With yearly releases of Namco Bandai's Tales games becoming the norm, some RPG fans may be feeling pains of Talesophobia. Fortunately for the franchise's cadre of fans, I'm not a person who fears the series. I may not appreciate each Tales release equally, but I'm not yet sick of the series.
That's a good thing, as I recently dropped $36 on a Japanese-only Tales release known as Tales of Hearts. This tiny DS cart is one of the four core Tales titles that never made its way to the U.S., which is strange considering its high production values, but I suppose they felt the translation and voice work required wasn't worth the potential additional revenue.
Perhaps Namco Bandai was also worried about confusing American gamers with its two editions of Tales of Hearts. Each version features identical gameplay, but one replaces anime cut-scenes with computer graphics. Ultimately, I went with the anime edition, because I heard the CG work in the alternate choice was lackluster.
Tales of Hearts' Anime Intro
Regardless of which version is chosen, it soon becomes apparent that Tales of Hearts isn't very import friendly — even if you've completed university-level Second Year Japanese. It has nearly 400 Microsoft Word-sized pages of text when translated to English, which is practically impenetrable unless you're an expert at understanding Chinese characters called Kanji that litter the screen.
Fortunately, there's also an abundance of voice acting, so it's possible to ascertain your characters' moods if you're good at reading voice inflections and understand a limited amount of spoken Japanese. The voice acting is a bit exaggerated at times, but it's much better than listening to horrible English dubs that litter most niche RPGs.
But for those of you who understand no Japanese whatsoever, there's good news: A generous fan wrote a 395 page translation FAQ that captures the dialogue in its entirety. You won't find translations for battle terms, items, NPCs, and side-quests, but at least you'll be able to understand the story and humor, which is central to the experience.
Even though you'll be able to keep up with your cast of Chatty Cathy's during your 40-hour quest, thanks to a handy translation FAQ, you may have some trouble with the battle system. The core system should be familiar to any Tales fans who've played titles between Phantasia and Eternia (Destiny II in the U.S.), but there are some additions that are difficult to comprehend for someone with limited Japanese skills.
Hearts' combat plays out on a 2D battlefield once an enemy is encountered. The main character can only run to the left and right, but it's possible to aim up, down, and to the center, and combos can be executed by rapidly tapping the 'a' button.
If you're lazy, it's possible to get by simply by mashing the attack button, but a wise player will integrate special moves into his repertoire. As with nearly every other Tales game, special moves are assigned to the directional buttons, and they're performed by holding the d-pad in the appropriate direction while pressing 'b,' simultaneously.
One of the game's many boss fights
Using these special moves in tandem with regular attacks is helpful, because it enables you to accumulate large hit counts, which increases your total damage. These abilities are also quite powerful, and make you feel as if you're playing a beginner-friendly fighting game.
To Tales fans, this is all old hat, but Hearts also sports some significant changes. For starters, TP (the Tales series' magic points) are no longer there. Instead, they've been replaced by an EG bar that automatically replenishes during battle. I didn't fully understand this system, but I realized that I could use special moves and regular attacks until my bar depleted, then it'd automatically refill after two seconds of waiting. As you might imagine, this removed the need for magic replenishing items.
Also unique to Hearts is the way in which moves are learned. Instead of obtaining new abilities from using special movies a set number of times, they're gained by having a high enough level and by accumulating raw materials. In each of the game's dungeons and towns, various rocks and elements are hidden in treasure chests and other objects, which are necessary to learn new moves.
Crystals can also be purchased in village shops, so I highly recommend stocking up, since the only other items you'll need are gels (healing items) and rings, which act as charms against poison among other things. As you might have guessed, weapons and armor don't need to be purchased, as your characters stick with their default equipment throughout the entire game.
Instead of evolving by purchasing new equipment, your characters improve their Attack Power, HP, and other stats through crystals they obtain and combat experience. Once certain requirements are met, you can enter your characters' menus where you'll notice that certain statistics represented by Kanji are highlighted in black. When this occurs, you can choose which stats to improve — much like World of Warcraft and Diablo 2.
Once characters have improved their attributes, learned certain abilities, and gained enough levels, they'll be offered three choices which will forever alter their development. One path significantly raises personal stats and support moves; another increases character attributes and attack magic; and the final choice mostly focuses on Attack Power. Basically, each time these options are available, you can choose whether you want your character to be more of a fighter, healer, or offensive magic user.
This all sounds quite complex, but really, you only need to keep learning moves and increasing character stats regardless of whether you understand what they are. I managed to breeze through most of the game without knowing the names of most moves, so you shouldn't have much trouble as long as you remember to learn and equip skills, along with fighting battles.
You should also purchase as many items as you can carry, but you only need to focus on three types of healing gels and life bottles. Even if you can't decipher the term 'Apple Gel' from its Katakana characters, it's possible to identify the item thanks to handy icons and percentages given in Hindu-Arabic numerals. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the game's accessories thanks to their complex descriptions, but I survived without them.
The final battle-system mechanic worth discussing is the inclusion of two AI characters. Previous Tales games allowed you to take three other characters into battle and change their behaviors, and Hearts is no different. Unfortunately, it's now impossible to identify AI tactics, so you'll have to either rely on the default setting or guesswork. I stuck with the default setting and my characters generally acted appropriately except when it came to healing.
During a few difficult boss battles, my healer would occasionally attack or stand in the corner instead of healing my critically wounded allies. This was certainly annoying, but I got by thanks to quick item usage. If Hearts wasn't so easy, this might have been a bigger issue, but I only had trouble with three boss battles, so I can't complain.
Battles are a key component of each Tales game, but the core experience has always been about character interactions. In this regard, Hearts is much like the 3D incarnations of Tales — the characters regularly interact with each other in their own unique way, whether in dungeons or towns.
The idealistic, albeit reckless hero Shing, frequently encourages other characters and occasionally gets his mack on. Shortly after the opening sequence, he notices that a cute girl has washed up on shore and gives her CPR. As a result, he's slapped and accused of being a pervert by the recipient. It quickly becomes apparent that this girl, Kohaku, might be correct in her assumption, because he later remarks: "If a beautiful woman with a big chest is in trouble, save them even if it means your life." Some players may find Shing's juvenile antics annoying, but I found his occasionally mischievous behavior to be a humorous change from his usual boldness.
Other Tales of Hearts characters have their own personality quirks. Kohaku loses all of her emotions, so her reactions are initially awkward and her older brother Hisui is over-protective, and throws more punches than a Rocky.
Another party member named Innes is a skinny and sarcastic woman who's unbelievably strong. The 5th party member, Beryl, is an insecure witch hat-sporting tomboy who also happens to care about her appearance. The 6th and final party member, Kunzite, is a loyal, yet startlingly aggressive humanoid robot that has a limited ability to feel, due to the way in which he was built.
This eclectic cast will remind longtime Tales fans of characters such as Lloyd, Mint, and Presea, but despite a few obvious clichés, this party mostly feels unique. What's special about this crew are their hidden surprises and the way in which they grow throughout the journey.
Unlike the relatively predictable characters and events of Tales of Symphonia, there's more than one major plot twist that'll significantly alter your perceptions of the characters. Your beliefs about certain characters will also change as you begin to understand their motivations and life cirumstances. This doesn't mean that Hearts' cast will be universally appreciated, but there's enough depth to the characters to excite Tales fans, despite the occasional cheesiness.
As you might imagine, Hearts also has a fairly substantial story. The game begins with an ancient poem and a sorceress named Incarose chasing Kohaku and Hisui for an unknown reason, but the scene quickly ends after they leap off a cliff into the sea below.
The story then shifts to a young swordsman named Shing who's learning about Soma from his grandfather, Zex. In the world of Celirand, people have an inner energy or spiritual power called Spiria that allows them to bond with others and feel various emotions. This energy can be amplified and turned into a weapon with crystals called Soma that were designed thousands of years ago. Shing is one of the rare individuals who has a Soma, and it enables him to fight in battle and enter the Spiria of individuals who've been mentally crippled by a disease called Despir.
While Zex is teaching Shing to use Soma, he's called to help a sick person next door. During his absence, Shing decides to head towards the beach where he finds Kohaku and Hisui washed up on shore. After giving Kohaku CPR and being punched by Hisui, Shing's asked to take them to his grandfather. Because Zex is busy, they ask Shing to take them to a monument outside the village to prove that he's the old man's grandson.
Once Shing and his party reach the monument, they're ambushed by Incarose, but she decides to let the teenagers live after mortally wounding Zex and injuring Kohaku. Hisui tries to save the dying old man, while Shing attempts to aid Kotaku. Shing enters Kohaku's mind with the power of his Soma, and finds another being living within her who escapes when approached and shatters her Spiria in the process. Shing, feeling guilty about what occurred decides to go on a quest to regain her Spiria, which has been scattered throughout the world.
Skipping ahead, Shing will later encounter a powerful church and empire that are vying for supremacy, he'll take part in a stereotypical Tales' hot springs scene, and he'll encounter a variety of sub characters who're important to the storyline. The story's cliché beginning about a girl regaining her powers and a feuding evil church and empire eventually takes a surprising turn that's worth sticking around for.
It also doesn't hurt that Hearts is pretty and technically sound. In battle, its character sprites are large and animate fluidly, even when several enemies and 3D spells fill the screen. Hearts' 2D characters and 3D environments are also pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately, there are mundane grassy areas between important locales that, which replaces a standard world map, but the unique architecture of the game's villages partially makes amends. During your 40-hour experience, you'll travel through anything from cities with enormous arches and towers to misty mountainside villages lined with murals.
Some dungeons feel like ordinary Tales fare (i.e. a volcano that requires you to solve environmental puzzles with the series' infamous Sorcerer's Ring), but there are also some unique puzzles. Fortunately, most of them don't require you to know Japanese, but when you encounter one that asks you to memorize Japanese terms, you can resort to an online FAQ.
Tales of Hearts is a stunning portable game with a complex character development system, fluid animations, and the most voice work I've ever seen in a DS title, so it's a shame that it was never released outside of Japan. It still won't win over individuals who despise the Tales series or are growing tired of its formula, but for players who want more anime-inspired action — it's just as competent as its console brethren. If nothing else, it'll be a perfect companion for lengthy road trips and boring family gatherings.
Fluid battle animations accompany large, detailed sprites
Impressive voice work
A nice, albeit fairly standard Tales soundtrack
Some characters may feel a bit too familiar
The story takes awhile to pick up
It's difficult to fully understand the battle system without being a Japanese expert
Battles get repetitive after awhile
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