Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment Review
When you think of Konami, what franchises come to mind? Metal Gear, Gradius, Contra, Silent Hill, and Castlevania are the frequent answers to that question, but unless you're a total strategy RPG maniac, it's unlikely that you’ll respond with Vandal Hearts. This PlayStation series debuted in 1996, but has been missing in action since 1999 -- and now Konami is resurrecting Vandal Hearts in the form of an Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network downloadable game.
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is positioned as a prequel to the PSone games, although the ties are minor at best, buried under the snooze-inducing weight of a hyper-traditional JRPG plotline. You control a young band of friends whose idyllic life in a countryside school is brought to a halt when -- get this -- bandits attack and pillage their hometown. In a shocking twist, the students set out on a journey across the land to discover the motivation behind these events, including a betrayal that has them racing to bring down an evil general.
If the plot seems on the nose, the combat and leveling system might as well be smashing players over the head with a club. Though it maintains the grid-floored, turn-based combat that most strategy RPGs employ, Flames of Judgment strips down anything that could be mistaken as complex. Unlike the first Vandal Hearts, there are no classes, and you don't learn new skills by equipping new weapons and armor, as was possible in the sequel (though you can learn new spells by carrying around books).
Instead, you level up by using whatever skill you want to improve. Want to become better at swordplay? Keep attacking enemies with a sword. To be an expert healer, you'll have to cast the Heal spell a lot. Even HP increases are gained by taking hits from the enemy without dying. You won’t have to be hacking away forever, either; the skill-ups come fast, negating the need for the genre norm of grinding through skirmishes. By the game's halfway mark, one of my most powerful fighters already had his skill maxed out for hammers, his weapon of choice. Such an easy leveling system might bore the hardcore fanbase that still remembers Vandal Hearts from the old days, but it keeps the game moving at a swift pace.
If battles only consisted of using the small set of abilities available they'd get tiring fast, but Hijinx Studios smartly focused on creating interesting scenarios that require you to react in different ways. One map has your party escaping from an endless stream of enemies in a mine cart, one at a time. Another requires you to get multiple party members to hit different switches at the same time in order to open a new path and save an ally who has been separated from the group. The unique twists keep coming, and the story mission objectives rarely fall back on the "defeat all enemies" standard.
Not all the innovations work out quite so well. Though I don't expect top-end graphics from downloadable games, the art design in Flames of Judgment is atrocious. A couple of the kids (including the main character) look okay, but the entire cast shares their short, almost Hobbit-like stance, which comes off as ugly during static dialogue sequences and downright creepy during the infrequent cutscenes.
The disturbingly dwarf-sized characters may serve as an analogy for the game’s place among strategy RPGs: It’s shorter and uglier than most that have come before, but it’s also unique in a way that some will find charming.