Good things come to those who wait. It’s a nice saying, and when you take a step back and look at the big events of life it’s generally true too. It’s been a long wait for Vita fans who followed Shahid Ahmad’s #jrpgvita Twitter campaign which started back in 2013, and the pain of the incorrect announcement of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is still fresh in their memory. But there are good things – the most requested game back from that campaign was Tales of Hearts R, a remake (hence the R) of a 2008 DS release and a proud member of the illustrious Tales family of games. Think action-based JRPG, but with enough strategic elements within the party control to make sure it’s not just a spam-fest and you’ll have a good general idea about what we’re looking at here.
As you’d expect with being a remake there are changes and differences from the original release everywhere. The most noticeable being the whole change to 3D, but coming a close second would be the two new playable characters you get to recruit as you progress along. As well as those you have some new events, new bosses, the whole new combat support cooking system and a ton more things you should probably go and look on a wiki to find out about. Suffice to say that this is a remake in the true sense of the word – there’s no slight sprucing here, pretty much everything but the story’s been thrown out and then reimagined for this Vita release.
Keep in mind though that, just as with Freedom Wars (the other recent big Vita release), there is no option for an English voice track here. The translation is more than adequate, but the astute among you may notice some differences between elements of the Japanese voice work and the English subtitles – nothing major, the odd name difference perhaps, but potentially an indication that the initial plan was to include an English take on the translation work.
Playing as the teenage hero (why are they always teenagers, huh?) Kor Meteor you begin the game living with your grandfather in a remote village, spending your time trying to prove to Gramps that you’re ready to use his Soma – think of a spirit-fuelled weapon that certain people can manifest and you won’t be too far off. This nearly idyllic existence is shattered by the arrival of the Hearts siblings, Kohaku and Hisui, who kindly turn up with a ridiculously powerful witch in tow. Shenanigans follow, during which Kor manages to shatter Kohaku’s spira core, scattering elements of her personality throughout the world. Enter stage left: a quest around the world to recover those elements of Kohaku, help everyone you meet, beat that witch and probably end up fighting to save the whole world while you’re at it.
What’s great about the story as a whole is the continuing occurrence of the main themes throughout. With a name like Hearts you’re not going to be winning any prizes for perception by guessing that love would appear as one of these themes – what you might not have guessed, however, are the different ways that the game manages to present such a seemingly simple theme. Get your tickboxes ready, because on this rollercoaster you’re going to be encountering all of the classical instances of love, including eros, agape, philia and a touch of storge. Throw in some additional parent-child bits and pieces, and some nice contrasts between the manifestation of love at various ages, and you have probably the most in-depth (but not in your face) exploration of love in a videogame since Duke Nukem 3D. Or ever.
Perhaps a touch cheesy then if you are a grizzled older gamer, but with great characterisation and demonstrable depth in each of the player characters – and, in fact, with many of the side-characters you’ll encounter along the way. Even tiny characters who may only have a walk-in role in a side quest are usually given the chance demonstrate growth, usually through a single short conversation. Such attention to detail really helps to build the world as being full of living, breathing entities, and you’ll want to delay your arrival at whatever main quest destination is next on your radar just to ensure you’ve done everything you can before you move on. However, as with many products primarily intended for the Japanese market there are elements that won’t sit particularly easily with a more Western audience; the continuing insistence on making jokes and conversation around the size of Ines’ breasts, for example. These elements certainly don’t dominate the proceedings, but do bear their presence in mind if you only have light experience with some of the smaller titles coming over from Japan.
Regardless of your take on the story, the combat in an action RPG is always going to be the most critical aspect of the actual gameplay. Fortunately enough Tales of Hearts R throws together enough complimentary mechanics that you only end up button mashing your way through combat when you actually want to. You can begin by using basic attacks in combat while your TC points accrue; once you have a couple of those, you can spend one to perform an artes move, which will also cost you a certain amount of TP points (think mana here). The artes moves can be magical or melee in nature, sometimes with an elemental leaning and often consisting of a series of melee moves. Once you’ve got the basics, you can experiment with linking different artes together, forming impressive combos and maximising the potential of those TC points. With us so far? Good. Because on top of that you can also include elements such as a counter-attack you can use to fend off an enraged enemy, a chain mode that you can enter if you hit the enemy enough and then smack them with a guard break at the right moment, and then a load of special moves and powers and other goodies.
What’s especially nice, however, is how the combination of the experience system and character choice meshes to give you real variation in combat styles. Each time you level a character up you’ll receive soma points to go and spend in various categories – depending on where you spend them you can receive new weapons, artes or stat boosts, and so forth. So you can, for instance, build Kor to be a melee monster, straying into other paths only to pick up the odd beneficial skill. However, as long as you level up other characters differently (which, you will be doing as each one has a clear slant to a particular role) you can change over to control that character and learn a whole new combat role – support for instance, or ranged spell casting. The other melee-oriented characters all feel and play differently too, giving you a wide variation of things to try. Not that the game ever overtly tells you that you can do this, mind.
There’s one other important thing to bear in mind with the combat however – it’s utterly pants on any difficulty less than Hard. After the opening few locations on Normal you’ll find that every single combat situation you find yourself in just requires you to spam the basic attack button, chaining away without even needing to dodge or use artes. There’s a difficulty spike when progressing to Hard, with even trash mobs in dungeons able to wipe you if you lose your focus, but the pay-off is worth it. You’ll have far more fun with the game if you accept the expectations of being able to read the battlefield, of knowing when to launch into a devastating artes combo and when to change target and run to rescue your support. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice to miss out on the nuances of the combat in Tales of Heart R, and familiarity here will only help you once you’ve unlocked even greater difficulties for New Game+.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that one could pay to Tales of Heart R is that (even with all the boob talk and Japanese innuendo) it manages to feel almost wholesome; perhaps there are nostalgic elements bubbling away under the surface, but the truth is that the game wears its heart on its sleeve – well, in the title in fact. Tales of Hearts R doesn’t feel like it intentionally set out to rewrite how elements of the genre work, but by the end of the game it somehow feels as though it’s succeeded in doing so. It’s a lovely experience, and if you’re one of those gamers that live and breathe handheld RPGs then you really need to make the time to check this one out.