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  1. Developer: AquaPlus Publisher: Atlus USA Platforms: PlayStation 3 Release Date: October 14, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen Tears to Tiara II: Heir to the Overlord does not make a good first impression. It is probably the most visually underwhelming game that I have played this year, not to mention that most of its narrative aspects came off as rather derivative at first. Yet, over time, I have learned that that preconception does quite a disservice to one of the best RPGs of this year. Though titled as a second entry, which is accurate, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord is a mostly independent release from its unlocalized predecessor. Beyond some generally minor callbacks to the original Tears to Tiara and the same Strategy-RPG/Visual Novel gameplay hybrid, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord succeeds on its own. The game starts off in Hispania, a small country under the dominion of the Divine Empire. Those that follow the religious beliefs of Ba'al have lived their lives as slaves under harsh tyranny of the Divine Empire for seven years. To quell the undercurrent of a possible rebellion, and to help usher a means of absolute religious centralism, the imperial army tries to convert the son of a former powerful bloodline to weed out other possible revolutionists. This son, known as Hamilcar Barca, is viewed as an incompetent, weak-willed successor who actually had no intention of supporting the conspiring revolutionists under his family's name. Still, even Hamil is pushed to the edge after witnessing certain atrocities by the Empire, in which he then calls upon the latent spirit of blood-thirsty overlord, Melqart, to gain the power to incite a rebellion against the Empire. There are two parts to Tears to Tiara II's general structure that you have to accept, and those are that it is most certainly a visual novel, but it is also very much a turn-based strategy-RPG as well. It may be a tough compromise for two genres that may not have a lot of overlap amongst fans, but I believe that both facets lend themselves to one another quite well. The most difficult aspect for me to adjust to was the storytelling. At raw face value I thought most of it came off as rather trite: from a one-dimensional evil empire to even certain important characters, like Tarte who seemed to embody the extremely overplayed tsundere character archetype at first glance (no small thanks for her popular Japanese voice actress). This, of course, is very easily the first impression of the game and it will require a fair amount of patience see past it, with visual novel exposition being upwards of 2-3 hours during certain portions. What caught me off-guard was how surprisingly well-written the storytelling actually was. For instance, many characters that I thought were shallow archetypes played on my expectations by showing a lot of genuine depth, and the world itself being quite fleshed out. I don“t draw attention to this as much as I should, but even the localization and writing also read very well. This stood out to me especially after playing Ar NoSurge recently, which had many inconsistencies in its translation and generally felt rough to read. Admittedly, the narrative is still a slow burn because of how it is more visual novel than strategy-RPG for the first half of the game in particular. Sticking with the storytelling, however, made me really surprised at how much I liked a lot of the characters which have some great moments that feel quite heartfelt. While the storytelling is generally fairly good, its pacing is sort of all over the place. Perhaps the biggest example of this is when it hits a narrative apex during the halfway point where both the storytelling and character motivations are at their best. Though there are certainly good moments that follow, like some poignant character development, the latter portion of the overarching narrative feels much more route in comparison to the build up that occurs in those particular pivotal moments. It's weird that Tears to Tiara II has a very inconsistent rhythm to its narrative flow, but pressing through made me increasingly fond of the storytelling overall the further I delved into it. Massive visual novel storytelling aside, Tears to Tiara II is also very deliberately a turn-based strategy-RPG as well. As a strategy-RPG, it is generally by the books for the genre with some more modern tweaks. That's not a particularly bad thing, but those who are expecting something entirely mechanically fresh, like Valkyria Chronicles , the core gameplay likely won't invoke that feeling. What it does it does well, however, with many varying mission objectives and challenging, strategic scenarios. As with traditional Japanese strategy RPGs, combat takes place on a grid and both the player's and enemy's turn are dictated by group phases. One of its more unique mechanics is that there is a chain gauge which increases based on various actions in combat. Chain stock can be used to power up certain skills, as follow-up hits for normal attacks, or unleash special team combination skills. There are also extra nuances like an elephant party member that serves as a spawn point for reinforcements (don't ask) and allies with powered up forms that help employ different approaches to battles. Despite not being the most original take on the genre, Tears to Tiara II does a good job at introducing new facets to the gameplay and mission objectives regularly. It also borrows many conveniences from more modern examples in the genre: such as being able to see the range of enemy movement/attacks like in Fire Emblem Awakening, able to rewind turns like Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together on PSP, altering animation/movement speed like Disgaea, and suspend saving like many handheld games. Don't be fooled, however; victories aren't free in Tears to Tiara II and are most certainly earned even on the standard difficultly. Those that still find that not challenging enough can try achieve higher missions ranks, complete hard mode (which does away with the rewind feature), or even try diving into the difficult post-game dungeon. In a weird way the above-average difficulty actually heightens the narrative satisfaction, even if battles tend to take too long in later fights. Despite both the gameplay and storytelling being handled well, undoubtedly the weakest component of the game is its visual presentation. The 3D visuals look early PS2 era at best and have many incredibly awkward animations during story scenes in particular. Not only that, it has a bit of Final Fantasy Tactics syndrome where the cutesy character models do seem out of place when conveying its fairly serious storytelling. That said, the character portraits are generally well-drawn, especially certain CG images. In contrast, the audio is solid, from music to Japanese voice acting. It may be a shame to some that there is no English dub at all, but it is not surprising considering the massive visual novel script. It seems like Atlus USA has quite the knack at cherry-picking gems among Strategy-RPGs. Much like Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, it seems to hearken back to another era where storytelling, characters, and challenging gameplay were more respected among Japanese RPGs. It is a shame that Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord is unlikely to get the audience it deserves because of its tawdry presentation and immense visual novel component. But, for those who are willing to take notice and forgive its occasional faults with its demeanor, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord will reward them during its conquest in the long term. Pros: + Well-written, heartfelt storytelling + Likable characters + Challenging, strategic gameplay + Extremely meaty main game Cons: - 3D visuals are incredibly dated and awkwardly presented - Later battles take too long - Uneven narrative pacing with some excessively long exposition Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great What it loses in occasional presentation/pacing skirmishes Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord can win the hearts with its great storytelling and strategic gameplay in the long term for those who can see through its many battles to the end Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.