Phantasia. Destiny. Eternia. Symphonia. Rebirth. Innocence. Vesperia. Graces. Xillia. No matter which entry might have served (or soon will serve) as your introduction to Bandai Namco’s long-running Tales series, it’s an undertaking that’s bound to stick with you. These games have been steadily becoming more accessible to the casual RPG admirer, standing alongside recent Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest releases as memorable JRPGs, seldom delivering an installment that could be described as substandard. Tales of Hearts R is a remake of the 2008 Nintendo DS title that unfortunately never reached American shores, but it’s much more than just a simple surface lacquering; it almost feels like an entirely fresh experience, one that’s been relatively well-tailored for the PS Vita’s advanced, PlayStation TV-compatible touch-screen modernness.
The game does a commendable job of roping players in with its central narrative, gradually introducing a cast of characters that, while somewhat stereotypical, nevertheless invites attachment and frequent sympathy. Taking the boy-from-small-village-embarks-on-epic-journey approach, the story throws players into the role of Kor Meteor, inheritor of an ancient mystical weapon called a Soma, which, through little fault of his own, aids in accidentally shattering the Spira (the spiritual essence of a heart and its emotions) of a young girl named Kohaku when encountering evil sorceress Incarose and a horde of invading monsters, the Xerom. Feeling partly responsible, Kor vows to reassemble Kohaku’s Spira with help from her brother Hisui, thus setting off a chain of events that will either see their home world of Organica destroyed or saved. More than just a protracted fetch quest, Tales of Hearts R keeps the expedition interesting with its classic character-building dialogue sections (a hallmark of the Tales series), balanced customization and experience schemes, and expansive, colorful environments (the towns more so than the dungeon areas) that make expert use of the Vita’s graphical engine.
The game’s progression, while unhurried in nature, stays true to the orthodox route of the conventional JRPG, keeping things engaging primarily by way of its kinetic, multi-faceted battle system. Random confrontations are the modus operandi, and their main feature is dubbed “Arc Chase” (or, to wax technical, Aerial Chase Linear Motion), in which sky-bound attacks can be chained by linking with allies, setting up increasingly lurid finishing maneuvers. Along with collectable items that can be used during combat, extra special, limited-time team tactics called Union Artes can be executed to deal destructive blows to formidable boss-tier opponents. Leveling has been streamlined once again, and is accomplished through amassing Soma Build Points (SBP), which can be applied to gaining new abilities and enhancing weaponry.
Most of Tales of Hearts R is familiar, but not to a fault. For every minor inadequacy there’s a redeeming aspect that maintains the game’s overall integrity. Indeed, many of the lowly adversaries you’ll meet appear rather generic, and the puzzle-solving segments regularly lack inspiration, but the Japanese-only vocal track (what true fan would opt for the English dub, anyway?) and remastered score are noble gifts, the combat is uniformly excellent, and the characters rank among the series’s best. After a quick glance, Tales of Hearts R could be shrugged off as not much more than a thoroughly polished port, but a dedicated investment reveals hidden riches. A mixture of ritualistic role-playing workmanship and contemporary flair, it’s a worthy addition to any Vita library, regardless of whether you’re a Tales veteran or not.