Link of Hearts

"I saw a diamond in the rough with Link of Hearts, and I hope future Kemco RPGs can expand on its flashes of brilliance."

I have to hand it to Kemco. They're making a name for themselves lately by catering almost exclusively to a particular niche of gamers these days; the ones who favor good ol' fashioned turn-based 16-bit style JRPGs. And by releasing their games on Android and iOS mobile platforms, they're targeting a wide user base. Take a gander at their website, and you'll see that they've released more JRPGs than any sane RPG fan can keep up with. While I do appreciate the massive output of titles, quantity does not always equal quality, and many of Kemco's titles are mediocre at best. That being said, I enjoyed Link of Hearts. The game has real potential, but I feel that if more attention was paid to it, it could have been more than just a mere also-ran.

The game starts out with a girl named Lily fitfully waking up from a dream in which the world's goddess told her to revive a bronze statue in the ruins near her village in order to prevent a major catastrophe. She's not sure what to make of it, but her neighbor Daichi, a wannabe adventurer, has no qualms about checking it out. It's an adventure, after all, and Daichi never turns down a chance to go exploring.

Meanwhile, in a distant land, a warrior named Mars faces a complex set of troubles. He's been demoted from his esteemed position as head of the castle guard and the incompetent king will now only accept counsel from a mysterious witch named Mint, who's hinted to have been a lover in Mars's past. About the only thing keeping Mars stable is his best friend Venus, a sexy street performer who specializes in acrobatics. Anyway, Mint has been having prophetic visions about the moon falling and the king tasks Mars to investigate Mint's claims.

Once the Lily and Daichi introductory scenario is complete, player will partake in the Mars and Venus introductory scenario. After these fun introductory sequences, both parties come together, and the adventure begins in earnest to figure out what's wrong with the world and try to prevent the dastardly catastrophe from shattering the lives they know. The story does not take any major risks as far as JRPG narratives go, but it has a few shining moments. The beginning is far stronger than the ending, which comes very soon and very suddenly after 10-12 hours. Some plot threads are left hanging, but are accessible as bonus content. There are also a couple of key decisions along the way that influence whether you get the good or bad ending.

The likeable characters have personality, but the rushed localization chokes a lot of that out. Dialogue often reads awkwardly and stiffly, which makes character interactions feel stilted rather than engaging. Link of Hearts has a very character-driven story and these characters were just begging to be better scripted. Venus, for example, is said to have a coarse mouth and a sharp tongue, but she never spouted any memorable zingers or one-liners. The times she was supposed to have witty lines were rather toothless. I sometimes wonder that if Kemco produced fewer games, maybe more care could be put into the localizations and characters like Venus could be the firecrackers of personality they're meant to be.

Another area that could have used more care is the graphics. The character art during dialogue scenes is appealing, and the enemy sprites (though palette swapped) look smooth, but the in-game graphics consist of very basic square tiles with rudimentary color palettes and repetitive environmental textures, especially on the plain-looking, faux Mode 7 overworld. They don't look bad, but they lack any kind of creative style and flair. I've seen RPG Maker games with more style and flair than this. Kemco is capable of creating games with more stylish graphics, such as Soul of Deva, whose environments have more natural contours. Link of Hearts deserves to have its own unique style and not look like a cookie-cutter RPG.

The sound could be more refined as well. The music itself does its job and is largely inoffensive, but none of the compositions stand out, save for the vocal theme that plays at the end. Battles feature Japanese voice clips, but they sound like they were amateurishly recorded using basic USB microphones. These days, it is possible to get professional voice-over recordings from a home studio without spending a fortune, so there is no excuse for such poor voice quality on a professional product when so many "amateur" indie games contain crisp voice-over production.

The gameplay is actually pretty solid. It's your bread-and-butter turn-based JRPG with towns, dungeons, battles, and dialogue-filled cutscenes. Characters' magic and special attacks are handled via a rudimentary version of Final Fantasy VII's Materia system. Progression is smooth and there is little need to grind, which is quite nice. Bosses are not difficult to beat, but they have a lot of HP, so boss battles run long. Dungeons are fairly linear, quite manageable in size, and contain recovery points preceding each boss battle. To the average genre fan, this game is skewed easy.

The menu interface is less smooth, though, and some of the menu usage is unintuitive. For example, equipment is upgraded via the status screen rather than selecting "equip" from the item screen. Status effects are sometimes hard to see on battle screen due to small flashing icons. Field navigation can either be done via point-and-click, a virtual D-pad and action button, or a combination thereof. Movement is sometimes a little slippery, but that's par for the course on tablets.

I like how in-app transactions are handled here. Fallen enemies can be redeemed into Points that can be used to access bonus content. Additional Points can be bought with real money via in-app purchase, but the system's design makes it unobtrusive and entirely possible to not spend money at all. Completion of the game without skipping a single battle can yield more than enough Points to access the bonus character plot additions and a couple of other bonus areas. Bonus areas can be treasure rooms that may have additional worldbuilding or bonus dungeons. There is nothing in terms of sidequests or mini-games in the main game, but after completion of the main game, players can try for bonus areas as post-game content.

It may seem like I was hard on this game, but it wasn't bad for a Kemco title. Had the localization been more zippy, the plot more robust, the graphics more stylish, and the music more exuberant, then it could have been a good RPG. I saw a diamond in the rough with Link of Hearts, and I hope future Kemco RPGs can expand on its flashes of brilliance.

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