Released back in 2008, Tales of Hearts was the third and last installment on the Nintendo DS. It was one of their experimental tests as they attempted to sell TWO different versions, an Anime version and a 3D model version. While the latter left much to be desired, the former told an excellent story in the face of aging technology, but sticking to the tried and true Linear Motion Battle system they have been using for the DS trilogy.
Tales of Hearts R, for the PlayStation Vita, is a grand re-imagination of this story in a far-grander scale. As with Tales of Innocence R, the game is now presented in widescreen resolution, and includes new playable characters on top of the already-strong cast, revamped battle system and an enhanced script to make the replay a must-buy for the JRPG and Tales-loving crowd.
The story follows the adventures of Shing Meteorite, who encounters the siblings Kohak and Hisui Hearts as they are escaping an unknown entity. Kohak gets hit with the Death Spira illness when attacked by the mysterious witch, and in a botched attempt at healing her, Shing instead breaks her Spira (aka soul) into pieces of Spirunes which then scatter all over the world.
To redeem himself, and to bring back her smile, Shing will attempt to gather back all of Kohak’s soul, getting drawn into a world-wide conflict regarding the Somas that he and a select few people can hold. And that’s just the premise of the entire story, as players continue, they will find out the forces that are behind all that is happening to the world, all linked within Shing’s and Kohak’s hearts.
The biggest draw of any Tales game would be its battle system. Gone are the limited 2D planes, replaced with the familiar free-running 3D battleground that has been in place since Tales of the Abyss. To make it more challenging for the player, the game uses a hybrid of both the Chain Capacity system, where you’re allowed a fixed number of attacks per combo, and TP usage, much like the recent Tales of Xillia 2. This doesn’t stop players from creating their own custom combos with the help of AI controlled characters using shortcut commands using the right analog stick and shoulder buttons of course, allowing players to continue being creative with the enhanced cast.
Gone are the small, SD-sized characters. With the increased system specs of the Vita, everyone is evenly proportioned, giving us a more-refined experience. This naturally ties into the battle system, where not only you can control AI characters with shortcut commands, but they had to include some form of touch-screen controls in the form of touch shortcuts. It doesn’t really work well in the heat of battle, so it’s probably safer just to use the normal shortcuts.
Unlike the old game, Hi-Ougis/Specials now require the Overlevel gauge first introduced in Tales of Vesperia to be filled and executed upon specific button commands. To make things even more interesting, the game adds in 2-man Hi-Ougis which are unlocked with specific conditions within the game.
In the spirit of remakes, the entire main story script is now fully voiced, which will delight many a JRPG fan. In addition, new animated and in-game scenes are included to flesh out the characters (like Shing’s grandfather) in an attempt to spice up the plot further.
The leveling of Somas, aka the character weapons, also take on a new way here. Instead of actively hunting for items to make them stronger, Somas now evolve using points gained upon characters leveling up. Similar to Tales of Xillia 2’s skill-learning trees, the more points you invest in a particular stat, the more active and passive skills characters gain. Of course, leveling up multiple stats also allow for new attacks and new specials to be learnt.
A new entrant to the story is the ever-affable Galando, who helps the party out because Kohak’s illness reminds him of his own daughter’s fate. Sadly, like Patty in the PS3 Tales of Vesperia port, his role is rather limited as well. The other new playable character is none other than the knight Calcedny Arcome, who was an NPC in the original version, joining in the fight in this remake.
Of course, with all Tales games, there’s the standard assortment of side stuff to fully flesh out the world. From the Arena and guest characters of previous Tales installments, teaser items in the world and dungeons that do not activate until a second playthrough, an extra dungeon upon clearing the game.
Unfortunately, it’s not just all better and nothing else.
While they have included in new scenes in the opening video, the studio did not waste much resources on redoing the animation in the old version, retaining them in the native 4:3 format that was for the Nintendo DS. This will jar quite a number of people, especially since they added in new animated scenes, which are done in the 16:9 widescreen view. Of course, not many people would mind it, but you never know.
For those already used to the console versions, especially Tales of Vesperia or Xillia, you might find that they reverted back to an older AI programming set where characters either blindly follow a command to the letter and promptly forgetting the command once they are stopped somehow. A brilliant example would be to stand in the middle of enemies casting a healing spell once told to do so and getting interrupted, then forgetting about the command altogether and charging in to die.
That’s not all. Usually for remakes and/or ports, the Tales studio will normally include lines and scenes to improve upon the original, with added characters or added lines. Hearts R is the first game where specific scenes and lines are removed. Whilst this does not detract first-time players from the entire experience, those who have covered the original DS game and replaying this for extra scenes will be severely disappointed. Gone are the dark and grittier stuff of betrayals and destruction, replaced by a safer and youngster-friendly story which might throw off players coming off the old version.
In another show that the game is marketed towards the younger handheld generation, the Tales team also decided to simplify some of the longer and more mazy dungeons. This is somewhat inexcusable, seeing as the in-game engine hasn’t changed much, and there has not been any reason to explain the simplification.
Also gone was the old Extra dungeon, replaced by a new Tri-Verse dungeon, technically linking this game to Tales of Innocence R with its post-game dungeon as well. Naturally, the name itself also gives rise to the fact that they will soon be announcing the final game in the DS trilogy, Tales of the Tempest R.
DLCs & Extra content
As Bandai Namco games are in the age of Downloadable Content, Tales of series have become the frontrunner in terms of free and purchasable DLC. The usual suspects are aplenty, as most who have played the series would know. Paid items ranging from in-game cash, items, experience are always readily available, as are the weekly updates of quirky and fun costumes aplenty. Costs range from 300-500 yen each, so be prepared to shell out a bomb if you’re really interested in getting THAT idol outfit or that swimsuit. Regardless, all of these are cosmetic or meant to aid you in the journey, and none of them are mandatory.
What was largely unexpected was that the game also comes bundled with its own FREE minigame. Tales of Hearts – Infinite Evolve, the DSi Ware side-scrolling action game is packaged with the game for all players. The only catch is that it comes as a PSN-download code, so if the code you’re given doesn’t match the region of your Vita’s PSN account you’ll need a second memory card just to download it.
Tales of Hearts R is a must-buy for any JRPG fan if you have not tried it out prior on the Nintendo DS. The story is a blast, the characters amusing and realistic, and not forgetting a wonderful soundtrack, not least supported by DEEN’s “Eien no Ashita”, the theme song for the game.
Story purists who have played the original may baulk at the major changes to some of the characters, but if they’re willing to overlook it, you will find it a wonderful re-imagination of the original game.
This review is contributed by JL Lee, who has played numerous JRPGs and has intimate knowledge of Japanese games.