I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Tears to Tiara II. I thought it would be a SRPG with visual novel sections. What I got was a visual novel with SRPG sections, at least for the game’s massive introductory chapter. This opening chapter could last you anywhere between six to ten hours, depending on your reading speed and if you’re using the auto play function, or just skipping all the voice-over work.
Out of that significant chunk of playtime, around one hour will be spent in battle. There are a handful of quick tutorial battles, letting you get to grips with the battle system, but these are all over far too quickly. The rest of the chapter is pure story; we’re talking Metal Gear Solid-length cutscenes here, and no, you can’t save during them. Once this chapter is cleared, however, the game really starts to show its true colours as a very accessible and fun SRPG.
The majority of the opening chapter is spent with Hamil, the lead of the game, as he and the rest of the immediate cast are wallowing about their situation. Hamil is the last remaining member of the Barca family, the royal bloodline of Hispania, which has been taken over by the Empire, after Hamil’s father plotted a rebellion seven years prior to the game’s events. Since the takeover, the Empire has ruined the lives of the people of Hispania, putting them into hard labour, forcing them to destroy the temples dedicated to Hispania’s god and rebuilding ones dedicated to the Empire’s Divine Order instead, under the threat of instant death, should anyone disobey.
Hamil has been left a broken man after witnessing his father’s murder by the Empire’s Imperial Army, but after he meets the goddess Tarte, things begin to change for Hamil and the people of Hispania.
Tears to Tiara II takes its storytelling very seriously and it desperately wants you to care about the world and the characters in it. What doesn’t help the opening chapter is how slowly events seems to proceed. Everything happens in the same small handful of environments for hours; waiting for the game to reach the pivotal moment that the game opened with, before going back in time to give the whole scene context. There’s no sense of urgency from any of the characters, as if they’ve resigned to their fate under the Empire. I suppose that is likely the intention behind of all this—to make you feel their sense of helplessness, which I did feel, but I can’t help thinking there could have been a better way to handle this.
Even with such a slow pace, the huge amount of information thrown at you in this chapter is almost brain-numbing. There are all these regions, characters, history and fractions you’re told about in such succession, that it doesn’t give you any time to soak any of it up. That said, the story itself is an engaging one and does delve into some darker territory. Corruption, slavery and the murdering of innocent civilians isn’t something just mentioned by the characters, it’s something that happens right in front of them all too often and is treated seriously. Early on in the game, Hamil is beaten and whipped by the Imperial Army for disobedience and the scene goes just long enough to make it uncomfortable, as Hamil’s Japanese voice actor lets out some screams that make you cringe from how painful it sounds.
(It shouldn’t be a surprise to see that Atlus USA passed on dubbing the game; every single line in the game is voiced and for a riskier release, I feel this is an understandable decision.)
Once the first chapter is complete and you breathe a sigh of relief, the game begins to opens up as Hamil and the other party members begin to travel around Hispania to fully liberate it from the Empire and for Hamil to gain his revenge. Now you’re able to travel around, you’re given access to the world map and the home base. This where you buy items/equipment and prepare your characters for battle, though at the beginning of a fight, you’re given the opportunity to use all these functions and shops anyway.The game retains the heavy focus on storytelling, but it’s broken up into much more manageable chunks (allowing you to save more often) and with many more battles integrated into it.
The battle system is surprisingly accessible and easy to grasp, especially considering Sting’s involvement in the game and how they’re known for their complex designs. If you’ve played Fire Emblem Awakening, you’ll be familiar with some of the basics at play here. Like Awakening, battles progress in phases, moving your whole army at a time instead of characters taking turns. You also gain experience for every action you take in-game, including healing and using items. Certain characters have the ability to “awaken” and be taken over by a god or goddess , bringing them to the battlefield for a limited amount of turns.
One aspect included that I wish more games would take note of, is the level of flexibility offered. Difficulty can be changed on the fly without needing to restart or reload. Instead of taking you to a game over screen, should you fail the battle, the game offers you a chance to rewind to any previous turn in battle. You can use this ability at any point in battle and they take effect immediately in-game. These are really helpful whenever you’ve made a mistake, or wanted to quickly try a different strategy. On the whole, battles work very efficiently and there’s no messy menus to work through which can often be the case with games of this genre. The flow of battle is easy to understand and brilliant fun to play. There are a good variety of battle objectives and battle layouts as well, one particularly memorable one was a battle at sea with the stage comprised of two ships.
If you’re looking for something challenging, however, this might not be what you’re looking for, as for the most part the game is on the easier side of the spectrum, with a few frustrating levels chucked in for good measure.
There are few unique units to the game as well, such as the elephant Noa, who plays quite an important role in battle. Noa pulls along a chariot in battle, from which you can switch out the rest of your characters at will. Again, the flexibility of the battle system, is something I really admire and combined with the rewind feature, you have a lot of room to play how you want to, without feeling like you’re wasting any of your time. The chariot can also be used to heal any injured units, though it cannot cure any status ailments. The chariot has its own HP values and can only act once per phase, just like a regular unit but can also be defeated in battle, stopping you from swapping out your units. Noa is a powerful unit herself, with high strength and HP values, but limited movement range. Select members of your army can also ride Noa (and other wild beasts in battle), combining their HP together and become one unit with the abilities of two.
In battle, it’s also important to pay attention to the element cycle. Every unit is assigned an element of fire, water, earth and wind. More powerful units are on a separate cycle consisting of holy, astral and dark elements. Each element has their own strengths and weaknesses but also during battle, each state will be favoured over the others allowing attacks of units of that elements to be much stronger than they usually would. If you find yourself not dealing as much damage as think you should be, despite your level and equipment, then chances are the unit you’re attacking is favoured and you should be prepared to take some damage.
Atlus estimates that Tears to Tiara II will last you 80(!) hours but if you’re a quick reader and skip over the voice-over work, then as mentioned earlier, you’ll likely come in under that. Atlus has clearly put a lot of work into this release, given the huge amount of text in the game and it reads fluently and is natural-sounding. If you’re a fan of Aquaplus, it might be worth your time to check out the PSN store as characters from their previous games are available as paid DLC.