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Think fast, what would happen if a sprite based top down action RPG game such as Secret of Mana or Illusion of Gaia were to have a torrid affair with a free-to-play MMO from Korea? Well, if the resultant offspring happened to be on iOS – as well as a single player game – then what you’d get from just such a merger might be a whole lot like FourThirtyThree’s release of EpicHearts (out now, free). The game’s iTunes store page claims that EpicHearts is currently the number one downloaded RPG in both Korea and Japan, and I am here to say that there are very good reasons why those claims might be true.

In EpicHearts the time known as Renovatio – an event that occurs once every thousand years – is soon to descend upon the world, and this has all of the humans in a concerned tizzy. For the last millennia the human empire of Emore has been under the protection of a divine dragon through the Pact of Friendship, but once every thousand years the mystical creature dies – negating all of its contracts – and is reborn again as a hatchling. To prepare for this change a team of three Draka Knights – each born under the Zodiac sign of Draco – has been formed to find and protect the new hatchling, until the day arrives when it is old enough to form a new Pact of Friendship.

Included in the line up of heroes is Raban, the massive sword carrying son of a formerly wealthy family; Nika, the gun-toting daughter of a slave that was adopted by her master only so that she could be sent to the Draka corps instead of his own child; and Half, a magical fencer that happens to have both Human and Houynum blood inside of him. After a short introductory segment to the game’s plot in which you briefly – and individually – control each of the three heroes, you will be asked to permanently select one of them as your main character for the remainder of the long adventure ahead of you. However – no matter which character you choose – the other two will be present with you for the bulk of the game’s many in-engine cutscenes, so EpicHeart’s plot probably won’t change much based on who you select.

Speaking of the various in-game cutscenes, there are an extremely large quantity of these  – furthermore doled out at a high frequency – to be encountered during the course of EpicHearts. During your adventure you will learn secrets, travel to a variety of unique locales, ride a magical floating blowfish through the skies, face betrayal, look after a Dragon Hatchling, and learn more about the childhoods of the three Drakas. Former iFanzine writer – Sean Koch – once pointed out that far too often iOS original titles are extremely lacking in the department of plot, but that is one complaint that certainly can not be levied against EpicHearts in any way – shape – or form.

Unfortunately, what can be levied against the dialogue in EpicHearts – as well as a lot of other iOS products brought over from Asian territories – is that the game’s translation doesn’t hold up consistently at all times. However – far worse than a few moments of awkward grammar – is an issue that far more doggedly plagues the product, a curious enigma where partial words wrap incorrectly to the next line/box of text. There are few things quite as distracting as when suddenly half – or sometimes even less – of a word is cutoff and moved to the top of the next page, especially when none of this is done via the proper implementation of hyphens. If EpicHearts’ translation could receive yet another proof reading pass, and especially if the game’s text wrapping issue were addressed, than those two changes alone would go a long ways to improving an already great experience.

Anyways – various plot matters aside – EpicHearts features a control scheme that is extremely simple to use, yet is also remarkably effective considering the enemy hordes you will often be facing. All of your standard movement actions are either handled through sliding a finger in whichever direction you wish to go, or through the use of a virtual D-Pad in the lower left hand corner of the screen. The omnipresent action button in the opposing lower screen corner is used for activating your standard weapon, or for interacting with various non lethal objects – such as NPCS – whenever they are present.

Surrounding EpicHearts’ main action button are five smaller buttons to which you can freely assign any combination of items and special moves, making them available for quick one-tap access. Do note that while non-passive special moves can only be used when assigned to one of these programmable buttons, consumable items can always be activated straight from the game’s item menu as well. There is also a final button on the right hand side labeled “A->B”, when this is pressed it causes all five hot keys to be replaced with a second set of equally programmable buttons (in this way there are ten assignable slots altogether).

Beyond the basic fighting there also exists a large array of other things to do as you progress through the plot of EpicHearts, which includes things such as: completing MMO-style quests given out by NPCs; catching and taming specific monsters for breeding purposes; challenging wholly optional timed dungeons; tracking down components to build items from blue prints; selling items to other players through an online market (defeated monsters can drop gear for more than just your selected hero’s preferences); and so much more. This all goes to ensure that Epic Hearts is not merely an action RPG where the only thing to do is speed along from one plot way point to the next, ensuring tons of game play time to be had for all (especially the completionists). Furthermore, the rewards for all of the ancillary objectives available are such that they compensate the player adequately enough that you are generally better off for having tackled these optional events.

Rounding out this wholly impressive package is a beautiful sprite based presentation that could easily keep up with the best of the pre-HD 2D games released from the PS1/N64 era onwards. While EpicHearts might not have quite the impressive attention to small details that was found present in the recently ported Lunar: Silver Star Story Touch,  each of the various locales in the game – none of which suffer from visual emptiness – are all graphically distinct such that one place does not look like another. How many original iOS RPGs – or original iOS games from most other genres, for that matter – do you know of where a player could tell exactly from which level a screenshot was taken simply by glancing at it for a second or two?

Now for the cause of my biggest reason for not simply giving EpicHearts a perfect recommendation: as an iOS game offered completely for free, the developers have implemented a variety of ways for players to give them money via IAP. While EpicHearts thankfully does not employ any cheap stunts with progress hindering cool down clocks to make you get out your wallet if you don’t want to wait for the permission to be allowed to start playing again, the game is balanced to ensure that there will be much difficulty present for anyone who doesn’t want to either pony up or grind a lot. That said, there is at least a legitimately free way to get everything you need in game – partially through the massive array of side quests available – so long as you are willing to spend time towards collecting rewards. I do wish that when games this amazingly crafted get created that they were released with a real price tag instead of the Grind-VS-IAP model that can be devastatingly punishing to less hardcore gamers.

iFanzine Verdict: EpicHearts is an original 2D sprite based action RPG with phenomenal production values on par with a great GBA or DS offering, making the game something normally unheard of for the iOS platform. The only marring on the package presented are the occasional bad spots in the translation, as well as the bizarre text wrapping issue that sometimes splits words up in awkward places. That said, it is important to remember that this game is built on the Grind-VS-IAP model and therefore – while its offered for free – you will either pay for the game by spending a lot of your time in leveling/resource gathering or by buying various IAP options.