Exploring the Trope-Heavy Relationships in Tales Games

As I mentioned previously, I bought a Vita a few weeks ago. Along with that purchase I ordered a few games, Tales of Hearts R being among them; one of two very long JRPGs I thought it would be smart to try to play at the same time. I’ve been playing that pretty consistently for the last week or so, and after about 25 hours with it, I’m comfortable saying this: it’s certainly not the best Tales game, but I had fairly low expectations and it has blown those out of the water. It’s extremely corny and clichéd, but in a way that is honestly kind of endearing.

That bar at the top, the one that says
That bar at the top, the one that says “PSVITA”? That’s why you’ve never heard of this game.

The characters all fall into very defined anime trope-y archetypes, more so than members of other Tales casts seem to, and the Tales games are well known for (almost aggressively) sticking to common character tropes. These characters are generally even more trope-y than average, though, which leads to them being kind of forgettable. On top of that, most of the tropes they adhere to have been done better by characters from other Tales titles, burying them even further into obscurity.

The thing that sets this extremely trope-y and typical cast apart from the casts of other Tales games; the one thing this game has going for it that the other, generally better entries don’t; is that it actually commits to a romance between two characters. While other Tales games drop hints of romantic interest throughout, Tales of Hearts features two specific characters who are very much romantically interested in each other. The “everyone kinda wants you but none of it ever goes anywhere” sort of thing that the other entries do is basically gone. The story is about (protagonist) Kor and (main supporting character) Kohaku’s budding romance, and not about everyone having a bit of a thing for Kor that he doesn’t seem able to notice.

Our sweet, boring Colette.
Our unfathomably uninteresting Colette.

I much prefer a story that commits to a single romantic interest and actually seals the deal over one where it’s kind of nebulous the entire time. I would be way into it if the story actively bucked heteronormative relationship standards, don’t get me wrong! That would honestly be preferred to either of the staid and boring possibilities I’ve presented here. I don’t think that the “harem-lite” thing is really that, though, and since the “harem-lite” thing is what most Tales games (along with a lot of anime) tend to do, I appreciate the willingness to commit to an actual romantic relationship, and it feels refreshing by comparison.

Tales of Symphonia is the entry that probably comes the closest to this, but it doesn’t commit either. It’s clear that several of the characters have crushes on main hero Lloyd to some degree, even if the friendship/probably-romance between him and Colette is what they tend to focus on. Sheena is very obviously into Lloyd, and even Raine express a bit of interest towards him during a few moments. I personally found those threads more interesting than Colette’s feelings by far, since she was such an utterly uninteresting character to me. On top of that, the game doesn’t commit hard enough towards their romance for me to really feel like that’s canonically what’s going on.

Here's some more box art that you've probably never seen before. You're welcome, I guess?
Here’s some more box art you’ve probably never seen before. You’re welcome, I guess?

There is actually a romantic plot thread in Tales of Legendia, a generally disliked and relatively forgettable title in the series. I say generally disliked because it actually got decent reviews upon release, and I happen to like it a fair amount, but fans of the franchise tend to be at least apathetic towards it if they don’t hate it outright. It has very obvious issues (as does Tales of Hearts) but there are enough fun character moments in the game for me to look past them somewhat.

The romance in question is actually focused on the main character’s lingering feelings for someone who passed away. Oh, um… spoilers for Tales of Legendia ahead, I guess, though I’ve never once seen anyone say anything about having a desire to pick this one up and play it after the initial release window. I’m not entirely sure the warning is necessary, but there it is, just in case. Anyways, Senel, our hero, fell for a girl, they had a relationship, some bad stuff happened, she died, and he is now taking care of her sister, Shirley. The actual romantic plot develops when it becomes clear that Shirley has feelings for Senel, and always has. This is complicated for Shirley, since she respects her sister’s feelings and doesn’t want to disrespect her memory by pining for the man she was in love with. This is kind of an interesting aspect of their relationship. Admittedly, the game doesn’t handle it super well, but it’s interesting that it’s there at all.

The real problems come later on in the story, when it becomes clear that another party member, Chloe, has fallen for Senel as well. Unlike other Tales games, though, this isn’t simply mentioned in passing and then generally ignored except when it can be played for laughs: Shirley and Chloe have a fight about it. They do make amends, eventually deciding to both try to win him over without resenting the other person for trying, too. It’s cool that the game actually paid attention to its romantic plot, but…

It does all kind of suck ass in a way, for reasons that are probably pretty apparent. There are not one, but two female characters who have significant parts of their arcs devoted to talking about, thinking about, and fighting over a male character. Talk about failing the Bechdel test, am I right? Say what you will about that test as a concept; that’s not what this post is about; but it’s disconcerting no matter how you feel about that when a character ends up being defined by their relationship to the lead character. This is true regardless of any sort of gender roles; that interpretation of romance is an unhealthy one no matter the circumstances. The obvious (probably accidental and not done with malicious intent, though still a problem) misogyny in this particular case only serves to make it more uncomfortable. It’s nice to see romantic feelings legitimately addressed, as having the characters all secretly pine for Senel might actually be worse, but creating this awful sort of fantasy-fulfilment thing where two female characters chase the lead male is still super not-great for a number of reasons.

At the very least, the romance between Kor and Kohaku in Tales of Hearts R is generally presented in a healthy way. It’s young love, and it’s corny, and they struggle to actually express their feelings, but it’s not one-sided. The romance doesn’t seem to stem from Kor proving himself worthy of Kohaku, which seems to be the approach a number of bad stories take. It also doesn’t stem from Kohaku being enamored with Kor because he saved her life, which is yet another bad way it could have gone. I mean, he does save her life, and he does want to show off to her, but neither of those things seem to be the driving force behind their feelings.

No Caption Provided

They really seem to fall for each other over time. Sure, it started with Kor being taken in by her attractiveness, but a lot of relationships start that way. What was nice was that Kor simply being attracted to her wasn’t presented as actually being romantic, really. Those feelings were easy for him to ignore or brush aside when necessary. His highest priority was helping her out of the bad situation she was in, and his motivation was because he wanted to be a good person, not because he wanted to make her like him. Spending time together wound up naturally leading to more developed feelings, and when those feelings became stronger, they affected the plot and his mood much, much more directly, as they naturally would. It was kind of nice.

No Caption Provided

This romance is nothing special when compared to romances in other media, other genres, or honestly other JRPG franchises. It’s a typical romance in a game filled with trope-y characters who are traipsing around a very standard JRPG world. There really isn’t anything that stands out about Tales of Hearts R. But you know, sometimes being a decent entry in a decent series can be enough to make a decent game, and I think that’s the case here. The stupid little butterflies I feel watching the romance play out is just a nice extra touch that pushes it over the edge for me.

Put simply, Tales of Hearts does nothing special or unique, but I find it endearing anyways.

[Cross-posted to my blog at Giantbomb. Images from Giantbomb, too.]

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