Must a game be unique to be great? Can a game have all of the elements of greatness: fun and dynamic gameplay, solid storytelling and characters, and challenging obstacles that reward the player for their hard work and still fall short of the greatness mark because its familiarity within a genre? If so, then Tales of Hearts R may not be a game of all-time greatness. The latest in the Tales series, Tales of Hearts R is a snapshot of many great classic RPGs from the genre’s golden age, and it nuzzles comfortably in that tried and true grind and explore dynamic. Tales of Hearts R is not a groundbreaking experience, but it is in every single possible way a masterpiece of craft and function.
Tales of Hearts R tells the story of young Kor Meteor, who is the precocious, loyal, good-hearted grandson of the legendary “Somatic,” Sydan Meteor. The “Somatic” is a special brand of warrior whose very soul, or “Spiria,” is the force behind their weaponry, the Soma. A clear head and honest heart are the driving forces behind a strong Somatic, and the opening scene shows Sydan passing his skill and weapon on to his young grandson. Meanwhile, across the sea, Hisui Hearts and his sister, Kohaku, are fleeing from a powerful witch for an unknown reason. The advancing threat of this witch forces Kohaku and Hisui to flee to the ocean, and then float up on the shores of Kor’s hometown. Separated by the sea, Kohaku employs Kor to help her find her lost brother.
Through fights and discoveries, Kor comes to destroy the core of Kohaku’s Spiria, and the powerful shards of her very soul are scattered out across the world. Kor and Hisui make a pact with a travelling saleswoman named Ines, giving away their lives to servitude in exchange for a Soma that Hisui can weild. The two heroes, bound by the honorable mission of saving a girl’s very soul, embark on an uncomfortable journey to discover the shards of Kohaku’s Spiria.
Tales of Hearts R is set up like many other RPG titles, with an overworld map and different cities and locations scattered throughout. You can do shopping and converse with NPCs in the towns, and there are battles both out in the overworld map and in dungeons. The towns are really nice looking and well designed. The camera is fixed in the towns and dungeons, but it moves perfectly with the action and flow of space, so it never becomes a hindrance. It frees you up from needing to control the camera and allows you to just explore the beautiful little areas that the game has in store for you.
The graphical quality is very high for a game of its style, but there is a lot of basic layouts and a rather barren overworld map. What it lacks in spectacle, it makes up for with elegant design and highly interactive areas. There isn’t much deviation from the set path in, say, the forest area or the mountain area, but there are numerous ways where a branch, or a tree root, or a hidden path can open up a section that you may not notice at first. There is plenty of exploring to be done, even with the mostly linear design. The overmap lends even more exploring, with hidden areas and items scattered throughout the world in hard to reach areas. A “Sorcerer’s Ring” lets you cast energy that can unlock doors or gates in dungeons. The world exploration in Tales of Hearts R is going to change anyone’s life, but it’s a very solid and fun experience.
When you find a piece of Kohaku’s shattered Spiria, you will need to perform a Spiria link with the poor sap whose found himself lodged with the shard you need. Doing so will take you and your party into the soul of the character, where you will fight little heartless-esque bad guys and traverse through the personality flaws inside the person’s mind. Many of the game’s bosses are fought inside these Spiria worlds, and their crystalline grandeur is certainly fun to run around in. They are, however, the most linear of all places in the game. They remind me a little of a game of Temple Run.
The battle system in Tales of Hearts R might be the best action-based RPG fighting system that I have ever played in the 20+ years that I have had the pleasure of playing RPG titles. It is a philosopher’s dream of perfect simplistic functionality and complex battle mechanics that makes for the ideal fighting experience. There are no limits to how or when you can attack, and you can set up the battle formations for where on the map your characters will start. Unlike any other game I’ve ever played, the characters actually perform their attacks or support from within the areas on the map you plan for them to. Characters who you place in the middle of battle will use close-range attacks and follow enemies, and the further away you place a character, the more they will flee from enemies and perform long-range attacks. You can set four strategy setups and change them in battle to fit the situation.
With the player’s allies working correctly, the enemies work to counteract any strategy that you employ. Enemies will spread out as far as you do, and will chase your characters if they stay too far away from the action. You can herd the enemies in with close quarter strategies, or you can spread them out and avoid being overrun. The monsters, even the most simple of common little fodder, will adapt to your strategy and try to find the best way to attack. It is amazing the level of AI that is displayed in battle. Often times I’d find myself following an enemy into a trap that it was setting. The way the enemies and your allies counter-balance each other strategically is just fantastic.
The fighting itself is performed by using the X button to perform basic attacks, and then linking basic attacks and special attacks, called Artes, that are triggered by the O button and the right stick. Attacks are fluid in motion and easily chained together, and switching from enemy to enemy is incredibly fluid as well. The square button is used to block attacks and perform guard counters, and you can jump using the up on the directional pad. Movement can be performed on a 2D plane using the directional pad, or on a 3D free-roam plane using the left stick. There really is no reason to use the directional pad, so having the jump button be on the directional pad makes it easy to overlook.
Enemies will become infuriated if you hit them too many times in succession, and start to turn red. If they become fully red, they will strike with a power attack that will kill your combo and knock you back. You can “guard counter” this by pressing square, allowing you to attack and then continue your combo streak. You can use this to link multiple combos together between enemies.
Later in the game, the heroes learn the art of the chase link, and complete the battle system’s ascension into the legendary atmosphere of all-time greatness. If you can complete enough consecutive attacks on a character, you will open up the chase link mode. Landing four consecutive hits when this mode is active will begin the chase, sending the enemy into the air with a powerful strike. Pressing square will teleport the character to the enemy, allowing you to continue your onslaught. Four attacks will send the enemy back and forth, from the ground to the air, and you can teleport as much as you want to get the right angle and amount of damage from the chase.
When you’ve depleted enough of the enemy’s health (or when the time is running low), you can hold down the square button, which will perform a finishing blow that finishes the job. It is very difficult to get an enemy into this mode, but the payoff is amazing. Unlike other titles that don’t allow you to use the special attack modes on bosses, this game encourages it, making it key to defeating some bosses that are otherwise stronger than your party.
Lastly, the heroes have a Spiria Drive mode that works like overdrive, making you stronger and faster for a short period of time. It can be extremely useful in the boss battles and replenishes fast enough to use up to twice in longer battles. Using each of these tools correctly can make for highly powerful attacks and life sustaining strategy. The game slowly introduces these fighting elements to you over the course of the first ten hours or so. This allows you to get comfortable with each stage of the battle system without being overloaded from the beginning with rules and button presses. This battle system is flawless, and is unveiled in a way that makes it easy to learn.
Characters earn points that they can spend on their “Soma”, split into five catagories like “Fight”, “Sincerity”, and “Belief”. Spending points here unlock special Artes attacks, skills, weapons, and stat bonuses, and spending these points also raises your stats as you progress through a category. You can choose to focus on one or two of these trees, or you can spread your points out more evenly and become powerful on all accounts. Each new attack can be mapped to be used in-battle, and skills, like stunning enemies with normal attacks or powering up healing spells, are activated by using skill points. You can mix and match which skills you are using at any time.
As if all of the above wasn’t enough, there is a cooking mode that allows you to collect recipes and ingredients and cook while in the dungeons and in the overworld. Different dishes will give you different benefits, like healing or damage buffs, and different characters are better at cooking different dishes.
The game’s story is not going to win any Oscars by any stretch, but it is eons ahead of what most JRPG titles are slamming out these days. The characters can fall into common tropes, but have their own unique qualities. The lead character Kor Meteor is a young male driven by love and is a generally likable, multi-faceted protagonist. The supporting cast is a nice mixture of recognizable character styles with some dynamic changes thrown in. The story revolves around the concept of trust and honor, and what it means to believe in something. There is an anti-religious overtone to the game, and many of the antagonists are from a “church” that employs knights. Everything plays into this trust dynamic nicely and allows the characters to learn about each other slowly. No one is single-minded, and all the characters get a fair turn to reveal their quirks. It’s great, really well-written dialogue and intriguing storytelling that you don’t see very often with modern JRPG titles. The game’s music is delicate when it needs to be and intense when the situation calls. There are anime cutscenes which are placed perfectly within the action of the game. It is very enjoyable and greatly varied from place to place, and there is an all-around great ambiance to go with the wonderful gameplay.
If there is any complaint to be had about the game, it is that it is a little on the easy side. I’m playing it on the hardest possible difficulty and I’m still breezing right through. It’s not autopilot like so many RPG titles can be, but victory never really feels out of my grasp. Despite that, the difficulty levels correctly as you do, and the game does seem to be getting more difficult as the time passes. I believe that this is only a side-effect of my not having been able to play the game all of the way through, and that this will only be a side-note in an otherwise perfect gaming experience.