By Steven Wright
Vandal Hearts was one of the first Japanese RPG’s to be released in America, and garnered a lot of fans, but surprisingly I have never played it. Especially perplexing as I was a big fan of RPG’s back in the day, with Secret of Mana, Link to the Past and Final Fantasy VII being among my favourites. So I went into this game with no real expectations, apart from the nostalgic conversations that I spied on Twitter between some colleagues. What I have found, however, is a very clever little game, offering a unique take on the genre.
Flames of Judgement is set before the events of the original games, laying down the fundamentals of the story. The instant hit of familiarity is nice, it looks just like the old RPG’s I used to play, right down to the clunky little animations and pudgy characters. But the cut-scenes are not nice, not nice at all. They take the form of a slow stop-motion style animation and for some reason turn the characters into Mii like creations, making the whole thing look like a kids game. They continue this odd design trend into the game by painting the characters avatars in the same way, making the younger characters look exactly the same as the older ones.
Then there is the voice work. Never have I sneered, laughed and shouted at a characters voice more than in this game. All the dialogue, outside of the cut-scenes, are told through type. But the characters often shout out random phrases in battle and they are so horribly cheesy and enthusiastic, not fitting with the game at all. The sound design in general is pretty woeful with some strange noises continually emanating from your opponents – the worst of which being the giggling undead.
But besides these little quirks lies a very evolved game, filled with interesting environments and compelling fights. When you start out your adventure you will have to learn the ropes fairly quickly as the fights can be tricky. The combat evolves around a grid, with each fight being fought in different floating square levels, and each characters movement and ranges mapped in coloured squares. It does sound confusing but once you get used to the details of the different attacks, and the way the AI works, then it becomes great fun, leaving you marvelling at the death before you.
The movement and weapon ranges will often leave you making mistakes, but you can press b and redo your move, which is a god send as it would possibly become too frustrating to play without it. The camera can become a hinderance as well, in some of the smaller cave levels you often have to swivel it to find the impossible angle to see the square you want to attack. But like I said, once you get used to things, such as the hammers attack radius, the range of spells and bows, different characters best uses, then it gets really fun.
Your party consists of six characters, a mix of magic users, heavy hitters, archers and the odd multi- talented character. After a few failed attempts you will find the right strategy. I often throw the heavy hitters forward, casting movement spells to get me there faster, while bringing the archers, healers and magic users up behind them, to assist in damage and keep the front line alive. The enemy AI is quite impressive, although a little one-dimensional as they will always circle around behind you. When an enemy soldier does this then it’s fine, but when a wolf does it, it seems a little flawed.
The beginning of the game is quite easy, offering no real challenge until you come to face the sand worm, which killed me three times with ease. But luckily you can replay other battle maps and do something I have never done since FF7 – level grinding. And you know what? I had great fun doing it. There is something wonderfully simple about replaying the same areas, fighting the same enemies and watching your characters skills shoot up. After a good hour or so of grinding I was a considerably tougher opponent for the sandworm – I was also better equipped as you can find items in chests on the battle maps. When I fought him this time it was easy.
In fact, the whole game was a breeze after this. All the money I got from fighting foes allowed me to buy all the best weapons, armour and spells, making my already battle hardened characters almost unkillable. This was until I came against the last boss, who is a complete pain. The entire build up is filled with big moments that capitulates into this final fight, but it is tough. It took me around five attempts to beat, constantly upgrading and improving my strategy, but in the end it came down to luck.
I thoroughly enjoyed Vandal Hearts: flames of Judgement, so much so that I plan on buying yet another Playstation and playing the originals. It does have it’s faults, and the story is a little compacted – I would love to have seen them flesh the game out more and give more time to levelling up and character building – but it is a great little game. And more importantly it fills a much-needed hole in the XBLA catalogue, and if it greets a lot of success it will hopefully bring more classic RPG’s to the arcade.