow-up blow. Similarly, a chained spell will gain a significant boost if you toggle it before casting, such as increasing the area of effect, improving the spell’s power, or allowing you to cast it after moving (since some spells prevent this). Unlike fighters, magic boosting doesn’t require any additional player interaction to utilise and can be stored for crucial moments in battle. Elements are another factor, as both your party and enemies are weak and strong against specific elemental types; in some cases a random factor can switch these around each turn, making a seemingly tough attack now far more achievable and vice versa.
And then there are the elephants. Introduced in chapter two, these beasts can either be utilised as a standard unit, or combined with a party member to maximise the best stats of the pair. They also pull a quadriga - a chariot, essentially - which stores your unused characters who can be swapped out mid-battle. Both elephant and quadriga need protection if you’re to get the best results - your performance in each battle is graded, and there are additional bonus objectives to achieve, such as taking out key units or getting a number of kills with a particular character. Manipulating them can be a struggle to begin with as they need to be turned to the right direction in order to attack, but it doesn’t take too long to get to grips with the mechanic. Treasure chests are dotted around the field too, and the equipment and items hidden within prove a great lure which may test the resolve of the most determined strategists.
If you happen to completely mess up during combat, or get zinged by a one-hit kill after failing to properly study the battlefield, fear not. There is a Rewind option available at the start of each phase which lets you roll back the battle for up to twenty turns. There are caveats of course: any action you would have played previously will play out exactly the same if the conditions haven’t changed, and you can’t fast forward between turns once the Rewind function has been used - you have to follow the battle from that point on. It’s a very useful addition which dramatically lessens the frustration of getting hammered by your enemy should you make a mistake partway through, or use an item that you really should have kept hold of. On the flip side it arguably makes battles less tense than they could be, but purists don’t have to use it, right?
When you factor in the usual genre staples of equipment collection and swapping, health and mana items, and an interesting skill list which naturally builds without the necessity of grinding, what remains is a compelling addition to the RPG landscape. Tears is far from perfect. It’s a lengthy hotchpotch of disparate elements which have been thrown together, but which somehow manage to work. The graphics are so basic that they wouldn’t have looked out of place on a PS2, but they’re tempered by an earworm-heavy soundtrack which is far better than it has any right to be. The narrative is an involving, complex tale of sacrifice, but one that must be persevered with for many hours in order for it to garner any sort of appreciation. The combat combines the best elements of many strategy systems, but its more forgiving features may put off hardcore players. In short, it’s a mixed bag which is unlikely to appeal to any but the most curious of SRPG fans, but those who are prepared to give it a chance will be rewarded with a genuinely interesting game, unlike anything else currently on the market.