Sometimes, it takes a bit of perspective to realize why a game didn’t quite click with you as well as it should have. As a longtime fan of Bandai Namco’s Tales series of action-RPGs, something always seemed slightly “off” to me with Tales of Xillia and Tales of Xillia 2, the series’ most recent releases on the PS3—but I could never quite put my finger on some of the precise reasons for that mild disappointment.
In fact, it took a remake of a six-year-old DS game to see how frustrated I truly was with some of those elements. After playing through Tales of Hearts R, the Vita incarnation of this previously Japan-only series favorite, however, the problem became clear: The Xillia entries simply didn’t play to the series’ strengths enough.
Tales has always been at its best when it keeps the formula simple yet challenging, but in retrospect, the Xillia offerings went off the rails a bit too much when it came to experimentation—with MMO-like exploration and quests in the first entry and then with a bizarre “pay in-game currency to advance” concept in Xillia 2 that felt dangerously close to the exploitation you’d find in a free-to-play title. I’m all for experimentation in RPGs, but never at the expense of pacing or exploration.
Tales of Hearts R is closer to what longtime fans expect from the franchise, and it’s a shame that it’s taken so long for us to get it here (and if you think piracy doesn’t hurt anyone, that’s the main reason we never got this game—along with several other Japanese DS standouts—in the West). While I imported the original Japanese DS release in 2008 and got about halfway through, I was looking forward to finally playing through the whole thing in a language I completely understand.
And on that note, let me get to the most noticeable difference from recent North American Tales releases first: the Japanese-only voiceovers. This has already proven to be a divisive issue among fans, and while every player will have a different reaction, it’s nothing that should deter anyone from playing the game. Really, my only issue is that it feels like the localized script was written with an ultimately canceled English dub in mind—the incongruities between the English text and Japanese voiceovers are blatantly obvious in spots, even if you don’t understand a lick of Japanese.
If you can’t stand screaming, shrieking, or gasping (all of which are abundant in Japanese RPGs, of course!) in a foreign language or find the difference between the text and voiceover too distracting, however, you can always turn down the voiceover volume, rendering the characters silent outside of animated cutscenes (which are few and far between). Regardless of where you stand on dubs, however—and I know this is an issue that inspires passion on all sides—it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. (And, hey, the series’ trademark Wonder Chef imparts a Chairman Kaga–like flair in Japanese, so it’s probably worth listening to just for that!)
Personally, however, I mostly enjoyed the script and characterizations. Sure, leading man Kor Meteor almost comes off like a parody of the headstrong Japanese RPG protagonist, spouting such dreck as “Kor Meteor doesn’t try. Kor Meteor DOES.” (Why not just throw in “Believe it!” why you’re at it, buddy?) Thankfully, the rest of the cast more than makes up for it, and Hearts R actually offers some of my favorite characters over the past few Tales entries, including an aspiring artist with a penchant for malapropisms and an overly literal party member who interprets every interaction to its logical extreme—a common occurrence on Star Trek, perhaps, but a change of pace in Tales. This ultimately makes the lack of an English dub a bit more disappointing in the end, though; Tales games have included talented game voice-acting veterans like Troy Baker and Yuri Lowenthal in the past, and I would’ve enjoyed hearing their takes on some of these goofy, charming characters.
The strong characterizations are aided by the overall narrative featured in Tales of Hearts—which, true to its name, tells a bit more of a personal, emotional tale than you’d expect from the series. While you’ll certainly find nefarious organizations and individuals who want to do this evil or commit that atrocity, the story generally focuses on the relationships between the characters. What’s more, the pacing—usually an issue even in the best Tales games—is mostly a strength here, with fewer instances of running pointless errands to advance the plot.
While it’s great that players will finally get their hands on an English-language Tales of Hearts, a couple of issues prevent this remake from becoming all it could’ve been. For one, the game weirdly adds in random battles, a “feature” not seen in the original DS version. But perhaps the bigger problem is what happens once combat begins. It’s not that the series’ trademark fast-paced real-time battles are necessarily a chore this time around, but the action just doesn’t feel as smooth and tight as it does in most entries—and that’s likely due to outsourcing development to 7th Chord, a little-known studio that specializes in handheld games, instead of having the experts at Bandai Namco handle it themselves.
Rather than coming off as fluid, movement feels like one animation leads into the next, and my intended actions were always a step behind where I wanted them to be. This is important in any 3D Tales title—timing is absolutely crucial when it comes to enemy confrontations, where the player has the freedom to move in any direction and attack from any angle. When everything’s just a little off, however, that throws the swordplay slightly out of whack, and that can make all the difference.
These combat problems are particularly frustrating because the game’s DS incarnation was possibly the last time we’ll see a mainline Tales game with sprite-based 2D combat, not seen in North America since 2001’s Tales of Destiny II. While I have absolutely no problem with the series’ 3D battles, the combat in Tales of Hearts R doesn’t measure up to the DS original; sure, those who didn’t touch that game won’t know what they’re missing, but it’s disappointing Bandai Namco couldn’t find a way to transfer that element here. Even substandard Tales combat is still more enjoyable than most RPG battles, however, so this issue is ultimately more of an annoyance than an outright disaster—and wouldn’t be so noticeable if not for the outstanding combat seen in the likes of Tales of Vesperia and Tales of Graces f.
Tales producer Hideo Baba has said that Tales of Hearts is one of his favorites in the series, and with its the strong story, memorable characters, and tight pacing, it’s easy to see why; I hope he and Bandai Namco don’t forget that when it comes to developing future entries. No matter where the franchise goes from here, this is a chapter in the series that no fan should overlook—and even if Tales of Hearts R might not be its perfect, ideal form, it’s still one of the best RPGs available on the PS Vita.
After six years of pleading, North American players finally get Tales of Hearts—previously a Japan-only gem in Bandai Namco's flagship RPG series. The wait was undeniably worth it, since this entry features some of the best storytelling, characterization, and pacing in the franchise—though the combat doesn't make the smoothest of transitions from the DS version. Those who never played the original Japanese release won't know what they're missing, of course, but it's frustrating that this undeniably excellent game isn't quite all it could've been on the PS Vita.
Bandai Namco, 7th Chord
T – Teen
|Tales of Hearts R is available on PS Vita. Primary version played was for PS Vita. Code/hardware was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|