Tales of Hearts R Review
The lead up to the U.S. release of Tales of Hearts R for Playstation Vita was a rocky one, with some series fans complaining that they would not buy the game if it didn't receive an English voice over dub for the soundtrack. The obnoxious hashtag #nodubnobuy took off among this subset of the gaming population, and, somewhat unfairly, most of the ink dedicated to the game before its release has been about this very subject, not the game itself. I chose to start my review for Tales of Hearts R with this unfortunate chronicling not to give more attention to it, but to let you, all the Tales fans and everyone with a Playstation Vita know that not having the game dubbed into English makes absolutely no difference when it comes to viewing and judging the experience as a whole. And how is that experience? Pretty decent, if you can get over some stumbling points that have absolutely nothing to do with the voice track and the language it is presented in. Ready?
Tales of Hearts R follows Kor Meteor, a small town kid who is thrust into much larger events after a brother and sister wash up on the shore near his home. What's that you say? It sounds like the setup for about 75% of JRPGs? Well, it is. All the familiar tropes are here: Grandfather trains kid for battle, grandfather dies, kid leaves town, small quest becomes epic struggle, etc., etc., etc. Altering the formulaic story are Somas and Spirias. Somas are weapons linked to a person's Spirira, i.e. their soul (sorta), and not everyone can use them. Guess who is a prodigy? That's right, Kor. The quest kicks off with Kohaku, the female who just happens to show up on Kor's doorstep, seeing her Spiria shattered into bits and dispersed across the land. To put it back together, Kor and Kohaku's brother, Hisui, set out on a quest that becomes more complex as you near the game's midpoint and downslope. The story's predictability is somewhat offset by a Sleeping Beauty theme that runs just below the surface, though it fails to take away the sting of being able to predict events correctly if you've ever played a JRPG before. Thankfully, though, Kor and his pals are likeable characters, which stands in stark contrast to the completely unlikeable group from the last portable Tales game, Tales of the Abyss. So at least there is that.
The game's presentation also has a familiar ring, but not in a good way. Tales of Hearts R in no way takes advantage of the Vita's power, as the graphics look like a midrange PSP game with sharper edges. The characters animations can feel very stiff, the towns are sparsely populated and the enemies don't have all that much details. From a visual standpoint, everything feels flat and uninteresting, well, except for the anime cutscenes. These are seriously beautiful and I was always excited when a new one popped up. But each time you view one, you are immediately reminded how dated the rest of the game looks. On the sound side, the Japanese cast is pretty convincing and you'll hear some memorable tunes here and there. The translation is top notch, so enjoying the Japanese voices is all the easier because you never worry about what you may be missing by not understanding the language. I'm still not a fan of the extraneous text-based conversations that pop up every little bit (they aren't mandatory, you view them by hitting select), but Tales fans know and love this series hallmark and they will be more than happy with it here.
The combat in Tales of Hearts R has its ups and downs. It is action-based and allows for the use of skills and free movement while fighting, and at first it is pretty exhilarating. Succeeding, like in so many JRPGs, requires a fair amount of grinding, and that is when they exciting sheen of the combat wears off a little. You'll find that you can fight each battle strategically by countering, using artes (skills), etc., or you can just mash X and win 90-95% of the time. As you get further into the game, you'll unlock new moves and combat tricks like powered up attacks through holding X, chase moves where you'll knock an enemy back and zoom in to keep the combo going and the like. But, with the exception of boss fights, you can ignore all that and just mash X. This a little disappointing, but far worse is the game's reliance on the oldest and saddest trick in the JRPG book - random encounters. This antiquated system should have died with the SNES and 16-bit era, but developers insist on lazily using it to this day. My biggest issue is that it makes exploration of dungeons and the world map a frustrating ordeal. Every few steps you'll be pulled away from what you were doing to fight a battle and when you win, you reappear where you were in the first place. It is disorienting and just plain bad game design. If developers are going to continue beating this dead horse, they should take a lesson from Bravely Default and give players the opportunity to turn these encounters off while they explore. As badly as I wanted to check out the world, the constant random encounters had me charging from location to location as fast as possible in both dungeons and on the world map. I found myself resenting the game for putting up such an obstacle and preventing me from seeing the world without the constant monkey of random encounters on my back.
Like a lot of games in longstanding series, Tales of Hearts R may not hit all the right notes but Tales fans will eat it up regardless. The story is one you've heard before and the graphics aren't that great. What really hurts the score, though, is the random encounters. Still, I did enjoy my playthrough of the game and I remain glad that it saw a stateside release. But would I recommend it over the other big Vita games of the fall? No way. Anyone looking for an action RPG on Vita should purchase Freedom Wars and not give this a second look until the inevitable game drought of early 2015 (it happens post-Christmas every year). There is definitely fun to be had with Tales of Hearts R, but I was nowhere near as impressed as I thought I would be.
Final Rating: 78%. Tales of Hearts R doesn't quite hit all the right notes.