Vandal Hearts is a strategy RPG made by Konami that released on the Playstation and Sega Saturn. It was successful enough to have a sequel made of it and now, more than a decade later, a prequel in the form of Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment for XBLA and PSN. A decade has brought more than a little advancement in technology, so it should come as no surprise that Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment looks markedly different from Vandal Hearts II, but you might be surprised by the visual style they went for.
Two kingdoms, Urdu and Balastrade, had been at war for 20 years when a battle was abruptly ended by an act of God. Flames shot down from the sky and massacred both armies during the Battle of Timion Vale, forcing both nations to enter a treaty. Since then Balastrade has had one hardship after another. Plagues and famines have decimated a once happy kingdom. You play as Tobias Martin, an orphan living in a church whose father was killed at Timion Vale and whose mother died years later in the Scarlet Plague. Obviously since this is an RPG you cannot stay in the church and live happily ever after. Bandits attack your village and you and a few other orphans join the army and get caught up in a war that eventually leads to you saving the kingdom.
Throughout the game you have the normal twists required in an RPG, as well as some attempts at emotional losses, but these are always ruined in one way or another so they have little to no impact. Overall it comes out to be a serviceable, if not below average storyline as far as RPGs go, and I think a big part of this is that they are trying to fit an RPG storyline into a much shorter timeframe than is the norm for the genre. A downloadable title for a strategy RPG is a cool idea, but you don’t have the length required to build up a serious RPG plot. A better idea would be to cut out the overly serious story elements and introduce some more light-hearted ones.
Flames of Judgment plays like your standard grid based strategy RPG without a whole lot to make it seem unique. Your characters all have a certain range in the grid for their weapons, as well as a range of movement. There aren’t separate turns for the enemy and the player though, instead all of the characters take their turns in an order defined by the game that I never really understood the reasoning for. It seems to be loosely based on agility, but isn’t easily predictable every battle. Often it ends up with you getting to take all of your characters’ turns, except for one or two whose turns tends to fall in the middle of all of the enemy ones. Luckily the order is prominently displayed on the top of the screen, so even if you don’t know what goes in to making the order you at least know what it is at all times. There are a few little tricks you can learn, like team attacks that are possible if you are close to an ally, or how archers do more damage when they have a height advantage over their target, but these aren’t even important enough to be included in the game’s tutorial.
One unique aspect of Flames of Judgment is the lack of a normal leveling scheme. Killing enemies only gains you money to purchase equipment and items, meanwhile character skills are increased by use. This means that each character will naturally become better at the things you use him/her for most. Their base stats such as HP and MP also increase based on this system. If you use one character for spell casting mostly than he will increase his maximum MP more than HP as he becomes better at casting spells. At first this seems like it would give you a lot of flexibility in how you want to use each character, and it does at first, but it also means that if you decide to change in the middle of the game you are in for a whole lot of grinding. There are only 6 characters and no reserves to let you switch out characters for new strategies later in the game, so if you suddenly decide that you want to change the number of spellcasters in the group then you are in for a good amount of grinding.
I think the worst issue with the gameplay in Flames of Judgment is that you have nothing to work towards as far as leveling goes. Most games like this that I have played work towards more incredible special moves, but there aren’t any non-magic special moves for your melee guys, and the magic never becomes impressive either. It takes a bit of the fun out of leveling my dagger-using character when I know that all he’ll ever be able to do is stab people. The strategy part of the battles is usually pretty humdrum with most of the objectives simply being the eradication of the opposing side, but there are a few notable exceptions that help to bring some variety. I especially liked one fight where each minion you defeat became an ally on your team to help you finish the battle, or one where you had to escape from the battle but you could only let one character a turn use the escape tunnel. There are also squares on each battlefield that shine and if you have a character next to them you can have them search it and be rewarded with a new piece of equipment or a bit of a side storyline.
Presentation in Flames of Judgment is pretty poor, there is really very little positive to note about it. During gameplay you move around these childlike characters that look like they could be part of a Saturday morning cartoon, but this goes completely at odds with how everyone sprays out fountains of blood at the slightest nick. Battle animations look fine, but during some of the story telling portions you notice people pointing in the wrong direction when they were supposed to be talking to someone. Cut scenes are even worse. They attempt to look like paintings, which works for still shots, but looks ridiculous whenever animations are added. The painting-like style also seems to accentuate the strange proportions of the people in the game to a point where they look rather creepy and made me cringe. These issues, as well as the grammar errors I noticed, make the presentation come off as cheap, almost as if there wasn’t much effort put into it.
Voice acting doesn’t fare any better, with most of it being relegated to little shouts that characters throw out during their text speeches that sometimes seem to have little to do with what they were supposedly saying. Music is mostly downplayed to the point that I barely noticed it during battles, but I did enjoy the song used for the opening menu screen.
It only took me nine and a half hours to play through Flames of Judgment, from the first scenes at the church all the way until I become the kingdom’s savior, but you have to remember that this is a downloadable title so it also only cost me $15. Replay value is minimal. There are two endings which you can get based on how you answer a couple of prompts throughout the game, but there is no New Game+ feature or different difficulty settings, so if you want that other ending you will have to play through the exact same game you just beat without a single change. Beyond the story battles there are also optional battles along the journey that you can find by asking around for rumors at towns (don’t get excited, that is done through menus and you never actually get to walk around a town). These optional battles are a great way to get better equipment if you can make it to the treasure chests on the battlefield.
I can’t help but think that fans of the other Vandal Hearts games may be disappointed by the latest entry in the series. The presentation is just abysmal and difficult to look at at times, the gameplay gets repetitive since there aren’t many special moves, and replay value is pretty much zilch. That being said, I don’t regret buying Flames of Judgment. Even though it is quite obviously a below average strategy RPG there is still some fun to be had and it's hard to say no to the relatively cheap price. If you are a fan of strategy RPGs you should give this one a shot, but everyone else should probably leave it be.