Did you enjoy how the Xillia bosses were either massive walls with loads of HP, broke out of your combos effortlessly every few seconds, or both? Well I sure didn’t like it when my battles amounted to endurance tests, so Tales of Hearts R was a wonderful breather by offering well-balanced bosses (for the most part) that you can pull off good combos on without turning into absolute punching bags. It’s fast-paced, more responsive than the console games, and places a strong emphasis on aerial game. Marrying features of older games and mechanics of newer ones, it manages to make a simpler and less flashy system as fun as Xillia 2 through good controls. This is a 3D remake of the 2D DS game, which means a complete overhaul of the battle system.
It adopts a TC + TP system, which is similar to the AC + TP system used in Xillia 1/2, with the exception that regular attacks don’t use up TC here, allowing you to freely chain more artes. The basic battle system is simplified and initially appears to be more restricting compared to recent console entries, with no side-stepping and the backstep being, well, a huge step back. Not only is backstepping a lot less smooth than how it was handled in Xillia (you have to press back twice), the lack of the continuous backsteps meant that combat felt extremely stiff when coming directly from Xillia 2. Semiauto is also awkward and often doesn’t do what you expect it to do, so it was more natural putting the game on manual despite abusing semiauto like no tomorrow in Xillia 2.
But the thing I like about Tales battle systems is that they often change things up. Expecting one to play like another is a huge mistake, and it takes time to adjust to new systems when you play games back-to-back, even if they look the same from an observer’s point of view. Xillia was all about evading enemy attacks by backstepping, but Hearts R places an emphasis on guard-counters. When you hit an enemy enough, they will turn red and go into rage mode amidst your combo, preparing to use an attack that does more damage than usual. However, if you guard at the correct timing, you will evade their attack and perform a guard-counter, which deals damage to the opponent and allows you to continue attacking. You can equip various skills that give bonuses to successful guard counters, such as HP/TP recovery and increased damage. This rewards players with good timing, but also prevents the enemy from simply being a punching bag.
There’s also the chase link system, which is less flashy of a gimmick than Xillia’s Link Artes, but is tons of fun. When the chase marker appears on an enemy, performing a break attack (L + O) will launch it up into the air and render it vulnerable and unable to act until chase link time ends. When you launch the enemy up or hit it back down, you can press Square to instantly teleport to it so you can keep attacking. If a party member’s icon starts flashing, you can touch it to perform a combination attack with him/her (it’s the same common attack for everyone, unlike Xillia’s Link Artes), which increases friendship between the two characters and recovers some chase link time. There’s also a finisher you can perform, which will immediately end chase mode. Hearts R also has its equivalent of the Overlimit bar, which can go up to level 4, and you can perform Mystic Artes from level 3 and up. You can choose which level of Overlimit you want to activate if the bar is higher than at level 1.
Bosses have reasonable HP on Hard, which was also easier than what Xillia liked to call Hard. The fights generally never last too long, with the exception of a certain bonus boss that has 1,000,000 HP on normal. Most of the fights pose a reasonable challenge, until late in the game where all important enemies have a weakness to light (including the final boss!) and the protagonist happens to have a bunch of light artes. Beating the game unlocks Maniac and Unknown difficulties, which would be perfect for those who want to feel the sensation of getting massacred by the final boss. I got murdered at level 100 by the Maniac final boss (who was a cakewalk on Hard at level 75), and people claim that he will still pose a challenge on Chaos against a party at the maximum level.
Characters have a good variety of movesets, and for those who have played the original Hearts on DS, there are two new playable characters. One is Calcedony, who was originally an important but unplayable rival character. He is probably the most aerial-focused character in the game, with many artes that involve hitting the enemy up. The other is a middle-aged man named Galad, who wields a sword and an axe that can be thrown like a boomerang. He’s a bit tricky to use due to his boomerang artes. He was never in the original game, so while the game rewrote parts to fit him in, he still doesn’t feel as important as the others and the game doesn’t shine much of a light on him…until the bonus dungeon, that is.
Outside of battle, Hearts R returns to the older cooking systems, and has a world map rather than interconnected paths like most of the recent Tales. Fans of world maps might like this, but I hold no nostalgia for empty world maps as I am more used to Tales games without them. They also changed the Soma build into something similar to Xillia’s Lilial Orb, which is more user-friendly than the original where you had to pick one of three builds whenever your Soma could evolve, meaning that you could miss out on some skills or artes because you can’t go back. Oh, and speaking of skills, you get a lot less SP compared to Xillia, so you’ve gotta choose your battle skills wisely. The system on a whole has less options and “meat” than Xillia 2’s, but has tight controls and solid mechanics. Oh, and you have legit dungeons with puzzles to solve and boulders to push, which are automatically more fun to go through than Xillia’s dungeons that are only good for loot and looking pretty.
Plot-wise, Hearts was written not long after the original Graces, and the former naturally inherits the latter’s atmosphere. Most people seem to hate on Graces for its cheesy friendship themes and a generic main character, but if you could handle that then you can handle Hearts’ story. It goes on about feelings and bonds, but it’s serviceable and more satisfying than Graces minus future arc. The protagonist is typical material, maybe a tad more childish and naive than the usual (and thus would not be very popular amongst the Western fanbase), but the party has some pretty good characters that play off each other well. This game has the best male siscon healer (or rather, the only one) and a good robot. I’d place the setting and execution of dramatic events below Abyss and Xillia, but it’s a standard and complete story that doesn’t invite too many complaints either. If you’ve played a Tales game you’d know what happens, and if you haven’t then you can probably accurately predict what happens. I love FRIENDSHIP and POWER OF BONDS and dumb protagonists who suck at reading the mood, so it’s very much possible that someone else would find the game insufferable. The pacing alone would probably make the game easier to go through, as it’s less draggy than the usual Tales.
At the end it’s pretty much the same story as the original Hearts with a few rewritten parts to fit in the new playable characters, but it was more charming when presented with the 2D sprites, as the 3D models here are kind of shoddy. A handheld game made by a side team obviously cannot compare to the models in a mothership console game, but the game just doesn’t look very nice compared to other 3D games on the Vita. The palette isn’t exactly enticing compared to its vibrant 2D counterpart, and the areas are uninspired (although you could fault the original game for that as well).
Overall it’s a good game, and worth playing even if you’ve played the original. It’s solid all around and contains a very good rendition of the 3D Tales battle system. The platinum trophy requirements are less of a pain in the ass to achieve, controls are tight, the pacing is fast, and the game is generous with level ups. I’ve got more minor complaints like how you can’t adjust your party or menu options when retrying a boss fight, but being able to change party members on the fly suddenly feels like a blessing from heaven after how Xillia 2 limited party member-swapping to towns only. This is also one of the only Tales games where I bothered going through the bonus dungeon and defeating the extra boss (holy shit fuck that thing).