Konami's Vandal-Hearts degenerates profoundly as you get closer and closer to the near-impossibly anticlimactic ending, but oh, what an ingenuous, marvelous game it is until that point! Vandal-Hearts is an instantly engaging, occasionally challenging, pick-up-and-play simple, nice, short, quick strategy RPG.
The gameplay is rapid (not something often said of SRPGs), delightfully basic and yet pleasantly nuanced. For example, every attack results in a counterattack - always, allowing you to effectively attack twice and resulting in a fiendishly frantic battle where your goal is not to get attacked at all. The rock-paper-scissors class relationships are nicely emphasized and might even earn you a few cheap kills do make sure to get a proper mix of Sword, Bow, Air,
Magic, and Armor units by advancing your characters to all available classes - the Monk is a waste, though. Getting all the numerous concealed items, keys, collector's treasures, etc., without either winning or dying adds a wholly new dimension of challenge.
Sadly, the rewards for your efforts are slim. By finding all the keys you get the Vandalier. The Vandalier is what you get for selling your soul to the Devil. Two words: Plasma Wave. The thing is so darn exploitable you might as well not bother moving your characters.
By the time you get the Vandalier (if you do get him - miss one battle and it's over: you can't replay any), the game will be well on its way downhill. The objectives, more and more often, become "kill everything," and the missions themselves soon degrade into absurd fetch quests, totally out of place in such a somber game. Money, initially scant, soon becomes so abundant that there is no reasonable way to spend it (well, you could outfit everyone with H2Os). The difficulty nosedives.
The basic engine is sound, however. Whatever inherent problems might arise are curtailed by the game's utter simplicity. A few oddities aren't nearly as pesky as they could have been in a longer game. For example, archers can only shoot in straight lines, though this does contribute to the overall strategic aspect by forcing you to maneuver: you can't just stand in place and rain arrows. Another quirk I noticed is that magic gets weaker with time: eventually you'll be healing and dealing in the single digits with all but your most powerful spells.
The graphics fare little better. They are pixilized and low-grade. Each field's squarely stratified nature makes navigation difficult - cursor location is dictated by the ground level, which varies wildly and sometimes hides the cursor altogether (the cursor does leave a vertical trail). The movable camera is of little help; you can tilt the field and view it from any of the four cardinal directions - but if you can't see something from one viewpoint, switching to
another will not usually help.
However, what the visuals suffer in quality the game's makers more than make up in effort. Each board is unique and each character can be instantly recognized, thanks to rather colorful and imaginative designs. The spells are especially creative, most of all in the use of the camera. For example, Avalanche puts the player in the viewpoint of a hurtling airborne rock as it falls onto the target - dizzying!
The story I mention last because, well, because no one plays SRPGs for their plots (well, maybe FF Tactics). Vandal-Hearts provides a fairly standard tale of revolution and social unrest, monarchs, tyrants, and corrupt government officials, all through the eyes of Ash, a noble yet disgraced swordsman who is torn between guilt, justice, and duty. As is the convention, everything eventually resolves into an even more standard swords-and-sorcery plot where everyone tries to stop some evil incarnation of something or other that's been pulling everyone's strings (including Ash's own) from destroying the world with some ancient artifact.
What saves the game from total oblivion is the atmosphere. The setting is perfectly medieval: citadels and strongholds, knights in armor, priests and wizards, dragons (but no elves or any such nonsense) are all present. The period music is heavy, slow, and turgid (I thought I noticed some flageolets and hurdy-gurdies). It is unobtrusive and uninspired, or perhaps just too soft. Still, it sets the mood well enough.
The sound effects, on the other hand, are crisp and sharp; the sound of sword striking shield is particularly satisfying. The crude graphics are stylized enough to add to the atmosphere. All in all, the game presents a wonderful storytelling medium, even if the story itself is none too original.