A remake of the long-lost Japan-only mainline entry in the Tales franchise that goes cheap on presentation yet still delivers a compelling, addictive JRPG experience.
World-building & Story
Tales of Hearts R follows Kor Meteor, a strong-willed young man raised by his grandfather whose world is turned upside-down by the arrival of a mysterious girl – Kohaku Hearts – on the shore of his village. A series of events causes her ‘Spiria Core’ to shatter – effectively removing her emotions and scattering them across the planet – and the pair embark on an adventure across their world Organica to recover the missing pieces, encountering a variety of other characters along the way.
The early setup is one of the title’s strongest points – a world-trotting tale without the usual peril – and throughout the game the focus is on emotions and their effects on people, which is a very interesting departure from the genre norms. Without spoiling too much, the latter part of the plot follows a more familiar route of saving-the-world (including a very heavily-used Tales of trope), but I did find myself engaged throughout this despite the fact that things became somewhat formulaic. There’s also a romantic element to the story that I wasn’t expecting and remains fairly under-stated and compelling to watch, particularly towards the end.
A JRPG can live or die by its characters and thankfully the offering here in Hearts R are a likeable bunch. Ranging from the hot-headed Hisui to the mysterious Ines, each have their stand-out moments throughout the game although some do feel superfluous (such as Gall). Of particular note in Beryl, who initially appears as a trope-laden magic user yet ends up providing the majority of the comic relief as well as often being the strong voice of reason in the party, making her the stand-out favourite for me.
Speaking of comic relief, although the title deals with some heavy and serious themes at times, it’s often happy to make large sections more light-hearted. Indeed, some of the game’s best moments aren’t anything to do with its plot – one side-story will see you escorting a group of travelers to a wedding and you’ll encounter these people again later on in a different town, something that was merely a small touch yet served to immerse me in this world (and an oddly touching moment to know that they’d all made it through okay).
There’s a similar commitment to character development throughout – little things like a comment from a skit (the Tales of series’ optional conversations to flesh out characters) about Beryl’s favourite food will come up later when you’re cooking in battle and realise what she’ll want to eat – as such there’s a nice continuity to things. In more broad terms, all of the cast due react and change to the events happening around them – central to this is the rebuilding of Kohaku’s personality and emotions which is very interesting to watch unfold.
I’ve touched on it slightly already, but world-building is strong throughout – by exploring Organica on an old-fashioned Final Fantasy VII-style world map you get a nice sense of scale for where you are. All of the towns you’ll visit have their own conflicts which need resolving and most of these are linked in some way, creating a flow to your journey. Backtracking only adds to this sense and overall you’re left with a well-developed world that’s one of the best on offer for Vita.
Presentation & Sound
As a 3D remake of a well-loved 2D game, Tales of Hearts R had a lot to live up to and although there’s plenty of aspects of the presentation to love here, overall a cheap feel lets it down on multiple occasions.
Character models are a mixed bag – they’re very basic 3D and animate fairly well, but tend not to have much detail in compared to some of their Vita contemporaries. They’re capable of expressing only a few emotions and although I’d stress they’re perfectly functional for a title like this, it’s disappointing a little more effort wasn’t put in when games like Atelier are capable of producing much more intricate models.
Environments are similarly hit and miss – mostly bland areas with poor-quality textures; copy-pasted corridors and little detail, although they do accurately represent the areas. Yet mixed in with this are areas of beauty – an early autumnal forest is a joy to run through thanks to its bizarre geometry and bold colour palette. Places like this are few and far between, yet they are there and Tales of Hearts R benefits massively from such zones breaking up the monotony of the other areas.
In battle, things are a little better – the series’ trademark arenas are here allowing full movement and although they’re visually fairly lackluster, you’ll be far too busy focused on combat to notice. Both enemies and players animate well in battle with movement looking natural and attacks featuring a variety of effects. Most of these are your standard green circles for healing, bolts of lightning for thunder etc. but thanks to the game’s focus on aerial combat the spectacle of combat is kept. Notably framerate holds up no matter what is happening on screen – important for an action RPG and impressive for a title with as much happening at once as Hearts R has.
As is commonplace for Tales of, as time goes on you’ll unlock more flashy abilities called Mystic Artes. These multi-hit attacks play out separate to the combat with their own cutscene which invariably shows some special effect hitting the enemies – they’re a joy to watch the first time you see them, but drag on thereafter and are notably less flashy than the kinds of things Xillia (a PS3 entry in the franchise) was using in the same timeframe. Still, I enjoyed watching them and compared to other Vita RPG’s like Hyperdimension Neptunia they’re in the same ballpark, so overall I them an impressive part of the presentation.
Of course, skits return too allowing characters to talk with each other on their journey. They’re fairly low-effort only featuring basic animation talking heads, more like the older titles in the series than newer releases like Berseria. This isn’t a particularly large issue however as they’re perfectly functional for getting across what they need to.
Sound, meanwhile, is great. The one blemish is that voice acting is only Japanese, but it’s still emotive enough (sadly if you’ve seen enough subbed anime like me you’ll notice an immediate issue – Kor is named “Shing” in Japanese and characters refer to him as such, a definite oversight in the translation). Music is always fitting for the situation and there’s some great tunes in here, although it’s not quite up to the standard of some of the genre’s most outstanding soundtracks.
Gameplay & Content
The Tales of series has always been known for its fast-paced arena combat and Hearts R does not disappoint in this regard, alongside providing the same brilliant sense of world exploration that many of its predecessors had too. A couple of oversights stand out as small blemishes, but overall the package is an impressive one.
For starters, the game does something that I’ve found has been shockingly absent from the JRPG genre for far too long – that is having a fully explorable 3D world map. Taken straight out of the Final Fantasy VII era, Tales of Hearts R gives you a zoomed-out perspective complete with forests, gigantic cities and a fantastic sense of scale. It really makes exploring the world feel like an adventure by having you traverse large landmasses to get to your destination.
Unfortunately, it also comes with one of the biggest annoyances about the period that inspired it – random encounters. Rather than taking a leaf out of the series’ history and having you approach monsters on the map (allowing you to choose to avoid combat if necessary), the game forces battles on you. I wouldn’t say the encounter rate is set too high, but it’s a bit disappointing to see the developers didn’t take the time to polish up this area of the gameplay and just left it in a fairly standard and archaic way; particularly as Symphonia had shown that a world-map could still contain approachable monsters.
The world map itself is used to navigate between various dungeons and towns, which generally have a lot of things to do. The cities and villages that make up the game are pretty vibrant – they’re not the heavily populated metropolises you’ll find in the console Tales of games and sometimes feel a little sparse when you arrive, but they’re functional. Each will have a main objective when you arrive in it, usually to recover a piece of Kohaku’s Spiria Core, which invariably involves unraveling a mystery in the area through conversations and exploration. There are various other things to do while you’re pursuing this main quest ranging from riding a Ferris Wheel with your companions to undertaking combat challenges, adding nicely to variety.
Dungeons are also varied, although unfortunately not in terms of presentation. As previously mentioned, the same corridors are often reused multiple times making areas feel bland (this is particularly noticeable in the Spiria Cores you dive into), but interactivity will keep things interesting. Aside from the usual block-pushing and switch-pressing puzzles, Tales of Hearts R has an item usage mechanic – not dissimilar to Wild ARMs – where specific tools can be used in these labyrinths to progress. Things never get too complex but it’s a nice addition to keep changing things up.
Of course, on your journey you’ll encounter a variety of foes and in traditional JRPG style you’ll fight these in a specific separate arena. The twist of Tales of is that rather than things being turn-based, Hearts R allows you to move freely not unlike a brawler and hit your enemies with physical combos; spells or whatever else you desire. Movement is fluid allowing you to jump, dash and dodge plus you can choose from different styles ranging from semi-auto – which moves you in a straight line towards the chosen foe – to manual allowing full freedom.
You’ll be given the choice between a variety of characters specializing in melee or magic (and some who are a mix of both) and by binding attacks and spells to the x and o buttons as well as the right analogue, you’ll rapidly be able to pull off flashy combos and discover the strength of each player. In this way, Hearts R feels like a fighting game at times as you’ll constantly be choosing the best abilities for the situation and opponent you’re fighting. And along with this thought, you’ll discover that movement, dodging and parrying are important parts of the equation to ensure survival.
Personally, I preferred a physical attacker like Kor due to his ability to peel off enemies from his teammates, but there’s enough variety here to ensure you’ll find someone you like. Speaking of teammates, you’ll go into combat with three allies who will assist with the fighting and – in a nice touch for this entry – you’re able to give them specific commands by touching their portraits on the touchscreen in four directions. It’s a little finicky to get used to but very handy when you need a teammate to throw a quick heal to save a life without having to sift through a sea of menus.
Allies are also used to pull off special moves in the game’s ‘chase link’ system – by far its most interesting addition over previous Tales of games. Once foes have taken a specific amount of damage you’re able to knock them flying and instantly teleport after them to keep the combo going, then knock them into the air again etc. It rewards skillful play and awareness of the battlefield making combat more strategic – especially when other party members are brought in to pull off a powerful finishing move.
Of course it wouldn’t be Tales of without powerful Mystic Artes, although they’re a little more difficult to pull off here than usual. A meter fills while attacking that, when activated, allows you to go into a more powerful state where attacks and artes do not consume SP and eventually let you pull off Mystic Artes. There’s only one per character and as they’re on such a long cool-down it makes pulling them off feel like quite the feat, even if it isn’t quite the visual spectacle I’d hoped for.
So it all comes together, then – the sense of freedom from the world map exploration; the objective-driven visits to the towns; the free-form and satisfying combat etc., to create a JRPG that’s everything the classics used to be making it a very enjoyable experience. At times the budget does clearly hold things back – from the sometimes sparse cities; to the copy-pasted corridors to the lack of Mystic Arte variety, but it’s never enough to substantially detract from the whole package.
And in terms of that package, there’s a very good amount on offer here. The main story alone will take you a good 30+ hours and there’s plenty of optional content beyond this, from bonus dungeons to Namcoin collecting etc. Incentives to return beyond this are minimal, but I definitely see this as the kind of game I’ll be returning to in a few year’s time to experience all over again.
Tales of Hearts R sticks rigidly to the JRPG formulas of years gone by that at times can make it feel archaic, yet in this day and age when the genre is expanding in so many directions it’s a refreshing change of pace to revisit a title like this. The combat is thrilling and the sense of world-exploration is second-to-none on Vita and although the story can let it down towards the end and the presentation isn’t quite there, it’s still a fantastic package that’s well worth experiencing if you want a high-quality Japanese-RPG on the handheld.