With many gamers already anticipating Square and Disney's newest action RPG, Kingdom Hearts, Atlus' Dual Hearts appears to be a game destined to be overshadowed by a much more hyped title. A shame, really, since Dual Hearts is an impressive action RPG.
To sleep, perchance to dream
You are Rumble, a young Ruinseeker headed to Sonno Island in search of the last great treasure to elude you-the Dream Stone. Solitary by nature, Rumble's rather brash and headstrong-but those are also traits that make him so good at what he does…finding the rarest and most valuable treasures throughout the land.
After arriving on Sonno Island and traveling to an ancient temple, Rumble encounters Tumble. Tumble is a Baku, a creature from the dream world. He's rather clumsy and somewhat inept, witnessed by the fact that he's been ordered by the queen to take some ancient orbs to the entrance of the Dream Temple, but has tripped and spilled them all along the way.
With their newfound freedom, the orbs take off-entering the dreams of anyone near them. Rumble and Tumble must join forces to get the orbs back…by entering the dreams of the residents of Sonno Island. However, more is at stake than just recovering the orbs-Nightmare, the black calamity, is stirring in its prison and appears to be ready to escape into the real world. Can Rumble and Tumble find the orbs and stop Nightmare? That depends on you, dear reader.
Like most action RPGs, the story in Dual Hearts is relatively average. Astute gamers will be able to guess all the major twists, plot points, and resolutions well in advance of them actually being revealed in the game's narrative. The 'entering a dream' motif should be familiar to anyone who's played Alundra, but it's a decent plot device that hasn't been done to death-particularly when one considers how small Sonno Island is. The dreamscapes make the game seem much bigger and the environments much more diverse than you'd expect.
While the story may be fairly traditional, and the characters little more than archetypes, they're also likeable. Guessing how each character will grow and arc during the adventure is simple, however I couldn't help but like Rumble and Tumble anyway-which is no small feat in Tumble's case since he seems almost annoying in the early going. The characters are well-drawn archetypes, at least, meaning that while you may be able to predict everything that will happen to them, you'll probably wind up growing fond of them anyway.
Since Dual Hearts is an action RPG, the battles all take place in real-time as opposed to the more turn-based approach of traditional games in the genre. However, battle only takes place in the dream world-meaning that any time spent in the land of the awake will be spent exploring or puzzle-solving.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the game is the variety of gameplay options. Dual Hearts features lots of enemies to fight, but also mixes things up with the addition of numerous platforming elements, puzzles, and areas loaded with hidden goodies. Because of this, the experience is somewhat customizable-if you get tired of fighting, spend some time trying to find the hidden goodies in previous dreams.
The inclusion of Tumble is also more than just window dressing. You'll be using your Baku to fly and jump to hard-to-reach areas, to heal you in battle, and more. Heck, you can even use him to help you fight by throwing esamons (a strange type of fruit) at enemies and telling Tumble to 'fetch'. This certainly brings another dimension to the experience and makes Tumble an integral part of the game, rather than a tacked-on character like Daxter in Jak and Daxter.
The core gameplay has Rumble and Tumble exploring Sonno Island in the daytime and hopping into dreams to solve problems or find orbs after nightfall. As you progress through the adventure, Rumble will gain more holy weapons (these are what the orbs are in the Dream World) and Tumble will gain more special abilities. Because of this, the game is rather linear. There's a very straightforward progression to Dual Hearts, one that the player can rarely deviate from. If linearity in your games bothers you, then Dual Hearts might not be your bag.
However the Dream World motif of the game constantly keeps things fresh. Each dream is vastly different from any other, and gives the game a multiple world feel (not unlike a platformer such as Super Mario World). In an artist's dream, the world is almost as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting, complete with a boss who's an artist in his own right. Contrast that with the dream of a little girl, wherein Rumble and Tumble find themselves inside a pop-up sketchbook, and you get an idea just how diverse the dream environments truly are.
Yet, for all of the variety in the gameplay (including an abundance of block moving and switch pulling puzzles), the bulk of the game is made up of combat. Fortunately, the combat interface in Dual Hearts is pretty good.
Rumble can equip a weapon in each hand-and utilize each one by pressing either the square or circle buttons. As the game advances, the weapons level up-adding more combos to their arsenal and increasing the amount of damage they dish out per hit.
Rumble has access to several different tools as well. There's a claw-like contraption that can grab things at a distance and pull them in close, a draw card that can suck up elemental esamons, and a set of explosives for blowing up obstacles. Each tool is seamlessly integrated into the game-and when you get stuck, getting unstuck often simply involves using one of your tools on the environment around you.
About the only flaw with the combat system is the lock-on targeting. Rumble can target enemies in much the same way Link can in the N64 Zelda games. However, the targeting interface is a little clunky, particularly when dealing with a group of enemies. The lock-on mechanism has a tendency to lock onto enemies or parts of the environment you don't want to target, and moving it can be extremely difficult at times.
Still, this is a relatively minor issue. It's possible to destroy many of the game's enemies without ever using the lock-on mechanism anyway.
Ultimately, while Dual Hearts doesn't bring much in the way of innovation to the table in terms of gameplay, it does integrate all the elements it borrows from other games in an excellent fashion.
If I had to describe the graphics in Dual Hearts with a single word, that word would be 'simplistic'. Dual Hearts won't be winning any awards for groundbreaking graphics, but the visuals do complement the feel of the game quite nicely.
Basically, the game's graphics look a lot like early PS2 graphics-they're simple, comprised of a minimum number of polygons, and offers low-detail textures. Even the color scheme is simplistic, with little in the way of variety.
However, the graphics are charming in a strange sort of way. It becomes readily apparent early on that the graphics aren't great, but they fit nicely with the lighthearted feel of the game. I'm not sure how to describe it exactly, but having more cutting edge graphics would have almost been a detriment. It's not always about having a cutting edge look-it's more important to choose graphics that match the tone of the game-and in this regard, Dual Hearts is a success.
Because Dual Hearts is an action RPG, control is definitely an issue. When you factor in the sheer number of times you'll be called upon to make platformed jumps, it only becomes more important. I'm happy to report that with the exception of a few minor camera hiccups, the controls are very good in this game.
Rumble is controlled with the left analog stick and is very responsive. The face buttons perform different functions in different situations (like if you're on Tumble, or using a weapon, etc.), but the inclusion of a heads-up display that tells you what each button does in the current situation keeps things simple.
The camera can be adjusted to directly behind Rumble with the simple press of a shoulder button and eliminates most of the major problems with the camera interface. I've yet to see a perfect 3D camera system, but the one in Dual Hearts is surprisingly decent.
Not much else to report on the control front-Dual Hearts performs satisfactorily on all counts.
Nothing negative to report here, either.
The sound in Dual Hearts isn't anything mind-blowing, but it's effective enough. Weapons sound decent and ambient noise is pretty good as well. The sound effects work is primarily unobtrusive-which is how it should be.
The game's soundtrack was a pleasant surprise. It's not one of the classic game scores, but it is surprisingly low-key yet still entertaining. There are more than a few good tracks that you'll probably find yourself humming even after you've finished the game.
While Dual Hearts doesn't bring much in the way of innovation to the table (it's far more content to borrow elements from other games), it's still a fun and engaging action RPG. I've no doubt that the title will be overshadowed by Square and Disney's juggernaut Kingdom Hearts, but don't miss out on this one just because it has the misfortune to be released in the same month as a high profile title. Dual Hearts may not be flashy, but it's a fun way to spend 15 or so hours.