When Tales of Hearts came to the Nintendo DS in 2008, many were hopeful for a release outside of Japan, but sadly news of a localization never came. Now, thanks to a remake f or the PlayStation Vita, fans are finally able to experience the eleventh main entry in the series. For the uninitiated The Tales franchise is a series of JRPGs, which currently has fifteen main games, several spin-offs, manga and anime adaptations and even drama CDs. It’s a huge deal in Japan and enthusiasm for it has been spilling over across the pond.
At the start of the game we meet the young and gullible Kor Meteor, who wields a powerful weapon known as a Soma. After returning from a day of training to his seaside town, Kor finds a young girl called Kohaku washed ashore. It’s not long before Kor meets her older, overprotective brother Hisui and the three are thrown head first into a huge adventure.
It has to be said, the story that Hearts R delivers isn’t the best the series has seen, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have any nice ideas. It does. The game smartly uses emotions as a theme, which helps add more depth to the rather lackluster story. During the important moments of the journey we are treated to animated scenes which look great, for the most part. Some have been recycled from the DS game, meaning they appear in 4:3 aspect ratio, while the new footage is presented in 16:9. It’s not a big deal, but can be a bit jarring at times.
What really makes this entry shine is it’s fantastic characters, everyone is likeable and the dialogue between them is nice and crisp. You can see friendships grow and change as the story progresses. This is most predominant during the game’s optional skits (a staple of the Tales series) where the character’s chat about themselves and recent events. Answering questions during skits will lead to different outcomes, which will increase your bond with a certain party member. Bonding with characters also gets you special skills to help you out in battle, meaning skits are both enjoyable and useful.
The game will have you running from town to town, through forests and dungeons, in true JRPG fashion. It is really nice to see that the game has a world map, which allows you to explore and find some secret areas instead of just concentrating on the story. Some of the places you’ll visit on your travels are well designed and have unique aspects about them, whereas others feel bland and quite empty. Another small issue is the fact you can’t save anytime you want, this being a portable title, it would’ve been nice to avoid having to find save points.
As you explore you’ll enter battles through random encounters, you control one character and are able to freely run around the battlefield and smash your enemies using either basic attacks or Artes. With enough Technical Counter (TC) points you can chain together attacks, having your character knock foes around like rag dolls. Epic fun. Your other party members are controlled by the surprisingly adept AI. Although if you don’t set up each member’s strategy properly, you can expect them to stand around and watch you get pummeled. Not so fun.
While battling you’ll notice the Spiria Drive Bar on the left of the screen will fill up, once activated you’ll receive some bonuses for a short time. The bar has four levels which unlock over the course of the game. Levels three and four give you the ability to perform Mystic Artes and Dual Mystic Artes, dealing a heavy blow to your opponent’s HP. To add even more depth, the game introduces us to Chase Links; which after successfully hitting your foe multiple times, gives you the chance to stun them, which on harder difficulties can turn the tables. While stunned you can knock enemies back and instantly teleport next to them and continue giving them a beating. That alone is a nice feature, but that’s not all, during this time you’ll also be able to perform a Chase Link Finishing Blow, or if you see a party member’s icon flashing, you can use the touch screen to tap it, allowing you to team up and attack using a Cross Chase Charge. It’s a wonderful addition to an already great system.
From the menu you are able to decide which skills and artes to equip and even cook food for your party, which will give you some bonuses during and after battles. You’ll also be able to distribute points you’ve earned after leveling up using the Soma Build System. As you decide which stats to improve, you’ll unlock new weapons, artes and skills. If you aren’t sure how you want to distribute your points, then you can let the game automatically decide for you. However, it’s a breeze to use and gives you a little bit of extra freedom.
The game looks pretty good, not great, but the Tales series has always focused more on gameplay than aesthetics and that’s not a bad thing. The soundtrack is rather plain but it’s a nice accompaniment. For the most part the Japanese voices work well, there are some avatar matches that don’t quite gel, but overall there is nothing too annoying. There is no English dub available, which will upset some players but be a cause of celebration for purists.