Vandal-Hearts was Konami's first strategy RPG for the Playstation, and aside from its excessively ugly visual presentation, it has maintained its place as one of the genre's finer entries for Sony's long-lived 32-bit wonder. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a sequel to the game was heavily anticipated among the hardcore strategy fans. This reviewer agreed with the strategists; fixing some very correctable flaws in the first Vandal-Hearts could have begotten a sequel that ranks with the true elite of strategy RPGs. Unfortunately, Vandal-Hearts II turns out to be a disappointment; not only are Vandal-Hearts' biggest flaws left uncorrected, the sequel as a whole fails to live up to the original.
In Vandal-Hearts II, you play as Joshua, a 13-year-old boy residing in the Natra Kingdom in the peasant town of Polata. One day, while playing outside, Joshua and his friends encounter a mysterious young man under attack by gigaslugs, monsters impervious to normal weapons. Armed with salt sticks, the weakness of these monstrosities, Joshua and company assist the man in defeating the malicious mollusks.
After the protracted battle, the youths learn that the young man is being pursued by the Natra military for some reason. However, Joshua and his friends trust their instincts, and their instincts tell them that this mysterious stranger is a good man. They therefore offer to shelter him in their secret hideout.
Joshua's decision proves to be a turning point in his life, and it goes on to have ramifications that he never dreamed of. The young teen ends up in the middle of a power struggle for control of Natra that lasts about a decade in length. Vandal-Hearts II tells a convoluted tale of 3 divisions of a once-united kingdom all vying for its throne. Like that of Square's Final Fantasy Tactics, the storyline keeps players interested with plenty of plot twists and betrayals. The large time frame of the storyline is also a fresh approach to the genre.
Although the plot is among Vandal-Hearts II's strengths, the storyline still runs into a few problems. With the exception of Joshua and the female lead Adele, character development is weak. Some characters do exhibit distinct personality traits, but they are mostly portrayed as very one-dimensional; almost none other than the two leads are rounded out well at all.
Combined with their lack of development, the petulant ignorance of most of the playable characters prevents them from endearing themselves to the player. The enemy characters fare even worse. Unlike villains such as Final Fantasy VII's Sephiroth and Chrono Cross' Wildcat, who balanced their evil deeds with remarkable levels of panache, the villains in Vandal-Hearts II are a truly despicable lot. Examples of these odious beings include the treacherous sorcerer Godard and the pedophilic sodomist Warden Mohosa.
In addition, Vandal-Hearts II adopts FFT's irritating habit of name-dropping in telling its tale. Places and historical figures are rattled off with little to no explanation of their origins or significance. For this reviewer, the name-dropping caused confusion that quickly gave way to boredom. Fortunately, this annoying phenomenon only occurs early on; the names become more familiar later in the game.
The translation in Vandal-Hearts II is adequate but unimpressive. Spelling and grammatical errors aren't overtly common, and the dialogue for the most part flows reasonably well. However, the dialogue is also distinctly immature. Despite a relative absence of sophomoric insults, the sentence structures and vocabulary used give Vandal-Hearts II's dialogue the feel of elementary school conversation. In a game that deals with a lot of mature subject matter, this sticks out like a sore thumb.
The most disappointing thing about Vandal-Hearts II is that it fails to retain the excellent gameplay of its predecessor. In some ways, the two games play very similarly. Like the original Vandal-Hearts, Vandal-Hearts II utilizes a turn-based system that takes place on isometric overhead maps. However, Vandal-Hearts II also makes some major gameplay innovations that probably should have been scrapped during development of the game.
Vandal-Hearts II's most noticeable innovation is the Dual Turn System. In most turn-based strategy RPGs, each unit can move once per turn, and only one unit moves at a time. Under the Dual Turn System, each unit can move once per turn. However, for every unit moved by the player, the computer can move one unit simultaneously. This system was presumably designed with the goal of increasing strategy (anticipating where an enemy unit will move is the key to success) while speeding up gameplay (no more waiting through enemy phases).
Despite its lofty goals, the Dual Turn System is a bit of a failure. In a given turn, unless nearly all enemy units have already been moved, it's extremely difficult for the player to predict which unit the computer will move next. The computer does follow trends in how it attacks, but it doesn't follow them with a whole lot of reliability. As a result, you end up purely guessing a lot, which, in this reviewer's opinion, throws a lot of strategy out the window.
The Dual Turn System also fails to save time; as a matter of fact, it causes Vandal-Hearts II to play slower than the average strategy RPG. Because it's often prohibitively difficult to predict the computer's moves, generally the most sound strategy in Vandal-Hearts II is to play conservatively. To play this style successfully, players must move slowly and spend a lot of time paying attention to the move and attack ranges of the enemy units. As a result, the battles tend to drag on unmercifully.
Vandal-Hearts II's other major innovation is its weapon system. There are no character classes whatsoever in Vandal-Hearts II; a character's attributes (including spells and special attacks) is determined solely by the weapons and armor that he or she has equipped. As a result, there is perhaps an unprecedented amount of character customization possible in the game. Also, spells and special attacks can be transferred between weapons of the same type, so there is added flexibility when upgrading your characters.
All this character customization is nice from a versatility standpoint, but it causes Vandal-Hearts II to get a bit bogged down in menu management. Also, combined with the general lack of character development, it prevents the characters in the game from ever establishing themselves as individuals. It's hard to care about your characters when you can't even tell them apart.
Vandal-Hearts II also retains a well-publicized quirk from its predecessor. In Vandal-Hearts II, archers can only shoot in straight lines. Although spell casters can hit enemies diagonally placed from them, archers cannot. This is unrealistic and somewhat annoying, but it actually doesn't have a major effect on gameplay in terms of player attacks. As a matter of fact, it might even be somewhat helpful, because some of the scenarios would be near-impossible to complete if enemy archers could shoot in diagonals.
Although most of the above flaws are quite major, the remainder of Vandal-Hearts II's gameplay is quite well executed. Commands are carried out crisply, both in battles and in towns. The difficulty balance is excellent; Vandal-Hearts II always challenges but never gets frustratingly difficult. It's also significantly longer that the somewhat abbreviated original Vandal-Hearts. Multiple endings give the game a bit more replay value than the average strategy RPG, though the game moves slowly enough so that few gamers are likely to play through it more than once.
Vandal-Hearts II does fare well in the control department, proving to be nearly identical to its predecessor in that respect. Despite moving in steps rather than continuously, the isometrically-controlled cursor is very responsive. The camera can be manually rotated in 90-degree increments, and it can be tilted as well. Players can also zoom in and out of the action at their discretion. The menus, while unremarkable, are reasonably well organized.
In terms of its sound, Vandal-Hearts II is strong, but it still takes a step back from its predecessor. Sound effects are full and solid, but they're not quite as memorable as those of the original Vandal-Hearts. The soundtrack is actually more reminiscent of the work of Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata (of Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle 64 fame) than it is the first Vandal-Hearts' score. However, it fails to fully match up to the quality of its influences. Despite being solidly composed all-around, Vandal Hearts II's soundtrack lacks both the fury and urgency of the original Vandal-Hearts' score and the brilliantly soaring melodies found in the work of Sakimoto and Iwata. It also proves to be somewhat repetitive; there aren't enough different tracks here for a game of Vandal-Hearts II's length.
Unfortunately, Konami fails to correct the original Vandal-Hearts' most gaping flaw in its sequel. Vandal-Hearts II fails to impress in the visual department. To its credit, the polygonal backgrounds are done quite well. They escape the blockiness and drab coloration that dominated those of the original Vandal-Hearts, calling to mind the nicely done backgrounds from FFT. But the in-game sprites are unimpressive in their lack of detail, and the spell effects are subpar.
When it was released, the original Vandal-Hearts captured the dubious distinction of possessing perhaps the ugliest character designs and art yet seen in a 32-bit RPG. Now, it has some company. The character designs and art of Vandal-Hearts II are drawn in a different style from those of its predecessor, but they're every bit as unappealing. Rather than going for anime-style art, the character designer of Vandal-Hearts II has opted for a more realistic look. The change in style is refreshing, but it's negated by the excessively hideous characters that resulted. In addition, the character portraits that pop up when major characters speak are of 16-bit quality; by today's standards, they are sorely lacking in colors and resolution.
Overall, Vandal-Hearts II is a bit of a disappointment as the sequel to one of the Playstation's finer strategy RPGs. On its own, however, it's pretty solid, and it's worth a try if you're a hardcore strategy fan with a good deal of patience.