This old flame still burns
The Tales series may not have the same cachet in the West as do other prominent role-playing game franchises, but its renown is definitely on the rise. Bandai Namco has expressed more confidence in the franchise in recent years, showing a willingness to push Tales as a global brand rather than just a curiosity for Japanese audiences.
It seems there’s a market for this sort of thing — a healthy niche that appreciates something more antique in a world so obsessed with pioneering and being cutting-edge. Time marches on and the Tales series digs its heels into the ground, refusing to yield to fads and ephemeral trends. It’s old-fashioned to a fault. But would you have it any other way?
Tales of Hearts R (PlayStation TV, PlayStation Vita)
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Released: November 11, 2014 (NA), November 14, 2014 (EU)
Tales of Hearts R, true to form, is a familiar experience. It contains all the trappings one might expect of the series, never doing anything particularly new or unexpected, save perhaps the elegant transition to PlayStation Vita.
The narrative, though not without its twists and turns, most likely will not surprise you. It centers around a young woman Kohaku, who is attacked by a witch, shattering her Spiria — the manifestation of her heart and soul — and scattering her emotions to the winds.
The task falls to Kor Meteor, a sheltered boy from a small village, Kohaku’s brother Hisui, and an increasingly large company of friends to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Of course, the witch has a darker purpose than merely attacking a single damsel, and the fetch quest snowballs into a matter of global importance.
Much of the world is afflicted with a condition called “despir,” which causes a myriad of emotional issues. These run the gamut from simple depression to giving people sociopathic urges to commit mass murder. Regardless of how severe the malady, saving the day usually involves travelling inside an afflicted person’s soul and fighting their inner demons. Literally.
The story itself is a slow burn, taking several hours for the plot to meander much of anywhere and for cast members to exhibit anything more than well-worn tropey mannerisms. The most troubling character in this regard is Kohaku, who, robbed of her emotions, is effectively rendered an automaton for much of the game, one reliant on a bunch of squabbling men to protect and save her.
It gets better, though. Innes Lorenzen, who runs a courier business called Wanderlust, is a highlight. A multidimensional entrepreneur, she sells magical weapons to groups in exchange for their indentured servitude. Then there are all these vignettes between story sequences — little lighthearted asides to the main story where the characters are fleshed out and act like actual people, rather than clear-cut archetypes.
Battle is the highlight of the experience, of course. Tales games always have marvelous combat, and Hearts is no exception. The battle system is both action-heavy and strategic, asking players to delve into the fray while also managing the party on a macro level.
Encounters are random, with battles taking place in isolated arenas where you field up to four party members at a time. This time around, Bandai Namco has implemented a system where successive hits can stun an enemy, allowing you to launch them into the air. There, foes can be juggled with standard melee attacks and artes (spells) until such a time as you see fit to slam them back into the earth. It can be quite fun.
As always, there are a vast number of ways to customize your party. Once a character levels up, you get to allocate statistics and further tailor them to particular roles with various passive abilities on top of their weapons, armor, and palette of artes.
The actual enemies you’ll be fighting along the way look uninspired, as do many of the game’s dungeons. While there isn’t much to actually explore in Tales of Hearts‘ massive world, there are a handful of secrets to find should you wish to wander off the beaten path.
The towns themselves have a lot of character, which managed to be surprisingly inventive on occasion. My favorite of the bunch was a city built on islands in the middle of a lake, though the village built around a communal Japanese bath house had its charms as well.
The least enchanting aspect of the experience is the collection of puzzles strewn about the dungeons, which are banal speed bumps at best and exasperating road blocks to progress at worst. These chores are in no way mentally stimulating and seem to exist merely to pad out the length of the experience.
The localization may be an issue for some, as Bandai Namco opted to forego an English dub and just subtitle the game with the original Japanese voice work. While I personally didn’t find it to be a point of contention, having the option to choose is always preferable.
Tales of Hearts R isn’t going to shatter anyone’s perceptions of the genre. But it isn’t trying to do that either. It’s a solid, traditional experience that should satisfy fans of classic JRPGs.