The colourful, Japanese "Tales of" role-playing games have long been big players in their native Japan (seriously, they go crazy for these things) - but for western audiences, up until fairly recently, the series has been handled in a much more low-key way. While the most recent games have received a pretty big push, coming complete with a full on English dub, and a release date that wasn't too much later than Japan, just a few short years ago, things were rather different. In fact, it ended up being not so much a case of when, so much as if a new Tales game would make it over here, with PS Vita outings Tales of Hearts R and Tales of Innocence R, ending up being held back, as the success of Sony's handheld left much to be desired on these shores.
But then, the unlikely happened. Tales of Xillia, one of the best in the series, surprised the head honchos at Namco by becoming a rather big hit on these shores, spawning localisations of it's sequel, the imaginatively titled Tales of Xillia 2, and the special anniversary Tales of Symphonia Chronicles collection. And while the PS Vita hasn't exactly started selling like the proverbials yet, it has found its own niche group of fans - fans who are particularly fond of role-playing games and similar Japanese quirkiness - like the excellent Danganronpa. Suddenly, it seemed like the localisation of one or both of the previous Vita projects might be more lucrative than Namco had originally thought, and before too long, news arrived that Tales of Hearts R would be getting a Western release after all, with the fate of a Tales of Innocence R port potentially hanging on it's performance.
It's fortunate then, that Tales of Hearts R is another solid entry in the series - a sprawling world packed with endearing characters, button mashing battles and double-entendres aplenty, all crammed onto a tiny little Vita cartridge. It may lack some of the grandeur of its PS3 siblings, but it's still a Tales game through and through, and was actually the reason I finally jumped onto the Vita bandwagon. Thankfully, it didn't disappoint - in fact, Tales of Hearts R is fast on its way to becoming one of my favourite Tales games so far.
The story begins with a traditionally weird Tales concept. When innocent young girl, Kohaku Hearts' Spiria core, the centre of her emotions, gets shattered and spread to the four corners of the earth, country boy Kor Meteor decides to forego his seemed birthright to become an astronomer (Cor, meteor!), and instead makes it his mission to track down the pieces to help restore her smile, much to the chagrin of her over-protective, quick-tempered brother Hisui.
True to his word, Kor and his companions set off on a mission to track down each of Kohaku's Spiria shards, each of which governs a different one of her feelings, such as fear, sorrow and trust. Unfortunately for them, it seems the poor girl's Spiria fragments are so powerful, they've started causing outbreaks of 'despir' wherever they land, creating whole towns of depressed folks, people scarred stiff about the moon falling, or individuals plotting mass murder. Of course, such power soon attracts the attention of a few unsavoury characters along the way, and the simple fetch quest soon snowballs into something of much greater importance.
While the plot itself does take a little time to get going, Hearts' colourful cast of characters help make sure there's never a dull moment. Hisui and Kor's constant bickering is a particular highlight, with their frequent one-up-manships and the tricks they play on each other being a regular source of giggles throughout the adventure. Whether it's trying to convince Kor that Gluttony Land is a genuine theme park full of food, making Hisui look like a giant eejit in front of a load of goons he was trying to intimidate, or playing the typical over protective brother saving his sis from Kor 'the deviant' Meteor, the chemistry between the pair is some of the best we've seen in a Tales game.
Kohaku, despite being an emotionless automaton for a fair portion of the game, does have her moments too, whether she's having a mental breakdown at crossing a bridge over a stream or beating up her interfering brother, and the little love story that unfolds between herself and Kor as her emotions get restored is pretty sweet too. As for the other characters, wannabe artist Beryl has a bit of a temper and often gets things words mixed up, while token old guy Gall, who claims to be "older and groovier than all of you cats" tends to be more of a voice of reason, keeping the hot-headed youngsters in line, ribbing them from time to time.
As a role-playing game, a lot of your time with Tales of Hearts R will be spent battling enemies as you work your way through the story, gaining XP and levelling up your characters as you go. The series' standard real time battles, with their fast paced, button-mashy combat, are back and as addictive as ever, randomly popping up as you wander around the game's world. Up to four party members can take part in each encounter, with each having two main types of attacks at their disposal - regular physical attacks, where they smack enemies about with their weapon, and character-specific 'Artes', which are much more limited use. Powered by your 'TP' meter, each arte special attack, which range from various magical spells to healing artes to simply fancier sword attacks, eats up a chunk of this gauge, although it can easily be restored by deferring back to your regular attacks for a while. Each of your opponents has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, so it's in your interest to mix up your attacks a little for maximum damage.
If you can manage to repeatedly hit the same enemy enough times, you can enter a special 'Chase Link Mode', which is simply a fancy way of saying 'stunning them for a bit'. Freezing the enemy in place for a short time, it lets you rain down even more attacks - and, if you're quick enough to tap a party member's portrait on the touch screen, even unleash a mega two person attack. However, attacking the same enemy over and over isn't without it's risks, as you can sometimes anger them, causing them to flash red and unleash a powered up attack - although if you can time a block correctly, you can negate their attack altogether, and return fire with a counter attack instead, even if it does take a bit of practice to pull off properly. Every so often, a random battle will give you a challenge to complete as a kind of bonus objective, with a scale of rewards on offer depending on how well you do. It may be beating enemies as fast as you can, winning the battle without taking too much damage, or trying to get the longest combo of hits you can - with restored health, bonus money or extra experience points being just some of the rewards you can net for doing well. It's an interesting way of keeping repeated battles from getting too same-y.
As you battle and defeat enemies, your party earns experience points which add up to increasing levels, letting your characters become more powerful. So far, so standard RPG - but what's perhaps the funkiest part of levelling up in Tales of Hearts R is the Soma system. The game's name for your magical weapon, Somas can be upgraded by spending points - points which are earnt by levelling up - across five different attribute trees which vary from character to character. As each stat grows, you unlock new skills for the character, such as poison resistance, increased health or new arte attacks, as well as new and improved weapon forms. It's an interesting way of dealing out new equipment, letting you unlock it through perseverance rather than through spending Gald in shops, and frees up your funds for kitting yourself out in armour and health-restoring items instead. Or in our case, buying new recipe books.
Particularly during the early hours of the game, most of your time will be spent tracking down the fragments of Kohaku's Spiria core, the crystalline source of her emotions. Scattered all across the world, each has caused an outbreak of 'despir' wherever it landed, causing the locals to go a bit crazy emotionally, while "under the influence" of the fragments. Each piece can be found embedded in a 'host' of sorts, from whom all the negative feelings affecting the town's inhabitants seem to emanate. Once you've found the root of the problem, you need to initiate a 'Spiria Link' with the afflicted, travelling to a crystal maze-like dungeon inside them and battling the evil xerom - 'dream eaters' - that have taken up residence inside alongside Kohaku's shard. With twisty corridors, hidden treasure chests and such, it's essentially another dungeon, complete with more powerful boss at the end, but makes for a nice change of pace.
Speaking of dungeons, a fair portion of your time in Tales of Hearts R is spent going from town to town, wandering through various caves and dungeons. Most dungeons have some sort of puzzles to solve inside, such as ones where you need to light up a number of floor panels to open a door, ones that have various rotating door-like panels to figure out, or switches that need to be activated by a shooting a fireball from the (returning) Sorcerer's Ring item. The towns are pretty varied, often with lots of extra stuff to discover for those who like to explore a bit - there's a town that's essentially a Tales version of Venice built on water with gondolas, a small spa village with a boy that likes spying on the women in the bath house, and our personal favourite, a city with a bit of a fun fair, with a big wheel and tea cups you can take your party members on.
In fact, Tales of Hearts R rewards those who like to search every nook and cranny and talk to every person in every town. There's a balloon-popping mini-game, arena battles and a whole game-spanning hunt for 76 Namcoins, hidden throughout the game. There's a whole wealth of cooking recipes to find and make, each of which gives you different healing benefits or stat buffs, and the mysterious Wonder Chef, who hides in various places, and rewards you with a new recipe and ingredients each time you find him. Unlockable costumes and accessories can be picked up too, which let you stick your party in everything from giant chef hats to Pac Man hair clips to all manner of bizarre headgear - we think Gall looks particularly fetching with a giant pink lotus flower on his head, for example.
Skits, a trademark of the Tales of games, return too. Essentially little conversations between party members about everything from Ines' jiggly money bags (no, really) to innuendo involving peanuts, or a chance to learn more about your companions' pasts, while they aren't essential to the overarching story, skits are an easy way to keep things light-hearted and fun, and make the characters seem more like real people than cookie cutter anime cliches. Some skits have a choice of two different responses to choose from, and picking the correct one will see your bonds with the character in question deepen. While not really an integral part of the game, these bonds give you access to exclusive skills and moves for various characters, and can also give you a few bonus skits to watch to learn more about the each of your party members.
But the biggest, and only real problem for Tales of Hearts R is that there's no English dub - all the voices are in Japanese, with English subtitles only. The writing itself may be top-notch with oodles of personality and humour, but you do lose something when it's not acted out. Some may wax evangelical about Japanese tracks being superior, but for us it just makes Tales of Hearts R seem like a bit of a budget release, and puts a bit of a downer on what would otherwise be a great game. That being said, if given the choice of subtitles or missing out on the game completely, we would definitely have chosen the former - beggars can't be choosers, and all that. Although we hope they reconsider if/when they decide to bring the other vita remake, Tales of Innocence R, overseas.
All in all though, if you're looking for a role-playing game for your Vita, you can do much, much worse than Tales of Hearts R. The story may be a little cheesy, but the well-written and entertaining characters steal the show, and the combat is as simply addictive as it's always been - all of which adds up to one heck of a fun game. The lack of English voice overs is a bit of a disappointment, but it does relatively little to marr the whole experience.