Wow. Every once in a while, a game you'd barely even noticed socks you right out of left field and presents something truly unique. Tears To Tiara 2 is one of those wonderful anomalies, but at first glance, you'd probably wonder what the fuss is about.
Half incredibly wordy visual novel and half Strategy RPG, Tears To Tiara 2 certainly seems like standard localised roleplaying fare. A young hero with fabulous hair, Hamilcar Barca, fights to retake his homeland against an evil empire, assisted by a scantily-clad war goddess called Astarte (Tarte for short) and a cast of colourful characters. Over the course of a long campaign he'll go from slave to legend, bringing the fight to the empire with war elephants, fireballs and a little fanservice to keep things interesting.
So far, so generic, except that Hamilcar Barca actually existed. He was the father of Hannibal who resisted the Roman Empire's occupation of Carthage in 247 BC. Astarte really was worshipped as a battle goddess by the Carthaginians. Tears To Tiara 2 isn't just another throwaway RPG setting, rather it's a fantastical yet astonishingly well-observed retelling of the Punic Wars! In fact, you could even call it... don't panic!... edutainment.
I don't for a second believe that the developers intended to educate, rather they just picked a setting to vamp on and ran with it, but the result is fantastic. Here we have a game that accurately represents the geography of Sicily, the names and roles of major and minor generals on both sides of the conflict (from Laelius to Monomachus), and loads of little details, such as Roman colonial tactics and their attempts to supplant pagan religions by bringing their festivals into the fold. And obviously there are elephants. We're talking about Hannibal's old man after all.
Naturally there's a huge amount of dramatic license and rule of cool revisionism to contend with -- this is a colourful JRPG designed to entertain, so expect magic, crazy plot details and fanservice-heavy costumes that don't resemble period clothing in any way -- but I absolutely loved hitting up Wikipedia every time I encountered a name, reference or plot point, then learning about the actual Punic Wars. It's great to see any game embrace history like this, and frankly astonishing to see it in a genre that's so often accused of cookie cutter cloning. I love tangential learning and I've rarely seen a more enjoyable example of it.
The story is told by an extraordinarily lengthy visual novel, and this sadly threatens to alienate many players from the off. The first three to five hours of the game are incredibly slow as reams of over-written dialogue and narration sets the scene and introduces the setting in painstaking detail. Two hours can pass between battles as characters settle on their course of action and Aqua Plus show off their historical clout, but without any suspend save or quicksave functionality, you're basically forced to lock in for the duration. The pacing is brutally slow and even quite draining in parts.
Thankfully, though, Tears To Tiara 2 has a great story to tell and some great characters to introduce you to. Hamilcar is a truly excellent hero, initially presented as your stereotypical ineffectual fey protagonist before a pulse-pounding early game revelation turns him into a very different kind of leading man. Tarte and the rest of the cast are also well-rounded, with the exception of a trope-tastic little sister heroine, resulting in a genuinely interesting group of people and a complex, often heartbreaking, campaign of revenge and redemption.
Tears To Tiara 2 must have been a beast to localise considering its astonishingly lengthy script, much of which is prosaic and even unnecessary, but NIS America made the best of it with a reasonable translation effort that flows well enough and hits some emotional highs. Speaking of emotions, the lack of an English dub is also a surprising non-issue, because the Japanese voiceover is fantastic; brilliantly acted, emotional and a perfect accompaniment to the subtitles.
However, it's easy to forget that Tears to Tiara 2 is also a turn-based Strategy RPG, and a damn good one once it starts firing on all cylinders.
It's familiar stuff, but executed well. Grid-based movement and attacks will come as second nature to any Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre or Fire Emblem fan, but a massive range of weapons and spells provide a host of interesting and situational abilities if used properly, and room for tactical experimentation. Different classes and characters bring unique leader skills and strategic opportunities to the table as they grow and level, while Hamilcar's ability to become a bloodthirsty berzerker can tip the tide of battle if used properly. Unit facing can be modified at any time, forces exert zones of control that can be used to block avenues of attack, while the rules governing hitting, crits and elemental advantage are all clearly visible.
On top of some interesting maps with different quirks and foes to defeat, Tears To Tiara 2 also contains some exciting extra features and quality of life improvements. War elephants are a key case in point, enormous units that take up two spaces, hit hard, can be ridden for extra bonuses and even pull around a quadriga caravan that acts as a mobile HQ, allowing you to field and retire units directly on the battlefield. This feels totally fresh in the genre, making you feel like you're leading an adaptable guerilla force.
There's also a uniquely graceful way of skirting around an age old SRPG problem -- getting bushwhacked by an enemy crit or surprise attack and losing 30+ minutes of progress -- in the shape of a Forza-inspired Rewind function that can take you back to any previous turn. It's limited, but still incredibly useful and user-friendly.
Unfortunately the strategic gameplay does hit a few snags. First off is the grind factor; though a staple part of the genre, seriously over-levelled enemy generals can cut a swathe through your troops if not properly trained and equipped by continually repeating completed stages. Secondly, though, Tears To Tiara 2 perpetrates the always annoying sin of letting you win a battle and defeat enemy generals... only for the next cutscene to start with the generals very much alive and you in a hopeless situation. Seriously, I beat you. How am I now on the back foot?! Yes, it serves the story, but it's also exceptionally aggravating.
And then there's the presentation, which as per usual is colourful yet primitive, clearly developed on a budget with cheap 3D tools and using crisp visual novel portraits to fill in the gaps. Personally I like the chibi 3D art style, since it looks like figures on a chessboard, but it's an acquired taste. Tears To Tiara 2 may be a judicious editing job short of greatness, then, but it's still a surprisingly gripping and unique game that deserves your attention.
- Rock-solid versatile turn-based strategy with some compelling twists
- Enjoyable RPG levelling and loot
- Great characters and incredibly lengthy story
- Fascinating and genuinely edutaining Punic Wars premise
- Visual novel sections are insanely long and needlessly wordy - with no save functionality!
- A few strategic annoyances; grinding is heavily encouraged
- Primitive 3D presentation, astonishingly slow buildup
The Short Version: Tears To Tiara 2 is nearly crushed under the weight of its sluggish opening act, but once it gets going, this fascinating SRPG hits a unique groove. Great turn-based tactics, superb characters and surprisingly accurate Punic Wars setting make for a rough little diamond that deserves your attention.
If you have the time and patience to spare, Tears To Tiara 2 could well be one of this year's left-field highlights.
7 - GOOD: Some sites seem to think that the halfway point between 1-10 is 7. This is not the case. It should be noted that 7 is not just a perfectly respectable score, it's a good score. A 7 is not an indication of failure, nor is it the mark of a bad, poor or even average game. These are titles that can be considered very worthwhile, but maybe come with a caveat.
Platform: PS3 (reviewed)