"Vagrant Hearts is like the average person's first home. It's a fixer-upper with a bunch of imperfections, but it still manages to work its magic on you."
Vagrant Hearts is the latest offering from Warfare Studios, whose prior titles included the Dark Souls games (not to be confused with the upcoming sequel to Demon's Souls) among others. While Warfare's past offerings haven't been as refined as those of other RPG Maker developers, they've shown potential. Vagrant Hearts is one of those games that, while rough in spots, definitely has its heart in the right place.
The heart of Vagrant Hearts lies in its story and main characters. The protagonists are two sisters named Scarllet and Beatrice who start an important journey together, but quickly find themselves on opposing sides of a massive socio-religio-political conflict dividing the land of Azulel. Having spent their entire lives growing up together, Scarllet and Beatrice must navigate unfamiliar territory by themselves as they embark on separate, but related, adventures. Each sister is strong in her own unique way and must find and channel her unique strengths and perceived callings.
What will become of the sisters' relationship? How will they cope with the sudden and drastic changes befalling them? Are they strong enough to come into their own? Whose side do you find more favorable? These are the kinds of questions players will ask as Vagrant Hearts shifts players between Scarllet's and Beatrice's perspectives, telling two sides of one story.
I would like to expand more on the plot itself, but doing so would require me to reveal spoilers. However, it is no secret that I enjoyed the story. I haven't seen enough familial relationships explored beyond a superficial level in Japanese-style RPGs, so I was definitely into the theme of sisterhood intertwined with the classic RPG theme of coming into one's own. The sisters are the soul of this tale and the reason I wanted to keep progressing through the story.
Though the story has heart, it is not without a few hiccups. For example, sometimes events just suddenly happen without much buildup. Other times, some playable characters don't have a lot of personality. But the biggest hiccup lies in the technical aspects of the writing. Granted, Vagrant Hearts does have Warfare's cleanest and most natural sounding writing, but there are still some spelling, grammar, and syntax errors. The worst is that sometimes proper names are spelled inconsistently (i.e. I saw Scarllet's name spelt Scarlet a few times). While I understand that English is not the native language of many independent developers, (and I was more forgiving of that in the early stages of commercial RPGM gaming), when selling games in an English language market, there's little room for error. You wouldn't buy a novel with typos in it, would you?
Stylistically, the music is standard classical-inspired fantasy RPG fare. The location themes fit their locations, the battle and boss themes have punch, and the other music does its job as well. I have nothing more to say about the music because while it served its purpose competently, it didn't wow me. Music is crucial to my enjoyment of a game so I tend to be extremely picky about it. Someone who is less picky will probably enjoy it far more than I did. In short, the music is the best I've heard so far from Warfare, but it's far from the best I've heard in an RPGM game.
Graphically, Vagrant Hearts takes a step or two backward for every step Warfare Studios has taken forward. The interface was a clear case of one step forward, one step back. I like the cool little pop-up images accompanying mundane events like opening a treasure chest or entering a new location, but was I disappointed that none of that flair was present in the bone stock main menu interface. The biggest step forward, though, is the portrait art for characters. The portraits look lovely this time around. Considering that the character art for Dark Souls was utterly hideous and the art for Dark Souls 2 was serviceable, I couldn't ignore the leap in quality here.
Unfortunately, this did not translate to the sprites. I always admired the detailed animations and originality in the battle sprites from the Dark Souls games. Among the glut of RPG Maker developers, the detailed sprite work was always Warfare's ace in the hole. Therefore, I was very disappointed to see mostly stock, or stock-looking, RPG Maker sprites, except for the enemies. In addition, the disparity between the stock/stock-based sprites for the playable characters and the original sprites for the enemies made for an inconsistent look, and the sprites either had limited or no animations. To compare again, considering the detailed animations that went into the Dark Souls' battle sprites, I'm seriously let down.
In terms of tile work, the game looks like an RPG Maker game, but a good-looking one that was given a fresh makeover. There wasn't too much stock tile work in the non-overworld locations, but those custom tiles were mostly recycled from Dark Souls 2 and also used extensively in Gongoria's Grimoire Chronicles. Thus, the game looked mostly rehashed to me. The overworld used bone stock tile work and did not look as refined as the other locations. Serviceable, but I would have liked some more originality to match the panache of the other graphics.
What I did not find serviceable at all was the graphical glitches. Sure they weren't major game-breakers but they did mildly annoy me frequently enough. For example, after spending a night at the inn, a layer of color disappears, leaving a faded look. Sometimes during cutscenes, NPC sprites have white boxes around them. The most maddening glitch involves shopkeepers that moved around their stall after I did business with them, rather than stay in static locations behind their counters. It was either impatiently wait to transact with them again, or exit and re-enter the shop. I'm sorry, but with indie/homebrew markets being as supersaturated and demanding as they are, glitches like this need to be ironed out before a game goes on sale.
Vagrant Hearts' gameplay is mostly harmless. I'm cool with meat and potatoes RPG gameplay without needless gimmicks. Characters gain skills by building levels and can equip Crests with spells engraved on them to augment their skill repertoire. Basically, think of it as a very simplified version of Final Fantasy VII's Materia system. Battles are turn-based and enemies can be seen on the field beforehand. Boss battles are challenging, but never unfair. The biggest challenge is that money is difficult to come by so you definitely need to use your funds wisely when purchasing equipment and weapons.
The biggest hiccups in the gameplay are the occasional glitches. Again, nothing gamebreaking, but mildly annoying regardless. One that sticks in my mind happened early in the game. Somehow, I was allowed to magically cross a bridge on the overland that was supposed to be out of order due to plot purposes. I would have bypassed a dungeon entirely and progression would not have made sense. Speaking of dungeons, although this was not a glitch, I wasn't too happy during the occasions when I had to hoof it out of a dungeon following a boss battle. Again, there's nothing gamebreaking, but the annoyances add up and lend an unfinished and unrefined feel to the final product.
Vagrant Hearts is like the average person's first home. It's a fixer-upper with a bunch of imperfections, but it still manages to work its magic on you. The story of Scarllet and Beatrice carried the game and allowed me to be less harsh on the number of hiccups and unrefinements elsewhere. I'm not sure I would pay $19.99 for this game, especially considering the number of better and less expensive RPG Maker games out there, but for $6.99 or so, I might consider a purchase.