When I used to think “Vandal Hearts,” the first thing that would come to mind is “wacky blood geysers.” I honestly can’t remember anything else about the games. This is not necessarily an indictment of the original PlayStation games – it has been so long since I played them that it may simply be the ravages of age wreaking havoc on me – but compared to other RPGs over the course of time that left a real impression, the Vandal Hearts games, while fun at the time, were for me ultimately forgettable.
In this sense, Vandal Hearts Flames of Judgment fits right in with its predecessors.
Or is it more appropriately “successors?” After all, plotwise this is apparently a prequel. Since I can’t remember a bloody thing about the plots of the other two games except those gratuitous arterial sprays that result whenever you deal the death blow to a foe, they could have called it Vandal Hearts III and I really wouldn’t have known the difference. But since they bothered I have to assume there are some folks out there that pay attention to this sort of thing, so let’s start with the story.
In a now famous YouTube review of Star Wars: Episode I, the reviewer challenges people to describe any of the characters in the film WITHOUT using their appearance or job function, the idea being that the more easily you can do this, the better the character development. I posed this exact question to myself about the characters in Vandal Hearts Flames of Judgment and was left floundering. The problem here is not one of time (the game will probably take most folks 6-8 hours or so), it’s just that the character’s jobs represent the totality of their personalities.
Which brings me straight to the advancement system. Performing any action whatsoever gives you a chance to increase your skill with that action. So whacking a dude with a sword will increase your sword skill, while hitting somebody with a buff will increase your skill casting that buff. This isn’t a bad idea or anything, it’s been done before and to good effect. However, the starting stats of the characters you control are so blatantly tilted in one direction or another that it is silly/prohibitive to have them do anything except what they were initially designed for. When you get the girl with the bow, she’s an archer and is probably going to stay an archer unless you spend the hours necessary to bring her up to snuff in some other skill. The nerdy dude with the glasses? He’s the mage. The guy with the plate mail and the big hammer? Don’t do anything with him except tank.
And why would you? It’s not like the combat is exactly riveting. To be clear, it isn’t horrible… but it’s FORGETTABLE. You seeing a theme here? This is turn-based RPG combat at its absolute most basic. If it were any more vanilla, it would actually be a vortex that consumed and destroyed other flavors. Again, it isn’t terrible – vanilla can be tasty – but the reason Baskin-Robbins has 31 different flavors is because most folks aren’t interested in getting vanilla every time.
Now that I’ve made my second ice cream analogy in as many reviews, I ought to explain exactly why the combat plays this way.
First, as I previously stated, your skill increases with almost every action you perform and the characters are all predisposed to excel at certain actions. If you use the characters that way you will cruise through almost every battle – keep the ranged attackers away from the melee guys, keep your own melee guys out front. That’s kind of the extent of the strategy here.
Second, the game does not encourage deviating from this strategy. It can go from laughably easy to cripplingly difficult if you try to get the characters out of the boxes they’ve been put in and power up some other abilities. After a couple battles you can get them up to snuff, but then you are left wondering why exactly you bothered when you already had somebody else who did that job without all of the effort.
Third, there isn’t a lot of variation in what you need to do in the missions. Mostly it is kill everybody. There are variations on this theme, like escort this guy or kill that one guy, but mostly it amounts to kill everybody you see. There are a couple of more interesting combats at the very end of the game where you can take control of enemies across a multi-stage encounter, but these come way too late and are too few in number to make up for the hours of gameplay before that.
The sound, like the rest of the game described so far, isn’t distracting in any way but is… wait for it… forgettable. Each of the characters has a couple of catch phrases they’ll throw around which can be kind of fun and the music tracks don’t get on one’s nerves, but I didn’t find myself humming any of the tunes or playing them in my head like I typically do with a better soundtrack.
Which brings us to the graphics, the one part of the game that is decidedly NOT forgettable. Unfortunately it is memorable in a very bad way. The art design in this game was just a very, very bad idea. Everything looks like muchkins from the Wizard of Oz. During the actual fights this really isn’t that big of a deal – they look like normal RPG sprites and we’re all used to that sort of thing. But the few cut scenes you get look absolutely absurd. They also have the practical issue of making it really difficult in some instances to figure out what the age of a character is just by looking at him/her. It makes me think that “Flames of Judgment” really doesn’t give you the right impression of what’s in store when you fire up this game. Here are some alternative titles that would have been more appropriate:
– Vandal Hearts Yellow Brick Road
– Vandal Hearts Over the Rainbow
– Vandal Hearts Lollipop Guild
– Vandal Hearts Half Pint Brawlers
Now, let me point out something about this game that is a GOOD thing. It is pretty much impossible to play it without getting a feeling of nostalgia for the days when you played your first strategy RPGs back in the day.
Unfortunately this feeling is immediately followed by the realization that those old games are BETTER than this game.
Like certain variations of Baskin-Robbins vanilla, I am sure that Vandal Hearts as a franchise has its die-hard fans. Those fans probably already got the game and aren’t looking for any kind of recommendation from me. But unless you are one of those fans I can’t see this being worth the price tag. There are better, more flavorful strategy RPGs that can be had for $15. I can’t recommend Vandal Hearts Flames of Judgment to anyone except those allergic to chocolate.