Move over Master Chief. Get lost, The Last Of Us. Play dead, Sleeping Dogs. 2014 has seen more than its fair share of remakes, but Tales Of Hearts R might be the most ambitious of the lot.
It's certainly the most unlikely. Tales Of Hearts was an epic JRPG that released six years ago on Nintendo DS exclusively in Japan, where it received rave reviews and envious glances from us Western fans. The entire 40-hour experience has now been rebuilt from the ground up on a vastly superior machine with brand new high quality assets, new playable characters, extra content, translated dialogue and remastered cutscenes from the studio behind Ghost In The Shell. As the coup de grace, the original 2D battle system has been replaced with slick 3D combat that rivals the latest Tales titles.
The result is something of a Christmas miracle for the PS Vita, at least if you're a fan of traditional JRPG exploration, progression and character development.
Tales Of Hearts R introduces to a colourful cast of characters in a world where 'Somatics' use powerful transforming weapons, 'Somas.' to battle monsters and travel inside the spirit of those in need to cure their emotional problems. After receiving his first Soma from his grandfather, rural farmboy Kor Meteor's world is rocked when a mysterious maiden and her brother find themselves washed up on the beach, pursued by dark forces and plunging him into a battle to literally piece together the girl's shattered psyche, scattered around the world. Before, of course, discovering that the real stakes are far higher.
Beyond its highfalutin themes, Tales Of Hearts R's story hinges around the blossoming relationships between characters (delivered both through voiced cutscenes and optional visual novel skits) and their development as people. It's a good thing too, because they're a hackneyed old bunch to start with.
Stop me if you've heard it before. A naive yet earnest young hero with plenty of heart. A demure damsel. A protective brother. An incredibly young-looking female mage (who's pointedly eighteen in the Western biography). An old man, because there's always an old man in Tales games. Give me a break. Shockingly messy and generic character designs don't help matters, seeing as they tell us nothing about the cast's personalities, tastes and backstories in an effort to be as cosplay/fanart/fanservice friendly as possible.
But again, they change and grow throughout the story. I grew to like them in kind... and more to the point I've just ripped the bandage off. Beyond the character designs and their trope-tastical personalities, everything else is rock solid.
In traditional Tales style, the world soon opens up into an enormous explorable field, brought up to date with crisp and sharp high-quality visuals that make up for a lack of fine detail with gorgeous cel-shaded models and sprites. You'll visit towns and cities, delve through dungeons undertake sidequests and engage in random battles, all while enjoying one of the most comprehensive remake efforts in years. Though not all of Studio I.G.'s cutscenes have been adapted to the Vita's aspect ratio, they all directly tie into the environment art and backgrounds, demonstrating how closely the veteran animation house must have worked with the environment artists and level designers.
The battle system is sensational. Taking its cues from recent Tales titles, Tales Of Hearts R has been painstakingly brought up to date with a fast-paced combat that's one part hack & slash, one part pauseable strategy and finished off with a sprinkle of have-a-go AI coding. You can control any of the characters in battle, running around in full 3D, pulling off combos, launching enemies into the air and mixing up Soma attacks to create flowing chains of devastating attacks. It handles like a quality hack and slasher, right down to blocks and backsteps, not to mention a chase mode that sees your characters teleporting about and devastating foes with ruinous barrages.
However, you can also pause the action at any time to use items and issue commands to party members, allowing for some complex on-the-fly tactical decision making. Characters act in accordance with AI behaviours that you set for them, which can be as simple as "use heavy attacks by default" or as advanced as "use item X if ally Y takes Z damage." Coupled with superb portable graphics and responsive controls, armchair generals will be in seventh heaven.
Character development is even more exciting, and I don't just mean the burgeoning bonds between the cast. Tales Of Hearts R awards Soma Points after each level up, which can be sunk into five different attributes for each character, all of which passively increases their stats according to your tastes and the role you have in mind for them. However, each of these attributes also has their own unique levels, which unlock new weapons, skills, buffs, boosts and spells as you raise them. The fact that you'll get new armaments and radical new abilities through this system makes you feel like Somas are genuinely evolving into powerful new forms, while JRPG veterans can tune each character to their specifications in pleasingly granular fashion.
It's a superb foundation for a whole lot of quality JRPG. Expect forty hours of story, questing, optional content, exploration and a whole host of additional features, not to mention some endgame dungeons and missions too.
Beyond those nasty generic character designs, my complaints are merely nitpicks. A little more detail on the field map would have been nice. English voice acting is sorely missing, though as someone who prefers subs to dubs, I can forgive its omission in what must be a fairly niche proposition. As mentioned, some of the cutscenes run in the original DS aspect ratio. And to be perfectly honest Tales Of Hearts R could have stood to be a shade braver in terms of its pacing, storyline and setting (oh joy, an erotic misunderstanding in a hot spring. That's only the seven billionth time I've seen this unfunny gag in a JPRG or anime series).
All annoyances that just hold Tales Of Hearts R back from our highest scores, but ultimately nitpicks in one of 2014's most pleasant surprises and most competent remake efforts. "But the Vita has no games." Shut up. Don't even start with me.
- Deeply impressive remake lets a DS game look and play brilliantly on PS Vita!
- 30-50 hours of rock-solid exploration, battling and story
- Superb character development and Soma system
- Sensational rebuilt 3D combat rivals the latest Tales games
- Weak character designs tell us nothing about the cast
- Over-familiar setting and genre tropes
- No English dub, some small omissions
The Short Version: Tales Of Hearts R is a fantastic handheld RPG and one of the most impressive remakes of recent years. Expect a top-quality JRPG experience from start to finish, even if it's a touch familiar in parts.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platforms: PS Vita (reviewed)
Publisher: Bandai Namco