An evil sorcerer, a girl in trouble, and an over-confident protagonist who’s a little on the thick side – sounds like a pretty typical role playing game right? That was part of the problem I had.
I’m going to preface this review by saying that going into Tales of Hearts R I was essentially going in blind; aside from Charlie’s preview of the game not long ago and the few trailers I’ve viewed I hadn’t really heard much about the title – let alone played a past rendition as some of you have. Had I gone in with more Tales of experience, things may have come out different – but here’s what I thought and what you’re in store for.
Starting it up, you’re introduced to the story and basic gameplay elements quickly – dropping you in the shoes of Kor and having you practice a bit with your grandfather’s soma (magic weapon) in a semi-controlled environment. This quickly leads to the beginning of your journey as an evil witch appears and all hell breaks loose, Kor taking it upon himself to correct the problem.
The typical “you’re new to this, but will save the world” trope comes into play here, as you gain skills and adventure towards the goal of fixing an unfortunate girl’s “spiria core” (something like a soul) and righting the wrong that you (sort of) caused. During this time, the game moves from basics right up to long, drawn out battles – building your skills and levels as you move through the obstacles in your way.
Battles come in two varieties; random encounters and story-events. Random encounters occur in open areas, spirias, and inside guarded buildings – living up to their name in occurring completely randomly. The only way to avoid or lower your chances of a random encounter is to use a sacrosanct bottle or holy bottle from your items, which can get pretty pricy/annoying as they don’t last long and you have a limit on carry items (15). Story-event battles are both unavoidable and of a higher caliber of difficulty than their random counterparts, often bringing with them high-level enemies with tons of health as well as low level enemies to attack you while you’re distracted (if you’re not careful). These story battles will tend to go one of two ways, depending on how much you grind/battle to level up; you’re either going to need to use a ton of items, or you’re going to be over-powered and just button mash your strongest attack for a minute until the enemy goes down – there’s not really any reliable way to get in the middle.
Moving on to the way battles actually work, let’s start with the fact that they occur in a localized bubble – pulling you away from the map and into a small area where your current party members and enemy spring forth. As for in-battle controls, you’re relegated to using assigned skill artes with the circle button (and d-pad modifiers), light attacks with the mashing of “X” and special attacks (once available) with the left trigger and left to activate the skill and a connected attack with circle (holding the button) to execute.
Your special attack will do a high amount of damage in one move, and as such won’t be constantly available in battle; it’s inaccessible until you’ve reached the third level on your spiria gauge, located on the side left of the heads up display.
Moving back to combat, there’s a few special events that can occur – including counterattack prompts and chain events. Counterattacks can be executed when an enemy telegraphs its move and glows red, and are triggered with square. Once a counterattack is triggered you will dodge the attack and immediately dart back in close for combo continuation, allowing you to keep an attack string going or easily start a new one. Aside from counterattacks, there are also chain events that can be triggered under special conditions, putting a blue target on your enemy and allowing you to hyperspeed dash to different attack locations for that enemy with the square button. With the chain event you can even follow an enemy across the attack area or into the air instantly – ensuring there’s no place for them to hide.
Though it’s true that straight up combat is most likely the majority of your in-battle experience, there are other options to look at in battle as well – as you also have the ability to use items, change the team’s strategy, reassign artes, change formation, or even flee from battle – accessible through the triangle menu at any time (though you can’t flee from a boss battle).
Looking back to the game and its progress (aside from battles), it involves you looking for spiria parts after a certain someone has theirs busted into pieces; as such, you’ll be travelling all over the map – searching for parts, following clues, and taking ships between ports.
Travel on land is done using an oversized representation of your main party character, moving across a map with random battles, items to find, secret areas, towns, notable locations and ports. Unknown locations are marked with a 3D representation of their location and a “???” title on screen and become listed on your map once you’ve gone to them, while items you can find are represented by stacked golden rings. The only other movement/occurrence outside of those is travel between ports, which uses a very long, very boring travel clip to represent your transport. The game is pretty simplistic in this respect, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re looking for out of the title.
Other systems in the game mostly have to do with upgrading your abilities and/or buffing your stats – such as the soma point system and the cooking system.
The soma system awards you points towards upgrading your soma with the completion of each level, allowing you to build up your weapon as you see fit – putting emphasis on whatever area you feel you need most. That said, the amount of soma points needed to reach the next level grows every time you hit your goal, so be prepared to grind for those higher levels a lot longer than the earlier ones.
The cooking system is a leveled system as well, with your cooking level increasing different amounts depending on the difficulty of the item you cook (ie; a level 15 recipe will put you further towards the next level when cooked than a level 14 one).
Cooking different recipies can have different effects, with healing recipes, stat buffing recipes, TP-restoration recipies and more – the effect and quality of the recipe depending on the level. Recipes require ingredients which you can either find or buy from certain shops/stands, just like the find/purchase systems in place for items or armor – only they are simply prerequisites and not directly useful for anything.
Speaking of items, the type of items available range from healing potions and TP restoration potions to enemy deterrents/attractors, status-curing items (ie; a petrifaction cure) and even an item to reveal the remaining health of bosses/enemies which don’t show it. You can only carry up to 15 of each item at a time, so stocking up is always a good idea if you’re venturing into unknown territory.
Armor is another matter completely, as it’s user specific – meaning that Kor may require different armor than, say, Kohaku. This isn’t always true as some of the characters cross over in their usages – but there are also seemingly some user-specific armor pieces out there, which effectively limits your ability to pass down armor as you go (a common practice in other titles, as the main character’s armor is usually the most important). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely something you should know going in as it can cause some issues early on if you don’t plan for your team instead of just yourself.
Armor comes in two varieties; body and head. Both varieties alter your base stats and serve to add or subtract a certain value for each stat depending on their unique setup. some offering high gains at the cost of one particular attribute, or little gains all over for no cost (and everything in-between).
Alongside the armor, there’s also a set of attribute-altering accessories which can be purchased or found – and even a title system that can alter your stats. Whatever your desired setup, I know there’s probably a combination to get there; making it a worth while task to play mix-‘n’-match to find the one that suits you.
Kicking it to the controls for the game, they revolve around the analog stick for movement, triangle for the menu, right trigger for the map and “X” as your accept/continue button. It’s safe to say that for the most part controlling the game is very simple, though it can definitely seem a bit counter-intuitive to reason.
Instead of opting for a typical button changeup for different skills in battle (ie; you use different abilities with the different single symbols), it moves skills to a combination of circle and a d-pad modifier – making something simple overly complex – especially when you move with the analog. The d-pad and left analog have never played nice as two controls you need to use continuously and simultaneously (really, name a game that uses both like that!), and they should’ve left the d-pad as a one-off button (ie; menu) instead of making it a battle modifier.
Not only is the control set up a bit wonky there, but the usage of the other buttons seems a bit wrong too (despite what the button symbols originally stood for). With triangle as the menu, you’re ignoring the most used menu button in RPGs for what – the sake of the symbol’s original meaning? This is a 2014 title, and in 2014 we typically access menus with the start/select buttons!
Looking specifically at the graphics, Tales of Hearts R is definitely no Freedom Wars or Killzone -using simplistic graphical styles in the 3D areas and the standard anime style 2D art in some of the visual novel inspired story elements. That said, the game runs pretty well with regards to frame rate… so at least it offers up a case of “what you see is what you get”.
The cutscenes were a bit of another story, and came across as a bit lazy due to their nature (even the intro cutscene is 4:3!). Most of the cutscenes in the game are of the 4:3 aspect ratio, with some of the smaller ones being the only conversion to 16:9 present. While I’m usually all for keeping the original styling of a port, the 4:3 cutscenes really serve to snap you out of gameplay with those awkward black bars – and when you finally do hit a 16:9 cutscene it makes it all that much worse seeing as how they’re the best looking bits in the game.
The audio is another story entirely, and your mileage may vary with it depending on your personal preferences – but the Japanese voice over was one of my favourite bits about the game. While I agree it’s unfortunate that the option for English audio isn’t there, the purest option is always the best in my opinion (the original inflections are never matched in translation/dubbing) and there are decent English subtitles to line the way (though they definitely tend to stray from the original content, if that’s important to you).
Taking a step back and looking at the game as a whole, I can’t help but wonder just what the draw is.
While the game certainly offers some good features and doesn’t seem particularly broken in any way, there’s not much here to draw you in compared to other similarly styled titles. Though the story is intact, it offers very little in the way of suspense or a hook to bring you in – leaving you with a generic tale of “got to help the helpless girl”. The combat is good in theory – but in practice either amounts to a grind-fest at every boss to try and get through, or preparation via a ton of grinding on weak monsters to make yourself over-powered beforehand.
Had I not had to grind before/against every boss and/or restart the game when I got locked out from grinding due to a poor save placement, the game would’ve been easily under thirty hours to completion – however I ended up putting at least that into lost time on top of the in game clock. As someone who didn’t really have to grind in past RPGs (including Persona 4: Golden and Ys: Memories of Celceta), I found the excessive amount of grinding needed to beat the game on normal with any comfort (or bash through a boss without it) was taking away from my enjoyment, and really brought my enjoyment down a notch – clearly not the sign of a stand out game to me.
As such, you should ask yourself what you’re looking for in a game when looking at getting Tales of Hearts R; if you’re looking for something from the roleplaying genre which runs well, is a time waster and can be mildly funny then this might be right up your alley. If you’re looking for an interesting story, unique gameplay and a decent difficulty curve to follow however – you’re probably barking up the wrong tree.