"...There's a lot of fun to be had here."
I've often thought that the stories found in the Tales franchise have been rote — filled with predictable outcomes, tired tropes, and cardboard characters. I want to apologize to the rest of this series, because Tales of Hearts R epitomizes these issues. It isn't all bad, though, as the quick, action-filled combat and impressive customization make up for the lack of likable characters. Tales of Hearts R won't be held high as one of the vanguards of the genre, but it remains a competent, entertaining romp.
Hearts follows fiery, idiotic, naive protagonist Kor Meteor, who comes across a girl named Kohaku Hearts washed up on a beach. While being chased by a witch, a cavalcade of events happen: Kor's grandfather is slain, Kohaku's spiria (a manifestation of her spirit) is shattered, and Kor finds himself with a "Soma" weapon that channels his spiria for power. So Kor sets out to recover the shards of Kohaku's heart, alongside her dopey, overprotective brother. Along the way, he meets such other stalwarts as the full-of-advice old man, the busty, tough female companion, and the energetic, annoying child. It's nearly impossible to become attached to this cast, though bits of dialogue occasionally shine through. At every other point of the game, however, you'll be wading through a bunch of half-baked jokes about breasts.
Despite the lackluster story, there's a whole lot to do and see in the world of Hearts. Each town is full of sidequests and nooks to explore, including the spiria of some characters. Don't expect a great deal of variety there, though, as each person's spiria is just a differently-shaped, aqua-colored dungeon filled with random encounters. Most of the other dungeons don't hold anything worthwhile, featuring only the standard assortment of push-button and block-dragging puzzles. Still, it's more than passable, and few dungeons are particularly frustrating.
Luckily, a trademark Tales battle system remains behind these dungeons, and fans won't be disappointed. Hearts R features a hybrid TP/TC system, where special abilities cost both a static amount of TP and a single Technical Counter point, making it so you can't just spam artes for the entire battle. Using a barrage of regular attacks isn't a negative, though, as the Chase Link system allows the juggling of enemies with no more than basic strikes. This makes it so that you can just build your TP back up and be raring to go with your next Artes.
Your teammates' actions are governed by the AI, but they can also be assigned a series of AI commands based on a number of triggers. Buying books across the world can increase the number of filters at your command, and eventually your allies will be butchering all enemies who are poisoned with health under 40% with your attack of choice. It's not entirely necessary, due to a general lack of challenge in Hearts R, but it's still good customization. Equally customizable are the party's Somas, which have five attributes: Fight, Belief, Mettle, Endurance, and Sincerity. Each give bonuses to a particular set of stats, and when they've reached a new level, a new arte, skill, or weapon is unlocked. Giving a balanced level-up structure provides additional bonuses, but might not be the best bet for emphasizing a type of specialty.
These things all tie together to provide a cohesive battle experience that's quite enjoyable. It's not the most impressive battle system even in its own series — I'm looking at you, Tales of Graces F — but I'm happy with the experience. The only significant downside is the fact that combat often comes far too often in the form of random encounters — there are no on-map enemies to be stunned with the Sorcerer's Ring here.
Aesthetically, Hearts R is quite passable. Battle animations are smooth, environments tend to be bright, and character expression during skits is entertaining. Fans looking for some of their favorite voice actors will come up disappointed — only Japanese voice acting is to be found here, but it doesn't detract from the experience in any major way. The only downside is that it's very clear that some of the characters have been renamed in English, as they're referred to in completely different ways in Japanese.
If you're looking for a new RPG for your Vita, you can't really go wrong with Tales of Hearts R. It's not a masterpiece, and it won't leave you begging for more, but there's a lot of fun to be had here. After all, if you put your head down and just keep running forward like Kor Meteor, how much trouble can you really get in?