|Developer:||Namco Tales Studio|
I fell in love with Tales of Hearts as soon as I pulled it out of my mailbox. After it had been initially released in Japan I waited for some time to see if there would be an English localisation. A year later there was still no word and I couldn't wait any longer. I ordered the anime version online and awaited it eagerly. I had seen a number of positive import reviews and had high hopes that this would be one awesome Tales game. As I opened the beautifully coloured case, popped the cartridge in my DS and began to play, it instantly became obvious that Tales of Hearts is not only one of the best Tales games, but quite possibly the best of all games available on the Nintendo DS.
Before we go any further I need to point out one very obvious, yet extremely import thing. Tales of Hearts is in Japanese. If you hadn't realised that yet, keep it in mind before importing it. You certainly don't need to be fluent to obtain a good grasp of the game, but the more language skills you have, the better. A large percentage of the game is voiced so this is a huge help to those that are not native Japanese speakers. Even if you don't always quite understand what they're saying, you can grasp the emotion behind the voice. But if you're only just starting to learn the language, or don't understand any at all, then this game may be a bit out of your league. There's a pretty substantial amount of text. It is an RPG, after all!
The other important decision you'll need to make once you've decided to import the game is which version to get. There is an anime edition and a CG movie edition. They're exactly the same game, but present their major cut scenes differently. As you may have guessed, the former uses the traditional anime-styled cut scenes that Tales games are famous for. The CG edition uses high quality, pre-rendered models to make the characters look more realistic. Personally I prefer the anime edition because that's what I expect to see when I play a Tales game, but the CG version looks quite stunning as well.
One of the most complex aspects of this game - partly due to the fact that I'm not fluent in Japanese - is the story. It starts out with a fairly typical concept for a Tales game, but quickly departs from the formula and develops into a truly compelling plight. A terrible disease has been spreading throughout the world known as despair sickness. The illness contaminates the very heart and emotions of a person, and mythical monsters, known as Zerom, have begun to emerge and feed on those taken by the disease. The game begins with our protagonist, a young man named Shing Meteoryte, training in the use of a weapon passed down through his family. These special weapons - known as Soma - can enter a person's 'soul' and cure them of despair sickness. In heroic style Shing wants to cure the world of the disease and protect everybody. Of course, in true Tales style, the fate of more than one world is involved and things are never as they appear. Alliances will be formed and broken, wars will begin and, watching over it all, a powerful man will plan the destruction of the world.
Throughout his journey, Shing meets a colourful cast of characters. Shing himself is a fairly predictable RPG hero. He's inexperienced but honest, true and virtuous. He's not always the brightest, but he's level-headed and cares deeply about his friends. Supporting him is Kohak, a charming young girl who is a great addition to the cast. It's unfortunate she's without her emotions for most of the game and she can be a little tedious when her only emotion is fear. Her elder brother Hisui plays the typical, but highly amusing, role of the overprotective brother. He spends a lot of time physically punching Shing or making rude comments whenever he thinks he's getting too close to his cherished sister. But he's a really genuine guy and you'll grow to love him quickly. Joining this initial party you have Beryl, the young, hyperactive and annoying magician girl, Innes the more mature and glamorous woman and Kunzite the sensible, straight-talking man-robot. They can be clichéd at times, but they're all very likable and balance out the personality of the party. They're also given well-developed back stories that add some interesting depth to the game.
The highlight of the cast (except for Hisui; he's awesome!) are a plot-important group that never join your party. The young commander Chalcedony along with his knights Peridot and Byrocks are stand-outs. They provide some real insight into the story and are developed exceptionally well. It's very disappointing that they never fight in your party. Trust me, it's a real let down. Eventually you meet a woman named Richea and a man named Creed, two terrific characters that provide the backbone for the story. They play very important roles and their motivations are quite realistic.
These characters, along with the world they live in, are presented with considerable style. The graphics are absolutely outstanding. Towns, dungeons and other locations are presented in 3D and filled with high quality textures and design. A couple cities you'll visit are particularly stunning in their artistic presentation, and the use of colour brings the world to life. Characters are presented in 2D sprite form and look equally fantastic. They never seem out of place with the more technically impressive scenery. During battle the sprites are even more detailed, and animations are astounding as characters attack, dodge and block. Magical attacks are enchantingly created and splash the screen in a wide variety of dynamic effects and colours. A surprisingly large variation in enemies exist as well, all of whom sport unique and interesting designs. Boss fights are particularly stunning and Namco has obviously gone to considerable length to ensure each boss is perfectly detailed. The only place where the graphical design takes a hit is on the field. Until you progress very late in the game you don't have a world map. You simply walk from road to road until you get to your destination. Don't let that put you off, it actually works really well. The only unfortunate aspect is that all these roads look much the same. Extra variety in locations and scenery would have been nice.
Equally fantastic is the musical direction. All the tracks right from the opening theme to the closing credits are wonderful. They draw you into the world and help you feel the emotions of the characters as they set out to save the world. I found the music to be particularly important as it allowed me to have a better handle on the situation even if I occasionally was confused by foreign dialogue. The voice acting complements the soundtrack nicely. A high percentage of the game is voiced - a nice surprise for a DS title - and it's executed decidedly well. Main characters and non-playable ones alike have realistic and enticing voices. Battle cries as characters use their special abilities (something I love) are done very well and even post-battle discussion is entertaining. In fact, Tales of Hearts has some of the best voice acting I have heard in some time. Only Beryl is a disappointment. Her actress does a rather horrible job and her voice is grating and annoying to hear. Sound effects are done surprisingly well and none seem inappropriate.
In terms of gameplay Tales of Hearts not only checks all the boxes of a good game but combines traditional Tales mechanics with some exciting new ones. Exploration early in the game is primarily split between wandering around towns, dungeons and the roads in-between them. Eventually these roads are replaced with a traditional world map, but are a nice change, providing you with more areas to discover and explore. As usual for the franchise there are no random battles. You can visibly see enemies on the field and try to avoid them if you wish. A number of puzzles are included in most dungeons which provide some variation to the exploration and combat. These usually make use of the Sorcerer's Ring - a mystical item that allows you to shoot elemental magic. These puzzles are rarely challenging, but they're interesting and varied enough to be a nice distraction.
One of the biggest changes to this installment of the series is the combat. Battles are in the traditional 2D side-scrolling style, but still take place in real-time. Previously, I've found this style rather clunky, but Tales of Hearts absolutely perfects it. You can set up a number of different special attacks - known as artes - to different buttons and D-Pad movements. But, unlike other Tales games, this system thoroughly encourages you to constantly link them together to form combos. The game forgoes the use of the touch screen almost entirely, but the controls work fantastically. Additionally, the typical mana system (TP) is replaced by a new one known as the Emotional Gauge (EG). This system allows you to link attacks and artes together like never before to form some truly breathtaking battles. As soon as the current combo finishes, the EG then starts to refill and you can begin your assault again. This version of the battle system feels more like a 2D fighter at times and this may make the game sound rather easy. But it's far from it. Enemies have access to the same system and perform their own combos to try and defeat you. Even the simplest of battles are extremely exciting, and you could literally spend hours on end just experimenting with different combinations of artes.
Another new system related to the combat is the soma build option. You can use raw materials you find throughout the game to upgrade your weapons. Each time you upgrade a weapon you are given a choice on what you want to focus on: bonuses to stats, new artes, new support skills or a mix of all of them. You can swap from one to another as you go and learn different abilities depending on your choices. This makes for some very interesting results and means, in terms of combat, a second play through will be very different from the first. The system is extremely complicated to use if your language skills are lacking, however.
It takes around fifty hours to finish the main story - a considerable length for a handheld game. You'll be enchanted by the characters, story and combat the whole way through. Boredom is simply non-existent. On top of this there are a whole bunch of fun mini-games thrown in as you go and a couple bonus dungeons to complete after you're done. Additionally, there are people throughout the world you encounter infected by despair sickness. You can actually enter the souls of these people to try and cure them. Doing this often provides some nice rewards and adds quite a few hours to the game, but are entirely optional. Replay value is rather low, but trying the game again and using a completely different soma build would make for some interesting combat differences.
Assuming your language skills are up to par then you'd be foolish not to buy Tales of Hearts. It has some of the best graphics for the system along with an amazing soundtrack and quality voice acting. The opening of the story is a little typical for Tales, but that doesn't stop it from quickly developing to become intensely interesting, exciting and supported by a great cast of characters. The combat is out-of-this-world and probably the best of any Tales game yet. The last few sections of the game are especially awesome and the ending is simply perfect. A fully completed game would clock in at over sixty hours and, even then, there is still more to find and explore. Tales of Hearts touched my heart like no video game has done for quite some time and I'm sure it will do the same for you.