Konami has long been responsible for quality games throughout their history of programming software for consoles and computers. Their games have spanned many genres, and their logo has graced the software of multiple generations of home console systems. Vandal Hearts is Konami’s first 32-bit foray into the world of strategy-RPGs, and although Konami’s previous history of programming in this genre is less than prolific, they demonstrate their programming talent for the genre quite amply. Despite some flaws, Vandal Hearts is so far one of the best entries into the PSX’s strategy-RPG lineup.
The storyline of Vandal Hearts revolves around Ash Lambert, a young warrior tormented by the traitorous legacy of his father. Ash and his allies have dedicated themselves to stopping a power-mad dictator named Hel Spites from rising to power in the country they live in, and their story is interesting and well-told throughout most of the game. The lulls in the storyline are few and far between, and the ending provides a good amount of closure to the story.
As well-told as the story is, it does carry a few weaknesses. The characters are very poorly developed throughout the storyline, and, although they form bonds with each other during the course of the game, the player is given almost no insight to the personalities of many of them. In addition, while Konami of America manages to steer mostly clear of grammatical and spelling errors in the translation, the dialogue doesn’t flow that well. The conversations between characters sound forced and unnatural (though they are nowhere near as bad as those in Final Fantasy Tactics).
Vandal Hearts really doesn’t bring anything new to table in terms of gameplay, but it does everything a strategy RPG should do, and does it better than most. The game is divided into two main modes: a town mode, where you choose your destination of exploration through a menu, and the battle mode, where you engage the enemy. There isn’t much to say about the town mode; you pretty much do the same things that you do in many, many other RPG towns (buy stuff, get advice, promote characters, etc.).
In the battles, however, there’s a lot more to do. The strategy is turn-based, with distinct player/enemy phases rather than each unit going in order depending upon its speed or other factors. The characters can move and attack in the same turn, but cannot move after attacking. Also, enemies always get to counterattack after a player character hits them, and vice versa (provided that the counterattacking character has the range to hit the attacker). Some characters have magic, which can be very effective in weakening a group of enemies before sending in the melee fighters or be used for healing (depending on the spell, of course).
The gameplay is very well executed. The battles move along at a quick pace, especially during the enemy phases, so that players don’t get bored waiting for their turns. The balance of the game is also ingenious; with the exception of some of the bosses, Vandal Hearts almost always manages to be challenging without being frustrating.
There are, however, a couple of weaknesses with the gameplay. First of all, archer characters cannot shoot in diagonals. This is ridiculously unrealistic, and really annoying in gameplay as well. I don’t know who thought up this idea, but it really should have been fixed before the game’s release. Also, some of the boss characters have some really cheap shot attacks. While they raise the challenge level of battles, they also get annoyingly frustrating for those who have executed a near-flawless battle strategy only to have it fouled up by some cheap shot spell that there’s no way to avoid. However, the weaknesses are pretty minor when matched up to the many strengths of the gameplay, and Vandal Hearts is definitely one of the best-playing strategy-RPGs around.
The control, while not quite as strong as the gameplay, is quite good in Vandal Hearts. The cursor is quite responsive, and the menus are well-designed and easy to navigate. In addition, the camera can be manually rotated in increments of 90 degrees; this feature is a near-necessity to me in an isometric game. Just for good measure, you can zoom in and out on a couple of discrete levels and view the entire map in a flat, reduced form, though I really didn’t find a need for these last two functions. However, there are a few problems with the control. The cursor control in the battles is fairly choppy, as the cursor moves in steps rather than in a smooth motion. As a result, it sometimes takes some effort to get the cursor where you want it to be. In addition, even with the ability to rotate the screen, it’s sometimes still hard to see which square your cursor is actually on, so sometimes you end up moving your character to a square you don’t want him or her to be on. At best, this problem is time consuming in a battle; at worst, it can finish you off.
The sound is probably the strongest singular aspect of the entire Vandal Hearts experience. Sound effects are crisp and robust; one of my favorite sound effects in any video game is when you finish off an enemy in melee combat in Vandal Hearts. The music is very well-composed; for the most part, the melodies are great in a frantic classical style. Even when the melodies lag a little in quality (which is fairly rare, but there are a few atonal stinkers in the score), they set the mood well for the game. The sound system is of very high quality as well; the instruments sound realistic, and overall the music quality is almost as strong as that of Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight (which, in my opinion, sets the standard for non-redbook music system quality). There is no voice acting in the dialogue between characters, but there is a spoken narration between chapters that turns out to be the only weakness in the game’s sound. Prior to Metal Gear Solid, Konami had established a history of poor voice acting in US releases, and this is one of the games that contributed to that history. The narrator is slow, monotone, and overenunciative; he almost sounds like Dan Rather on smack.
Vandal Hearts excels in almost every area of gaming, but its biggest weakness is one that is important to many gamers. I was able to find very little to appreciate in its graphical presentation. The towns are well-drawn stills, but lack any animation whatsoever and only encompass a small percentage of the game. The graphics in the battle maps are 3D and are fairly detailed, but blockiness runs rampant in both the backgrounds and the characters. The color palette used are drab and washed out, and the character art and designs are, in my opinion, some of the worst I’ve ever seen in a 32-bit RPG. There are a few CG cut scenes that look nice, though, and some of the CG stills involved in the story of the game are well done.
Despite some significant flaws, Vandal Hearts is a great strategy RPG that proves to be one of the very best of its genre on the PSX. Let’s hope that its flaws are corrected in the upcoming Vandal Hearts 2; if they are, Konami’s next strategy RPG could be the best of all time.