Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.
It begins with a fable, a parable that parents might tell their children as they tuck them in at night. A tale of princesses, forests, moons, and heroes; a picturesque story full of potential, but left open, as though the ending is unwritten.
As allegories go, storybook narratives and children’s stories don’t always make for the most gripping foundations; but there’s an inherent charm buried in the nuts and bolts that make up Bandai Namco’s Tales of Hearts R. Programmed originally by Namco Tales Studios for the DS, and now remade by 7th Chord for the Vita, Tales of Hearts R is an action-RPG unerringly familiar to anyone who has played a Tales of game in the past. Those largely unfamiliar with the Tales series, but fans of traditional JRPG fare will find a lot to like, and non-traditional JRPG fans will likely find something to like in the battle system, which is both active and built well.
Mechanically speaking, Tales of Hearts R is an easy game to appreciate. Taken at face value, there are elements in the mechanics worth applauding around every corner. To start with, combat has been rebuilt from its original 2D in the DS version of the game to a fully-3D battle environment for the Vita version, and the transition has been made nearly seamlessly. The battle backgrounds are relatively spartan, yet visually pleasant and atmospheric in just how well they suit the various dungeons, fields, beaches, and buildings that populate the game world. Taking a combat system into an entirely new dimension isn’t an easy thing to accomplish, but Tales of Hearts R Vita has made the switch strikingly well: the combat is still weighted and meaningful without feeling like the new openness of the world renders moves and strategies obsolete. When it comes down to the fighting itself, it’s polished and fluid – combos flow naturally, and individual skills on the battlefield always have their purposes. While stringing long combos together, or timing the combos perfectly between characters can be a little squirrely at times, every little action feels honest. Earlier Tales games suffered from Mages having a less active role in the combat situations, which isn’t the case here. The various characters are all functional and relevant, so players who find their primary character on the wrong side of dead can still hop into the shoes of another party member without feeling like they have to give up on the player experience – or that players hoping to play as non-protagonists are dooming themselves to playing an inferior character.
It isn’t without hiccups, however. The difficulty curve changes dramatically from dungeon to dungeon, and there are times when gathering supplies for dungeons is more a pipe dream than a reality, and one fight will inexplicably ramp the difficult up countless levels at once. Even within combat, some battles are much more hectic than others, making every successive loss more likely to snowball out of control as more party members drop and more heat starts to fall on the surviving members. It rarely takes long for there to only be one or two party members left while facing a hoard of enemies. Combine this with status effects such as petrification or paralysis and even simply surviving one battle can veer from rote busywork to Herculean effort in little more than a few seconds. But despite these occasional stumbles, combat is still a joy to experience – just prepare yourself for an occassionally inconsistent level of challenge.
After battles, the party members will interact, spouting one-liners or bantering amongst themselves. These little moments are charming vignettes, providing players with snapshots of the characters’ lives, including personality details and little tidbits about their various upbringings and interests. Between battles, in towns, fields, and dungeons, players will have the chance to occasionally watch little animated scenes with character portraits, accompanied by voice and text moments. They’re often rich in character detail, and really hammer home just how the characters intermingle, handle simple chores like cooking and packing supplies, and the little conversations they share when hoping to pass the twilight hours. While they don’t serve a narrative purpose, per se, these little skits are the glue that really bind the characters together. The grand story goes on pretty independent from these little conversations, but they’re the aspects of the game that were the most charming. Those really worth looking forward to. Getting to see behind the curtain, in a sense, and getting a feel for the characters when they weren’t grandstanding to a meglomaniacal villain or having to face down a massive army.
This is, in part, because the grand narrative lacks nuance. The story follows the protagonist, a young boy named Kor Meteor, who elects to help a brother and sister after they wash ashore on the beach of a small, scenic fishing village. Despite having been trained by his grandfather as a Somatic – a warrior who wields a special type of weapon that can link with the souls with people battling with despair – he accidentally manages to damage the internal emotions of the young girl, and sends the various aspects of her emotions all across the globe. With that in mind, and the knowledge that Somatics should help people rather than damage them, Kor agrees to travel with the duo around the world to restore the young woman’s emotions. Over the course of this adventure, the characters manage to get in over their head multiple times, make enemies of the two prominent military powers guarding the world, gather a small handful of allies, and slowly manage to unravel the hitherto unknown history of the world and how they relate to the moons that drift endlessly overhead.
While there’s a lot of opportunity in the premise, the characters themselves come across as rather flat in the actual events of the story. Story beats are played straight to the major tropes the characters embody, and almost entirely without any clever dialog or much of value happening. A lot of the story happenings are just little scenes that play out for the importance of a handful of minutes, mostly finding reasons to get players to explore nearby caves, face new types of monsters, and present new situations for the characters to bumble into as easy setups for simple gags or oddball reasons to make characters argue, fight, make up, or talk. While there’s nothing precisely wrong with the story, there also isn’t much right. It just feels standard, checking the right boxes, then moves on to the next scene, and is dominated by Deuz Ex Machina. Even when the storybook elements start to come more into play, they don’t really feel much deeper or bigger: they’re just there.
Because of that distance, the story beats that should hit the hardest don’t. The dramatic twists, the shifts in power, the deaths of characters, and the triumphs of allies don’t feel special, nor do they seem important. Story moments seem to happen because they need to, not because it’s particularly meaningful that they do so. Stretches of narrative sometimes coalesce into a silly joke, or a punchline, rendering the weight of the moment lost.
This is further sabotaged by little technical issues. Tales of Hearts R doesn’t offend with anything particularly game breaking or buggy, but there are moments of dissonance that hamper the story. Some cutscenes in the game have been brought over directly from the DS version, presented for non-widescreen displays with black bars on either side. Others have been animated specifically for the Vita version, filling the Vita’s display. Some cutscenes are animated, and some are simply still images with voice over, implying animation with pans or brief snippets of motion. Even scenes shown in-engine sometimes have the characters mouths move, while others do not. Combined with stiff animations, and little details like the characters’ apparent lack of breathing and pre-built animations being stiffly cobbled together, the entire production ends up feeling a little more off than it should – somewhere between charming and the uncanny valley.
Tales of Hearts R is very much a game worth playing, however. The narrative might leave a lot to be desired, and sometimes the characters feel infinitely more trope-y than they need to, but the little details make up the difference in spades. Post-battle dialog, character skits, and sporadic well-delivered punchlines make the sometimes wooden production feel more natural and lively. When the tropes are invoked, its often done well, even if the tropes themselves feel over-familiar. Beyond the trappings of story and the aforementioned inconsistency with cutscenes, Tales of Hearts R is generally polished to a mirror shine when it comes to the mechanics. Combat is meaningful and rewarding, the overall game is a joy to play – full of the right kind of customization and variety. Counting the occasional surprise challenges and ability to switch readily between characters, there’s a lot to love about Hearts R.
For fans of Japanese RPGs, Tales of Hearts R should be an easy buy. It’s a fun game whose mechanics are more than worth the asking price. For those hoping to get into the genre, it isn’t a bad place to start, though it also never really does anything to progress the genre. The story isn’t going to blow any minds, but it’s fun and doesn’t really overstay its welcome, and the combat is accessible and entertaining.
It’s a fairly solid game then, but that’s about as much as can be said for it. It certainly has a lot of heart, but lacks ambition and it’s unlikely to convert anyone who doesn’t already enjoy the genre. Hopefully the upcoming Tales of Zestiria can provide something a bit more forward-thinking; but for now, if you’re looking for a decent handheld JRPG to while away the hours, you can do a lot worse than Tales of Hearts R.