"The low quality aesthetics and poorly tuned gameplay mechanics undermine a game whose core battle system is actually quite enjoyable."
While the PS Vita still basking in the afterglow of a relatively successful launch, owners are now finishing off most of the launch titles and anticipatedly waiting for future titles that will hopefully round out the PS Vita's library of games in short order. Despite a sizable library of games, the PS Vita currently lacks in one distinct genre: RPGs. While North American RPG fans were left out in the cold, Japanese Vita owners were treated to a reimagining of one of Namco's portable entries in its long-running Tales series. Tales of Innocence R, a Tales game that originally debuted on Nintendo's DS, received a fresh coat of paint, expanded story, and revised battle system for its reincarnation on the PS Vita. Unfortunately, not all of these changes were thought out or implemented well, leaving Tales of Innocence R unable to reach its potential.
The game begins with main character Luca Milda describing a recurring dream in which he is a demon king called Asura, the leader of an army called the Census, rallying against their opposition, Latio, in a bid to unite the kingdoms of heaven and earth. Luca lives in an era where the various countries of the world are consistently at war and where individuals who can attain superhuman abilities are emerging. These people are hunted down and arrested by their respective governments, who then turn them into living weapons.
One day, Luca sees a girl, Ilia, being chased down by some soldiers. His attempt to defend her unleashes his own supernatural powers and he is captured shortly thereafter. Luca then discovers that he is actually the reincarnation of the demon king Asura, while Ilia's past life is that of Inanna, Asura's lover. The two are embroiled in a conflict where they meet the reincarnations of friend and foe alike and they journey to piece together the events that occurred to prevent history from repeating itself.
Ultimately, the story is one about nature and nurture. In contrast to Asura's bravery, leadership, and strength, Luca is cowardly, book-smart, and easily manipulated. The son of a rich businessman, he is constantly pressured by his overbearing father to do well in his studies. The game constantly shows flashbacks to Asura's era, and the characters must reconcile their current selves with their past lives. While it makes for an interesting comparison, the two leads are so unlikable that any semblance of empathy is destroyed whenever they open their mouths. Luca is a doormat who apologizes for things that aren't even his fault, and Ilia is one of those annoying female archetypes who gets violently jealous whenever another girl so much as looks in the main lead's general direction. If I have to suffer through another example of those particular character archetypes I think I'll become clinically insane.
That's not to say all the characters are a total loss, though, as the secondary party members are much more likeable and interesting. At the top of the heap is Spada, the reincarnation of Asura's sapient sword Durandal. Spada is chivalrous, perverted, brutally honest, and wields two swords while sporting excellent fashion sense. With Luca acting as the player's avatar in the game world, it's difficuly not to feel like a chump in comparison. Spada would have made a much more interesting lead. Similarly, the holy nun Ange, an adept pickpocket who pigs out during meals and can outdrink the entire party at a bar, is likewise an incredibly enjoyable character — except for her bizarre obsession with her weight; at 158 cm and 52 kg (about 5'2" and 115 lbs), she is considered overweight by the rest of the party. It could be a cultural divide at play here, but I find the connotations incredibly alarming, not to mention off-putting.
Tales of Innocence R's graphics are a major step up from its DS visuals. That being said, it pales in comparison to almost all the current releases on the PS Vita. This isn't only on a technical level, though that's also an issue: character details are sparse, textures are somewhat blurry, and the graphics can be jaggy at times. Character models are unimpressive, and don't even have different animations for pointing; when a character points, he or she motions in the general direction with the entire hand, and the fingers look like they are super glued together. Innocence R's visual quality is barely on the level of a PlayStation 2 game and is something that could have definitely been done on the PSP.
As said before, however, Innocence R's graphical problems don't end there — characters are not very animated or emotive, as each character only has two differing facial expressions: normal, and an open mouth version used to simulate when they are talking. If that wasn't bad enough, non-humanoid characters don't even open their mouths when they talk, making this flaw stand out even more. With the port of Tales of the Abyss on the 3DS having characters with incredibly expressive and well-animated features, it's hard not to think that the 3DS got the better end of the deal, even if Abyss was just a port. Because of this limitation, many of the cutscenes in the game are carried out through the Tales series' skit system, which is also a problem because the expressions on the static character drawings do not depict the writers' intent accurately.
Speaking of the skits, while they were traditionally fully-voiced, in Innocence R only half of them contain voices, with the other half being completely silent, which is a bizarre change for a series that normally has voices for every single skit regardless of its importance to the plot. The voice acting itself is generic, but competent — some of the characters have incredibly grating voices, but taken as a whole the voicework is rather inoffensive. The same, however, can't be said about the music, which is, surprisingly, not composed by Sakuraba, but someone named Kazuhiro Nakamura. Innocence R has some of the most uninspired tracks I've ever heard, which is damning considering I'm constantly barraged by Sakuraba's music while playing Tales games. The fact that I find Innocence R's music even worse
is saying something. I can only think of one piece that remained in my mind, but the rest were wholly unimpressive.
Innocence R employs the 3D linear action battle system established in Tales of Symphonia. The battle system itself plays well, as it's been almost perfected by years of fine-tuning; par with the franchise, however, Innocence throws in some tweaks in order to set Innocence R's battle system apart. The first addition is the Rave System. During battle, a circular bar on the top left corner of the screen fills and depletes as the characters deal or receive damage, respectively. After certain thresholds are passed, enhancements are made available to the party as a whole; these enhancements, which can be equipped in the party menu, range from increased experience after battle to periodic regeneration of the party's HP. The second is the Counter system, where an enemy glows red after being locked into a combo by the player, and will counterattack with a destructive attack that will break the combo unless the player guards at the precise moment the attack connects. If the timing is correct, the player's controlled character will retaliate and the combo will be allowed to continue. As an additional effect, the Rave bar will increase more drastically for a set time after the counter.
These additions could have been interesting additions to the core gameplay, but it seems as if the developers didn't have enough time to properly test the coordination between the various gameplay elements and they don't gel well as a result. The Rave bar increases too slowly and decreases too rapidly to be of any use for the most important battles, where its function is actually necessary. The Rave bar not only decreases upon successful attacks against the controlled character but also those against computer controlled party members. This wouldn't be a problem, except for the fact that the rest of the game seems to be designed in an elaborate conspiracy to frustrate the player.
The party AI is exceptionally bad in this game, healers will sometimes refuse to heal characters whose HP are in the red, party members will stand still and do nothing for entire battles while enemies flood them with attacks, and spellcasters will use repeatedly magic that the enemy is strong against. The frustration is only compounded by the fact that enemies seem to be the complete opposite, as they enjoy ganging up on the player controlled character while having a single enemy continually interrupt the healer's curative spells. Bosses also have a 'shield' that must be broken before significant damage can be done, and all the while the Rave bar will be continually decreasing, causing its usefulness to dwindle. The fact that bosses' shields return after a single combo does not help matters.
The Counter system is similarly implemented rather poorly, as the timing is too strict to perform counters reliably. More often than not, the player character will be in the middle of a combo attack while the boss begins glowing, and the recovery time is too long to allow the player to properly enact a counter against the enemy's assault. I appreciate the intent of the developers to include a feature that prevents players from consistently playing with a 'rushdown' mindset, but the nature of the Tales series' battle system does not lend itself well to a fighting game's style of precisely timed counters.
Innocence R's problems extend far beyond the battle system — the game commits the cardinal sin of returning to the random encounter system that hasn't been seen since the likes of the early PlayStation 2 games. This is even more puzzling since the original Tales of Innocence did not have random encounters, but monsters that were viewable on the field. Because of the prevalence of puzzles in Innocence R's dungeons, the random encounters, though not numerous, serve as a constant irritant when the player just wants to finish the puzzle and move on. The puzzles aren't even inspired or interesting — they're mostly color-coded button/door combinations or having to read entries from various computers in order to learn a password. Another problem with the game is the inability to save anywhere; there isn't even a quick-save function. As a portable game title in this day and age, this is unacceptable, especially for an RPG. It is somewhat defensible when a game is merely a port, but a complete remake should not have this kind of problem.
The character progression system similarly takes a step back from the original DS game. The DS game had different 'styles' that could be equipped to change character stats to varying degrees — the guardian style, for example, increased defense at the expense of attack and gave the character increased survivability and defensive skills. Innocence R, however, revamps the style system to make it more in line with the skill systems found in games like Tales of Vesperia or Tales of Xillia; characters earn AP after battles which they can then use to earn skills allotted on a chessboard-like layout. Once learned, these skills can then be equipped, given the character has enough CP. Certain skills are connected to each other, and learning all the skills in such a link will grant a bonus to a specific stat. More skills are unlocked as the player progresses through the story, increases character levels, or earns titles for each character. Note that this change is not necessarily bad; however, the original style system was much more unique and replacing it with a generic skill system was a mistake in my eyes.
While the main scenario of Innocence R runs an average of 15 — 20 hours, the game has a rather sizable amount of side quests and a post-game dungeon that can easily bring the playtime up to 40 or 50 hours. Innocence R also adds a quirky relationship value feature where party members' relationships increase depending on which skits are viewed or what dialogue options are chosen in skits. A Tales preorder bonus in Japan once joked about the possibility of a Tales series dating simulation game — with this gameplay element, Namco inches ever closer to jumping that shark.
Tales of Innocence R had a lot of potential, and brought some unique ideas to the table. However, it feels like the development team was forced to stop work on the game while they were only about three-quarters finished with it and then forced to release it in an unfinished state in order to capitalize on the PS Vita launch, while RPG competition was slim. The low quality aesthetics and poorly tuned gameplay mechanics undermine a game whose core battle system is actually quite enjoyable. After finishing the game, Namco teases us with the message, "To be continued in the next Reimagination."
Better luck next time, Namco.